Archive for the ‘How was my Jewish grandfather living outside the Pale in Russia?’ Category

Extraordinary coincidence in Ryazan: Kull and Bobrova co-workers at Singer Sewing Machine

Friday, June 25th, 2010

This is Chapter 5 of the thread “The World of Jews in Ryazan: Beyond the Pale.” Other chapters can be found here.

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“It is an odd feeling to correspond with people whose relatives knew yours 150 years ago.”    - Laurie Williamson, a friend doing Civil War research, after discovering some one whose ancestor was in the same Civil war brigade as her great-grandfather.

I now live NY, USA; my grandfather lived in Wisconsin. Leon Kull grew up in Moscow and emigrated with his wife & kids to Israel

I now live in NY, USA; my grandfather lived in Wisconsin. Leon Kull grew up in Moscow and emigrated with his wife & kids to Israel

Leon Kull, great-grandson of Yakov Kull, grew up in Moscow, Russia.   In 1990, Leon emigrated to Israel with his wife and kids.

I grew up 6000 miles away in Sudbury, Massachusetts, a little town outside of Boston.  My Jewish grandfather, Boris (Bornett) Bobroff, had lived in Wisconsin, but died before I was born.

I “met” Leon Kull through the Ryazan subgroup within JewishGen.org as I set forth on an expedition to learn more about my grandfather.  Members of this JewishGen geneology subgroup all have ancestors who lived in Ryazan, Russia, at some point in the 19th or early 20th centuries.

Because Jews were only 2-3% of Ryazan’s population, the JewishGen Ryazan subgroup is tiny, about nine people.  It was easy to email them.  Several responded to me, including Leon Kull.   I began to learn bits of how their Ryazan ancestors had wound up living in a place from which most Jews were excluded by the laws of the Russian Empire.

I became intrigued by this small but very varied group of Jewish ancestors: wealthy, aristocratic members of the Polyakov family; Yakov Kull, who managed a ready-to-wear clothing store; the skilled shingle-maker Avrom Mesigal; and my own grandfather, who worked at Levontin’s agricultural machinery factory around 1904-5.  I began to write a blog thread, “The World of Jews in Ryazan” about this little group of Jews living “Beyond the Pale.”

Kull family in Ryazan in 1910. Yakov is the adult male farthest right. His brother Ber is next to him.

Kull family in Ryazan in 1910. Yakov is the adult male farthest right. His brother Ber is next to him.

Ad for the Russian Singer Sewing Machine Company

Ad for the Russian Singer Sewing Machine Company

Last week, while I was researching my most recent post, Leon at his computer in Israel began emailing me information he was turning up in some files he hadn’t checked in a while.  A number of years ago, Leon had hired an archival researcher in Russia who’d uncovered various pieces of information – including pages from the 1910 Russian Census listing Yakov Kull’s place of residence and work.

This Census showed that by 1910, Yakov had moved on from managing the clothing shop to working as a salesman at the Ryazan branch of the Russian Singer Sewing Machine Company.

As Leon looked through his files last week, he also suddenly began to discover information about a Ryazan Jewish family named Bobrov.  “Bobrov” is the same name as mine, “Bobroff,” just transliterated differently from the Cyrillic alphabet.  Given how small the Jewish population was in Ryazan, it’s almost certain that this Bobrov family was related to my grandfather.  Here are some of the nuggets Leon sent me:

Bobrova Rokhilya Movsheva (daughter of Movsha), bourgeoise, born in 1867 in Minsk province (within the Pale of Jewish Settlement).  She settled in Ryazan in 1887.
Rokhilya Bobrova’s husband was Elya Bobrov, born between 1860-65, died sometime before 1905.

At the time of the 1910 Russian Census, Rokhilya Bobrova was 42 years old.
Her children were:
Iokhim son of Elya  19
Bentsean 12
Moysha 10
Zalman 8
Nakhman 6

My grandfather, Boris L. Bobrov (or Bobroff) had already left Russia by the time of the 1910 Census, so he would not have been included here even though he had lived in Ryazan.

So, the mystery’s tendrils grew:

How was Rokhilya Bobrova related to my grandfather? She was about 16 years older than him.  So she could have been a young aunt or an older cousin.  (It’s unlikely that she was his very young mother, because his middle initial was “L,” meaning that his father’s first name began with that letter, so it was not Rokhilya’s husband Elya.)  Perhaps in future I’ll track down the connection between Boris and Rokhilya by looking back at Minsk, from whence they came.

I suppose the reason anyone searches for information about their ancestors is that they’re yearning to find connections with others beyond themselves in time and place.  Early on, I had thought that Robin Pollack Wood and I might have such a time-warp connection, via her great-grandfather who owned an agricultural machinery factory in Ryazan, and my grandfather, who worked in one.  But it turned out the two factories, though similar in name, were actually different.

I had been silly, I thought, to expect such a coincidental connection within the Ryazan subgroup.

So it was with eerie astonishment that, a day or two after Leon’s first finding Rokhilya Bobrova, I read a new email from him.  This one had images attached: of a handwritten, double-spread page of the 1910 Russian Census for Ryazan.  Listed on line #81 was Rokhilya Bobrova.  On the very next next line, #82, was Yakov (Yankel) Kull!

