Pogroms in the Russian Empire

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Photo believed to show the victims, mostly Jewish children, of a 1905 pogrom in Yekaterinoslav (today's Dnipro)

Pogroms in the Russian Empire (Russian: Еврейские погромы в России; Hebrew: הסופות בנגבha-sufot ba-negev; lit. "the storms in the South") were large-scale, targeted, and repeated anti-Jewish rioting that first began in the 19th century. Pogroms began occurring after Imperial Russia, which previously had very few Jews, acquired territories with large Jewish populations from the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and Ottoman Empire during 1772–1815. These territories were designated "the Pale of Settlement" by the Imperial Russian government, within which Jews were reluctantly permitted to live, and it was within them that the pogroms largely took place. Jews were forbidden from moving to other parts of European Russia (including Finland), unless they converted from Judaism or obtained a university diploma or first guild merchant status. Migration to Caucasus, Siberia, Far East or Central Asia was not restricted.


The first pogrom is sometimes considered to be the 1821 Odessa pogroms. After the execution of the Greek Orthodox patriarch, Gregory V, in Constantinople, 14 Jews were killed in response.[1] The initiators of the 1821 pogroms were the local Greeks, who used to have a substantial diaspora in the port cities of what was known as Novorossiya.[2]


The term "pogrom" became commonly used in English after a large-scale wave of anti-Jewish riots swept through south-western Imperial Russia (present-day Ukraine and Poland) from 1881 to 1884; when more than 200 anti-Jewish events occurred in the Russian Empire, notably pogroms in Kiev, Warsaw and Odessa.[3]

The trigger for the pogroms was the assassination of Tsar Alexander II for which some blamed "foreign influence agents", implying the Jews.[4][5] One of the conspirators was of Jewish origins, and the importance of her role in the assassination was greatly exaggerated during the pogroms that followed. Another conspirator was baselessly rumored to be Jewish.[6] The extent to which the Russian press was responsible for encouraging perceptions of the assassination as a Jewish act has been disputed.[7]

Local economic conditions (such as ancestral debts owed to Jewish moneylenders) are thought to have contributed significantly to the rioting, especially with regard to the participation of the business competitors of local Jews and the participation of railroad workers. Russia's industrialization caused Russians to be moving into and out of major cities.[8] People trying to escape the big cities carried their antisemitic values with them, spread the ideas throughout Russia and caused more pogroms in different regions of Russia.[9] That has been argued that to have been actually more important than rumours of Jewish responsibility for the death of the Tsar.[10] Those rumours, however, were clearly of some importance, if only as a trigger, and they drew upon a small kernel of truth: one of the close associates of the assassins, Hesya Helfman, was born into a Jewish home. The fact that the other assassins were all atheists and that the wider Jewish community had nothing to do with the assassination had little impact on the spread of such antisemitic rumours and the assassination inspired "retaliatory" attacks on Jewish communities. During these pogroms, thousands of Jewish homes were destroyed; many families were reduced to poverty and large numbers of men, women and children were injured in 166 towns in the south-western provinces of the Empire such as Ukraine.

There also was a large pogrom on the night of 15–16 April 1881 (the day of Eastern Orthodox Easter) in the city of Yelizavetgrad (now Kropyvnytskyi). On 17 April, the Army units were dispatched and were forced to use firearms to extinguish the riot. However, that only incited the whole situation in the region and a week later series of pogroms rolled through parts of the Kherson Governorate.

On 26 April 1881, an even bigger disorder engulfed the city of Kiev. The Kiev pogrom of 1881 is considered the worst one that took place in 1881.[11] The pogroms of 1881 did not stop then. They continued on through the summer, spreading across a big territory of modern-day Ukraine: (Podolie Governorate, Volyn Governorate, Chernigov Governorate, Yekaterinoslav Governorate, and others). During these pogroms the first local Jewish self-defense organizations started to form, the most prominent one in Odessa. It was organized by the Jewish students of the Novorossiysk University.

For decades after the 1881 pogroms, most government officials had antisemitic beliefs that Jews in villages were more dangerous than Jews who lived in towns. The Minister of the Interior Nikolay Pavlovich Ignatyev rejected the theory that pogroms were caused by revolutionary socialists and instead, he adopted the idea that they were a protest by the rural population against Jewish exploitation. With this idea in mind, he wrongly believed and spread the idea that pogroms had spread from villages to towns. Historians today recognize that although rural peasantry did largely participate in the pogrom violence, pogroms began in the towns and spread to the villages.[12]

The new Tsar Alexander III initially blamed revolutionaries and the Jews themselves for the riots and in May 1882 issued the May Laws, a series of harsh restrictions on Jews.

