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In the literal sense of the word, a pogrom connotes in Russian an attack perpetrated by one population group against another, accompanied by murders, pillage, rape, destruction, and/or various forms of extortion. In modern historical terms the word alternatively has been (1) restricted to refer specifically to massacres perpetrated against the Jews in Russia between 1881 and 1921 and (2) extended to designate all criminal acts carried out by one population group against another, aided by the neutrality, often supportive and complicit, of military and civilian authorities. Pogroms, which should be formally distinguished from the massacres and, even more so, from the genocides that have left such a lasting mark on the twentieth century, may nonetheless be their precursors.


The pogrom must first be situated in the context of turn-of-the-century Russia, whose many political and social crises, protests, and popular uprisings regularly left the Jews at the mercy of the masses. Historians usually refer to three great waves of pogroms, each corresponding to a specific crisis phase leading up to the Bolshevik Revolution. The final tally is telling as concerns the scale of the phenomenon itself: historians agree there were about 887 "major" pogroms and 349 "minor" ones, together totaling some 60,000 victims.

The first wave of pogroms occurred from 1881 to 1884, when the country was convulsed by the crisis stemming from Tsar Alexander II's assassination by members of a revolutionary group on 13 March 1881. The government immediately portrayed the Jews as the ones primarily responsible for the popular unrest. Numerous race riots ensued throughout southern Russia, with the first attack occurring in the Ukrainian village of Yelizavetgrad in April 1881, buttressed by the support of a portion of the revolutionary groups seeking to promote any mass uprising likely to weaken the regime. Other pogroms quickly spread from this first village to others in the region and neighboring provinces, with Kiev being most affected in May. Given the indifference of the local authorities and police, the attacks continued throughout the summer. In this first phase, the pogroms were largely characterized by destruction of property, rapes, and beatings, but few deaths. (Ukraine was a region with a long tradition of anti-Jewish riots stretching back to at least the seventeenth century, when the massacre perpetrated by Bohdan Khmelnytsky's Cossacks took place.) Other attacks occurred in Warsaw during Christmas of 1881 and the following Easter.

In Belarus and Lithuania attacks against individuals and families increased. The new tsar, Alexander III, ordered commissions of enquiry into the riots, which explained them as being caused by "Jewish profiteering," thereby blaming their victims. Ultimately the actions taken by those in power were aimed more toward bending these events to domestic-politics ends than toward genuinely stopping them. Unable to curb the popular unrest that was the root cause of the anti-Jewish attacks, the government opted for a policy of systematic discrimination against them. It passed a numerus clausus (numeric restriction on admittance) for high schools and universities and initiated the administrative steps necessary to obtaining the expulsion of the Jews from the city of Moscow in 1891.

This first wave of pogroms lasted until June 1884 and would have incalculable consequences, constituting a radical caesura in Jewish history. It provoked a profound crisis of conscience about the impasse reached by Jewish life in the Russian Empire, resulting in unprecedented emigration. Nearly three million Jews left Russia between 1881 and 1917, convinced by the violence against them and the indifference of the authorities that their presence in the territory had become impossible. The pogroms of 1881 also had a decisive effect upon Jewish political thought, insofar as they were one of the main factors explaining the appearance of Zionism and Jewish socialism. The year 1881 may be viewed as the moment when Jewish history, from a chronological perspective, truly entered the twentieth century.