1910 Russian Census pages listing Bobrova and Kull

1910 Russian Census pages listing Bobrova and Kull

“Why,” wrote my fellow detective Leon rhetorically, did the two families appear right next to each other?   For the answer, he turned my attention to the second half of the Census listing, which noted work place and residence.  Happily, Leon provided me an English translation of the faded, scratchy, handwritten Russian.

And there, there was the answer:

“Rokhilya Bobrova works at Singer company (служит в компании Зингер)
Place of residence: Ekaterininskaya Street, Ignatyev’s house (Место
жительства: Екатерининская ул. д.Игнатьева)”

“Yankel Kull is a sales agent of Singer sewing machines (Агент по продаже швейных машин Зингер)
Place of residence: the same (as above) Место жительства: там же”

In other words, as Leon explained, Bobrova and Kull worked in the same company, Singer Sewing Machine.  They also

“lived in the same house (on Ekaterininskaya Street).  And when we look at other addresses on this page, we understand that all 4 families lived on the same street.  Authorities compiled this census document by checking one house after another. That’s the reason why Kull and Bobrova appear one after another.”

Wow!  Leon and I might live 6000 miles apart, but a hundred years ago, our forebears lived in the same house.  And they worked together at Singer’s.  They must have known each other quite well.

I felt like Leon’s and my ancestors were not only coming to life.  Their ghosts were beginning to dance with each other!

*         *         *

But what was the quintessentially American Singer Sewing Machine Company doing in Ryazan, on the endless Russian steppes?  The Singer sewing machine was such a touchstone for 19th and 20th century Americans that when I mentioned Singer on my Sarah Lawrence College email list, it sparked a whole round of memories of our mothers sewing our clothes with the family machine.  To me, envisioning Singer sewing machines in Russia felt like culture clash.  An odd company for my Russian ancestor to be employed by!

But Singer machines were in fact all the rage in Ryazan in the early 20th century!  According to one Russian blogger,

“The first sewing machines appeared in Ryazan … in 1909.  They were sold in a department store at the corner of Astrakhan and Cathedral…. Each machine cost about 30 rubles, the average monthly salary of Ryazan employees.  By a year later, the miracle-machines had become the most popular item in the dowries of wealthy brides.  The machines were bought by parents.  In those days, it was not considered seemly for an unmarried woman to own a sewing machine.”

Another ad for Russian Singer sewing machines.  Note the Art Nouveau influence, then popular in Russian fashion as well.

Another ad for Russian Singer sewing machines. Note the Art Nouveau influence, then popular in Russian fashion as well.

According to another source, Singer sewing machines had come to Russia well before this:  “By the beginning of the 1880s the network of Singer’s sales offices, depots and stores had covered the empire.  The aggregate number of branches was eighty-one.”  Many of the machines were imported from the United States.  In addition, in 1902, a large Singer factory, eventually employing 5000 workers, was built in Podolsk, in Moscow province.

So exactly what kind of work did Kull and Bobrova do for Singer?

Well, we have clues for Kull, because the Census listed him as “an agent for the sale of Singer sewing machines.”  So Kull was part of the Singer sales force which Mona Domosh describes in her wonderful American Commodities in an Age of Empire: a vast, far-flung, highly organized army of Russian sales agents.

In Russia, with the largest territory of any nation on earth – three times the distance east to west as the United States – these agents sold more sewing machines than in anywhere else in the world besides the US.  Sales in Russia went from almost 70,000 in 1895 to nearly ten times that in 1914.  The agents traveled the Russian Empire via trains, wagons, and horseback.  They floated cargoes of sewing machines thousands of miles down Siberian rivers.  There, nomads buying sewing machines paid for them in cattle, pelts and fish (which the sales agents in turn sold for cash).

Back in Ryazan, Kull’s work life was undoubtedly less adventuresome.  But Singer’s local operations in Russia were so intricately organized that Kull likely had a job worthy of its own separate blog post.  In fact, I’m finding so much almost palpable detail about Singer sales arrangements in Russia that I will postpone a fuller picture of Kull’s job to a later chapter.

But what about Rokhilya Bobrova?   What kind of work did she, a woman, do for Singer?

We must remember that, by 1910, Bobrova had been a widow for something over five years.  She had five children ranging in age from 6 to 19.  A lot of mouths to feed.

What jobs did the Russian Singer company hire women for at that time?  Again, Mona Domosh provides clues as how Bobrova may have lived her work days.  In the nearly 4,000 Singer shops in towns throughout Russia,

“potential customers could browse the various machines, examine samples of what could be made on each of them, watch demonstrations of various sewing techniques by employees, and take sewing classes.  Most of the employees who worked the floor in these shops and who demonstrated and gave sewing lessons were ‘natives,’ and many of them were women….  No women were hired at any level above retail sales and sewing instructors.”

In addition, employees, especially in more responsible positions, “were recruited from ethnic minorities living in Russia, particularly ethnic Germans and Jews,” due at least in part to the lack of commercial experience among ethnic Russians.

Thus it seems likely that Rokhilya Bobrova demonstrated sewing techniques or taught sewing classes at Singer’s.

