Becoming self-made0


Baron Evzel Gavrilovich Ginzburg (1812-1878) bequeathed that his heirs carry on the faith of their ancestors and… their Russian citizenship. This renowned banker, gold-mine owner, and patron of the arts and culture dedicated his own life to fighting for the rights and emancipation of Jews and, at the same time, to serving tsar and country. Combining the two was, for him, not only sensible, but the only approach possible, since he firmly believed that the good and wellbeing of Russia were in the fundamental interest of Russian Jews. He saw the future of his people not in Pale of Settlement isolationism. No, Ginzburg strove with all his powers to integrate Jews into Russian society and for them to enter the empire’s multiethnic family on an equal footing, while maintaining their ethnic identity and Jewish religion.

Having worked his way up from the bottom, this Vitebsk Jew was the first person in Russia to found a modern-day bank. He also became a distinguished baron, multi-millionaire, and major landowner. Everything that Evzel Ginzburg achieved in his life was the product of his own abilities, intuition, and business acumen. This gifted Jew was the ultimate self-made man. But it should be kept in mind that to a certain extent these were inherited qualities that crystallized in him after being passed down for generations.

The genealogy of the Ginzburgs (Gintsburgs) can be traced back to the mid-fifteenth century. The name comes from the city of the same name in Bavaria’s Swabian region. The founder of the dynasty was the Rabbi Yechiel of Porto. In order to escape the persecution that Jews were subject to in Germany, his grandson, Rabbi Simeon Ben-Avraam Ginzburg (1506-1586), moved to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and is mentioned in Polish chronicles as a wise man, mathematician and astronomer. He left behind six sons. In the seventeenth-eighteenth centuries, their descendants were among the most prominent rabbis in the German duchies and Poland. Evzel’s grandfather, Naftali-Gerts (who died in 1797), was the first in the line to break the family tradition and enter commerce.

His son and Evzel Ginzburg’s father, born Gavriil-Yakov Ginzburg in Vilnius (c. 1793-1853), followed in his father’s footsteps and was engaged in philanthropy and aiding the poor (it was his funds that built a hospital for the indigent in Sevastopol). He is purported to have loved reading and collected books written in a number of languages. The extreme success of Gavriil-Yakov’s commercial activities is attested to by the fact that Emperor Nicholas I made him a hereditary honorary citizen. But his occurred only toward the end of his life, in 1848, by which time he had permanently settled in Sevastopol. In his youth, his commercial concerns required Gavriil-Yakov to move from place to place. During Russia’s war against Napoleon he found himself in Vitebsk, where Evzel was born in 1812.

The father gave his son not only a traditional Jewish education, but also a broad general one and taught him several languages, of which Russian was one of the ones in which he gained native proficiency. The rudiments of the science of business was also passed down from father to son, and Evzel quickly came out from behind the former’s shadow, becoming the cashier and, essentially, manager for a prosperous farmer.

As was customary for Jews, Evzel married early, at the age of 16. His bride was the beauty Rasya Dynina (1814-1892), the daughter of David Ziskindovich Dynin, who owned a postal station in the city of Orsha in Vitebsk Province (at the time it was the main postal link between Warsaw, Kiev, St. Petersburg, and Moscow). Dynin was a well-respected, educated, and tactful man. There is a family legend that every time the Emperor Alexander I passed through Orsha, he made it a point to visit the Dynin household, where he took great pleasure in the Jewish cuisine. Evzel Gavriilovich had a happy marriage. Rasya Davidovna, reputed to be a kind and God-fearing woman, bore him four sons – Alexander, Horace, Uri, and Soloman – and one daughter, Matilda.

Ginzburg had barely reached the age of 20 when he became a First Guild merchant. Enterprising and energetic, he mastered the most important skills needed to manage his employer’s wine franchise and soon accumulated the necessary funds to buy his own franchise in 1840, after which he himself became a prominent vintner. It should be noted that in those days the distilling of alcohol was the prerogative of the state, and only its sale was handled by private individuals. Franchise holders had to worry about making timely payments to the government first and about their own interests second. For this reason, franchises were given to those who were considered reliable, prosperous, and whose reputations guaranteed the irreproachable fulfillment of their contract with the state treasury. That a franchise would be granted to a Jew, and such a young one at that, was exceptional to say the least. But the Ginzburgs were accustomed to being the exception.