The pogroms continued for more than three years and were thought to have benefited from at least the tacit support of the authorities, although there were also attempts by the Russian government to end the rioting.[10]

The pogroms and the official reaction to them led many Russian Jews to reassess their perceptions of their status within the Russian Empire, and so led to significant Jewish emigration, mostly to the United States.

These pogroms were referred to among Jews as the "Storms in the South." Changed perceptions among Russian Jews also indirectly gave a significant boost to the early Zionist movement.[13]


At least 40 Jews were killed during pogroms during April to December 1881.[14][full citation needed] Of these, 17 were reportedly killed while being raped. An additional 225 incidents of Jewish women being raped were reported.

British reaction[edit]

The leaders of the Jewish community in London were slow to speak out. It was only after Louisa Goldsmid's support following leadership from an anonymous writer named "Juriscontalus" and the editor of The Jewish Chronicle that action was taken in 1881. Public meetings were held across the country and Jewish and Christian leaders in Britain spoke out against the atrocities.[15]


A much bloodier wave of pogroms broke out from 1903 to 1906, leaving an estimated 2,000 Jews dead and many more wounded, as the Jews took to arms to defend their families and property from the attackers. The 1905 pogrom against Jews in Odessa was the most serious pogrom of the period, with reports of up to 2,500 Jews killed.[16]

Home at last by Moshe Maimon. The house's occupants return when it is safe, to find the house thoroughly looted. A rabbi is saying Kaddish for a member of the household who was killed.

The New York Times described the First Kishinev pogrom of Easter, 1903:

The anti-Jewish riots in Kishinev, Bessarabia [modern Moldova], are worse than the censor will permit to publish. There was a well laid-out plan for the general massacre of Jews on the day following the Orthodox Easter. The mob was led by priests, and the general cry, "Kill the Jews", was taken up all over the city. The Jews were taken wholly unaware and were slaughtered like sheep. The dead number 120 [Note: the actual number of dead was 47–48[17]] and the injured about 500. The scenes of horror attending this massacre are beyond description. Babies were literally torn to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob. The local police made no attempt to check the reign of terror. At sunset the streets were piled with corpses and wounded. Those who could make their escape fled in terror, and the city is now practically deserted of Jews.[18]

This series of pogroms affected 64 towns (including Odessa, Yekaterinoslav, Kiev, Kishinev, Simferopol, Romny, Kremenchug, Nikolayev, Chernigov, Kamenets-Podolski, Yelizavetgrad), and 626 small towns (Russian: городок) and villages, mostly in Ukraine and Bessarabia.

Historians such as Edward Radzinsky suggest that many pogroms were incited by authorities and supported by the Tsarist Russian secret police (the Okhrana), even if some happened spontaneously.[19] The perpetrators who were prosecuted usually received clemency by Tsar's decree.[20]

Even outside of these main outbreaks, pogroms remained common; there was an anti-Jewish riot in Odessa in 1905 in which thousands of Jews were killed.[21]

The 1903 Kishinev pogrom, also known as the Kishinev Massacre, in present-day Moldova killed 47–49 persons. It provoked an international outcry after it was publicized by The Times and The New York Times. There was a second, smaller Kishinev pogrom in 1905.

A pogrom on July 20, 1905, in Yekaterinoslav (present-day Dnipro, Ukraine), was stopped by the Jewish self-defense group. One man in the group was killed.

On July 31, 1905, there was the first pogrom outside the Pale of Settlement, in the town of Makariev (near Nizhni Novgorod), where a patriotic procession led by the mayor turned violent.

At a pogrom in Kerch in Crimea on 31 July 1905,[22] the mayor ordered the police to fire at the self-defence group, and two fighters were killed (one of them, P. Kirilenko, was a Ukrainian who joined the Jewish defence group). The pogrom was conducted by the port workers apparently brought in for the purpose.

After the publication of the Tsar's Manifesto of October 17, 1905, pogroms erupted in 660 towns mainly in the present-day Ukraine, in the Southern and Southeastern areas of the Pale of Settlement. In contrast, there were no pogroms in present-day Lithuania. There were also very few incidents in Belarus or Russia proper. There were 24 pogroms outside of the Pale of Settlement, but those were directed at the revolutionaries rather than Jews.

The greatest number of pogroms were registered in the Chernigov gubernia in northern Ukraine. The pogroms there in October 1905 took 800 Jewish lives, the material damages estimated at 70,000,000 rubles. 400 were killed in Odessa, over 150 in Rostov-on-Don, 67 in Yekaterinoslav, 54 in Minsk, 30 in Simferopol—over 40, in Orsha—over 30.

