CHAPTER IV - The Reign of Alexander III: From Pogroms to Counter-Reforms.

Heinz-Dietrich Löwe


  1. The Pogroms of the Early Eighties: Political Crisis and Popular Resentment.

On March 1st, 1881 Alexander II was assassinated. Six weeks later the first wave of pogroms broke. They inflicted upon Russian Jewry suffering and misery whose like Eastern European Jews had not seen since Bogdan Khmelnyckii in the 17th century. The pogroms came suddenly and unexpectedly. True, there had been some warning signs: Major pogroms had taken place in Odessa in 1825, 1859 and in 1871, and already before 1871 the police had several times been forced to take precautionary measures or to suppress excesses in their first stages. But in early 1881 nobody had the feeling that there was ground for serious concern about possible anti-Jewish violence, although the authorities were nervous about the possiblity of violence and terrorist attacks in general. Only in some places and immediately before the first excesses did the authorities realize the danger of mass violence against Jews . Pogroms started on the 12th of April in Elisavetgrad and remained endemic and irrepressible until the middle of 1882, but even in 1883 there was a minor wave and the last pogrom erupted in the interior of Russia in Nizhnii Novgorod in 1884. The pogroms further undermined the self-confidence of Tsarist administrators who at that time saw themselves in a difficult fight with an invisible enemy, the terrorists of "Peoples Will" (Narodnaia Volia), who had killed Alexander II. In the Jewish community the pogroms destroyed the assimilationists' optimism that Jewish life in Russia would improve and that eventually Jews would be emancipated; at the same time it brought about a reorientation, if still in rather small circles, towards the ideas of a national rebirth which found its most dramatic expression in Leo Pinsker's call for "autoemancipation" and which paved the way for the development Zionism .

It has often been argued, or simply stated, that the pogroms were organized by the Tsarist government. But conclusive evidence of this has never been produced. True, many local police officers responded slowly, some even supported the pogromists or directed them, the army was slow to appear, in many places incompetence and a reluctance to resort to drastic measures could be observed and all this let things get out of hand. One has, however, to give the authorities their due: in other places pogroms were ruthlessly suppressed, the police killed pogromists by using fire-arms against them even in the first wave of pogroms , and there was a complaint by at least one liberal journalist with impeccable credentials against what he saw as an overly ruthless suppression of anti-Jewish violence . Not only is any direct evidence of the government's supposed complicity in organizing the pogroms not to come by, but the circumstantial evidence also does not prove a conspiracy to organise a wave of pogroms, with the government privy to it. Had there been such a conspiracy, it would be difficult to explain why in many places the police had taken precautions and prevented pogroms, or why, if violence started, they acted swiftly and were able to avoid the worst. It does not agree with a conspiracy theory either that pogroms did not occur over the Pale of Settlement, but rather in the south and south-west. Beyond this, Russia's police were pitifully undermanned, undertrained, underpayed and ill-equipped, singularly unsuited to deal with outbreaks of mass violence on the scale of the pogroms. Morale was low and had only recently been dealt another blow by the assassination of the emperor .

What gave rise to the powerful image of the 'hidden hand' was the supposed simultaneity of outbreaks all over Russia. But this impression is in fact quite wrong. Rather, we have several distinct waves of pogroms between which there was sometimes a considerable hiatus. Within one wave of pogroms, too, there was not so much simultaneity as a consecutive unfolding of a pattern of violence, which started in a bigger urban centre and then spread to other towns in the area and from there into many villages . This suggests that in fact pogroms "travelled" from the bigger centres along railway lines or waterways into the smaller places and thence into the villages. Many contemporary reports and testimonies in court bear this out . Still, rural areas played an important part. In the end there were 259 recorded pogroms, of which only - for whatever that is worth, given the insoluble problem of defining villages and towns - 36 took place in towns or townlets, 4 in Jewish agricultural colonies and 219 in villages. Alcohol played an important part in this - both as a means to lower normal standards of morality and as an aim to be attained for cheap gratification: Jewish liquor stores and inns were often a major, or even the first target for attack. It is true that there was an element of organisation. Fired by a strong sense of economic competition local merchants and shopkeepers were often involved, artisans seem to have been active too. In the villages the local kulaks have at least in other moments of village life been shown up as the source of anti-Jewish agitation. Sometimes even a member of the intelligentsia became involved. But the mass of the pogromists were provided by rail-road workers and migratory workers in search of a few kopecks to earn, mostly young peasants from northern provinces looking for work on the big estates. And it might point to old religious prejudices that the first great wave of pogroms started shortly after Easter. But that they did not begin at the height of the Easter days suggests that this religious element was relatively weak even among the simple people.

