A Jewish-Russian Frontier Man

Posted on June 1, 2015

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This is the story of Aharon Ya’akov Dukhan, a Jewish-Russian frontier man whose life spanned the second half of the nineteenth century. In Pale in Comparison , a paper that I am currently developing, I argue that even in as late a period as the one in which Aharon Ya’akov was active, Jews were, in a certain economic sense, truly countryside people. The rural frontier was an integral part of the ecology that defined the economic and demographic aspects of Jewish lives in the Pale of Settlement. Dukhan embodied the experience of the Jewish frontier, and his path exemplifies several of the empirical regularities that I demonstrate in the paper.


The Life of Aharon-Ya’akov Dukhan

Aharon-Ya’akov Dukhan was born in the early 1850s in Glusk, a small town in present-day Belarus. Glusk was a typical Lithuanian shtetl, a local market town of 5,328 inhabitants (henceforth, all figures are according to the 1897 Russian census), and it was crowded with Jews that comprised more than 70 percent of its population.

As Aharon-Ya’akov came of age, he migrated south. He established himself in the province of Yekaterinoslav, and settled first in the town of Verkhne-Dnieprovsk (pop. 6,701), on the banks of the Dniepr River, Ukraine’s primary artery. While Jews were 30 percent of the population of this town, in the entire district of Verkhne-Dnieprovsk (of which the town was the administrative center), Jews were still a rather small minority. In the town, more than two-fifths of all Jewish workers were employed in commerce, a relatively high rate. Among the district’s Jews residing outside the main city, this rate was even higher, 55.2 percent.

Cards depicting features of Minsk and of Yekaterinoslav Provinces, 1856.
Source: World Digital Library, http://www.wdl.org/en/item/85/ and http://www.wdl.org/en/item/771/

At the end of the century, Aharon-Ya’akov moved again with his growing family and settled in Bozhedarovka, a small village situated 50 kilometers further south. Bozhedarovka was a new settlement that grew together with an eponymous railway station, built in 1881 along the new Kazanka-Yekaterinoslav railway line. It had a few agricultural warehouses and mills, a handful of Jewish families trading in agricultural produce, and in total less than 500 inhabitants. During harvest, dozens of rail cars were loaded daily with wheat and were shipped to the markets.

Bozhedarovka station

Bozhedarovka [Bozhedarivka, in Ukrainian] station, founded in 1881. The name of Bozhedarovka village was changed in 1939 to Shchors’k. Source: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/30369233

Aharon-Ya’akov traded there in grains, and in addition was employed by a local Russian landlord widow as a manager of her estates. Fully versed in traditional Jewish learning, he taught himself German and Russian, a language in which he worked and in which he enjoyed conversing for hours on end with his trusting aristocrat mistress. Dukhan (incidentally or not, the Hebrew meaning of the word is a stall) and his household prospered in Bozhedarovka, “God’s gift” in Russian. Life was peaceful, livelihood was plenty, and food was cheap. By the time of his death in 1904 he had fathered 16 children, of whom 12 had reached adulthood.

Verkhnodnieprovsk district

A historical map of Verkhne-Dnieprovsk district, 1903. The Dniepr River flows southeast, and the province capital Yekaterinoslav (renamed to Dniepropetrovsk in 1925) is seen on the middle right. Bozhedarovka is marked as a station along the red railway line. It is labeled under the large bold “A”, on the southern branch after the first bifurcation west of Yekaterinoslav. The town of Verkhne-Dnieprovsk is seen exactly at the point in which the longitude line in the middle meets the river. Source: http://rodmurmana.narod.ru/maps/Guberniya-Ekaterinoslavskaya.htm

Aharon-Ya’akov was an educated man, mobile, hard working, talented, entrepreneurial, and engaging both culturally and economically across ethnic boundaries. In short, he was a decent representative of the the ideal type of a Jewish economic agent, an example of a service minority. But strange enough, he was not an urban dweller but a rural frontier man. Rather than moving to Warsaw, Odessa, London, or New York, he moved to a tiny railroad village in the provincial countryside. He even skipped the regional urban center of Yekaterinoslav, only 80 kilometers to the east, a bustling and rapidly growing commercial city, favoring Bozhedarovka instead.

From Jewish Congestion to the Frontier

What Aharon-Ya’akov did was to move from where Jews and their services were abundant to where they were scarce. The table below shows how his place of birth and his place of death were different from one another. He came from Bobruisk district, in Minsk Province, that was in the midst of historical Lithuania. Jews had been established there for several centuries, and by 1897 the Jewish population was 19.4 percent of the total.