We can probably assume that Bobrova had originally received her permit to live outside the Pale due to her husband’s profession (I don’t know yet what it was, but hope to unearth it).  But Jews had to renew their permits to live outside the Pale every five years, traveling all the way back to their place of origin to get the renewal.  Bobrova’s permit came up for renewal in 1909.  And now she was widowed.

However, 1909 was the same year Singer apparently arrived in Ryazan.  At that point, given Singer’s hiring tendencies, the fact that Bobrova was a Jewish woman may suddenly have become a huge asset.  I wonder whether the local Singer store’s management – perhaps even Yakov Kull – played a role in enabling the now-widowed Bobrova to stay on living in Ryazan in her own right.

Detail of 1910 Census page focusing on names Bobrova and Kull

Detail of 1910 Census page focusing on names Bobrova and Kull

Levontin’s factory in Ryazan: A ghost takes on reality

Tuesday, June 8th, 2010

This is Chapter 3 in my series “The World of Jews in Ryazan: Beyond the Pale.”  The introductory post about my grandfather is here.

My grandfather, Boris L. Bobroff

My grandfather, Boris L. Bobroff

For years my grandfather’s life in Russia was a huge unknown to me.  The one bit of information I had was that Boris Bobroff had worked “as an engineer” in a factory in Ryazan before coming to the US in 1905 at the age of 22.

The factory, like everything about my grandfather’s life in Russia, felt romantically mysterious to me.  But when my mother, Polly Bobroff, and I finally discovered the factory’s name, it turned out to be a completely unromantic mouthful: the Joint Stock Company of the Ryazan Agricultural Machinery and Railroad Equipment Factory. It was founded by Yekhiel Levontin in 1904.

Beyond that, we knew absolutely nothing, and couldn’t imagine what Boris Bobroff’s life might have been like in this small city southeast of Moscow.  For years, my endless online searching turned up absolutely nothing about the factory or about my grandfather anywhere in Russia.

Typical Russian troika harness

Typical Russian troika harness

So it’s been with a profound sense of awe that I’ve begun to find bits of information about Levontin’s factory, and so to envision something of what my grandfather might have experienced there.  One key to my search success was online tools that made it possible for me to use my now-rusty Russian reading skills to search Russian language websites.

One very important resource in my search has been the website of Ryazan province in Russia.  To my utter amazement, this Russian language website has a photograph of Levontin’s factory.  The photo is dated 1916, over a decade after my grandfather left Russia. The factory had grown in the intervening years, so it would have been somewhat different when he worked there.  Still, it was eerie to see a photograph of this place which until now had been like a ghost to me.  Suddenly the place where my grandfather worked over a century ago in Russia began to shimmer into focus.

Levontin's factory in Ryazan, where my grandfather worked

Levontin's factory in Ryazan, where my grandfather worked

In the photo, a man in a typical Russian belted shirt leans against the factory.  A horse-drawn carriage harnass includes the traditional Russian bell-shaped shaft bow.  (This type of shaft bow was also used to harness troika-pulled sleighs, see photo above.)  It all felt very evocative to me.

On the factory sign in the photo we can read in the larger letters “Joint Stock Company of the Ryazan Factory.”  The caption on the photo reads:

“Factory of Agricultural Machinery and Railroad Equipment.  Original Location – on Seminary Street (not far from the Church of Boris and Gleb).  1916 photograph.”

Aha, some new information: according to this caption, the factory was located on Seminary Street.  Happily, a search through the massive Ryazan website revealed several photos of that street.  Like most of Ryazan’s thoroughfares, it was straight.  Like many, it was wide.  It appears to stretch off into the steppe beyond the city.

Seminary Street, dormitory of the Seminary

Seminary Street, view past the Seminary dormitory

A present-day photo of Seminary Street (below) gives a wonderful sense of the kind of wooden buildings that originally housed Levontin’s factory.  Parenthetically, it also shows a wood shingle roof, perhaps of the type made by Avrom Mesigal, who I’ve followed in other posts, here and here.

Wooden buildings on Seminary Street.  Present day photo

Wooden buildings on Seminary Street. Present day photo

Another source, though, gives a different street as the original location of Levontin’s factory:

“The history of the factory began in 1904, when the businessman Yekhiel Levontin bought two wooden houses on Malomeshchanskaia Street from the Ryazan merchants Kasin and Kolesnikova.

He [Levontin] lured six highly skilled workers, headed by the expert master Rudakov, from the Telepnev Factory.

He equipped six work places [in his new factory] with a manual lathe, a forge with manual bellows, and fourteen-[horse?]power diesel.

A notarized contract specifies that ‘the plant was to be arranged for the production of mechanical, iron, and other work….’  In 1905, the factory already employed 50 people.  Their main products were plows, harrows, and various orders for the railroad.”

Russian peasant plowing fields.  Use of hand plows continued well into the 20th century in Russia.

Russian peasant plowing fields. Use of hand plows continued well into the 20th century in Russia.

Because my grandfather worked at the factory in 1904 and into 1905 at the latest, he must have been one of its first workers.  According to the letter of recommendation about him, signed by Levontin, Bobroff had been “hired as a worker but was performing the function of an engineer.”

