Myth and the Russian Pogroms, Part 2: Inventing Atrocities

Andrew Joyce, Ph.D.

Having grounded ourselves in the history of Russia’s Jewish Question, it is now time for us to turn our attention to the anti-Jewish riots of the 1880s. The following essay will first provide the reader with the standard narrative of these events advanced by Jewish contemporaries and the majority of Jewish historians — a narrative which has overwhelmingly prevailed in the public consciousness. The latter half of the essay will be devoted to dissecting one aspect of the Jewish narrative, and explaining how events really transpired. Other aspects of the Jewish narrative will be examined in later entries in this series. While a work like this can come in for heavy criticism from certain sections of the population who may denounce it as ‘revisionist,’ I can only say that ‘revisionism’ should be at the heart of every historical work. If we blindly accept the stories that are passed down to us, we are liable to fall victim to what amounts to little more than a glorified game of Chinese whispers. And, if we taboo the right of the historian to reinterpret history in light of new research and new discoveries, then we have become far removed from anything resembling true  scholarship.

The Jewish Narrative.

In 1881 the ‘Russo-Jewish Committee,’ (RJC) an arm of Britain’s Jewish elite, mass-produced a pamphlet entitled “The Persecution of the Jews in Russia,” and began disseminating it through the press, the churches, and numerous other channels. By 1899, it was embellished and published as a short book, and today digitized copies are freely available online.[1] By the early 20th century, the pamphlet had even spawned a four-page journal called Darkest Russia – A Weekly Record of the Struggle for Freedom, ensuring that the average British citizen did not go long without being reminded of the ‘horrors’ facing Russian Jews.[2] The fact that these publications were mass produced should provide an indication as to their purpose: It is clear that these publications represented one of the most ambitious propaganda campaign in Jewish history, and combined with similar efforts in the United States, they were aimed at gaining the attention of, and ‘educating,’ the Western nations and ensuring the primacy of the ‘Jewish side of the story.’ Implicit in this was not only a desire to provoke anti-Russian attitudes, but also copious amounts of sympathy for the victimized Jews — sympathy necessary to ensure that  mass Jewish chain migration to the West went on untroubled and unhindered by nativists. After all, wasn’t the bigoted nativist just a step removed from the rampaging Cossack?

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The first element of the narrative advanced by the RJC is essentially a manipulation of the history of Russian-Jewish relations. It holds that the Jews of Eastern Europe have been oppressed for centuries, their whole lives “hampered, from cradle to grave, by restrictive laws.”[3] It was claimed that the Russians  had an unwritten law: “That no Russian Jew shall earn a living.”[4] Russian Jews, according to the Russo-Jewish Committee, have wanted nothing more than to participate in Russian society, but have been rebuffed time and again as “heretics and aliens.” The Pale is an impenetrable fortress, where every Jew “must live and die.” Implicit in this interpretation of the history of Russian-Jewish relations in the belief that  “the fount and origin of all the ills that assail Russian Jewry” has nothing to do with the Jews themselves, but everything to do with the Church, the State, and the Pale. In essence, the plight of the Jews was the result of nothing more than irrational hatred. Jews adopt a meek and passive role in this narrative, having committed no wrong-doing other than being Jews. They are also presented as the only victims of Russian violence. There is no acknowledgement of failed Russian efforts to break down the Jewish walls of exclusivity and claim the Jews as brothers. In fact, there is no reference at all to the walls of exclusivity. The pogroms themselves, according to the Jewish narrative, broke out following the assassination of Alexander II, when shock, anger and a desire for revenge brought this irrational, rootless hatred to the surface.