In 1906, the pogroms continued: January — in Gomel, June — in Bialystok (ca. 80 dead), and August — in Siedlce (ca. 30 dead). The Russian secret police and the military personnel organized the massacres.

In many of these incidents the most prominent participants were railway workers, industrial workers, and small shopkeepers and craftsmen, and (if the town was a river port (e.g. Dnipro) or a seaport (e.g. Kerch)), waterfront workmen; peasants mainly joined in to loot.[23]


The pogroms are generally thought to have been organized or at least condoned by the authorities.[24][25][26][27] However, that view was challenged by Hans Rogger, I. Michael Aronson and John Klier, who were unable to find such sanction to be documented in the state archives.[28][29]

However, the anti-Semitic policy that was carried out from 1881 to 1917 made them possible. Official persecution and harassment of Jews influenced numerous anti-Semites to presume that their violence was legitimate. That sentiment was reinforced by the active participation of a few major and many minor officials in fomenting attacks and by the reluctance of the government to stop the pogroms and to punish those responsible for them.


The pogroms of the 1880s caused a worldwide outcry and, along with harsh laws, propelled mass Jewish emigration. Among the passed antisemitic laws were the 1882 May Laws, which prohibited Jews from moving into villages in an attempt to address the cause of the pogroms, but in fact, the pogroms were caused by a different reason. The majority of the High Commission for the Review of Jewish Legislation (1883–1888) actually noted the fact that almost all of the pogroms had begun in the towns and attempted to abolish the laws. However, the minority of the High Commission ignored the facts and backed the laws.[30] Two million Jews fled the Russian Empire between 1880 and 1920, with many going to the United Kingdom and United States.[31] In response, the United Kingdom introduced the Aliens Act 1905, which introduced immigration controls for the first time, a main objective being to reduce the influx of Eastern European Jews.[32]

In reaction to the pogroms and other oppressions of the Tsarist period, Jews increasingly became politically active. Jewish participation in The General Jewish Labor Bund, colloquially known as the Bund, and in the Bolshevik movements, was directly influenced by the pogroms. Similarly, the organization of Jewish self-defense leagues, which stopped the pogromists in certain areas during the second Kishinev pogrom, such as Hovevei Zion, led to a strong embrace of Zionism, especially by Russian Jews.

Cultural references[edit]

In 1903, Hebrew poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik wrote the poem In the City of Slaughter[33] in response to the Kishinev pogrom.

Elie Wiesel's The Trial of God depicts Jews fleeing a pogrom and setting up a fictitious "trial of God" for His negligence in not assisting them against the bloodthirsty mobs. In the end, it turns out that the mysterious stranger who has argued as God's advocate is none other than Lucifer. The experience of a Russian Jew is also depicted in Elie Wiesel's The Testament.

A pogrom is one of the central events in the musical play Fiddler on the Roof, which is adapted from Russian author Sholem Aleichem's Tevye the Dairyman stories. Aleichem writes about the pogroms in a story called "Lekh-Lekho".[34] The famous Broadway musical and film Fiddler on the Roof showed the cruelty of the Russian pogroms on the Jews in the fictional Anatevka in the early 20th century.

In the adult animated musical drama film American Pop, set during Imperial Russia during the late 1890s, a rabbi's wife and her young son Zalmie escape to America while the rabbi is killed by the Cossacks.

In the animated film An American Tail, set during and after the 1880s pogroms, Fievel and his family's village is destroyed by a pogrom. (Fievel and his family are mice, and their Cossack attackers are cats.)

The novel The Sacrifice by Adele Wiseman also deals with a family that is displaced after a pogrom in their home country and who emigrate to Canada after losing two sons to the riot and barely surviving themselves. The loss and murder of the sons haunts the entire story.

Mark Twain gives graphic descriptions of the Russian pogroms in Reflections on Religion, Part 3, published in 1906.[35]

Joseph Joffo describes the early history of his mother, a Jew in the Russia of Tsar Nicholas II, in the biographical 'Anna and her Orchestra'. He describes the raids by Cossacks on Jewish quarters and the eventual retribution inflicted by Anna's father and brothers on the Cossacks who murdered and burnt homes at the behest of the tsar.

