Revisiting the 19th-Century Russian Pogroms, Part 1: Russia’s Jewish Question

The anti-Jewish riots, or “pogroms” of late 19th-century Russia represent one of the most decisive periods in modern Jewish, if not world, history. Most obviously, the riots had demographic implications for western countries – around 80% of today’s western Diaspora Jews are descendants of those Jews who left Russia and its environs during the period 1880–1910. But perhaps the most lasting legacy of the period was the enhancement of Jewish “national self-awareness,” and the accelerated development of “modern, international Jewish politics.”[1]

The pogroms themselves have consistently been portrayed by (mainly Jewish) historians as “irrational manifestations of hatred against Jews,”[2] where peasant mobs were the unwitting dupes of malevolent Russian officials. Other explanations are so lacking in evidence, and so devoid of logic that they stretch credulity to breaking point. For example, University of British Columbia Professor, Donald G. Dutton has asserted that the mobs were not motivated by “the sudden rapid increase of the Jewish urban population, the extraordinary economic success of Russian Jews, or the involvement of Jews in Russian revolutionary politics” but rather by the “blood libel.”[3]

Little or no historiography has been dedicated to peeling back the layers of “refugee” stories to uncover what really happened in the Russian Empire in the years before and during the riots. This lack of historical enquiry can be attributed at least in part to a great reluctance on the part of Jewish historians to investigate the pogroms in any manner beyond the merely superficial. In addition, historical enquiry by non-Jewish historians into the subject has been openly discouraged. For example, when Ukrainian historians discovered evidence proving that contemporary media reports of Jewish casualties in that nation were exaggerated, the Jewish genealogy website ‘JewishGen,’ responded by stating: “We believe that [these facts] are more than irrelevant because it redirects public attention from the major topic: the genocidal essence of pogroms.”

It should suffice to state here that this response contravenes the very essence of historical enquiry – to uncover history as it actually happened, irrespective of the uncomfortable truths which may lie therein. The statement could be translated as “Let’s not let the facts get in the way of a good story.” Also, as this paper will show, the tendency to portray the riots as “genocidal” is completely lacking in foundation. University of California Los Angeles Professor of Sociology, Michael Mann, has provided substantial evidence indicating that “most perpetrators did not conceive of removing Jews altogether.”[4]

JewishGen’s allusion to genocide should also be seen as part of a broader problem in modern Jewish historiography. Rather than seeing the pogroms as products of specific local circumstances, in which Jews would play at least an implicit role, there has been a tendency to use them for comparative purposes. John Klier states that when used in a comparative sense, “examples are drawn almost exclusively from the 20th century, and these events are then read back into the earlier period of 1881–2,” making any objective historical enquiry difficult, and implying the presence of some non-existent ‘pan-European’ malaise in anti-Jewish actions.

Nonetheless, this series of essays will seek to peel back the myths, to tease a few threads of truth from the veil which covers these events. Encouragingly, some work has already begun in this respect. I.M. Aronson’s assertion that the pogroms were “planned or encouraged to one degree or another, by elements within the government itself,”[5] has been dealt a death blow in recent years through the concerted work of a small number of non-Jewish historians, mostly notably, University College London’s Professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies, John Doyle Klier. In his 2005 work, Russians, Jews, and the Pogroms of 1881–2, Klier asserts that “contemporary research has dispelled the myth that Russian officials were responsible for instigating, permitting, or approving the pogroms.”[6]

This series of essays will attempt to move further, adhering to the belief that the facts of the events remain paramount to historical enquiry rather than being a ‘distracting’ irrelevance. The series will begin with an explanation of the origins of Russia’s “Jewish Question.” Subsequent articles will concern the pogroms themselves and how myth and exaggeration have plagued our conception of them. Finally, I will examine why these myths were developed, and the broader implications of the prevalence of myth in Jewish ‘history.’

Part One: Russia’s Jewish Question.