The second element of the Jewish narrative is that the government and petty officialdom had some role to play in organizing and directing the pogroms. Much disdain is heaped on the government, and petty officialdom, which was said to have been afflicted with “a chronic anti-Semitic outlook.” It was claimed that when the riots began, the government was “not altogether sorry to let the excitement of the people vent itself on the Jews.”[5] In reference to the restrictive May Laws, the authors were forced to concede they had never really been enforced, but maintained that “whether moderately or rigorously applied, the May Laws still remained on the Russian Statute Book.”[6]

The third element of the Jewish narrative is that the pogroms were genocidal, and that they had been organized and perpetrated by groups seeking the extermination of the Jews. The 1899 edition of “The Persecution of the Jews in Russia” included a copy of a lengthy letter written to the London Times by Nathan Joseph, Secretary of the RJC, dated November 5th, 1890. In the letter, Joseph claimed that in the present circumstances “hundreds of thousands could be exterminated,”[7] and that Russian legislation in relation to Jews represented “an instrument of torture and persecution.” In sum, the Jews of Russia were claimed to be living under “a sentence of death,” and it was further claimed that “the executions are proceeding.” The letter ends with an appeal to “Civilized Europe” to intervene, chastise Russia, and aid the victimized Jews.[8]

The fourth key element of the Jewish narrative is that the pogroms were extremely violent in nature. Contemporary media reports especially were the source of most of the atrocity stories, reportedly gleaned from newly-arrived ‘refugees’ who had given statements to the Russo-Jewish Committee about the pogroms they had fled. In these reports, which were carried very regularly by both the New York Times and the London Times, Russians were charged with having committed the most fiendish atrocities on the most enormous scale. Every Jew in the Russian Empire was under threat. Men had been ruthlessly murdered, tender infants had been dashed on the stones or roasted alive in their own homes. During a British parliamentary consultation on the pogroms in 1905, a Rabbi Michelson claimed that “the atrocities had been so fiendish that they could find no parallel even in the most barbarous annals of the most barbarous peoples.”[9] The New York Times reported that during the 1903 Kishinev pogrom “babes were literally torn to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob.”[10]

A common theme in most contemporary atrocity stories was the brutal rape of Jewish women, with most reports including mention of breasts being hacked off. There are literally thousands of carbon-copy reports in which it is claimed that mothers were raped alongside their daughters. There is simply not enough space to cite extensively from these articles, but they number in their thousands and are available to anyone with access to the digitized archives of any major newspaper, or the microfilm facilities at major libraries. In addition, these articles claim that whole streets inhabited by Jews had been razed, and the Jewish quarters of towns had been systematically fired.

The ‘atrocity’ aspect of the narrative has continued to be advanced by Jewish historians. For example Anita Shapira, in her Stanford-published, Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force, 1881-1948, claims that “each series of new riots was worse than the one preceding, as if every bloodbath provided a permit for an even worse massacre.”[11] Shapira further hints that the murder of Jewish babies was common during the pogroms, stating that a common worry of Russian Jews was “Will they take pity on the small babies, who do not even know yet that they are Jews?”[12] She concludes one particular section on pogrom violence by stating, without referencing any evidence, that there were “numerous acts of rape,” and that “many were massacred — men, women, and children. The cruelty that marked these killings added a special dimension to the feeling of terror and shock that spread in their wake.”[13] Joseph Brandes, in his 2009 Immigrants to Freedom alleges, without citing evidence, that mobs “threw women and children out of the windows” of their homes, and that “heads were battered with hammers, nails were driven into bodies, eyes were gouged out … and petroleum was poured over the sick found hiding in cellars and they were burned to death.”[14]

Another crucial element to the Jewish narrative is that Russia is barbaric, ignorant, and uncivilized compared to the Jewish citizens of the country. Russia is said to be lingering in the “medieval stage of development,”[15] and in comparison to the “ignorant and superstitious peasantry,”[16] Russia’s Jews are presented as an outpost of Western civilization — they are urban, and “intellectual.” The RJC publication argued that university quotas allowing 5% of the student body to be made up of Jews were insufficient for “an intellectual race.” Astonishingly, it is claimed that “the root of the whole matter is racial arrogance,”[17] though this arrogance of course is said to emanate from the Russians.

