Back to article index


Following Solzhenitsyn's account:

'The famine, as Derzhavin confirmed, was unimaginable. He writes "when I arrived in White Russia, I personally convinced myself of the great scarcity of grain among the villagers. Due to the very serious hunger - virtually all nourished themselves from fermented grass, mixed with a tiny portion of meal or pearl barley - the peasants were malnourished and sallow like dead people. In order to remedy this, I found out which of the rich landowners had grain in their storehouses, took it to the town centre and distributed it to the poor; and I commanded the goods of a Polish Count, in view of such pitiless greed, to be yielded to a trustee ...

'Derzhavin discovered that the jewish schnapps distillers exploited the alcoholism of the peasants: "After I had discovered that the jews from profit-seeking use the lure of drink to beguile grain from the peasants, convert it into brandy and therewith cause a famine, I commanded that they should close their distilleries in the village Liosno [Rabbi Schneur Zalman's town - PB] ... I informed myself from sensible inhabitants, as well as nobles, merchants, and villagers, about the manner of life of the jews, their occupations, their deceptions and all their pettifogging with which they provide the poor dumb villages with hunger; and on the other hand, by what means one could protect them from the common pack and how to facilitate for them an honourable and respectable way out … to enable them to become useful citizens.


'Derzhavin begins by establishing that the agricultural economy was in shambles. The peasants there were "lazy on the job, not clever, they procrastinate every small task and are sluggish in field work." Year in, year out "they eat unwinnowed corn: in the spring, Kolotucha or Bolotucha from eggs and rye meal," in summer they content themselves with a mixture of a small amount of some grain or other with chopped and cooked grass. They are so weakened, that they stagger around." 

'The local Polish landlords "are not good proprietors. They do not manage the property themselves, but lease it out, a Polish custom. But for the lease there are no universal rules protecting the peasants from overbearing or to keep the business aspect from falling apart ... Many greedy leasers, by imposing hard work and oppressive taxes bring the people into a bad way and transform them into poor, homeless peasants.'' This lease is all the worst for being short-term, made for 1-3 years at a time so that the leaser hastens "to get his advantage from it … without regard to the exhausting" of the estate.

'The emaciation of the peasants was sometimes even worse: "several landlords that lease the traffic in spirits in their villages to the jews, sign stipulations that the peasants may only buy their necessities from these leasers [triple price]; likewise the peasants may not sell their product to anyone except the jewish lease holder… cheaper than the market price." Thus "they plunge the villagers into misery, and especially when they distribute again their hoarded grain … they must finally give a double portion; whoever does not do it is punished … the villagers are robbed of every possibility to prosper and be full." 

'Then he develops in more detail the problem of the liquor distilling. Schnapps was distilled by the landlords, the landed nobility (Szlachta) of the region, the priests, monks, and jews. Of the almost million jews, 2-3,000 live in the villages and live mainly from the liquor traffic. The peasants, "after bringing in the harvest, are sweaty and careless in what they spend; they drink, eat, enjoy themselves, pay the jews for their old debts and then, whatever they ask for drinks. For this reason the shortage is already manifest by winter … In every settlement there is at least one, and in several settlements quite a few taverns built by the landlords, where for their advantage and that of the jewish lease-holders, liquor is sold day and night … There the jews trick them out of not only the life-sustaining grain, but that which is sown in the field, field implements, household items, health and even their life."


'In the second part of the Memorandum, Derzhavin, going out from the task given by the Senate, submitted a suggestion for the transformation of the life of the jews in the Russian Kingdom, not in isolation, but rather in the context of the misery of White Russia and with the goal to improve the situation. But here he set himself the assignment to give a brief overview of jewish history, especially the Polish period in order to explain the current customs of the jews. Among others, he used his conversations with the Berlin-educated enlightened jew, physician Ilya Frank, who put his thoughts down in writing. '"The jewish popular teachers mingle 'mystic-talmudic' pseudo-exegesis of the Bible with the true spirit of the teachings … They expound strict laws with the goal of isolating the jews from other peoples and to instil a deep hatred against every other religion … Instead of cultivating a universal virtue, they contrive … an empty ceremony of honouring God … The moral character of the jews has changed in the last century to their disadvantage, and in consequence they have become pernicious subjects … In order to renew the jews morally and politically, they have to be brought to the point of returning to the original purity of their religion … The jewish reform in Russia must begin with the foundation of public schools, in which the Russian, German and jewish languages would be taught."'


'To Ilya Frank, Derzhavin once said, "since the providence of this tiny scattered people has preserved them until the present, we too must take care for their protection." And in his report he wrote with the uprightness of that time, "if the Most High Providence, to the end of some unknown purpose, leaves (on account of His purposes) this dangerous people to live on the earth, then governments under whose sceptre they have sought protection must bear it … They are thus obligated extend their protection to the jews, so that they may be useful both to themselves and to the society in which they dwell."'


'As a critical difficulty Derzhavin saw the instability and transientness of the jewish population, of which scarcely 1/6 was included in the census. "Without a special, extraordinary effort it is difficult to count them accurately, because, being in cities, shtetl, manor courts, villages, and taverns, they constantly move back and forth, they do not identify themselves as local residents, but as guests that are here from another district or colony." Moreover, "they all look alike and have the same name," and have no surname; and "not only that, all wear the same black garments: one cannot distinguish them and misidentifies them when they are registered or identified, especially in connection with judicial complaints and investigations." Therein the Kehilot [the kahals - PB] takes care not "to disclose the real number, in order not unduly to burden their wealthy with taxes for the number registered."'


'On the inner ordering of the jewish congregation: "in order to place the jews under the secular authorities just the same as everyone else, the Kehilot may not continue in any form."'