The government was taken by surprise and at first was deeply afraid that the pogroms could be the work of the revolutionaries and as such only the beginning of a much more frightening attack on order and property. After all, the pogroms happened not too long after the murder of the "Tsar-Liberator" by a terrorist group whose strength was imagined to be almost unlimited, a belief which was grotesquely out of touch with the reality. Still, their involvement was not to be dismissed easily . In its internal communications the government did not betray any sign of foreknowledge of the pogroms; nor did Alexander III himself. Rather, he showed himself anguished and angered. The Tsar ordered a careful investigation - particularly into a possible involvement of the revolutionaries . It should also be remembered that the Minister of Interior was not the rather anti-Semitic and demagogic Ignat'ev when the first wave broke, but the liberal and level-headed Loris-Melikov whose purpose was to win moderate public opinion back for the regime. It was not in his interest to unleash the forces of the chern, the rabble.

So - who could have organized the pogroms? The organisation many historians identified as one of the main culprits was the "Holy Brotherhood" (Sviashchennaia Druzhina). This Brotherhood was founded by people, who dissatisfied with the police's ineffectiveness in fighting the terrorists sought stronger means. Some of its more hot-blooded members might have thought it profitable to stir up the masses against the Jews. Such calculations did not make much sense, however; what was needed was some strategem to rout terrorists who operated clandestinely and would hardly be affected by mass violence directed against rather poor Jews. Besides, anti-Semitism played no part in the program of the Brotherhood: its most prominent members were timid courtiers rather than bold demagogues. And though even conservative Jews and Poles might look unlikely members, at least one Jew was and another (Baron Gorace Gintsburg) might have been .

What then triggered off the wave of pogroms and explains their viciousness and force? There is at least one important long-term trend that bred tensions in the population. Half of the area where the pogroms took place had been the empire's most important region of in-migration. These areas had only been opened up late in the 18th century. With some delay Jews, too, migrated to that region, originally in small numbers, because only in 1791 the vast lands of Novorossiia were opened for Jews and their numbers remained low early in the 19th century . Especially after the liberation of the peasantry, and particularly during the 1870s the cities in the old and new Ukraine grew at a tremendous rate. Even in 1897 (the only year for which reliable data are available) more than half of the population in the bigger cities of the south had not been born in there or the district belonging to them . A large part of those moving into the cities of the south and sout-west were Jews and it may be that in the 70s their number in the cities rose even faster than those of Russians, Ukrainians and others. This was a time of rather fast economic growth in the region, fuelled partly by immense increases in the export of grain (in which the Jewish merchant houses of Odessa played the leading role) and by industrial growth, both of which had been made possible by the dramatic increase in the railway network .

Rapid economic growth of the kind experienced in the decade or two before 1881, accompanied by the integration of the region into the world-market, was in itself the cause for much economic and social dislocation, even if the overall development had been positive. But beyond this Jews met with the resistance of entrenched economic interests. These had been able to develop prior to the Jews' arrival and were in all probability of a relatively backward, pre-industrial mode that tended to operate towards the formation of local monopolies. There were indeed complaints about the new ways of doing business introduced by the Jews, which did not set well with old regulated forms of trade stemming from a corporate organisation and many local regulations against the Jews applied. These may have been imported from the old part of the Ukraine where they were still in force and used to give vent to age-old ant-Jewish feelings . Yet beyond the problems caused by rapid growth the actual situation before 1881 gravely worsened through a double or even triple economic crisis. One severe problem was the international agricultural depression which began in the late 1870s. As a consequence of the empire's integration into the world market such an international crisis hit Russia for the first time in her history. It hit particularly hard in southern Russia because the region's agriculture had become the most commercialized in the country. And it was Jewish traders who - one might say - had to break the bad news to the producer. The agricultural depression spun-off into other branches of the economy. The second crisis, perhaps connected with the collapse of grain prices, was an industrial slump in the centre, around Moscow and St. Petersburg. The third problem was posed by local crop failures. What turned crises into catastrophy was the arrival of seasonal workers looking for agricultural work when there was none. They came in even larger numbers than usual in the spring and in the summer 1881, because of the slump in the centre. That the Jews in this region more than anywhere else in the empire conformed to the image of a trading people, 45,5% of all Jews being engaged in trade, whereas the comparative figure for the north-west was 32%, could not have helped the situation .

