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Book Review 242: Pogroms

August 4, 2012 - Harry Eagar
Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History, edited by John Doyle Klier and Shlomo Lambroza. 413 pages, illustrated. Cambridge The essays in "Pogroms" were planned in the 1980s to correct an unhistorical theme that had become established in serious and popular histories: That the tsarist government had instigated, planned and directed the waves of pogroms that began in 1882 in order to divert the attention of the population away from the real problems the Russian Empire faced.

If it had been true, it didn't work.

"Pogroms" was published in 1992, just late enough to catch new pogroms (not all against Jews) and antisemitic maneuverings that accompanied the collapse of the USSR.

The argument is persuasive, although we can now say it is not generally true that governments never foment disorder on purpose. But they didn't in the 19th century, especially not in Russia, where the Pugachev rebellion was almost still within living memory in 1882.

At least the central government didn't. The secret police did, at least in the 1904-06 outbreaks.

But if the pogroms were not government plots, what caused them? And what ended them?

The second question is easy to answer. The central government put down the disorders, often with a good dose of the incompetence and uncertainty that tsarism brought to everything but the making of expensive trinkets.

Aside from the fact that not a single document has been discovered describing a tsarist plot, a map proves that the outbreaks were local and spontaneous. Almost all were in the southwestern provinces of the Pale of Settlement, an economic frontier area where business, ethnic and religious antagonisms and resentment against newcomers created a perpetually tense situation in the cities - the pogroms were an urban phenomenon.

Even if the tsars (Alexander III and Nicholas II) were against disorder, it is significant that the recurrent rumor that the tsar had given permission to "beat the yids" was always believed. Nicholas believed the Jews had created the 1904-5 revolution.

The rumor probably followed, rather than inspired, the beginnings of outbreaks in any district. Vile antisemitic newspapers seem to have either set off spasms or at the least created an extra-tense situation in which any incident could escalate.

At least in 1882 and earlier pogroms, the death toll of Christians was sometimes higher than that of Jews. Jews kept grogshops, and Christians looted them and drank themselves to death.

By later standards, the death counts were tiny, only about 3,000 in the 1904-06 riots. The civil war pogroms, centered in 1919, gave a taste of modernity. The deaths could have been as many as 250,000.

Peter Kenez correctly attributes the difference to modern organization, military discipline and weaponry.

Before the White Terror in Ukraine in 1919, pogroms typically petered out after three or four days, even when the authorities were late in reacting. By then most everything had been burned or looted, and if peasants were involved, they had to get back to their fields.

The 1919 pogroms really were government-directed, and they lasted longer and were pressed more viciously. The leaders were men of Nicholas, so it seems fair to say that, given a different set of circumstances, there could have been government-directed pogroms before 1914. At any rate, the high functionaries of the tsarist regime had no objections in principle to killing Jews.

In a summation, Hans Rogger compares the tsarist pogroms to anti-Jewish riots in Europe (and Algeria) and anti-Negro riots in the United States in the 19th century. Although the tsars enjoyed a much worse press in the western nations, Rogger shows that the differences were not strongly marked.

He contends the precipitating causes - economic competition, depressions, political uncertainty - were more or less the same.

While he is persuasive, throughout all these essays the poison of religious faith is underplayed. It is unfortunate that the worst pogrom in American history - which probably took more lives even than the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks -- is not mentioned. (It occurred in Cincinnati and has been almost completely erased from the history books. The dead were Irish Catholics, mostly women and children.)

That event would reinforce Rogger's argument but also demand that it be broadened.

Apart from the history of tsarist pogroms, the essayists take time to place them in the context of revolutionary development.

The 1881-2 riots caused a split among the nascent revolutionary parties. One part welcomed any disturbance as a path toward a wider insurrection, the other stuck to its principles and decried victimization of poor workers, Jewish or otherwise.

By 1917, such principles had been lost in what Kenez perceptively calls the "bankruptcy of Russian liberalism."


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