In trying to envision Boris’s daily routines, I tend to seize on small details in the fragments I find.  For example, from the description above, it sounds like a lot of the work was originally done by hand using the manual lathe and forge with hand-operated bellows, though part of the work was apparently powered by diesel.  I wonder what aspect of this manufacturing process Boris Bobroff presumably helped to work out, given that he was doing engineering work.

According to another source, Levontin’s factory produced 82% of the harrows in European Russia, as well as single-plowshare plows and horse-drawn planters.  The Russian-style plow and harrow can be seen in the painting below.  Another source says that the railroad items manufactured at the factory were switches and crossings.

This painting by Ilya Repin shows the Russian plow and, in back of the 2nd horse, the harrow.  Both types of equipment were made at Levontin's factory.

This painting by Ilya Repin shows the Russian plow and, in back of the 2nd horse, the harrow. Both types of equipment were made at Levontin's factory.

Which of these items did Bobroff work on?  I hope I can find descriptions someday.  I do know that, later on in the US, Bobroff received a number of patents on his designs for switches for his automobile directional signals.  But I don’t know whether work on presumably much larger-scale railroad switches might have inspired his smaller patented versions.

By 1914 – 9 years after my grandfather had emigrated to the US – 250 people worked at the factory.  One description at that time says “The main (plow) shop was located in the basement. The assembly shop was located on the 2nd floor of a new building.”

Russian rural school boys:  Oral Sums, by N. P. Bogdanov-Bel'skii

Russian rural school boys: Oral Sums, by N. P. Bogdanov-Bel'skii

A lovely last description of the inside of the factory in 1914 comes from a rural teacher who brought his students – girls and boys – into the city of Ryazan on a field trip from some distance away.  The students had taken advantage of the government allowance to school children of a free train fare each year for field trips.  They visited the Ryazan Provincial Museum, and were particularly interested (according to their teacher at any rate), by the agricultural exhibit section.  A visit to the handicraft museum and later to the local cinema were followed by free tea and biscuits.  The next day, the students visited the printing press of Ryazan Life, a local newspaper.

Last, the rural students trooped to Levontin’s factory, where they were welcomed and provided with two tour guides.  The students were amazed at what they saw.

“Before their eyes opened the pages of factory life, completely unknown to the rural child.  The strange noise, clatter, banging, the quickness of movement….  It was very instructive for the students to see how gradually plows, seeders, winnowers, iron harrows, and so on, were constructed.  Students also saw the iron casting, where the bright red molten mass of iron flowed into ladles and was poured out into prepared forms.”

I can envision these children, who until now had only seen the plows and harrows in use in the countryside where they lived.  Now for the first time, they were seeing how the implements were made in the far-off city.

On the train home, the children talked excitedly about what they had seen in the city.  According to the author of this article,the boys most of all liked the cinema and the agricultural machinery factory, while the girls had other favorites.

Surely these kids were too excited by all the startling new sights they had seen at Levontin’s factory to think about its owner being Jewish – if anyone had even mentioned it to them.  But I wonder whether, as they became adults, they looked back on their vivid memories of the trip and associated the factory with the ingenuity of its Jewish founder.  How did they put their childhood impressions together with anti-Semitic views they may also have heard around them?

Again, this description of Levontin’s factory comes from a time after my grandfather had left, when it had experienced rapid growth.  I hope at some point to find similar descriptions of what it was like when he worked there.

The world of Jews in Ryazan: Beyond the Pale, Chapter 2. The Polyakov family

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010
Lazar Polyakov

Lazar Polyakov

Chapter 1 of The world of Jews in Ryazan: Beyond the Pale, is here.

A skilled shingle-maker.  A soldier.  A dress shop assistant.  A 21-year-old engineeer at a Ryazan factory (my own grandfather).

These were all Jewish Ryazan-dwellers, and I explore their lives in these blog posts.  They were each ancestors of present-day Ryazan JewishGen participants now seeking information about them.

Another family in this group of 19th-20th century Ryazan Jews included some of the wealthiest, most influential magnates in Russia.  These were the Polyakov family, one of whom was among the very few Jewish Russians permitted into the top ranks of the hereditary nobility.  This generation of the Polyakov family included the spectacularly prominent trio of brothers: Samuel, Yakov, and Lazar.

Efraim Polyakov, probably the son of one of these brothers, founded an agricultural equipment factory in Ryazan in the late 1880s.  Efraim’s great-granddaughter (a fellow Ryazan JewishGener) and I had initially hoped to find that my grandfather, Boris Bobroff, had worked for him.  It would have been a fun connection between us.

Cartoon of Samuel Polyakov, Railroad construction magnate

19th century cartoon of Samuel Polyakov, railroad construction magnate

Having done further research, though, I’ve since discovered my grandfather worked at another similar factory at a later time.  But there may possibly have been a connection between the two factories through the aforementioned very powerful generation of Polyakovs.

A generation of legendary Polyakov brothers

The three legendary Polyakov brothers, Samuel, Yakov, and Lazar, had grown up in the Pale of Jewish Settlement.  But each overcame tsarist restrictions applied to most Jews and moved eastward out of the Pale.

In particular, Ryazan became one of the first stepping stones in the dazzling rise of Lazar Polyakov.

Lazar’s brilliant older brother Samuel (left)  had become one of the primary builders of railroads in Russia during the era of explosive railway development in the 2nd half of the 19th century.