Evzel established good relationships both with the financial institutions of Podolia and Kiev Provinces, in which he tirelessly ran his business, and with those of St. Petersburg, to which he frequently traveled. Gradually, he developed ties in the capital’s highest circles, especially its financial circles, where he was well-liked and earned particular trust. He grew particularly close with Minister of Finance F.P. Vronchenko, by whose initiative “for services to the Russian government” he, like his father before him, was named a hereditary honorary citizen. During the Crimean War of 1853-1856 he ran his Sevastopol wine franchise under a state of siege. In the words of a contemporary, he was one of the last to leave the city and departed “almost at the same time as the garrison commandant.” This and other brave deeds were recognized by the emperor with two gold medals “For Zeal” to be worn on the same ribbons as the orders of Vladimir and Andrei. Many more such signs of distinction lay ahead…

Evzel Ginzburg had a keen sense of politics, a gift that would later bring him great triumphs in the realm of finance. Recognizing earlier than others that the franchise system was fated to come to an end and the inevitability that Russia would need to be capitalized, he perspicaciously bet on the liberals, who at the time were in disfavor, and developed commercial and financial connections with Prince Alexander of Hesse, the brother-in-law of the future Alexander II. When the latter ascended to the Russian throne, his reforms were largely influenced by his wife, Maria of Hesse, and her brother’s favorite, Evzel Ginzburg immediately found himself admitted to a circle that was engaged in creating “the infrastructure for a new economy.”

When the franchise system was replaced by a governmental monopoly on wine many otkupshchiki (franchise holders) were ruined. Not Ginzburg! To replace the franchise system, he began to create a private banking system in Russia: first the Private Commercial Bank of Kiev, and then the Accounting Bank of Odessa and the St. Petersburg Accounting and Loan Bank. Finally, in 1859, Evzel, together with his son Horace, founded the I.E. Ginzburg banking house, the largest in Russia and with a branch in Paris (which was managed by his other son, Solomon). Soon the Ginzburg bank was the largest bank in St. Petersburg, crowding the renowned bank of Baron Alexander Shtiglits out of the financial market. The Ginzburg banking house worked in close association with the leading banks of Western Europe (Warburg in Hamburg, Mendelssohn and Blechröder in Berlin, De Haber in Frankfurt am Main, Hoskier and Kamondo in Paris, among others). He became the main credit bridge across which foreign money was invested in the Russian economy. His role in developing Russian credit and investment banks also cannot be overstated.

The Ginzburg banking house was always characterized by exceptional reliability, in stark contrast with other commercial enterprises which were guided by the famous principle, “there is no profit in honesty”. This is why, at a time when private banks were vanishing one after another like bursting soap bubbles, leaving their investors destitute, Ginzburg’s bank kept growing and expanding. His banking house financed gold mining in the Urals and Baikal region and owned a corporation that ran steamship lines along the Sheksna River, among other enterprises. Evzel became fantastically rich. He had large estates in Bessarabia and Kiev, Podolia, and Tavrida Provinces.

The Ginzburg family spent a good deal of time in Paris, where in 1870 Evzel built his own hotel on Rue de Tilsit. They were extremely outgoing and their hospitality soon turned their home into a focal point for the Russian community of scholars, writers,  and artists who found themselves living in France. One habitué of the household was Ivan Turgenev, the renowned author of Fathers and Sons. The painter A.P Bogomolov and the poet N.M. Minsky were also among their frequent visitors. An Arts Club was founded so that prominent figures in Russian culture could get together, and Evzel Ginzburg was unanimously elected chairman.

Ginzburg took a particular interest in his children’s education and sought out Paris’ best scholars and teachers. Among them was a French language instructor named M. Maupu, the famous musician and music historian Jules Massenet, the classical philologist L. L’Abbe, the historian G. Grets and the professor of Hebrew, S. Munch, among others.