This might not have been enough to trigger off a mass-movement as violent and widespread as the pogroms of 1881 to 1884. One important aspect of all this surely was the unclear political situation. The Tsar had been murdered and there were clear signs that in St. Petersburg two tendencies had locked battle over the future course of interior policy. The shock and the impact of the assassination of Alexander II must have been deep and profound. It may be that no pogromist anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic campaign took place in the pages of the Russian press . But there had been a sustained debate in the newspapers on the emacipation of the Jews. The background to this was the fear or the hope that a new attempt at reform under Alexander, begun in 1879, might bring equal rights to the Jews; it had already brought some concessions. Some articles attacked the Jews for trying to subject not only the simple people, the peasants, but for trying to control the whole world through their secret societies or their international organization. As long as education does not teach the Jews that they can not exclusively live at the expense of Russian society, but have to live also a life useful to it, they can't be given equal rights - Novoe Vremia wrote. Somewhat later it welcomed the exclusion of the Jews from the Don-region as a major shift in internal policy, towards paternalistic protection of the peasantry from the Jews. The paper also stated - suposedly in irony - that through emancipation it was impossible to fight exploitation by the Jews . In this context it might be remembered that the intensive debate over the emancipation of the Jews was one of the major causes for the Hep Hep riots in Germany in 1819 . In Russia this debate was probably a contributing factor, too, all the more so as it was already before 1881 rhetorically connected with the question of who was governing Russia. Brafman's book was again frequently referred to. Between the murder of Alexander II and the first pogroms there were occasional references to the one Jew - a woman named Gesia Gel'fman - who had been involved with the group which had assassinated the emperor. This reverberated as rumors through country as the accusation that it was the Jews who actually killed the Tsar. Beyond this a law-suit was heard in St. Petersburg between the infamous propagator of the blood libel, Ippolit Liutostanskii and his publisher, in which Liutostanskii could spread the accusation that the Jews had offered him up to 100.000 Rbl. if he would not publish his works. Till then the books on the blood libel and the Talmud had not found buyers (or those that had were returned), but now these accusations were widely reported in the press . Liutostanskii's book had first appeared in 1876 and in 1879 there began in Kutais a trial based on the ritual slander . Sure enough somebody tried to create an incident through feigning an attempted ritual murder of his grand-child - this was in Vitebsk at about the time when the first pogroms began. No pogrom took place in Vitebsk. Similar rumors spread elsewhere. On April 6th - through no ill intent, it seems, rather through accident, carelessness and the superstitions of simple people - the rumor of a ritual murder spread in Elisavetgrad - and on the 15th the first wave of pogroms started in this city . The rumors of impending pogroms or, more bizarre, of attacks by "waring Israel" must have heated up the atmosphere which anyway was bristling with the threat of violence . Revolutionary propaganda, though not directed against the Jews, contributed further to the general feeling of disquiet, fear and tension. According to police reports simple people often turned their aggression against students of high schools and universities and sometimes against the Jews. Once the pogroms had broken out, reports that authorities in many places had been less than energetic in suppressing the plundering and the riots contributed to the general belief, circulating around as rumor, that three days had been given to beat the Jews.