The second phase of pogroms lasting from 1903 to 1906 was linked to the period's revolutionary agitations. Tsar Nicholas II used anti-Jewish hatred, and the pogroms themselves, as a means of dividing and conquering the revolutionary groups. He openly encouraged attacks against Jews in order to divert the masses from their dissatisfaction and to identify the Jewish minority as the primary agitators. The Kishinev pogrom (Easter 1903) was typical of this second wave, leaving forty-five people dead, several hundred wounded, and fifteen hundred Jewish homes and business destroyed. From this date forward the pogrom became a constitutive element of Russian politics: the armed forces made common cause with the rioters, going so far as to defend them against Jewish attempts at self-defense. International public opinion was stirred by the events at Kishinev, and domestically the Jewish community realized the need to fend for itself, with young people swelling the ranks of Zionist and socialist circles. The wave of violent anti-Semitic attacks would remain strong until 1906. Government circles were responsible for fueling the second phase of pogroms, insofar as local authorities received instructions to let the rioters run their own course (meaning to support them) and to prevent as much as possible the forces of order from intervening. The tsar's own secret police printed pamphlets calling for the massacre of the Jews, including the hate-filled and virulent fraud The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was written, edited, and distributed by them with the aim of justifying the anti-Jewish activities by accusing Jews of having worldwide hegemonic goals.

The wave of pogroms that took place from 1917 to 1921 far surpassed its predecessors in the scale of the massacres it engendered and was directly linked to the October Revolution and ensuing civil war. The riots erupted at the end of 1917, and the rioters were initially soldiers demobilized from the tsarist army. The first geographical zone to be affected was Ukraine, which became independent in 1918 and experienced a long period of anarchy. The most violent attacks occurred in the cities of Berdichev and Zhitomir, but the most murderous was the Proskurov massacre in 1919, where seventeen hundred Jews were killed in the space of just a few hours. Simon Petlyura, Ukraine's prime minister at the time, presided over the inquiry, which primarily reinforced official complacency. He would be assassinated in 1926 by a young Jew named Shalom Schwarzbard, who had lost his family in the Ukraine pogroms and was acquitted at his trial due to extenuating circumstances.

During the civil war the Jews were victimized by the revolutionary troops, the uncontrolled peasantry, and the Whites. The latter group in particular viewed Jews as enemies needing to be eradicated in their entirety and proceeded to commit numerous massacres in the zones they occupied. The return of revolutionary troops to Ukraine may be portrayed therefore as having saved the region's Jews from much larger losses, or perhaps even total extermination. The actions of the Whites pushed large numbers of Jews into supporting bolshevism and Zionism. The pogroms of this third wave left tens of thousands dead and hundreds of thousands wounded.

The pogroms had a profound and lasting influence on the internal political, ideological, and cultural composition of the Jewish world. The proto-Zionist movement Hibbat Zion was formed immediately following the first attacks in 1881, at the same time as Leon Pinsker was writing Self-Emancipation (1882), a text that reaffirmed the pressing need for Jewish political thought to change course and which is considered the founding work of political Zionism. Following the second and third waves of violence Zionism definitively acquired its status as the main political current in Russian Judaism.

Jewish socialism was also born of these tragic events. A growing awareness of the danger in tsarist Russia largely explains the rise to power of the Bund (General Union of Jewish Workers) and the wide-scale participation of young Jews in the revolutionary and social-democratic organizations.

The pogroms also left a strong imprint on literary works by Jewish authors of the day, including both those writing in Hebrew (Hayyim Nahman Bialik, Saul Tchernichowsky) and in Yiddish (Shalom Aleichem, Sholom Asch, Isaac Leib Peretz). As it came to occupy a primary place in the Jewish minority's collective psyche, the pogrom became an incontrovertible point of reference for individual and communal reflection.