Table - Bobruisk vs Vdnieprovsk

Bobruisk and Verkhne-Dnieprovsk: The districts of Dukhan’s origin and destination

In contrast, Verkhne-Dnieprovsk district, part of Yekaterinoslav Province, was an area of new Jewish settlement. Having been part of the New-Russia region, despite not being part of the historical Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Russia exempted it from the restrictions on Jewish settlement. The recently established Jewish communities still comprised only 2.6 percent of the district’s population. Migrating from Bobruisk to Verkhne-Dnieprovsk was a move from the Pale’s 94th percentile of Jewish density, in terms of the share of Jews in the district, to the 7th percentile.

Since Jews occupied particular occupational niches and were absent in others, the two labor markets were also very different. Aharon-Ya’akov sought employment in commerce, and in Bobruisk 6.3 percent of all workers were employed in this sector. In contrast, in Verkhne-Dnieprovsk only 2.5 percent of all workers were in commerce, and clearly his skills were relatively scarce there. The two districts were at the 90th and at the 12th percentile of the distribution of total employment in commerce in the Pale. This difference was directly related to the difference in Jewish density. While in the southern district a greater share of non-Jewish workers was employed in commerce (0.9 as against 0.4 percent), this hardly compensated for the low number of Jews.

Minsk Province, 1821

A historical military map of Minsk Province, 1821. Source: World Digital Library, http://www.wdl.org/en/item/2587/

Moreover, in Bobruisk, the share of Jewish commerce workers out of all Jewish workers was only 21.6 percent (11th percentile). Evidently, the supply of commerce workers was so large that Jews in Bobruisk were crowded out and spilled over to other occupational sectors in which, as I explain in the paper, they had a lesser comparative advantage, mainly manufacturing and personal services. In sharp contrast, in the southern district the share of Jews in the population was so low that there seems to have been little restriction on Jews to opt for commerce. With every second Jewish worker employed in commerce, Verkhne-Dnieprovsk exceeded all but one of the remaining Pale’s districts!

The Role of the Frontier in the Jewish Economic Ecology

Bobruisk District, 1821

Bobruisk District, 1821, a detail of the map of Minsk Province. Glusk appears as a town on the road between Bobruisk and Slutsk to the west. The numbers along the yellow road curve denote the distances in versts, a Russian measure that is slightly longer than a kilometer. Glusk stood roughly 50 kilometers west-southwest of Bobruisk, the district capital.

In short, Dukhan benefitted from the migration from Glusk to Bozhedarovka precislely because the latter was a rural frontier village in a district in which Jewish settlement was still new and rare. As a result, there were fewer workers in commerce, and the profits in this sector must have come at a premium relative to similar positions in the Lithuanian home district of Bobruisk. This explains why the share of commerce workers among Jews was so much higher—they were too few to cause congestion that would have brought down profits in this Jewish occupational niche.

While the notion that over-congestion of Jews cuased poverty is well understood in the historical literature, the importance of the almost immdeiate correlary—that dispersion brought prosperity—has not been fully acknowledged. In the paper I argue that the case of Aharon-Ya’akov Dukhan, the Jewish rural frontier man, was not all that strange after all. Rather, it was emblematic of the economic ecology practiced by Jews in the Pale of Settlement during the late imperial period. Jews responded to local congestion either by spilling over to occupations beyond their preferred niches, or by migrating to areas that were less dense with Jewish settlement, where traditional Jewish occupations were relatively more profitable. Aharon-Ya’akov made the second out of the two choices. The dispersed spatial distribution of Jews in the Pale of Settlement was thus the outcome of a centuries-old tradition of Jewish frontier settlement, of which Dukhan was among the last bearers.

When Jews migrated to the US and other western countries, they disengaged at once from the countryside and overwhelmingly chose to live and work in large meotropolitan centers. Most historians saw the move from small towns in the old country to big cities in the US as a natural continuation of an old Jewish pattern of urban settlement. I, on the other hand, observe this transformation with complete bafflement, and wonder why Jews abandoned the frontier economy. The shift was neither continuous nor predictable. On the contrary, it was nothing short of a complete revolution. After all, Bozhedarovka was not unlike many railway towns in the American frontier. Why were they not filled with recent East-European Jewish immigrants, the likes of Aharon Ya’akov Dukhan?


Dukhan was the grandfather of Leah Dukhan-Landau, my grandmother. This post is partly based on a note in her memoirs (in Hebrew), describing the events of the summer of 1918. Four-years old Leah spent part of that last peaceful summer in Bozhedarovka, which she vividly remembered decades later.

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