The human factor in the pogroms bears out the interpreation attempted here: Merchants and artisans appeared as instigators. These were exactly the elements whose economic existence was threatened by the advent of modern capitalism and who, at the same time, were engaged in direct competition with many Jews. Their old estate organisations crumbled and were no longer able to control a trade or craft and to restrict competition as they had done of old. And it was the Jews who operated independently of and outside the corporatist framework - which had the additional advantage that they could avoid special taxes and or other obligations in kind owed to the guilds. This situation gave rise to the frequent complaint that Jews tried to avoid their obligations . That the Jews were seen as an alien element because of the modern economic principles they represented can also be seen by the many demands to re-introduce some form of market-regulation which harked back to the regulatory "mechanism" of the "moral economy" . On the other hand, the critical mass in the pogroms was provided by railroad and migrant workers who both symbolized in many ways the uprootedness caused by the early stages of industrialization. Torn from their normal surroundings, and thrown into a new situation which which they resented - these people not only felt deep frustration. They probably also had a strong psychological need for identification and also for another group to look down upon - to reinforce their sense of belonging and to compensate for their downtrodden existence. A pogrom provided both - at a moment when the very isolation from their usual background tended to weaken the constraints of individual conscience and those mechanisms of social control by which a society enforces that degree of conformity necessary for its survival.

Other factors, perhaps, contributed to the unfolding scenario of violence. One was historical memory. It has to be taken in account that pogroms almost exclusively took place in the Ukraine. Here peasants might have remembered the connection their ancestors made between Polish landlords, catholic priests and Jews which motivated them to commit horrendous atrocities against these three during the uprising under Bogdan Khmelnicki and the ensuing wars. This enmity continued to erupt intermittently among the haidamaky and in the koliivshchina . The last major outbreak of this sort lay somewhat more than a hundred years in the past. May be one cannot assume such a long historical memory among simple people. But the historian Kostomarov had tried to remind them of this and of the Jews role as servants to the Polish pany . In Ukrainian folk songs the old hatred of the Jews found its occasional echo and the Ukrainian intelligentsia developed around the middle of the 19th century a cult of the Cossacks which idealized the freedom-loving Zaporozhians and haidamaky . Although this movement of the intelligentsia was not directed against the Jews, its existence proves the possible endurance of historical memory. This fact might help to explain why the pogroms in 1881 and the following years took place almost exclusively in the Ukraine.

Another very important factor must have been the common people's recognition that Jews were accorded lower status and therefore, less than firm protection of their rights, their livelyhood or their property. Recent government policy, especially of local authorities must have contributed to this perception to a considerable degree. These had started scrutinizing Jews - in particular outside the Pale of Settlement - frequently even expelling them from the interior of the empire or other places (like the city of Kiev) where they were not allowed to live or where certain "categories" of Jews were allowed to live on certain conditions. Some authorities had publicly declared their intention of clamping down on Jewish usury. In certain school districts the authorities on their own initiative introduced restrictions for Jews in middle schools and universities. The official government paper published an article saying that 90% of those who avoided conscription were Jews - to which even some relatively liberal newspapers reacted with accusations against Russian Jewry . This must have created or reenforced the impression that Jews were somehow dangerous, and arrogating rights they could not legitimately enjoy.

There is one additional important aspect which Jewish publicists already took note of immediately after the first wave of anti-Jewish violence. Pogroms happened where Jews had made the greatest progress and could boast of achievements in adapting to modern education and adopting culture Russian culture. Jews thinking or writing about the events saw the pogroms as the reaction to this kind of progress, which enabled them to move into positions of influence in society . At the same it was the southern region where the traditional Jewish community seems to have been weaker - at least in the newly settled territories. Here it had had to loosen its grip on community affairs - if ever it had been as strong as elsewhere. Did the success - small though it might have been - of acculturation in fact increase the enmity felt towards the Jews? Was it the "assimilated", modern, educated, "emancipated" Jew that became the main target of prejudice and hate? Was there a real fear among the common people that the Jews could take over? Or do we at least have to reckon with a deep-seated aversion to accepting Jews as equals, let alone as superiors, whereas they had been acceptable in the position of inferiority that Christian society had kept them in for centuries? These are difficult questions which may prove altogether impossible to answer. In the years to come, many Jews, by turning to emigration or, on the other hand, to ideas of national rebirth, showed that they regarded what had so-far been propagated as a solution as altogether impracticable.

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Letzte Änderung: 09.03.2009
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