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Gintsburg Family

Russian Jewish financiers, communal activists, and philanthropists. The three most prominent members of the Gintsburg (sometimes Günzburg or Guenzburg) family were Evzel’ Gavriilovich (1812–1878), Goratsii (Horace) Osipovich (1833–1909), and David Goratsievich (1857–1910).

Rise of the Family

The Gintsburg family fortune derived from profits generated by farming the lucrative state monopoly on the production and sale of distilled spirits and from provisioning the Russian army during the 1840s and 1850s. The capital thus acquired made possible the founding in Saint Petersburg of the I. E. Gintsburg Bank, which was one of the first private banks in Russia, in 1859. The bank had connections to the leading Jewish financial institutions of Europe. The Russian government was a major client. The House of Gintsburg invested in railway construction, as well as in the development of sugar beet cultivation and processing in Ukraine, where the Gintsburgs possessed landed estates. The bank’s activities included financing Russia’s railroad construction and creating insurance companies and local joint stock banks. The firm was heavily involved in mining, especially the development of the ill-fated Lena Gold Fields, scene of a notorious strike and massacre of miners in 1912.

The I. E. Gintsburg Bank went into receivership in 1892, when the Russian government refused to assist it during the economic crisis of that year. Nonetheless, all demands of the bank’s creditors were satisfied. Thereafter, the Gintsburgs concentrated on nonbanking entrepreneurial activities, especially their investments in the Siberian gold mines.

For financial services to the archduke of Hesse-Darmstadt, Goratsii and Evzel’ were made baronets (in 1871 and 1874, respectively). Alexander II recognized their title within the Russian Empire and made it hereditary. Nicholas II, on the other hand, denied them entry into the hereditary nobility of the Russian Empire. The Gintsburgs served on numerous state commissions devoted to both Jewish and general state affairs. Despite their close ties to the Russian autocracy, they supported moderate liberal politics.

The Gintsburgs became the de facto leaders and spokesmen for the Jews of the Russian Empire. They gathered around them a group of employees, business associates, attorneys, and writers, including Emmanuil Levin, Yehudah Leib Gordon, Avraam Zak, Samuil Poliakov, and Genrikh Sliozberg. This group can be characterized as the “Gintsburg Circle.” The Circle repeatedly intervened with the Russian government to extend or defend the rights of the Jews within the empire. It supported acculturation, integration, and economic diversification as solutions to the Jewish Question. Evzel’ was the founder of the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia (OPE) in 1863, which promoted the linguistic and social integration of the Jews into Russian society. The family contributed to the Society for Handicraft and Agricultural Work among the Jews of Russia (ORT). They also supported the Jewish Colonization Association (ICA), which sought to expedite Jewish emigration from the Russian Empire. The Gintsburgs supported virtually every prominent Jewish philanthropy in the Russian Empire. They were also active in times of emergency, as in 1881 and 1882, when they were heavily involved in channeling aid to Jewish pogrom victims. Goratsii served on the Rabbinic Commission of 1879, which discussed matters of Jewish marriage and divorce. With other members of the Circle, he was active in submitting memoranda to the High Commission for the Review of Current Legislation on the Jews of the Russian Empire (the Pahlen Commission), which met from 1883 to 1888.

The Gintsburgs were also the leaders of the St. Petersburg Jewish religious community. In this capacity, Goratsii oversaw the convoluted negotiations that secured permission for the community to construct the St. Petersburg Choral Synagogue. The design of the synagogue was overseen by the art critic Vladimir Stasov, a personal friend of Goratsii. The Gintsburgs provided significant funding for the construction of the synagogue, which was dedicated in 1893. The charitable activities of the St. Petersburg Jewish community were the special preserve of Gintsburg wives and daughters. Baroness A. G. Gintsburg, the wife of Goratsii, was the founder of the St. Petersburg Jewish Orphanage.