The RJC charged the government with criminal sympathy, the local authorities generally with criminal inaction, and some of the troops with active participation. The situation, they argued, was simply so hopeless and the possibility of extermination was so great, that the only way out was for the civilized nations of the West to throw open their doors and let in these poor ‘Hebrews’.

And to a great extent this is exactly what the churches, the politicians, and the media agreed to. This capitulation to manipulated conscience ushered in the greatest migration in Jewish history, with profound consequences for us all. But there was just one small problem — the vast majority of this narrative was a calculated, designed, and expertly promoted fraud, furthered by the willing participation of Russian-Jewish emigrants who wished to ease their own access to the West and obtain “relief money from Western Europe and America.”[18] 

The ‘Atrocities’

Let us first turn our attention to the atrocity stories. Prior to any major reports of violence, the British public was already being primed to hate the Russian government and accept the Jewish narrative. John Doyle Klier points out that the Daily Telegraph was at that time Jewish-owned, and was particularly “severe” in its reports on Russian treatment of Jews prior to 1881.[19] In the pages of this publication, it was stated that “these Russian atrocities are only the beginning. … [T]he Russian officials themselves countenance these barbarities.”[20] Around this time in Continental Europe, Prussian Rabbi Yizhak Rülf established himself as an “intermediary” between Eastern Jewry and the West, and, according to Klier, one of his specialities was the spreading of “sensationalized accounts of mass rape.”[21]

Other major sources of pogrom atrocity stories were the New York Times, the London Times, and the Jewish World. It would be the Jewish World which furnished the majority of these tales, having sent a reporter “to visit areas that had suffered pogroms.”[22] Most of the other papers simply reprinted what the Jewish World reporter sent them. The atrocity stories carried by these newspapers provoked global outrage. There were large-scale public protests against Russia in Paris, Brussels, London, Vienna, and even in Melbourne, Australia. However, “it was in the United States that public indignation reached its height.” Historian Edward Judge states that the American public was spurred on by reports of “brutal beatings, multiple rapes, dismemberment of corpses, senseless slaughter, painful suffering and unbearable grief.”[23]

However, as John Klier states, the reports of the Jewish World’s “Special Correspondent,” “raise intriguing problems for the historian.”[24] While his itinerary of travel is described as “plausible,” most of his accounts are “flatly contradicted by the archival record.”[25] His claim that twenty rioters were killed during a pogrom in Kishinev in 1881 has been proven to be a fabrication by records which show that in that city, at that time, “there were no significant pogroms and no fatalities.”[26] Other claims that he witnessed shootings of peasants on his travels have been entirely discredited due to the vast number of minor inaccuracies in those accounts.

Furthermore, Klier states that the atrocity stories compiled by the Jewish World correspondent, which went on to be so influential in manipulating Western perceptions of the events, must be treated with “extreme caution.”[27] The reporter “portrayed the pogroms dramatically, as great in scale and inhuman in their brutality. He reported numerous accounts where Jews were burned alive in their homes while the authorities looked on.”[28] There are hundreds of instances where he references the murder of children, the mutilation of women, and the biting off of fingers.

Klier states that “the author’s most influential accounts, given their effect on world opinion, were his accounts of the rape and torture of girls as young as ten or twelve.”[29] In 1881 he reported 25 rapes in Kiev, of which five were said to have resulted in fatalities, in Odessa he claimed 11, and in Elizavetgrad he claimed 30.[30] Rape featured prominently in the reports, not because rapes were common, but because rape “even more than murder and looting” was known to “generate particular outrage abroad.” Klier states that “Jewish intermediaries who were channelling pogrom reports abroad were well aware of the impact of reports of rape, and it featured prominently in their accounts.”[31] The two most dramatic and gruesome accounts came from Berezovka and Borispol. In fact, as the year neared its end, the reports became more and more gruesome and brutal in the details they conveyed.