The fate of his coreligionists was something that was always on Evzel Ginzburg’s mind, particularly at the height of his own financial success, when he had the greatest opportunities to come to the aid of those in need. He relentlessly and methodically bombarded the powers that be with petitions to alleviate the plight of Jews. He fully deserved to be considered a shtadlan, an authoritative representative of the Jewish community able to intercede with the government on their behalf, but he was his own sort of shtadlan. In playing this role he followed his heart, and did not always ask for what his unwitting constituents might have wanted him to ask for. Indeed, many of the measures he proposed were far from universally supported by the Jewish population in the Pale of Settlement, which had completely cut itself off from modern Russian life and had no desire for innovation. “The light of day barely penetrated the dark underground of the Jewish ghetto of the cities and shtetls,” is how the historian Henrik Sliozberg described it. “Everything seemed to be fossilized in the spiritual life of the Jews…. A mystical mindset distracted spiritual Jewish dreamers from gloomy reality…. [They retreated into the realm] of inner contemplation – mystical contemplation in the case of the Hasidim, contemplation that was purely spiritual and mental, scholastic and dry, in the case of the Misnagdim.”

This sort of insularity was the polar opposite of what Evzel Ginzburg had in mind. His objective was the full-fledged participation of Jews in the life of Russia. The ideas of the Haskalah were close to his heart. The founder of this movement was the remarkable German thinker and public figure Moses Mendelssohn, who fought for the full assimilation of Jews and their integration into European scholarship and culture. The first Russian Maskilim appeared around the dawn of the nineteenth century (Yehoshua Zeitlin, Abram Peretz, and Lev Nevakhovich, who, incidentally, is considered the first Russian-Jewish member of the intelligentsia). In Ginzburg’s day, it was specifically on the maskilim that Nicholas I’s Minister of Education, Count Sergei Uvarov, who sought his own Mendelssohn among Russia’s Jews, was counting. Surrounding himself with eminent representatives of the Haskalah of his time (Isaac Bar Levinsohn, Max Lilienthal, Leon Mandelstam), Uvarov, often with their guidance, attempted to transform the spiritual life of Russian Jewry. Jewish colleges were founded to train rabbis where, in addition to a traditional Jewish education, they were given a solid grounding in general knowledge. A network of schools was opened that taught provided a standard education. There is data to suggest that by 1855 there were more than 100 such institutions in Russia, and no fewer than 3500 students enrolled in them. A great deal of attention was devoted to the study of languages and, significantly, the Russian language (more hours were allotted to the study of Russian than Hebrew). There can be little doubt that the graduates of such colleges went on to fill the ranks of the Russian-Jewish intelligentsia.

Ginzburg can rightly be considered one of the most ardent Maskilim. A voracious reader, he laid the foundation for the collection of books and manuscripts that researchers would later call the Baron Ginzburg Collection. Evzel Ginzburg involved such eminent scholars in the development of his library, which started in earnest in 1840, first in Kamenets-Podolsk and later in Paris), as the orientalist Adolf Neubauer and the scholar of Jewish antiquity Senior Sachs. In 1856 the later was put in charge of the entire book collection. Under Sachs, this repository acquired a large number of medieval manuscripts and rare editions, including manuscripts from the collections of such prominent Hebraists as Seligman Baer, Elykim Karmoli, and Nahman Nathan Coronel, to name a few. As we now know, a great future lay in store for this library.

Evzel did more than sympathize with the modern progressive educational project. In 1863 he founded the Society to Promote Education among the Jews of Russia and supported it almost entirely with his own funds. The main tenet of the society's charter stated, “The Society promotes the furtherance of knowledge of the Russian language among Jews and publishes and assists others in the publication of useful writings, translations, and periodicals both in Russian and in Jewish languages, with the goal of spreading enlightenment among Jews and providing stipends to encourage young people to dedicate themselves to scholarship.” The Society was actively engaged in publishing. It released a Collection of Articles on Jewish History and Literature (St. Petersburg, 1866-1867), and collections of didactic maxims from the time of the Tannaim to the followers of Moses Mendelssohn entitled, The Talmudist Worldview, A Collection of Religious and Moral Teachings through Excerpts from the Primary Works of Rabbinical Literature (Volumes 1-3, St. Petersburg, 1874-1876), as well as an edition of the Torah in a new translation, The Pentateuch of Moses in the Hebrew Text with a Word-for-Word Russian Translation for Jews (Vilnius, 1875), along with other books that received wide recognition.