Lazar, after graduating from synagogue high school in 1860, began working with Samuel on the Kursk-Kharkov railway line.  (Lazar also benefited from the help of middle brother Yakov, who had moved to Taganrog, near the Black Sea, becoming a banker and Merchant of the First Guild.)

Lazar Polyakov’s fabulous rise

Pit saw timber operation in Ryazan, early 20th century

A pit saw timber operation in Ryazan, early 20th century

Lazar first became active in Ryazan in the 1860s.  Having decided to move into the timber industry, he found partners among Ryazan’s timber merchants.  He also became involved in Ryazan’s charitable institutions, in particular the orphanage.  This, notes the Russian Jewish Resource website, helped him win the favor of the Empress, who highly valued charitable activity.  That in turn advanced his application for awards and titles (note the medals in his photo above).

Lazar Polykov's Ryazan bank, photographed early 20th century

Lazar Polykov's Ryazan bank, early 20th century photograph

Between 1870 and 1873, Lazar Polyakov founded three banks, in Ryazan, Moscow, and Orel.  To the left is a photo of Polyakov’s Ryazan Commercial Bank on Astrakhanskaya Street in Ryazan.

Some of the complex history of this bank and its somewhat incestuous relationship – legal under Russian law at the time – with the Government Bank of Ryazan is told on several Russian language websites, including here and here.

As Lazar’s fabulous ascent continued, in 1891 this Ryazan bank became one branch of his Moscow International Commercial Bank, the largest commercial bank in Moscow by the beginning of the 20th century.  Lazar became active in international affairs, and a member of the Tsar’s Privy Council.

Imagining the bank’s impact on our humbler Jewish Ryazan residents

Astrakhanskaya Street.  Nobles and Peasants Bank on right.

Location of Lazar Polyakov's bank, Astrakhanskaya Street. In this view, another bank, the Nobles and Peasants Bank is on right.

How might this bank, with its nationally-honored Jewish owner, have affected the world of our little band of Ryazan JewishGen ancestors: the shingle-maker, the soldier, the dress shop assistant, and the young factory engineer?   Would their employers  have transacted banking affairs there?  Might dress shop assistant Yakov Kull have deposited receipts there?

Our shingle-maker, Avrom Mesigal, lived in a village near Ryazan beginning around 1875, under the protection of a well-to-do non-Jewish dairy owner.  We don’t know how often Mesigal or his family came into the city of Ryazan, or whether his protector might have had banking business there.  But like Lazar Polyakov, Mesigal was also involved in buying up timber around Ryazan in the 1870s.

Photographs taken from church bell towers reveal wooden roofs in small towns in Ryazan province

Photographs taken from church bell towers reveal wooden roofs in towns in Ryazan province. Shingles were replacing thatch as the roofing of choice in late 19th century Russia

Mesigal and his protector would buy up a forest, cut down the trees, dry the wood, and craft hand-made shingles from it.  Mesigal prospered in this business, living in a large house with his family of seven children.  It’s interesting to wonder what Mesigal’s awareness and opinion of Polyakov’s timber business would have been.

Psychologically, how might the fame and success of the Jewish owner of their local bank have impacted members of Ryazan’s Jewish community?  Would it have made them feel they, too, might overcome at least some of the anti-Semitic restrictions in their lives?

The Polyakovs’ impact on Russian Jews

According to one assessment today, it’s hard for us now to conceive of how widely-known and discussed the Polyakovs were during their lifetimes, in particular Lazar.

Polyakov at an older age

Polyakov at an older age

“A hundred years ago, this name thundered around Russia more powerfully than the names Berezovsky and Gusinsky do today.  The Polyakovs were adored.  The Polyakovs were hated and despised.  The Polyakovs were feared.  “The Polyakovs have bought up all of Russia.”  “The Polyakovs are the hope of Russia.”  “The Polyakovs are the shame of Russia.”  All conversations of the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th sooner or later, one way or another, came back to the Brothers Polyakov….  And above all to the youngest of the brothers, His Excellency Lazar Solomonovich Polyakov, “the Moscow Rothschild,” as he was called in Russia and abroad at the turn of the century.  [He was] the greatest Russian banker, next to whom all others since then look like look like young sheep next to a pure-bred bull.”

Even Jewish weddings of the time often took note of Lazar.  It was said,

“Lazar Polyakov’s name is retold in fairy tales across the Pale of Settlement.  Our poorer brethren, blessing themselves on their wedding days, say ‘Let G-d make you equal to Polyakov.’”

Polyakov is also generally believed to have been the inspiration for Bolgarinov, a character in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to whom Anna’s brother Oblonsky, an impoverished aristocrat, had to go for help after selling off most of his estate.

Even today, awareness of Lazar Polyakov’s power and wealth are alive.  For example, a 2007 newspaper article called “Young Muscovites Find Community in High-Speed Scavenger Hunts,” described a Jewish youth club’s midnight car races.  One of their first high-speed scavenger hunts through Moscow streets, “called ‘On the Road to Riches,’ covered places related to the life of famous banker Lazar Polyakov (1842-1914).”

If Russian Jewish youth today are still racing to follow the footsteps of Polyakov, we can only imagine that Jews of his time were equally fascinated.