There is, of course, a reason for this. As the non-Jewish public began to tire of the reports and switched their minds to the coming Christmas festivities, Klier states that records show the RJC made a conscious and calculated decision to “keep Russian Jewry before the eyes of the public.”[32] A key component of this strategy was to take the accounts of the Special Correspondent and publish them in a more widely circulated and respected newspaper. They settled on the London Times, which was already predisposed to “critical editorial faulting of the Russian government.”  Klier further states that these evidently false reports “garnished with the prestige of The Times and devoid of any attribution, subsequently published as a separate pamphlet, and translated into a variety of European languages … became the definitive Western version of the pogroms.”[33]

As increasingly lurid atrocity tales again captured the attention of the Gentile public, the British Government found itself under pressure to intervene. The British Government, however, adopted a more cautious approach and undertook its own independent investigations into events in the Russian Empire. Its findings, published as a “Blue Book,” “presented an account of events at great variance with that offered by The Times.”[34] The most notable aspect of the independent inquiry is the outright denial of mass rape. In January 1882, Consul-General Stanley objected to all of the details contained within reports published by The Times, mentioning in particular the unfounded “accounts of the violation of women.”[35] He further stated that his own investigations revealed that there had been no incidences of rape during the Berezovka pogrom, that violence was rare, and that much of the disturbance was restricted to property damage. In relation to property damage in Odessa, Stanley estimated it to be around 20,000 rubles, and rejected outright the Jewish claim that damage amounted to over one million rubles.

Vice-Consul Law, another independent investigator, reported that he had visited Kiev and Odessa, and could only conclude that “I should be disinclined to believe in any stories of women having been outraged in those towns.”[36] Another investigator, Colonel Francis Maude, visited Warsaw and said that he could “not attach any importance” to atrocity reports emanating from that city.[37] At Elizavetgrad, instead of whole streets being razed to the ground, it was discovered that a small hut had lost its roof. It was further discovered that very few Jews, if any, had been intentionally killed, though some died of injuries received in the riots. These were mainly the result of conflicts between groups of Jews who defended their taverns and rioters seeking alcohol. The small number of Jews who had been intentionally killed had fallen victim to unstable individuals who had been drunk on Jewish liquor — accusations of murderous intent among the masses were simply unfounded and unsubstantiated by the evidence.

When these reports were made public, states Klier, they represented “a serious setback for the protest and aid activities of the RJC.”[38] The Times was forced to backtrack, but responded spitefully (and bizarrely) by stating that the indignation of the country was still justified even if the atrocities were “the creations of popular fancy.”[39] (Reminiscent of the JewishGen response to Ukrainian discoveries mentioned in Part 1 of this series?!)

The revelations came at a bad time for the RJC, which was at that time attempting to move the British Government to “act in some way on behalf of persecuted Russian Jewry.”[40] It resorted to republishing (in the Times) its pamphlet on persecution in Russia twice in one month, presumably in the belief that blunt repetition would suffice to overcome tangible evidence. Klier states that the pieces were examples of “masterful” propaganda, as they attempted to undermine the credibility of the Government consuls, while sycophantically appealing to “the wise and noble people of England,” who “will know what weight should be attached to such denials and refutations.”[41] The RJC offered its own “corroborative evidence of the most undeniable kind,” though of course the exact source of this evidence was not specified beyond “persons occupying high official positions in the Jewish community” and “Jewish refugees.”

In essence, the people of western nations were being asked to trust an anonymous Rabbi on the other side of the world rather than identifiable representatives of their own government. The pieces, states Klier, “painted the familiar picture of murder and rape,” and despite the debunking statements of the consuls, “a number of mother/daughter rapes, which had already done so much to outrage British public opinion, were again repeated.”[42] Although the move for British government intervention failed, in the battle for public opinion “the RJC clearly won the day,” and the Times and the RJC remained good bedfellows.

