Pogroms, Pre-Soviet Russia

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Pogroms, Pre-Soviet Russia

Communal riots between rival religious and ethnic groups were not unknown in the modern Russian Empire. However, only in 1881 did they resemble a mass movement, with the widespread outbreak of anti-Jewish riots throughout the southwestern provinces of the empire. The name applied to the riots—pogroms—came into widespread usage in Russia and abroad, and evolved into a generic term for any attack on an ethnic or religious minority.

The pogroms of 1881 and 1882 are widely regarded as the major turning point in modern Jewish history. Among Jews the pogroms prompted disillusionment with a solution to the Jewish question based on civic emancipation and social integration. They inspired new forms of Jewish politics of a nationalist form, such as Zionism and socialist organizations aimed at Jewish proletarians. The Russian state, in turn, moved away from policies designed to promote Jewish acculturation and integration.

These same pogroms also gave rise to a host of assumptions that became firmly established in the historical literature: (1) that the pogroms were instigated, tolerated, or welcomed by Russian officials, on either the national, provincial, or local level; (2) that the pogroms were invariably accompanied by atrocities, including rape and murder; (3) that Jews were always passive, unresisting victims, at least until Jewish socialists organized armed self-defense in the early twentieth century; (4) that, especially in the twentieth century, pogroms were an officially inspired effort to divert popular discontent against the Jews, "to drown the Russian revolution in Jewish blood"; (5) that the great wave of Jewish out-migration from the Russian Empire in the quarter-century before the Great War was prompted by pogroms and restrictive legislation. Recent scholarship has questioned all these assumptions.

Pogroms before 1881

Interethnic riots involving Jews in the southwestern port city of Odessa (in the province of Kherson) occurred in 1821, 1848, 1856, and 1871. The first pogroms involved attacks on Jews by Greek commercial rivals; subsequent pogroms were carried out, in the main, by Russian mobs, the so-called barefoot brigade. The Odessa pogrom of 1871 inspired some Russian Jewish intellectuals to question the prospects for Jewish integration and emancipation. There was also a poorly documented pogrom against the Jews of Akkerman (in the province of Bessarabia) in 1865. These attacks entailed vandalism and looting, with only a handful of fatalities.

The Pogroms of 1881 and 1882

On March 1, 1881, Alexander II, the Tsar-Liberator, was assassinated by terrorists from the group Narodnaia Volia (The People's Will). A period of great uncertainty followed and an avalanche of rumors swept over the country. On April 15, 1881, a riot broke out between Christians and Muslims in the provincial town of Baku, on the Caspian Sea. On the same day a tavern brawl in the city of Elisavetgrad (in the province of Kherson) escalated into a serious riot, during which Jewish shops and homes were attacked and looted. News of the anti-Jewish disorders traveled along railroad lines, rivers, and other routes of communication, provoking additional, but less violent, attacks in the countryside and small towns. On April 26 a major riot erupted in Kiev, which lasted for three days and prompted copycat violence all over Kiev Province. A third wave of pogroms began in Pereislav (in the province of Poltava) on June 30.

The outbreak of violence on such a wide scale, in what was seen as a police state, as well as the apparent unwillingness or inability of the authorities to suppress the pogroms, inspired contemporaries to claim that the pogroms had been instigated and organized. Suspicion initially fell on the revolutionaries who had assassinated Emperor Alexander II on March 1, 1881. Although some revolutionary publicists welcomed the pogroms as the beginning of a potential social revolution, for the most part the revolutionaries were ambivalent about the outbreak, which they had neither instigated nor manipulated. Accusations of having instigated the pogroms later fell on such varied culprits as the central government, especially N. P. Ignatiev, the Minister of Internal Affairs; on "Pan-Slav publicists in Moscow" in the pay of the Jews' commercial rivals; or on local satraps, such as the governor-general of Kiev, Podolia, and Volynia Provinces, A. R. Drentel'n, a well-known Judeophobe.

Published and unpublished archival sources reveal that the government took extensive measures to anticipate, prevent, and repress anti-Jewish riots in 1881 and 1882. These efforts failed because of the scarcity and ineptitude of the police, and difficulties attending the use of the army to suppress urban disorders. There is no contemporary evidence for the significant presence of agitators or provocateurs. A number of officials were removed from office because they were judged to have been derelict in suppressing pogroms. Over a thousand pogromshchiki suffered some form of punishment for their activities. Despite contemporary claims no evidence exists of a sustained campaign in the press encouraging attacks on Jews because "the Yids have killed the Tsar." Nonetheless, there were widespread rumors among urban mobs to this effect, accompanied by the belief that a special ukaz (decree) authorized the crowds "to beat the Jews."

There were approximately 250 pogroms, varying greatly in length and severity. They produced about 50 fatalities, of whom half were pogromshchiki killed during the suppression of the riots. There were a number of rapes during the pogroms, but not in the massive numbers claimed by contemporary publicists.

Both Russian officialdom and society depicted the pogroms as a popular protest against "Jewish exploitation" in the countryside. This assumption inspired legislative efforts (the so-called May Laws of 1882) to segregate peasants and Jews by driving the latter out of the countryside. These measures did not prevent additional pogroms in 1882, most notably in Balta (in the province of Podolia), on May 29 and 30. There was also a large pogrom in Warsaw, Kingdom of Poland, on December 25, 1881.

