A Jewish Woman of Distinction

The Life and Diaries of Zinaida Poliakova

ChaeRan Y. Freeze; translated by Gregory L. Freeze

freeze poliakova

Zinaida Poliakova (1863-1953) was the eldest daughter of Lazar Solomonovich Poliakov, one of three brothers, known as the Russian Rothschilds, who dominated Russian finance and business and built almost a quarter of the railroad lines in Imperial Russia. Poliakova’s diaries, which span three quarters of a century, provide a rare into the world of the Jewish elites in Moscow and St. Petersburg and reveal how Jews successfully integrated into Russian aristocratic society through their intimate friendships and patronage of the arts and philanthropy, but without converting and indeed while staunchly demonstrating their Jewishness. The aristocratic sensibilities and lifestyle that Poliakova cultivated in Russia informed her tastes, habits, and sociability as an émigré in France following her marriage to Reuben Gubbay (the grandson of Sir Albert Abdullah Sassoon), even during the difficult years in Paris during World War II and postwar years in England after she lost almost all her family members and friends during the Holocaust.

“The remarkable diaries of Zinaida Poliakova, deftly edited by ChaeRan Freeze, open onto the world of the “Russian Rothschilds,” a world of high culture, vast privilege, and the skillful, constant fashioning of a hybrid Jewish-Russian identity. Whether the topic was a game of dominos or a royal reception, a music lesson or a marriage, Poliakova took up her pen and left us an invaluable, detailed record of her day-to-day life. The four diaries included in this volume, translated by Gregory Freeze, cover Poliakova’s Russian years, 1875-1887. For the entire life of Poliakova, we turn to ChaeRan Freeze’s superb biographical essay, which extends Poliakova’s story to fin-de-siècle Paris; the whirlwind of the Holocaust; and the harsh realities, both personal and financial, of her postwar life in England. Taken together, the life and diaries of Zinaida Poliakova comprise an important contribution to modern Jewish history.” - Esther H. Schor, Leonard L. Milberg ’53 Professor of American Jewish Studies and Professor of English, Princeton University

"An extraordinarily rich source that will become an essential resource for scholars and students, this book transforms our understanding of the place of the Jewish business elite in imperial Russia. ChaeRan Freeze’s brilliant introduction illuminates not just the lives of its Russian protagonists but the world of the great Jewish business dynasties in the first age of globalization - and it does so from a shockingly intimate and surprisingly unfamiliar angle. This is a major contribution to the field; it deserves a wide audience."  - Abigail Green, University of Oxford, author of Moses Montefiore: Jewish Liberator, Imperial Hero

"Introduced by an excellent discussion of the lives, self-understanding, and fate of Zinaida Poliakova and her family, this impressively annotated translation of Poliakova’s diaries provides a revealing depiction of the world of the Jewish elite in late Imperial Russia as experienced by a young woman from one its most prominent families." - William G. Wagner, Brown Professor of History Emeritus, Williams College

"Readers of 19th-century novels will be fascinated to recognize the real-life parallels to upper-class heroines such as Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke, Flaubert’s Mme Bovary, or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. A unique and invaluable source for anyone interested in the history of Jews, Russia, or women." – Gabriella Safran, Eva Chernov Lokey Professor in Jewish Studies, Slavic Department, Stanford University


CHAERAN Y. FREEZE is Professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies, and Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Brandeis University. She has focused her research on the history and culture of the Jews of Russia with special attention to gender and women. Her books include Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Imperial Russia and Everyday Jewish Life in Imperial Russia, 1825-1914: Select Documents (coauthored with Jay Harris).