The Society subsidized Jewish periodicals, both those produced in Russian – Den’ [Day] (1869-1876), Evreiskaia biblioteka [Jewish Library] (1871-1880) – and in Hebrew – Ha-Tsefirah [The Dawn], Ha-Melits [The Mediator] – as well the creation of Russian-language textbooks in Russian for Jews and translations of siddurim and mahzorim into Russian. It also provided financial support to Jewish scholars researching Jewish history and authors of books of popular science written in Hebrew that promoted the “positive sciences and knowledge of the natural world.” Furthermore, it distributed books in Hebrew and teaching aids and helped to establish Jewish public and school libraries. One of the Society’s larger budget items funded scholarships to secondary and post-secondary students including a stipend for Jewish medical students. Ginzburg thus played an integral role in producing the first generation of Jewish graduates of the Russian Empire’s medical academies.

Ginzburg did not limit his activities to cultural philanthropy. He also devoted himself to causes that today would fall under the category of “human rights.” For example he lobbied the government to grant Jewish artisans the right to live outside the Pale of Settlement. He did not share the scorn with which most Jews regarded craftsmen. With his encouragement, Jews overcome traditional prejudices toward manufacturing.

Another area of endeavor Ginzburg strove to encourage was Jewish agriculture, a topic on which he submitted a memorandum to the government in 1862. He also worked with the Ministry of State Property to create a special fund to award to recognize the best Jewish farms.

Thanks to the tireless intercession of Evzel Ginzburg and the energetic assistance of his son Horace, the following categories of Jews were granted the right to live outside the Pale of Settlement: First Guild merchants (1859); so-called “Nicholas soldiers” or “Cantonists” who had served in the military after being conscripted as children (1867); and those engaged in the “liberal” professions, such as midwives, pharmacists, and dentists, among others (1869).

Ginzburg took a particular interest in the reform of military conscription that was undertaken in the 1870s.  Most Jews, given that they did not speak Russian and were meticulous in their observance of rituals and tradition, especially dietary ones, felt that conscription was a terrible hardship for the Jewish people. Evzel, on the other hand, believed that with the rights Jews were being granted came obligations, including the obligation to serve in the military, and if Jews were exempted from certain duties to the state, they could not dream of ever achieving equality in civil rights. Indeed, the military guidelines issued in 1874 made no distinction between Jews and Russians. This is another advancement that can be credited to the selfless persistence of Evzel Ginzburg.

Evzel Ginzburg also managed to achieve something that might have seemed impossible – permission from the emperor to build St. Petersburg Grand Choral Synagogue. For many years he was the recognized leader of the capital’s Jewish community.

In 1874 to his numerous other regalia was added the title of baron. This title was granted to Ginzburg by the Grand Duke of Hesse-Darmstadt. The Ginzbergs were now entered into the book of the nobility with honorary titles kept by the Senate’s Department of Heraldry.

In January 1878 Evzel Gavrilovich Ginzburg departed this life surrounded by his large family. Death found him on the banks of the Seine where, terminally ill, he spent his last days taking refuge from the cold and dank of the St. Petersburg winter. He was laid to rest in the family vault in Paris.

He had been granted the productive and fulfilling life of the creator. Along with the banks, factories, and corporations he created, along with the beneficial changes to the situation of Russian Jews that were brought about as a result of his efforts, Evzel Ginzburg made himself, a self-made man, a fascinating and exceptionally magnetic personality that left its mark on Russian history.

                                                                                        Translated by NORA FAVOROV

(Lev Berdnikov. Jews in Service to the Tsar. Montpelier, 2011).                                                                               

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