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Modern Jewish History: Pogroms

Pogrom is a Russian word designating an attack, accompanied by destruction, looting of property, murder, and rape, perpetrated by one section of the population against another. In modern Russian history pogroms have been perpetrated against other nations (Armenians, Tatars) or groups of inhabitants (intelligentsia). However, as an international term, the word “pogrom” is employed in many languages to describe specifically the attacks accompanied by looting and bloodshed against the Jews in Russia. The word designates more particularly the attacks carried out by the Christian population against the Jews between 1881 and 1921 while the civil and military authorities remained neutral and occasionally provided their secret or open support. The pogroms occurred during periods of severe political crisis in the country and were linked to social upheavals and nationalist incitement in Eastern Europe. (Similar events also occurred during that period, though on a more limited scale, in the context of the anti-Semitic movements in Germany, Austria, Romania, and the Balkan countries, and of nationalist and religious fanaticism in Morocco, Algeria, and Persia.)

The Jews of Russia were the victims of three large-scale waves of pogroms, each of which surpassed the preceding in scope and savagery. These occurred between the years 1881 and 1884, 1903 and 1906, and 1917 and 1921. There were outbreaks in Poland after it regained independence in 1918, and in Romania from 1921.

In the 1880s

In the 1880s

The pogroms of the 1880s took place during the period of confusion which prevailed in Russia after the assassination of Czar Alexander II by members of the revolutionary organization Narodnaya Volya on March 13, 1881. Anti-Jewish circles spread a rumor that the czar had been assassinated by Jews and that the government had authorized attacks on them. The pogroms at first also received the support of some revolutionary circles, who regarded this action as a preliminary awakening of the masses which would lead to the elimination of the existing regime. The first pogrom occurred in the town of Yelizavetgrad (Kirovograd), in Ukraine, at the end of April 1881. From there, the pogrom wave spread to the surrounding villages and townlets – about 30 in number. At the beginning of May, the pogroms spread to the provinces of Kherson, Taurida, Yekaterinoslav (Dnepropetrovsk), Poltava, and Chernigov. The most severe attack was perpetrated in Kyiv over three days beginning on April 26. Jewish houses and shops were looted, and many people were injured; 762 families were completely ruined. The damage caused was evaluated at 1,750,000 rubles. The violence took place before the eyes of the governor general, his staff, and the police force which made no attempt to restrain the rioters. The pogroms in Odessa were of more limited scope.

During the months of July and August there was again a series of pogroms in the provinces of Chernigov and Poltava. During this period, the pogroms were mainly restricted to the destruction and looting of property and beatings. The number of dead was small. The attackers came from among the rabble of the towns, the peasants, and the workers in industrial enterprises and the railroads. At the end of this period, the government forces reacted against the rioters and in several places even opened fire on them, leaving several dead and injured. The pogroms occurred in a restricted geographical region – southern and eastern Ukraine. Here there was a combination of aggravating circumstances: the traditional rebelliousness among the masses; a tradition of anti-Jewish hatred and persecutions from the 17th and 18th centuries (the massacres perpetrated by Chmielnicki and the Haidamacks), together with the presence there of homeless seasonal workers in the factories, railways, and ports; the rise of a rural bourgeoisie and local intelligentsia, who regarded the Jews as most dangerous rivals; and an extremist revolutionary movement which was unscrupulous in the methods it adopted.

After the pogroms in the spring and summer of 1881, there was a remission, although occasional pogroms broke out in various parts of the country. Among these was a severe pogrom in Warsaw on the Catholic Christmas Day and an Easter pogrom in Balta, in which two Jews were killed and 120 injured, and many cases of rape occurred.

In Belorussia and Lithuania, where the local authorities adopted a firm attitude against the rioters, large fires broke out in many towns and townlets; a considerable number of these were started by the enemies of the Jews. The murder of individual Jews and even whole families also became a common occurrence during this period. On June 21, 1882, the new minister of the interior, Count D. Tolstoy, published an order which placed the blame for the pogroms on the governors of the provinces and declared that “every attitude of negligence on the part of the administration and the police would entail the dismissal from their position of those who were guilty.” Isolated pogroms nevertheless occurred during the following two years or so.

In the spring of 1883, a sudden wave of pogroms broke out in the towns of Rostov and Yekaterinoslav and their surroundings. On this occasion, the authorities reacted with vigor against the rioters and there were several casualties among them. The last great outburst occurred in June 1884 in Nizhni Novgorod (see Gorki), where the mob attacked the Jews of the Kanavino quarter, killing nine of them and looting much property. The authorities tried over 70 of the rioters and severe penalties of imprisonment were imposed on them. This marked the end of the first wave of pogroms in Russia.