The Gintsburgs supported Jewish and non-Jewish artists in Russia, and the Gintsburg family archive, now located in the manuscript division of the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg, is filled with appeals from almost every prominent Jewish artist in prerevolutionary Russia. The family had close personal ties with the art critic Vladimir Stasov, the composer Anton Rubinshtein, the writer Ivan Turgenev, the painter Ivan Kramskoi, and the sculptors Mark Antokol’skii and Il’ia Gintsburg (no relation). They subsidized a wide range of scholarship on Jewish topics, including Sergei Bershadskii’s major study of the Jews of Lithuania, Litovskie evrei (Jews of Lithuania; 1883), and sponsored a republication of Daniil Khvol’son’s study of the ritual murder charge in response to the blood libel trial in Kutais, Georgia, in 1879. The Gintsburg Circle helped fund the legal defense team that secured the acquittal of the accused Jews in Kutais.

Evzel’ Gintsburg

Following his success as a vodka tax farmer and military contractor with high-level connections in the 1840s and 1850s, Evzel’ Gintsburg opened the I. E. Gintsburg Bank in St. Petersburg in 1859. The bank had a branch in Paris, and the Gintsburgs divided their time between the French and Russian capitals. In 1858, Evzel’ led a group of merchants who petitioned the government to allow Jewish merchants to live outside the Pale of Settlement. This and subsequent petitions resulted in the extension of residence rights for Jews enrolled in the merchant guilds (1859), university graduates (1865), master craftsmen (1865), and army veterans (1867). Evzel’ and Goratsii campaigned successfully for equal treatment for Jews under the reformed military recruitment law of 1874. He was the prime mover behind the activities of the OPE. Evzel’ served as the head of the St. Petersburg Jewish religious community and was succeeded in this position by his son Goratsii.

Goratsii Gintsburg

Like his father, Goratsii was an active campaigner for the rights of Russian Jews. After the financial crisis of 1892 led to the liquidation of the Gintsburg Bank, the firm continued to invest in various enterprises, especially gold mining. Goratsii funded relief operations for Jewish victims of the pogroms of 1881 and 1882, and headed two meetings of Jewish communal representatives who sought to deal with the ensuing crisis. Goratsii led a sophisticated lobbying campaign that helped weaken the Temporary Regulations of 1882 (the so-called May Laws), which sought to restrict Jewish economic and residential rights. He also served as a consultant to the Pahlen Commission. From 1893 until his death, he served as the chairman of the Central Committee of the Jewish Colonization Association (ICA) in Russia.

David Gintsburg

A communal leader and scholar, David was involved in the OPE, ICA, and ORT as well as the St. Petersburg Jewish religious community. He was better known, however, as a scholar with a special interest in medieval Arabic and Hebrew poetry. In collaboration with the Russian art critic Vladimir Stasov, he published L’Ornement hébreu (Hebrew Ornament; 1903), a handsomely illustrated book devoted to Jewish illuminated manuscripts. He was one of the editors of the Russian-language Jewish encyclopedia (Evreiskaia entsiklopediia), which remains a fundamental source of information about East European Jewry up to World War I. David also amassed a significant collection of manuscripts and books, including incunabula. An attempted sale of the collection to the nascent Hebrew University of Jerusalem was thwarted when it was seized by the Soviet government before it could be moved to Jerusalem. The collection is now housed in a special section of the Russian State Library (formerly the Lenin Library) in Moscow. After great effort, he received official permission in 1908 to create a “Jewish Academy,” which was named, for political reasons, the Higher Courses on Oriental Studies. Opinions on the academic quality of this institution are mixed, but it unquestionably helped to establish Jewish Studies as an academic field in Russia, and trained a number of young scholars who went on to have brilliant careers. The “Jewish Academy” did not long outlive its founder, and closed in 1916.