In 1772 the Russian Empire orchestrated the first partition of Poland, “erasing from the geopolitical map of Europe a large kingdom, which in the seventeenth century had extended over broad areas between Prussia and southern Ukraine.”[7] Significantly, in doing so, the Russian Empire also oversaw “the dissolution of the largest Jewish collective in the world.”[8] Polish Jewry was divided into three parts – those in Posen came under the sovereignty of Prussia, those in Galicia came under the sovereignty of Austria, and those in Poland proper came under the sovereignty of the Russian Empire.[9]  In Poland proper, the Polish public turned in on itself, searching frantically for the reasons for the ruin of the nation, and in doing so, states Israel Friedlander, “the Jewish problem could not but force itself on its attention.”[10]

Investigations carried out by special committees discovered that in the decades prior to partition, Polish Jewry had enjoyed a demographic explosion, with Jews now representing almost 20% of the entire population. In addition, it was discovered that Jews controlled a full 75% of Polish exports, and that many were now spilling out of over-populated urban centres into the countryside, making a living by monopolising the sale of liquor to peasants.[11] By 1774, complaints were reaching Russian officials from non-Jewish merchants who argued that Jewish ethnic networking was propping up the monopoly of exports, and that this monopoly would shortly have dire implications for the consumer.[12] These revelations were the key motivating factors in the decision to expel Warsaw’s Jews in 1775, and until the early 19th century there was a kind of stand-off between Poles and Jews.[13] Napoleon’s establishment of the Duchy of Warsaw in 1807 did little to alter the situation, as Napoleon acceded to local sentiment which held that Jews should not feel the benefit of the new constitution until they had “eradicated their peculiar characteristics.”[14] In 1813, the government of the Duchy moved to break the Jewish monopoly on liquor, banning all Jews from selling alcohol in the villages, bringing an end to the activity of “tens of thousands” of Jewish liquor merchants in the provinces. Not surprisingly, when the Duchy was dissolved in 1815 following Napoleon’s failed attempt to invade Russia, Polish Jewry shed no tears.

In late 1815, the Congress of Vienna was held. The aim of the congress was to give its assent to the formation of a new autonomous Polish kingdom under the sovereignty of Russia. Although the bulk of Polish Jewry remained within the newly established kingdom, tens of thousands also poured forth into other areas of the Russian Empire, ushering in an uncomfortable age of fraught Russian-Jewish relations. The immediate reaction of the Russian government to the acquisition of such large, and unwanted, Jewish populations was to prevent the penetration of these populations from intrusion into the old Russian territories, and the solution reached was one of containment. A new kind of settlement was created in provinces along the western frontier,            and it became known as the “Pale of Settlement.” Although a large amount of negative connotations have been attributed to the Pale, it was not an impermeable fortress. Certain Jews were permitted to reside outside these provinces, they could visit trade fairs, and Jews were even permitted to study at Russian universities provided they did not exceed quotas. By 1860, more than half of world Jewry resided in the Pale.

Following the Congress of Vienna, wherever Jews resided in the Russian Empire, they overwhelmingly “served in a variety of middleman roles.” In some cities, “the Jewish mercantile element was numerically superior to the Christian,” and there was a gradual move towards the reacquisition of the liquor trade.[15] According to Klier, by 1830 Belorussian Jews were found to be “totally dominating trade” in that country.[16] It was largely Klier’s work in the late 1980s which began to truly shed light on the origins of Russian-Jewish relations prior to 1914. Klier, born into a Catholic family in Kansas, “rejected what might be called the Fiddler on the Roof pieties and simplifications. In book after book, he emphasised that what the tsars and their ministers wanted, above all else, was for the Jewish settlements to be orderly and productive.”[17] Klier further stressed that the much-maligned Pale of Settlement was simply the only response that the Russian administration could come up with, faced as they were with the “baffling question” of how to deal with the “fanaticism of ultra-Orthodox Jewry” which was thoroughly “unassimilable to official purposes.”[18]