Lazar Polyakov

Lazar Polyakov

Crisis at Polyakov’s banks

Polyakov’s career of course had its difficulties.  In 1900, Russia went into a major banking crisis, perhaps on the order of the one we’re experiencing in the US today.  The largest banks of Russia began to collapse.  One after another, stock companies, trading and banking houses failed.  Polyakov’s banks, however, were deemed too big to fail by the tsarist Minister of Finance, who declared,

“suspension of payments by [Polyakov's] banks would not only ruin many investors scattered across Russia, but would also deal a severe blow to all private credit, undermining the already shaky confidence in private banks.”

So the government restructured Polyakov’s banks.  Although he lost much of his fortune, he apparently continued to live a lavish lifestyle.  (Does all this sound very familiar?)  He was awarded the highly coveted title of Baron at the end of his life, and died in 1914.

Impact of the crisis on Efraim Polyakov’s agricultural machinery factory

It was in these machinations to save the Polyakov banking empire that my intensive search for information about the Efraim Polyakov’s agricultural equipment factory finally found fruit.  You may recall that Efraim – probably a son or nephew of Lazar – began this factory in the 1880s.  (Not surprisingly, it’s much easier to find information about the magnate than about the provincial factory owner.)

The Joint Stock Company of the Ryazan Agricultural Machinery Factory, according to a Russian language website of essays about banking, was founded in 1889 “with the assistance of” Lazar Polyakov.  The factory was hit hard by the banking crisis – perhaps in a way analogous to US employers during our banking calamity today.  By 1904, Lazar Polyakov had designated a new factory administration (whether this affected Efraim, the article doesn’t say).   This new factory administration was unsuccessful in righting the situation.  They finally recommended the factory be closed.

“[Polyakov's] Moscow International Commercial Bank, however, did not take this extreme measure.  To avoid loss of the bill of debt that would have resulted from closing the factory, they decided on further funding, dispersing another 200,000 rubles to the company.  In 1905, an extreme shortfall in the bank’s own position forced it to suspend the loan.  In 1908, the Ryazan factory had debts of 680,000 rubles.”

It’s a shame that – at least thus far in my search – the historical record seems to describe only the misfortunes of this factory, not the heyday it must have enjoyed for fifteen years before that.  I will continue my hunt for more information about happier days at the Joint Stock Company of the Ryazan Agricultural Machinery Factory.

Meanwhile, a couple of small details about Efraim Polyakov’s factory really caught my eye.  Its name was almost identical to that of Yekhiel Levontin’s factory, where my grandfather worked:  The Joint Stock Company of the Ryazan Agricultural Machinery and Railroad Equipment Factory. And it was founded in 1904-5, at the same time Polyakov was trying to rescue his family’s factory.

It’s certainly possible that two factories in the same small city had nearly the same name.  But it makes me wonder whether there might have been some connection or other between the two factories, especially because one was founded at the same time the other one was going under.

Is it possible that Lazar Polyakov might have backed Levontin’s factory, hedging his bets?  The new factory was small, occupying two already-existing wooden buildings and employing only six people.  Presumably it wouldn’t have taken much capital to start up (it eventually became much larger, and exists to this day).  Was Polyakov seeking to shift the name to a new entity?  Branching out into railway equipment for greater business stability?

On the other hand, if there was no such connection of Polyakov to the new factory, were Levontin and his backers poaching on the former glory of all things Polyakov?  Did they give their factory nearly the same name in hopes of achieving similar glory?

This is all utter speculation on my part, and I am no business whiz.  But it’s this kind of speculation and curiosity that fuels my relentless detective work.  I’ll be exploring all possibilities in my research to come.

Even the Tsar’s Privy Councilor faced anti-Semitism

A final note: Lazar Polyakov’s success of course by no means erased anti-Semitism in Russia.  Anti-Semitism certainly affected Polyakov himself.  For example, soon after he had finally managed to build a synagogue in Moscow, following a long struggle for permission, the government suddenly adopted a policy of expelling thousands of Jews from Moscow.  The synagogue was unable to be used for many years.

It should also be noted that the honor of being the basis for a Tolstoy character, Bolgarinov, in Anna Karenina is grossly tainted by the fact that the emotional impact of this episode in the book depends on deeply-ingrained Russian anti-Semitism.   The embarrassment of Oblonsky’s financial difficulty is intensified by the fact that he must turn for help to a Jewish banker.  Bolgarinov makes Oblonsky wait for a long time before meeting with him.  “He, Prince Oblonsky, a descendant of Rurik, was waiting two hours in a Jew’s waiting room….”  Oblonsky tries to make up puns relating to “the Jew” in an effort to dispel his discomfort at this supposed indignity.

Four Jewish inhabitants of Ryazan: Beyond the Pale, Chapter 1

Monday, May 17th, 2010
My grandfather, Boris L. Bobroff

My grandfather, Boris L. Bobroff

The Introduction to this thread, Mysteries of my Grandfather, is here.

I hope to discover my grandfather’s world in Ryazan.  I wish to be able to envision the people my 22-year-old grandfather saw everyday, his conversations and pursuits, the passions he shared with others he knew.  Who did he pass in the street each day on his way to work?  Who did he say good morning to?  Who did he eat and relax with at night?