The Gintsburg Circle and the Legal Position of Russian Jewry

The members of the Gintsburg Circle were key figures in the struggle for Jewish legal equality within the Russian Empire. Their activities have been viewed in sharply contrasting ways both by their contemporaries and by later scholars. They have been seen as practitioners of old-fashioned shtadlones, or intervention with the higher authorities by persons with chance ties to the court and the government. They have been viewed as proponents of “selective integration,” who encouraged the Russian government to extend the rights of “useful” categories of Jews. Critics such as Simon Dubnow condemned the Gintsburgs for seeking rights and privileges only for people like themselves. He decried their appeal to the government to “separate the wheat from the chaff” in dispensing legal privileges. Partisans of the “new politics” that emerged in the wake of the pogroms of 1881 and 1882 castigated members of Gintsburg Circle as traitors to the Jewish people because of their hostility to emigration from Russia in general, and to Palestine in particular. The claim has been advanced that, after the promulgation of the May Laws in 1882, even the Gintsburgs recognized the futility of their intercessionist policies, and abandoned the possibility of cooperating with the Russian state. Instead, they turned their attention to working within Russia’s reformed legal system to defend the position of the Jews. These activities included legal suits against misapplication of the May Laws, and efforts to uphold the Makov Circular of 1880, which had legalized the position of Jews who were illegally resident outside the Pale of Settlement. The Gintsburg Circle cooperated with liberal politicians within the Russian Dumas.

A contrary view attributes a higher level of consistency to the Gintsburg Circle, and emphasizes the political sophistication of its members. Far from being chance shtadlonim, they acquired their position as spokesmen for Russian Jewry on a de facto basis, exemplified by their appointment as members or consultants to virtually every committee that dealt with Jewish matters. They took their role as spokesmen seriously. In this view, the petition campaigns conducted from the 1850s onward were not just a reflection of self-interest, but a pragmatic recognition of the categories of Jews the Russian government was willing to emancipate. Implicit in the activities of the Gintsburg Circle was the goal of securing equal rights within their social estate for all Russian Jews, either by convincing the government of the utility of such an action, or by improving the economic and social status of the Jewish masses.

The Gintsburg Circle repeatedly displayed its ability to operate within the confines of the Russian bureaucracy. In 1866 the governor-general of the Northwest convoked a special commission charged with investigating the claim of the Jewish renegade, Iakov Brafman, that the Jews maintained a “secret, municipal Talmudic republic” in the form of the kahal. The Gintsburg Circle succeeded in gaining the appointment of one of their members, Emmanuil Levin, as head of the Jewish delegation to the commission. Levin oversaw a positive outcome, including the commission’s recommendation that the Pale of Settlement be abolished.

In 1882, the Gintsburg Circle conducted a sophisticated political campaign against the judeophobe policies of Nikolai Ignat’ev, and succeeded in weakening the worst excesses of the May Laws as they appeared in the original draft. They were active consultants and lobbyists during the activities of the Pahlen Commission. They fought against the efforts of Viacheslav Plehve to implement new restrictions on Jews in the early 1890s.

Even before 1881, the Gintsburgs were supportive of liberal politics in the Russian Empire, through their support of the publisher Mikhail Stasiulevich, editor of the liberal political-literary magazine Vestnik Evropy and the short-lived newspaper Poriadok, both of which took progressive stands on the Jewish Question. The circle swiftly adapted to the changing political situation of the empire after the Revolution of 1905, by supporting the liberal parties and politicians who sought to improve the legal status of Russian Jewry. They also worked to ensure that Jews would be able to participate in elections to the Dumas, as both electors and candidates.

Suggested Reading

Jonathan Frankel, Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism, and the Russian Jews, 1862–1917 (Cambridge and New York, 1981); John Doyle Klier, Imperial Russia’s Jewish Question, 1855–1881 (Cambridge and New York, 1995); Eli Lederhendler, The Road to Modern Jewish Politics: Political Tradition and Political Reconstruction in the Jewish Community of Tsarist Russia (New York, 1989); Benjamin Nathans, Beyond the Pale: The Jewish Encounter with Late Imperial Russia (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2002).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 89, Baron Horace de (Naftali Herz) Günzburg, Papers, 1850-1895.