In 1841, investigations were carried out into Russia’s Jewish communities, and the subsequent reports pointed to three significant problems. The first was persistent Jewish difference in dress, language, and religious and communal organization. The idea underpinning this aloofness from non-Jewish society, the ‘Chosen’ status of the Jews and an accompanying ethnic chauvinism, was said to be particularly harmful to Jewish-Gentile relations, particularly when it was reinforced through “a system of male education that was thought to inculcate anti-Christian interpretations of the Talmud.”[19] The second, related, problem was that Jewish economic practices were also rooted in this aloofness. The Talmud “encouraged and justified unreserved economic exploitation based on cheating and exploiting the non-Jews,”[20] in a validation of Max Weber’s theory of ‘internal’ and ‘external’ ethics, whereby “members of a cohesive social unit observe different moral standards among themselves compared with those observed in relation to strangers.”[21] The third aspect of the Russian ‘Jewish Question,’ was the issue of Jewish loyalty. The Jews of the Russian Empire had evidently retained the kahal of pre-partition Polish Jewry. The kahal was a formal system of Jewish communal leadership and government, entirely separate from the Russian state. Although tacitly tolerated by the state for its tax collection capabilities, Jewish loyalty to the kahal was absolute, going beyond the merely fiscal. Almost all Jews continued to resort to Jewish courts.

John Klier states that following these revelations, “state and society shared a consensus that Jews could be – and must be – reformed and transformed into good subjects of the realm.”[22] Under Emperor Alexander I (1801–25) there had been attempts to encourage Jews to pursue more productive economic activities. Generous concessions were made to Jews in the hope that they would abandon their middleman roles, as well as the distilleries and taverns of the provinces, and take up work in agricultural colonies. Klier states that the “embeddedness of the Jews in the economic and social life of the imperial borderlands ensured that despite legislative initiatives, Jewish economic life remained largely unchanged.”[23]

In 1844, under Nicholas I, the Russian government began a program of reforms and legislation designed to break down Jewish exclusivity and incorporate the nation’s Jews more fully into Russian society. Not surprisingly, the government first took aim at the kahal, banning it as “an illegal underground structure.”[24] The significance of the banning of the kahal went beyond tackling the issue of Jewish loyalty. The mutual assistance offered by the kahal was felt to have had economic implications – “it was the mutual support provided by the kahal that ensured that Jews were more than a match for any competitor, even the arch-exploiter of the Russian village, the kulak.”[25] The civil rights of any “Jews who were perceived to be engaged in productive undertakings” were extended, though there were few takers. Nicholas I even conceived of, and supported, the establishment of state-financed Jewish schools, in the hope that such establishments would lead to the development of a more progressive and integrative Russian Jewry. Unfortunately for Nicholas, what his system produced was a cadre of Jewish intellectuals profoundly hostile to the state.

Emperor Alexander II continued the efforts of Mother Russia to gather in her Jews. He abolished serfdom in 1861. He relaxed efforts to change the economic profile of Russian Jewry, extending the rights of educated Jews and large-scale merchants. His was a program aimed at reconciliation, an abandonment of the stick in favour of the carrot. Education was made fully open to Jews, and Jews could sit on the juries of Russian courts. Conditions on settlement and mobility in the Pale were relaxed further. Klier states that “Jews even became the subject of sympathetic concern for the leaders of public opinion. Proposals for the complete emancipation of the Jews were widely mooted in the press.”[26]

These measures, however, were also accompanied by a growing uneasiness with the way the Jews of Russia took advantage of them. There was little in the way of gratitude, and the measures did not bring about the great changes that had been hoped for. The nationalist revolt of the Poles in 1863, and the fact that a large number of wealthy Jews were found to have funded some of the rebels cast new doubts on Jewish loyalty. Having emancipated the peasantry and adopted a paternalistic concern for the former serfs, the government also viewed with alarm the rapidity with which the “Jews were exploiting the unsophisticated and ignorant rural inhabitants, reducing them to a Jewish serfdom.”[27] It also quickly became apparent that despite new military legislation, Jews were noticeable in their overwhelming avoidance of military service. In retaliation, the government clamped down on rural tavern ownership, and introduced more stringent recruitment procedures specifically for Jews. It has been claimed that Jews were also banned from land ownership at this time, but Klier provides evidence that Jews were still able to buy any peasant properties sold at auction for tax arrears, as well as any property within the Pale not owned by Russian gentry.[28]