Born in the Russian Empire and forever largely identified with it, the pogrom would nonetheless be taken to new heights by Nazism. An action that was unthinkable in the constitutional democracies of central and western Europe, it became a vital tool in the anti-Jewish policies of the new leaders of Germany. The logic at work in the events that shook the territories of the Reich on 9 November 1938, called Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, involved terror and scapegoating. The Nazi regime exploited the assassination of a German diplomat in Paris to unleash a massive pogrom throughout its territory, depicted as a spontaneous popular uprising. On the nights of 9 and 10 November, the anniversary of Adolf Hitler's 1923 failed putsch attempt in Munich, the Nazis let loose their men on Jewish synagogues and businesses. The final tally from the night of riots was unprecedented in Germany, although, in view of what was to come, it was trifling: 36 people killed, 36 others heavily wounded, 30,000 Jews arrested and shipped to concentration camps, 815 businesses destroyed, and 191 synagogues burned. The racial anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime, which would after 1940 engage in systematic and industrialized extermination, used the pogrom in this initial period as an instrument that went hand in hand with its policies aimed at discriminating against Jews and stripping them of their civil rights and freedoms. Still undecided at this stage concerning the question of the ultimate fate to be reserved for the Jews, the Nazis aimed to force them out en masse, thereby attaining as quickly as possible their ideal of a "Judenrein" ("cleansed of Jews") territory. The hurried departures also aided them in the rapid advancement of the "Aryanization" of the economy, another primary goal of the regime. These two goals were largely attained, and 9 November 1938 constituted a definitive turning point in the history of German Jewry.


Alongside the systematic and industrialized extermination of Europe's Jews, the Nazis made recourse to the pogrom in the territories that fell under their control after June 1941. The massive massacres perpetrated by the Einsatzgruppen were augmented by pogroms carried out by civilian volunteers in collaboration with the Nazis. In the Baltic states, Ukraine, and Byelorussia they were a means of ensuring the obedience and cooperation of the occupied populations and quelling their discontent. By redistributing Jewish goods among the assailants as a kind of wage, the occupying forces reinforced German power and the subjection of the administrative territories. Therefore the pogrom—a kind of homegrown massacre fueled by a traditional hatred of the Jews rather than the racial and redemptive anti-Semitism of the Nazis—did not entirely lose its raison d'être, even under the radically altered conditions generated by the war.


The pogrom as a mode of political action did not definitively disappear from Europe after the Holocaust. Although the vast majority of Jews had disappeared from Poland, several pogroms carried out against the survivors occurred in the immediate postwar period. The most egregious was in the village of Kielce on 4 July 1946. When its two hundred or so survivors sought to reconstruct their former community, a violent anti-Semitic campaign ensued, unleashed by Polish nationalists with Communist support, culminating in the deaths of forty-two people, dozens more wounded, and the pillaging of Jewish goods. This pogrom led to the wide-scale departure of the remaining survivors in Poland. Kielce was the final pogrom to be perpetrated on the European continent.

The Holocaust profoundly transformed the way the pogrom is perceived. The unprecedented scale of the Nazi exterminations reduced it to being a kind of "second-rate" massacre. It is important to keep in mind however that the pogrom represents the phase in eastern and central European history when weak and crisis-stricken powers turned to the age-old hatred of the Jews as a political tool, using their sizable Jewish communities as scapegoats. The wide diffusion of traditional anti-Semitism was a gauge of the success these policies enjoyed, which were consistently redoubled as the level of the crises of state increased. The tolerance authorities displayed for the public disorder and heightened violence that accompanied the pogroms is only explicable in light of their belief that they served as effective diversions from popular dissatisfaction and discontent.

The anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime, given the nature of its syncretism, used the pogrom when it seemed to work in conjunction with its own interests; but deep down the pogrom was in its view highly inefficient with respect to the plans for extermination it pursued during the war. The pogrom was artisanal murder and violence; the Holocaust was an assembly line of death.

See alsoAnti-Semitism; Holocaust.


Brass, Paul R. Riots and Pogroms. New York, 1996.

The Crystal Night Pogrom. Introduction by John Mendelsohn. New York, 1982.

Hoffmann, Christhard, Werner Bergmann, and Helmut Walser Smith, eds. Exclusionary Violence: Antisemitic Riots in Modern German History. Ann Arbor, Mich., 2002.

Kielce—July 4, 1946: Background, Context, and Events. A Collective Work. Toronto and Chicago, 1996.

Klier, John D., and Shlomo Lambroza, eds. Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1992.

Jacques Ehrenfreund