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Litvakov, Moyshe

(1875/80–1939), Yiddish literary theoretician and critic. Moyshe Litvakov was born in the Ukrainian town of Cherkassy into the family of a melamed. He received a traditional Jewish education until the age of 17, gained an external gymnasium certificate, and attended the Sorbonne between 1902 and 1905. Litvakov returned to Russia after rejecting Ahad Ha-Am’s form of Zionism for Labor Zionism and becoming a founder of the territorialist Zionist Socialist Workers Party (SSWP). In 1907 he edited its organs Der nayer veg (The New Way), Dos vort (The Word), and Undzer veg (Our Way) in Vilna.

Litvakov played a pivotal role in the Yiddishization of Zionist Socialists. Nakhmen Syrkin, a founder of this movement, had viewed Yiddish only as a channel to European culture, rather than as a national goal. Litvakov was also a leading theorist of Jewish national Marxism, whose advocates regarded Jews as a historical nation that would flourish as society progressed toward socialism. In the aftermath of the constitutional coup of 3 June 1907, when the Russian parliament was dissolved and its socialist deputies persecuted, the SSWP was virtually dissolved. Litvakov (who took the pseudonym M. Lirov) became a leading journalist of the Russian democratic newspaper Kievskaia mysl’ (Kiev Thought), which published his reviews of Russian and European literary works. Simultaneously, he took part in Yiddish publication projects, for example, as an editor, with Josef Lestschinsky (known in socialist circles as Khumurni) and Abraham Rosin (known as Ben-Adir), of the short-lived Kiev newspaper Dos yidishe vort (The Jewish Word; 1910). In 1911 he took part in founding the first Yiddish secular school in Eastern Europe, in Demievka, a Kiev suburb.

In May 1917, Litvakov was a leader of the Fareynikte, which was a Jewish socialist party. He coedited its Kiev daily Di naye tsayt (The New Times) and was among the founders of the Kiev Kultur-lige. In 1920 he turned to communism and moved to Moscow, and from 1921 edited the central Communist Yiddish daily Der emes (The Truth) following the departure of its editor, Shakhno Epstein, who had been sent to New York to help organize the Yiddish Communist press. In his new role, Litvakov almost immediately became the main watchdog of the Soviet Yiddish cultural world. He argued that it would have been wrong to leave artists alone during such an important epoch; they should be vigilantly controlled with love and attention.

An admirer of Georgii Plekhanov’s Marxist literary theories, Litvakov was rather skeptical about halfhearted “fellow travelers,” arguing that literature was a sector of the ideological front and as such had to rely on Communist cadres. At the same time, he did not expect Yiddish writers to become primitive propagandists of the revolution. Khayim Gildin, the advocate of proletarian literature, said that Litvakov was dreaming of a proletarian Yiddish Goethe.

According to Litvakov, neither Mendele Moykher-Sforim, with his “careless language,” nor Sholem Aleichem, “choked with anthropological material,” could be models for contemporary writers. Sholem Aleichem was a genius, but ideologically he represented a “blind alley” rather than a “program.” Y. L. Peretz was the first pioneer of Yiddish literary style, whose successor, the symbolist Der Nister, Litvakov crowned as the only existing model of a revolutionary Yiddish writer. Litvakov initially rejected realism because any realist work mirrored the world he simply did not want to see. Rather, he preferred to dream about a socialist Yiddish-speaking Jewish society, populated by sophisticated proletarians and genius culture-bearers.

Associating Dovid Bergelson with the realistic tradition of Mendele and Sholem Aleichem, Litvakov ranked him lower than Der Nister. In the early 1920s, Shmuel Godiner, Der Nister’s disciple, seemed to be the most promising among the handful of Soviet Yiddish prose writers, although, according to Litvakov, ideologically Godiner remained a proto-revolutionary writer. In poetry, Litvakov crowned Dovid Hofshteyn’s work “the first Yiddish classic,” and claimed that that poet, together with a few other others from the Kiev Group, had found a “shortcut” to modern creativity.

Although Litvakov’s colleagues in Der emes respected their small, bald, choleric, work-obsessed editor, he was not a popular person, particularly among many Yiddish literati in Belorussia and Ukraine. They attacked him in their periodicals for his desire to build a new Soviet Yiddish culture on the basis of carefully selected prerevolutionary writings and traditions, which radical critics and writers, most notably Yashe Bronshteyn and Khatskl Dunets, regarded as harmful. He also resisted attempts, particularly of Minsk language-planners, to bring the Soviet Yiddish literary situation into accord with the vernacular of little-educated proletarians.

The only monographic work written by Litvakov was devoted to theater: Finf yor melukhisher yidisher kamer-teater (Five Years of the State Yiddish Chamber Theater; 1924). Some of his newspaper articles were reprinted in the 1919 and 1926 collections titled In umru (In Anxiety). His last collection of critical articles, Af tsvey frontn (On Two Fronts), which appeared in 1931, consisted mainly of responses to his critics. The scandal surrounding Litvakov became so disturbing that in May 1930 it attracted the attention of the leaders of the All-Union Association of Proletarian Writers, who tried to protect him from his opponents. Nevertheless, by 1934, Litvakov played only a marginal role among the Yiddish delegates to the First Congress of Soviet Writers. In a black-farcical finale, he was accused of leading an anti-Soviet terrorist group in Minsk, with his archenemies Bronshteyn and Dunets among its members. He was taken to Minsk, where he was executed.

Suggested Reading

Gennady Estraikh, “Yiddish Literary Life in Soviet Moscow, 1918–1924,” Jews in Eastern Europe 42 [2] (2000): 25–55; Jonathan Frankel, Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism, and the Russian Jews, 1862–1917 (Cambridge and New York, 1981); Mikhail Krutikov, “Soviet Literary Theory in the Search for a Yiddish Canon: The Case of Moshe Litvakov,” in Yiddish and the Left, ed. Gennady Estraikh and Mikhail Krutikov, pp. 226–241 (Oxford, 2001); David Shneer, Yiddish and the Creation of Soviet Jewish Culture, 1918–1930 (Cambridge and New York, 2004).