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Orshanskii, Il’ia Grigor’evich

(1846–1875), lawyer, historian, and publisher. Il’ia Orshanskii was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Ekaterinoslav (mod. Dnipropetrovs’k). After receiving a traditional Jewish education, he studied law at Novorossiiskii University, Odessa, graduating in 1868. Because he refused to convert to Russian Orthodoxy, Orshanskii was denied a lectureship at Novorossiiskii University. He subsequently opened a private law practice in Odessa, and at the same time became involved in communal activities, publishing several articles and books on Jewish topics.

Orshanskii’s writings influenced not only generations of historians’ and intellectuals’ interpretation of the Jewish question in Russia but the political thinking of his contemporaries as well. He claimed that the inferior legal status of Jews in Russia encouraged local people to commit acts of violence against the Jewish people, such as had occurred in Odessa in May 1871. In fact, the publication of the article in which he advanced this thesis probably led to the government’s closure of the journal Den’ (Day), in which the article had appeared earlier that year.

Orshanskii and other lawyers also collected evidence and testimony related to the Odessa pogrom, intending to sue the perpetrators and demand compensation—a novel and original idea reflecting a characteristic liberal faith in the legal system. In the following decades, various Jewish activists and Jewish organizations took up Orshanskii’s approach to seek the abolition of discriminatory laws and to achieve Jewish emancipation in Russia.

Orshanskii’s publications include Evrei v Rossii (Jews in Russia; 1877), Russkoe zakonodatel’stvo o evreiakh (Russian Legislation on the Jews; 1877), and a collection of general essays on Russian jurisprudence, Issledovania po russkomu pravu (Survey of Russian Law; 1892). Evrei v Rossii includes an essay, first published in 1871, analyzing Hasidism in its economic and social context. Several of Orshanskii’s articles on legal issues and Jewish historical topics were published in Ha-Melits (The Advocate), Ha-Karmel, Den’, Sudebnyi vestnik (Judicial Bulletin), Zhurnal grazhdanskogo i ugolovnogo prava (Journal of Civil and Criminal Law), and the Russian daily Novoe vremia (New Time).

Orshanskii’s approach to the study of Russian law often employed comparisons of Russian and West European jurisprudential traditions and the identification of contradictions in Russian legal codes. In 1890, Russian Jewry erected a memorial on his gravesite designed by Mark Antokol’skii and executed by Il’ia Gintsburg. Orshanskii’s brother Isaak (1851–ca. 1893) was a prominent physician in Odessa with a particular interest in psychiatry.

Suggested Reading

Benjamin Nathans, Beyond the Pale: The Jewish Encounter with Late Imperial Russia (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2002).