In Bernard Malamud's novel The Fixer, set in Tsarist Russia around 1911, a Russian-Jewish handyman, Yakov Bog, is wrongly imprisoned for a most unlikely crime. It was later made into a film directed by John Frankenheimer with a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Odessa pogroms Archived January 21, 2007, at the Wayback Machine at the Center of Jewish Self-Education "Moria".
  2. ^ Pogrom (Virtual Jewish Encyclopedia) (in Russian)
  3. ^ (in Polish) Pogrom Archived February 6, 2010, at the Wayback Machine, based on Alina Cała, Hanna Węgrzynek, Gabriela Zalewska, Historia i kultura Żydów polskich. Słownik, WSiP.
  4. ^ The Jewish Chronicle, May 6, 1881, cited in Benjamin Blech, Eyewitness to Jewish History
  5. ^ Sankt-Peterburgskie Vedomosti newspaper №65, March 8 (20), 1881
  6. ^ Arthur Morius Francis, Nihilism: Philosophy of Nothingness (2015), p. 64.
  7. ^ Stephen M Berk, Year of Crisis, Year of Hope: Russian Jewry and the Pogroms of 1881–1882 (Greenwood, 1985), pp. 54–55.
  8. ^ Aronson, Michael. Geographical and Socioeconomic Factors in the 1881 Anti-Jewish Pogroms in Russia. New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell.
  9. ^ Aronson, Michael. Geographical and Socioeconomic Factors in the 1881 Anti-Jewish Pogroms in Russia. New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell.
  10. ^ a b I. Michael Aronson, "Geographical and Socioeconomic Factors in the 1881 Anti-Jewish Pogroms in Russia", Russian Review, Vol. 39, No. 1. (Jan., 1980), pp. 18–31
  11. ^ Pogrom (Virtual Jewish Encyclopedia (in Russian)
  12. ^ Aronson, Michael. Geographical and Socioeconomic Factors in the 1881 Anti-Jewish Pogroms in Russia. New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell.
  13. ^ Leon Pinsker (1882) Autoemancipation
  14. ^ The New York Times (January 28, 1882)
  15. ^ C. S. Monaco (2013). The Rise of Modern Jewish Politics: Extraordinary Movement. Routledge. pp. 148–. ISBN 978-0-415-65983-3.
  16. ^ Weinberg, Robert. The Revolution of 1905 in Odessa: Blood on the Steps. 1993, p. 164.
  17. ^ Hilary L. Rubinstein, Daniel C. Cohn-Sherbok, Abraham J. Edelheit, William D. Rubinstein, The Jews in the Modern World, Oxford University Press, 2002.
  18. ^ "Jewish Massacre Denounced", in The New York Times, 1903 April 28
  19. ^ Nicholas II. Life and Death by Edward Radzinsky (Russian ed., 1997) p. 89. According to Radzinsky, Sergei Witte (appointed Chairman of the Russian Council of Ministers in 1905) remarked in his Memoirs that he found that some proclamations inciting pogroms were printed and distributed by Police.
  20. ^ "декабрь 1907 – Газетные "старости"(Архив)".
  21. ^ Robert Weinberg, "The Pogrom of 1905 in Odessa: A Case Study" in Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History, John D. Klier and Shlomo Lambroza, eds. (Cambridge,1992): 248–89
  22. ^ Kerch
  23. ^ Pogroms
  24. ^ "Погромы".
  25. ^ "CFCA - The Coordination Forum for Countering Antisemitism". Archived from the original on 2010-12-04. Retrieved 2012-12-13.
  26. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on March 21, 2012. Retrieved December 13, 2012.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  27. ^ "Virtual Kishivev – 1903 Pogrom".
  28. ^ John Klier, Christians and Jews and the "dialogue of violence" in late Imperial Russia, 2002, p. 167, "Despite the most active search of the authorities, outside agitators and instigators were never found. The urban intelligentsia was rarely involved.... All contemporary descriptions of the pogroms depict them as anarchistic rebels, rather than ideological protests. For most of the participants, it seems the pogroms were a form of carnival, of role-reversal, of 'the world turned upside down'. Questions of status and respect seem to have played a role in the pogroms, where the participants (predominantly peasants, town proletariat, vagrants, migrant workers, demobilized soldiers and other unsettled elements) wanted to put the Jews 'in their place'."
  29. ^ Sonja Weinberg, Pogroms and Riots: German Press Responses to Anti-Jewish Violence in Germany and Russia (1881–1882), Peter Lang, 2010, p. 210.
  30. ^ Aronson, Michael. Geographical and Socioeconomic Factors in the 1881 Anti-Jewish Pogroms in Russia. New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell.
  31. ^ Lewin, Rhoda G. (1979). "Stereotype and reality in the Jewish immigrant experience in Minneapolis" (PDF). Minnesota History. Minnesota Historical Society. 46 (7): 259. Retrieved August 12, 2018.
  32. ^ David Rosenberg, 'Immigration' on the Channel 4 website
  33. ^ "In the City of Slaughter".
  34. ^ Sholem Aleichem. Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories. Schocken Books, Inc: 1987. p. 116–131.
  35. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on April 5, 2012. Retrieved November 26, 2011.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link) Reflections on Religion

External links[edit]