Ryazan around 1912

Ryazan around 1912

Unearthing stories of early 20th century life among Ryazan’s Jewish population is extremely difficult.  But I’ve discovered a four small threads – four Jewish families – with which to begin weaving my tapestry of life in Ryazan.

Ryazan was outside the Pale of Jewish Settlement to which most Russian Jews were confined by law beginning under Catherine the Great.  To live in Ryazan, Jews had to obtain government permits.  While Ryazan has been described as free of the kinds of theft and pogroms against Jews experienced elsewhere, restrictions and prejudice existed.  Jewish livelihoods could be precarious here.

Ryazan, east of Moscow, was outside the Jewish Pale of Settlement

Ryazan, east of Moscow, was outside the Jewish Pale of Settlement

With the help of the small group of JewishGen.org participants who have Ryazan ancestors, I’ve found out a bit about four Jewish families who lived within the non-Jewish world of that city.  These four will be my cast of characters for future posts.  They include:

The Polyakov family, wealthy bankers, pharmacists, and entrepreneurs who likely had government permission to live in Ryazan because of their talents, skills, and business success.

Yakov Kull, son of Shmuel Kull

Yakov Kull, son of Shmuel Kull

The Kull family, whose father,  Shmuel, had served in the Russian army, garrisoned in Ryazan.  His son Yakov later opened a florishing dress shop in the city.

Avrom Abbe Mesigal, a shingle maker who lived under the protection of a weathy non-Jewish dairy owner in the village of Pesochnoe just east of Ryazan.  Mesigal prospered in his business, marrying and raising a family.  But when his dairy-owner protector left town, the Mesigal family were forced to leave as well.

My own grandfather, Boris L. Bobroff.  I don’t yet know how he came to be living in Ryazan.  Bobroff worked at the Ryazan Agricultural Machinery and Railway Equipment Factory.  Thanks to tremendous help by JewisGen.org contact Leon Kull, I’ve learned that this grew into a very large factory which still exists today, now called Ryazselmash.  It was founded in 1904 by well-known entrepreneur Yekhiel Levontin.

What was the landscape in which these four Jewish inhabitants lived?  What kind of city was Ryazan?

The province of Ryazan was still overwhelmingly rural in the early 20th century.  The city of Ryazan was the largest in the province, with about 46,000 inhabitants (men outnumbered women).

But change was afoot.  Ryazan lies along the Oka River, the trade route between Moscow and Nizhny-Novgorod.  By the end of the 19th century, steamboats on the Oka River were replacing rowboats and barges pulled by men.

Ryazan railroad station.  Carriages were always waiting outside to transport passengers into downtown Ryazan

Ryazan railroad station. Carriages were always waiting outside to transport passengers into downtown Ryazan

The Moscow-Ryazan railroad began construction in 1863, the same era railroads were being built across the US.  Within a few years, a railway line was completed to Tambov province, linking Moscow, via Ryazan, with the highly-fertile black-soil regions of southern Russia.  In the 1890s, Ryazan became an important transport center as railways were built to other major cities in the empire.

These changes in Ryazan must have affected the lives of our band of four Jewish residents.  True, the area remained overwhelmingly agricultural.  But might the development of new kinds of economic activity have provided more opportunities for shingle-makers like Avrom Mesigal?  Would new wealth have created more business for Kull’s dress shop?

It seems likely, because we know that growing transportation connections to the outside world stimulated the economic and cultural life of Ryazan.  In the words of “Ryazanets” (“Ryazan resident”), who has written many articles about Ryazan on the province’s extraordinary website, History, Culture, and Traditions of Ryazan (any errors in translation are my own):

"Ryazanets," author

"Ryazanets," author

Transport of goods and transfer of information accelerated as travel became easier and more affordable. Use of the telegraph grew significantly.  Now urgent news could be transmitted over great distances.  A suburb, Troitskaya, grew up near the railroad station.  A cobbled road led from the station to the Moscow Road [the main street of Ryazan]….

Around the station were built houses for the railway workers.  [A second station was built for the railway to Kazan.]  Near the railroad stations, trade establishments appeared….  In fact, Troitskaya was the fastest growing part of the city.  By 1897, it held 7,000 inhabitants.

All of this economic change led to the development of mechanized factories in Ryazan, including the factory where my grandfather would find work.  It also led to a flowering of banking activity in Ryazan.  Surely this impacted the lives of the Polyakov family.  I will pick up the story of the new banks in my next Mysteries of my Grandfather post.  And I’ll continue to explore the lives of all four of our Jewish cast of characters on the stage of 19th and early 20th century Ryazan.

The Introduction to this thread, Mysteries of my Grandfather, is here.

For more about the four Jewish residents of Ryazan introduced here, see the entire series of posts here.

Ryazan: Prince Oleg's 14th century palace and cathedral on a tributary to the Oka River

Ryazan: Prince Oleg's 14th century palace and cathedral on a tributary to the Oka River

Mysteries of my grandfather: Introduction

Monday, May 10th, 2010
My grandfather invented the automobile turn signal.  These are a couple of the types he manufactured during the 1930s.

My grandfather B. L. Bobroff invented the automobile turn signal. These are a couple of the types he manufactured during the 1930s.