The Consuls were outraged. Stanley reiterated the fact that his intensive investigations, which he carried out at great personal cost with a serious leg injury, illustrated that “The Times’ accounts of what took place at each of those places contains the greatest exaggerations, and that the account of what took place at some of those places is absolutely untrue.”[43] He related the fact that a Rabbi in Odessa had “not heard of any outrages on women there,” and that the object of almost every pogrom he had investigated was simple “plunder.”[44] Enraged by the lies circulating in Britain and America, Stanley “went right to the top,” interviewing state rabbis and asking for evidence and touring pogrom sites. In Odessa, where a wealth of atrocity stories had originated, he was able to confirm “one death, but no looting of synagogues or victims set alight.” There was no evidence that a single rape had taken place. One state Rabbi admitted that he had not heard of any outrages of women in Berezovka and further assured Stanley that he “could with a clear conscience positively deny that any deaths or any violations had occurred there during the disturbances of last year.”[45] He again sent this report to his superior in London, with a note saying “This is in accordance with all the information I have received and forwarded to your Lordship, and which I think more credible than anonymous letters in The Times.”[46]

Despite Stanley’s best efforts the Jewish narrative advanced by the RJC, imbued with atrocity tales, has remained unalterably attached in Western perceptions of the pogroms. The Blue Book was smothered by the more visible, and oft-repeated, tales of the RJC and organisations like it around the globe. Only with the decade-long research of John Klier has some revision of this narrative, grounded in scholarship and archival evidence, been possible. In light of this evidence, one can only conclude that stories of rape, murder and mutilation were “more legendary than factual.”[47] However, the task remains to further dismantle and analyse other aspects of the Jewish narrative, and to seek the true motives behind its creation.

Go to Part 3


[2] Max Beloff, The Intellectual in Politics: And other essays, (London: Taylor and Francis, 1970) p.135

[3] The Persecution of the Jews in Russia, (London: Russo-Jewish Committee, 1899), p.3.

[4] Ibid, p.4

[5] The Persecution of the Jews in Russia, (London: Russo-Jewish Committee, 1899), p.5

[6] Ibid, p.8

[7] Ibid, p.36

[8] Ibid, p.38.

[9] Anthony Heywood, The Russian Revolution of 1905: Centenary Perspectives (New York: Routledge, 2005) p.266.

[10] “Jewish Massacre Denounced,” New York Times, April 28, 1903, p.6

[11] Anita Shapira, Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force, 1881-1948 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), p.35

[12] Ibid, p.34.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Joseph Brandes, Immigrants to Freedom, (New York: Xlibris, 2009) p.171

[15] The Persecution of the Jews in Russia, (London: Russo-Jewish Committee, 1899), p.4

[16] The Persecution of the Jews in Russia, (London: Russo-Jewish Committee, 1899), p.30

[17] Ibid.

[18] Albert Lindemann, Esau’s Tears: Modern Anti-Semitism and the Rise of the Jews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) p.291.

[19] John Doyle Klier, Russians, Jews and the Pogroms of 1881-82, p.399

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid, p.400

[23] Edward Judge, Easter in Kishinev: Anatomy of a Pogrom (New York: New York University Press, 1993) p.89.

[24] John Doyle Klier, Russians, Jews and the Pogroms of 1881-82, p.400

[25] Ibid, p.401

[26] Ibid

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid, p.12

[32] Ibid, p.404

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid, p.405. (Correspondence Respecting the Treatment of Jews in Russia, Nos. 1 and 2, 1882, 1883)

[35] John Doyle Klier, Russians, Jews and the Pogroms of 1881-82, p.405

[36] Ibid.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid, p.405.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid, p.406.

[42] Ibid.

[43] John Doyle Klier, Russians, Jews and the Pogroms of 1881-82, p.407.

[44] John Doyle Klier, Russians, Jews and the Pogroms of 1881-82, p.408.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid, p.13.

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