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Notkin, Nota Khaimovich

(d. 1804), merchant, shtadlan (lobbyist for Jewish interests), and Jewish political leader in late eighteenth-century Russia. In the late 1770s and 1780s, Notkin was a contractor for the court of Count Semen Gavriilovich Zorich in Shklov, and for Count Grigorii Potemkin, Russia’s “viceroy of the south.” During this period, Notkin traveled frequently to Prussia, and came into contact with the circle of the Berlin Haskalah. He was a subscriber to the journal Ha-Me’asef, and was apparently responsible for commissioning Naftali Herts Wessely to compose Hebrew poems, with German translation, in honor of the visit by Empress Catherine II to Shklov and Mogilev in 1780.

In 1788 or 1789, Notkin settled in Moscow, a city that had had virtually no Jewish inhabitants for more than a century. His business dealings there aroused intense resentment among local merchants, who accused Notkin of having “caused tangible harm” to local commerce, and requested that all Jews be expelled from the city. The Moscow merchants’ request led to an imperial decree in 1791 prohibiting Belorussian Jews from residing outside of Belorussia. Despite this prohibition, and the creation of the Pale of Jewish Settlement in 1794, Notkin took up residence in the capital city of Saint Petersburg in 1797, and lived there under the personal protection of General Procurator Aleksei Kurakin until the end of Notkin’s life. Notkin, his brother, and his son were among the 10 founding wardens of the Saint Petersburg Jewish burial society, which, when established in 1802, constituted the first public Jewish presence in the city.

Notkin’s illustrious business career propelled him to the role of the foremost shtadlan and political representative of Russian Jewry. In 1797, Notkin submitted a memorandum to tsarist officials defending the Jews against the charge that they caused the ruination of the peasants, and proposing measures to alleviate Jewish poverty and make the Jews “good and useful citizens to society.” These measures included the elimination of discriminatory taxation of the Jews, and the creation of Jewish colonies for agriculture and light industry in Novorossiia.

Notkin served as an adviser to the State Committee for the Organization of Jewish Life, established by Tsar Alexander I in 1802. He submitted a memorandum to the committee that responded to the Judeophobic positions of its head, Count Gavriil Derzhavin, and proposed the partial integration of the Jews into Russian state and society. He suggested the creation of commissions of Jewish deputies in all provinces of the empire to administer Jewish affairs, which would be subordinate to the provincial governors and an imperial “guardian” of the Jews. In the area of education, he proposed the creation of Jewish state schools by the commissions of Jewish deputies, which would teach Russian and other languages. With respect to the Jews’ civic status, he proposed that Jews who were proficient in Russian be admitted into the Russian civil service, and be allowed to live outside the Pale of Settlement.

Among Notkin’s many acts of political intercession was securing the release of Shneur Zalman of Liady after his second arrest in 1801 and averting the expulsion of Jews from Smolensk province in 1803.

Suggested Reading

David E. Fishman, Russia’s First Modern Jews: The Jews of Shklov (New York, 1995); Iulii Gessen, Evrei v Rossii (St. Petersburg, 1906); Samuel Leib Zitron, Shtadlonim: Interesante yidishe tipn fun noentn over (Warsaw, 1926).