My grandfather rarely talked about his life in Russia, and he died before I was born.  These two facts of course made me obsessively curious about him.  That curiosity fuels my work, now art, to this day.

There were a few things I knew about my grandfather: he was born Boris L. Bobroff – or Bobrov, depending on how you transliterate the Cyrillic letters into English.  He came to the US around 1905 at the age of 22. Like many Russian men at that time he probably left the country to avoid being drafted into the Russian army to fight in the Russo-Japanese War.

Motor bike rear turn signal made by Bobroff in the 1930s-1940s

Motor bike rear turn signal made by Bobroff in the 1930s-1940s

When Boris came to the US, he changed his first name to Bornett.  Bornett was an odd choice, in my opinion, not in a good way.  So I’ll use Boris as much as I can.

Boris/Bornett moved to Milwaukee and later Racine, Wisconsin.  He invented and patented various electrical signaling devices, including the voting machine used in state legislatures and a version of hospital nursing call lights.  Most ubiquitous was his invention of the turn signal for cars and other motor vehicles.  He held patents on the original invention of the auto turn signal, and on many design improvements over the decades following.  He manufactured his turn signals in a small factory called Teleoptic, in Racine.

eBaySalePhoto

B.L. Bobroff demonstrating his voting invention to Wisconsin legislators

Because of my grandfather’s inventions, the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison holds some of his papers.  Years ago, my mother and I traveled there to look at them.

The most intriguing of the papers was a letter of recommendation written about my grandfather’s work at an agricultural equipment factory in Ryazan, Russia.  There was an English translation of the letter, stamped with a fancy seal that apparently made it an official translation.  The recommendation said that my grandfather had been hired as a “worker,” but performed the function of an engineer.

Now engineers in Russia at that time were hot stuff, like the techies of today, only there were far fewer of them.  So being called an engineer in Russia then was a big deal.  I believe at that time young Boris had no engineering education, so he was probably winging it.  But he must have been naturally talented, especially because, as I’ve since found out, the man who signed his recommendation, Levontin, was the famous founder of what’s become the huge Ryazan Combine Plant, in existence to this day.

The fact that my grandfather was working and living in Ryazan raised in my mind the first of several mysteries I’ve been pursuing ever since.  Jews in Russia were allowed to live only in the Jewish Pale of Settlement.  And Ryazan was outside the Pale.

JewishPaleMap2MRGD&CROPT

Jewish Pale of Settlement in Russia, after 1825

There were ways Jews could win permission to live outside the Pale.  One of them was to have a degree in a field like engineering.  But my grandfather, as far as I know, didn’t have a degree.  So how had he gotten to Ryazan?  Had he been born there, the child of parents who did have some kind of engineering education?  Had he come alone?  If so, how?

Another vague family story about my grandfather involved a mysterious trip he had taken to Bolshevik Russia in 1920, involving manufacturing shoes for the Russians.  Traveling to Russia at that time was illegal for a US citizen.  So that was a second mystery.

After a couple years of searching the internet for more information, I suddenly hit on a wildly surprising discovery.  On Bobroff’s return from Russia aboard a steamship, he was picked up by the Bureau of Investigation (BOI, later the FBI) as he docked in New York.  I’d never heard about that before!

1920 Soviet poster: "Without a saw, axe, or nails you can't build a home. Tools are made by workers, who have to eat."

1920 Soviet poster: “Without a saw, axe, or nails you can’t build a home. Tools are made by workers, who have to eat.”

It turned out my grandfather had formed the Bobroff Foreign Trading and Engineering Company in Milwaukee and had gotten more than $6,000,000 in contracts from Russia for American-made machinery and boots.

The BOI agents confiscated several things from my grandfather: materials relating to his engineering work and a long letter addressed to the Soviet Bureau in Philadephia.  The BOI agents believed my grandfather had written this letter, signed “Bill.”  Later, Boris/Bornett testified he had only been delivering the letter, from a mysterious man he ran into in Copenhagen while waiting for his ship back to the US.

So another mystery emerged: did my grandfather write that letter, or was he truly an unwitting courier?

Most recently, thanks to googlebooks’ scanning of obscure out-of-print books, I found 25 pages of testimony by my grandfather to the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 1921.  Another big surprise!  The committee was investigating “Conditions in Russia” three years after the Bolsheviks came to power.  And Bobroff had just returned from that far off country.

From my book, Working Women in Russia Under the Hunger Tsars

From my book, Working Women in Russia Under the Hunger Tsars

This was the height of the Red Scare in the US, and during the hearing the Congressmen were often belligerent toward my grandfather.  For his part, Bobroff argued back that the US government should reverse its policy against Russian gold being imported into the country.  This gold had been accumulated by the Romanov tsars over the centuries.  The Bolsheviks – by then in power for over 3 years – wanted to use this tsarist gold to pay for trade goods of the kind my grandfather was trying to sell them.

Was my grandfather a businessman just trying to make money in all this?  Or was he politically involved in trying to aid the Soviets?  It’s known there was an effort at that time, both in Europe and the US, to win US recognition of the new Russian government by establishing trade.  It was thought that diplomatic recognition would follow any robust development of trade.

I now have more mysteries than I started with about my grandfather.  So the sleuthing continues….