By the end of Alexander II’s reign, disillusionment with the government’s policy at handling the Jewish Question was widespread. The vast majority of Jews had stubbornly persisted in the unproductive trades, continued in their antipathy to Russian culture, and refused to make any meaningful contribution to Russian society. An air of resignation swept the country. Some newspapers even advocated abolishing the Pale, if only to alleviate that region from bearing the burden of the Jews alone. Other papers opposed this “fearing for the welfare of the peasantry at a time when the cultural level of the peasantry made them an easy target for exploitation.”[29] Meanwhile Jews were beginning to swamp higher education establishments. In Odessa, there were reports that in school after school, Jews were “driving Christians from the school benches,” and “filling up the schools.”[30]

On the eve of the assassination of Alexander II, Russia’s Jewish Question remained unanswered. Decades of legislation had done little to change the nature of Russian Jewry, which remained ethnically, politically, and culturally homogenous. The new Jewish intelligentsia had turned on the hand that fed it, failing to encourage the adaptation of their fellow Jews, moving instead to defend them and advocate for their interests. In terms of educational and social opportunities, Jews had been given an inch and taken a mile. They had swamped the schools, and added to a group of emergent Jewish capitalists. In 1879 Russian authorities were being lobbied by a Rabbinic Commission for full emancipation, an ominous prospect for those concerned about the well-being of Russian peasantry.

The breaking point, when it came, did not emerge from the ether, but from this historical background. In part two we will examine the more immediate origins of the anti-Jewish riots and how the riots proceeded. We will do away with petty distractions, dispelling myths with facts; and as we venture into the Pale, we now do so with a more complete view of the Jew we find there.

 Go to Part 2.

[1] John Klier, Russians, Jews, and the Pogroms of 1881-2, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011) p.xiii.

[2] Jack Glazier, Dispersing the Ghetto: The Relocation of Jewish Immigrants Across America (New York: Cornell University Press, 1998)  p.9.

[3] Donald Dutton, The Psychology of Genocide, Massacres and Extreme Violence (New York: Prager, 2007 ) p.40

[4] Michael Mann, The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) p.142.

[5] I.M. Aronson, ‘Geographical and Socioeconomic factors in the 1881 Anti-Jewish Pogroms in Russia,’ Russian Review, Vol.39, No.1 (Jan. 1980) p.18.

[6] Klier, Russians, Jews, and the Pogroms of 1881-2, p.xiv.

[7] Israel Bartal, The Jews of Eastern Europe: 1772-1881, (Tel Aviv, Ministry of Defence, 2005) p.23.

[8] Ibid, p.24.

[9] Israel Friedlander, The Jews of Russia and Poland, (New York: G.P. Putnam, 1915), p.84.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, p.85.

[12] Simon Dubnow, History of the Jews in Russia and Poland, (Bergenfield: Avontayu, 2000), p.173

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid, p.87.

[15] Simon Dubnow, History of the Jews in Russia and Poland, (Bergenfield: Avontayu, 2000), p.173

[16] John Klier, Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) p.4.



[19] Klier, Russians, Jews, and the Pogroms of 1881-2, p.3.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Jacob Katz, Exclusiveness and Tolerance: Jewish-Gentile Relations in Medieval and Modern Times (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1962) p.56.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Klier, Russians, Jews, and the Pogroms of 1881-2, p.4

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Klier, Russians, Jews, and the Pogroms of 1881-2, p.5

[27] Klier, Russians, Jews, and the Pogroms of 1881-2, p.5

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid, p.6

[30] Ibid.

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