A pogrom is generally understood as an attack on a minority population, usually perpetrated by a quasi-military mob. While communal violence of this sort has been part of the human experience since the appearance of social organization in prehistoric times, the Russian word pogrom came into common usage in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as Jews fleeing the late tsarist empire used the term to describe their experience with this anarchic form of violence. The term pogrom may be used with justification to describe violence against many ethnic groups, but it is more often than not associated specifically with anti-Semitic attacks. Pogroms are distinct from both spontaneous riots on the one hand and organized state attacks on the other, although they share elements of both types of aggression.
The paradigmatic pogrom takes place in an atmosphere of anarchy or of weakened state control, and is often preceded by a period of anticipation as rumors of an impending attack circulate—rumors that may in fact accelerate the process. Perpetrators, often unemployed men or migrant workers with little property to protect in the region, descend on a highly visible and usually semi-urban minority population for attacks that last for several days. Minority populations who live together in villages are often singled out for attacks, as they typically have fewer allies and resources in the surrounding area. Property damage, assault, and rape are common elements of pogrom attacks, and some even have elements of organized mass murder, but the basic motivation for such violence seems to be the desire for ill-gotten wealth, wine, and women.
A key element in pogrom violence is the identification of the victim as "the other." Historically, this otherness was based on religious, ethnic, or linguistic criteria; in the nineteenth century, nationality became a key determinant. Pogrom violence is often justified by appeal to some greater cause, and whereas the medieval victims were attacked because they were perceived as infidels or traitors to the throne, modern victims are often identified through their perceived threat to the political status quo. For example, medieval pogroms against Jews were often sparked by the charge of "blood libel," based on a myth that Jews drink the blood of crucified Christian children, whereas in the early twentieth century Jews were attacked for their perceived support of socialism.
Pogroms are often a function of major social upheaval, as they tend to flourish when police authority declines. Other factors, such as the social and economic upheaval that accompanies rapid industrialization, contribute to the anarchic atmosphere that promotes such violence. Pogroms took place immediately after the French Revolution (1789), and persisted with some regularity in the German lands throughout the nineteenth century, including the so-called Hep, Hep pogroms of 1819. The defining period of pogroms, however, was the declining years of the tsarist empire.
The first major wave of Russian pogroms occurred after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, when rumors circulated that the new tsar, Alexander III, had given permission to "beat the Jews for three days." These three days stretched into three years as much of the southwestern portions of the Russian Empire suffered periodic pogrom attacks, especially in the Ukrainian and Polish ethnolinguistic areas. Jewish activists at the time argued that these pogroms were somehow orchestrated by the government, perhaps in an
attempt to deflect social pressures from the ruling elite to the hapless Jewish minority, but archival researchers of the late twentieth century conclusively demonstrated that these attacks were the product of migrant workers, often following the rail lines from their temporary industrial jobs in cities such as Odessa to their villages in the Russian interior.
The subsequent tsar, Nicholas II (r. 1894–1917), had few qualms about anti-Semitic hooligans, and openly supported right-wing organizations such as the Black Hundreds and even gave 12,000 rubles to facilitate the publication of the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic tract that claimed Jews were secretly planning to dominate the globe. Increasingly vicious pogroms occurred in 1903 and 1905 (coinciding with political upheaval) and the violence was steadily extended to several non-Russian groups such as Poles. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, German-speaking populations were also victimized, especially in the newly renamed Petrograd. These pogroms, however, were completely overwhelmed by the attacks that accompanied the collapse of the tsarist empire during World War I. As several groups attempted to form a successor government to the Romanov dynasty, regions abandoned by the German forces fell into anarchic civil war, with several major factions (the Red Army, the anticommunist White Army, Ukrainian nationalists, and others) and bands of roving hooligans terrorizing minority populations at will. Deaths attributable to pogrom violence peaked in 1919, with reasonable estimates in the neighborhood of fifty thousand Jews and an unknown number of Poles and Mennonites killed.
While economic factors were the most significant reason some three million Jews left the Russian Empire after 1881 (principally for the United States), pogroms certainly accelerated that mass migration. Furthermore, the charge that Jews were communist sympathizers had the ironic result that many later joined the Red Army, which under Vladimir Lenin had gained a reputation for refraining from such attacks.
Abramson, Henry. A Prayer for the Government: Ukrainians and Jews in Revolutionary Times. Cambridge, Mass., 1999.
Aronson, I. Michael. Troubled Waters: The Origins of the 1881 Anti-Jewish Pogroms in Russia. Pittsburgh, Pa., 1990.
Berk, Stephen M. Year of Crisis, Year of Hope: Russian Jewry and the Pogroms of 1881–1882. Westport, Conn., 1985.
Charters, Wynn. Workers, Strikes and Pogroms: The Donbass-Dnepr Bend in Late Imperial Russia 1870–1905. Princeton, N.J., 1992.
Klier, John D., and Shlomo Lambroza, eds. Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History. Cambridge, U.K., 1992.
"Pogroms." Encyclopedia of Modern Europe: Europe 1789-1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 16, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/pogroms-1
"Pogroms." Encyclopedia of Modern Europe: Europe 1789-1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of Industry and Empire. . Retrieved September 16, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/pogroms-1
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