There were serious but one-time pogroms in Ekaterinoslav (1883) and Nizhnyi Novgorod (1884). Labor disturbances in Iuzovka and settlements in the socalled Dnieper Bend occasionally included the looting of Jewish shops.

The Kishinev Pogrom

Kishinev, capital of Bessarabia Province, with a mixed ethnic population of Slavs, Moldavians, and Jews, had a history of minor clashes between Christians and Jews, but nothing to match the scale of the pogrom that broke out during Easter week of 1903, claiming fortynine victims. Kishinev gained greater notoriety than virtually any other pogrom. The provincial authorities were seen as openly complicit. They failed to censor a local Jew-baiting newspaper, Bessarabets, edited by P. A. Krushevan, when it disseminated false reports of a ritual murder carried out by Jews. They took insufficient precautions to prevent or repress holiday violence, despite warnings of potential disorders. They failed to act decisively against the pogrom, allowing it to run for three days. There was a measure of truth to all these charges.

The Kishinev pogrom was also accompanied by claims that the central government had sent agents to the city to organize the pogrom, and that the Minister of Internal Affairs, V. K. Pleve, specifically instructed the local authorities not to use physical force to suppress the anticipated pogrom. No reliable evidence exists to support these claims.

The Kishinev pogrom discredited Russia abroad, scandalized moderate and leftist opinion within the empire, and reenergized all forms of Jewish political activity. Jewish bodies of self-defense were organized and enjoyed some success in a subsequent pogrom in Gomel (in the province of Mogilev), beginning on August 29, 1903.

The pogrom inspired a classic work of poetry by Chaim Nachman Bialik, The City of Slaughter, written in Hebrew and Yiddish versions, which did much to enshrine the legends of the Kishinev pogrom, especially the claim that the Jews were passive, nonresisting victims.

The Revolution of 1905

The Revolution of 1905 witnessed the breakdown of legal order all over the Russian Empire, together with the widespread claim in right-wing circles that the Jews were major participants in revolutionary disorders. Consequently, counterrevolutionary or loyalist manifestations often degenerated into spontaneous anti-Jewish violence, as in Odessa (October 19–22) and Kiev (October 19–20), that claimed hundreds of Jewish victims and resulted in massive property damage. After the Imperial Manifesto of October 1905, right-wing parties, such as the Union of the Russian People, were founded that utilized anti-Semitism as a mobilizing device. Although such groups, the so-called Black Hundreds, carried out small-scale attacks on Jews and assassinated several Jewish political leaders, they were incapable of organizing pogroms on a massive scale. A rogue operation in the Department of Police printed pogrom-mongering proclamations during this period, but such activity, when discovered, was suppressed by S. I. Witte, the chairman of the Council of Ministers. Emperor Nicholas II, while not specifically approving pogroms, viewed them as an expression of support for the regime. Subsequent serious pogroms, such as one in Bialystok (in the Kingdom of Poland) in 1906, arose from local social and political conditions.

The Russian Civil War (1919–1921)

The February and October Revolutions of 1917, the Russian withdrawal from World War I, and the collapse of the imperial government culminated in the Russian Civil War of 1919 through 1921, in the midst of which the fledgling communist government also fought a war with the newly independent Poland (1920–1921). Participants in the Civil War included a broad variety of political, social, and national groups. In the southern and western provinces of the empire extensive hostilities took place in the former Pale of Settlement, where the Jewish population was concentrated. The Civil War was accompanied by levels of anti-Jewish violence never before witnessed in the Russian Empire and unequaled before the Holocaust. The historiography of this period is sharply divided over the causes of and responsibility for the pogroms.

Virtually all armed forces in the conflict carried out pogroms, but only the Red Army punished them in any meaningful way. Forces comprising the anticommunist Whites and anti-Russian nationalists gained an unsavory reputation for pogrom-mongering. The chief White Army in the area, General A. I. Denikin's Volunteer Army, was a major perpetrator of pogroms, despite half-hearted efforts on the part of the central command to maintain discipline. Forces loyal to the Directory, the executive of the Ukrainian National Republic, were especially active in carrying out pogroms. Officially, the Directory, led by S. V. Petliura, condemned pogroms, but had little control over the ill-disciplined, irregular forces that fought in its name. Nor did the Directory have much to gain by forcibly repressing pogrom activity among its troops. These forces, often led by self-styled Cossack commanders or Atamans, carried out numerous, well-documented atrocities against the Jewish population. Despite claims that these outrages were ideologically motivated, designed to punish Jewish support for the Bolsheviks, or a reflection of "traditional Ukrainian anti-Semitism," they appear to have been largely motivated by the desire for plunder. Jews were also victimized by the numerous anarchist bands that roamed Ukraine, including those nominally loyal to Nestor Makhno. The debate over the culpability of Petliura grew sharply after his assassination in Paris in 1926 by Sholem Schwartzbard, who claimed to be avenging the pogroms. Schwartzbard was subsequently acquitted by a French court. The total number of Jewish fatalities during civil war pogroms is disputed, but certainly exceeded 500,000. Immense property damage also resulted.

SEE ALSO Anti-Semitism; Cossacks


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John Klier