The pogroms of the 1880s greatly influenced the history of Russian Jewry. In their wake, the Russian government adopted a systematic policy of discrimination with the object of removing the Jews from their economic and public positions. This was achieved either by restrictive laws (the May Laws of 1882, the percentage norm of admission (numerus clausus) to secondary schools, higher institutions of learning, etc.) or by administrative pressure, which reached its climax with the expulsion of the Jews from Moscow in 1891–92. A mass Jewish emigration began from Russia to the United States and other countries. One reaction to the pogroms was the birth of a nationalist and Zionist movement among the Jews of Russia, while many of the Jewish youth joined the revolutionary movement. The year 1881, the first year of the pogroms, was a turning point not only for Russian Jewry but also for the whole of the Jewish people.

1903 to 1906

The second wave of pogroms was connected with the revolutionary agitation in Russia and the first Russian revolution of 1905. In its struggle against the revolutionary movement, the Russian government gave the reactionary press a free hand to engage in unbridled anti-Jewish incitement in an attempt to divert the anger of the masses against it toward the Jews and to represent the revolutionary movement as the result of “Jewish machinations.” Monarchist societies, such as the Union of Russian People, the Double-Headed Eagle Society, and others, which were referred to by the general name of the Black Hundreds, played a prominent role in the organization of the pogroms.

The first results of this incitement were pogroms which occurred in Kishinev during Passover 1903, in the wake of the wild agitation propagated by the anti-Semitic local newspaper Bessarabets, edited by P. Krushevan. This pogrom was accompanied by savage murders (45 dead and hundreds of wounded) and mutilations of the wounded and dead. About 1,500 Jewish houses and shops were looted. The pogrom angered public opinion throughout the world. Subsequently, a self-defense movement was organized among the Jewish youth. Its organizers were mainly drawn from the Zionist socialist parties and the Bund.

In a pogrom which broke out in Gomel in September 1903, the self-defense group played a prominent part in saving Jewish lives and property. In the fall of 1904, a series of pogroms was perpetrated in Smela, Rovno, Aleksandriya and other places by army recruits about to be sent to the war against Japan and by the local rabble.

In 1905, when the revolutionary movement gained strength, reactionary circles, with the support of the government, intensified the anti-Jewish propaganda, and an atmosphere of terror reigned in many towns of the Pale of Settlement and beyond it. Occasionally pogroms occurred in reaction to revolutionary demonstrations, which the opponents of the revolution condemned as Jewish demonstrations.

In February 1905, a pogrom took place in Feodosiya, and in April of the same year in Melitopol. A pogrom which took place in the provincial capital of Zhitomir surpassed all these in scope (May 1905). However, the severest pogroms of this period took place during the first week of November 1905, immediately after the publication of the manifesto of the czar (October 1905), which promised the inhabitants of Russia civic liberties and the establishment of a state Duma (parliament). On publication of the manifesto, spontaneous manifestations of joy broke out throughout Russia. The celebrants came from the liberal and radical elements of Russian society, while the Jews, who hoped to obtain rapid emancipation, prominently participated in this rejoicing. In response to these manifestations, the reactionary circles organized popular processions of elements loyal to the regime; these were headed by the local civil and ecclesiastical leaders. In many places these processions developed into pogroms against the Jews (on some occasions, the non-Jewish intelligentsia was also attacked).

The most serious pogrom occurred in Odessa (with over 300 dead and thousands of wounded); another severe pogrom took place in Yekaterinoslav, where 120 Jews lost their lives. Altogether, pogroms were perpetrated in 64 towns (including, in addition to Odessa and Yekaterinoslav, Kiev, Kishinev, Simferopol, Romny, Kremenchug, Nikolayev, Chernigov, Kamenets-Podolski, and Yelizavetgrad), and 626 townlets and villages. About 660 of the pogroms took place in the Ukraine and Bessarabia, 24 outside the Pale of Settlement, and only seven in Belorussia. There were no pogroms in Poland and Lithuania. The total number of dead in these pogroms was estimated at over 800. The pogroms lasted only a few days. The most prominent participants were railway workers, small shopkeepers and craftsmen, and industrial workers. The peasants mainly joined into loot property.

From the outset, these pogroms were inspired by government circles. The local authorities received instructions to give the pogromists a free hand and to protect them from the Jewish self-defense. Commissions of inquiry were appointed after the pogroms which explicitly pointed out the criminal inactivity of the police and military forces. After a while, it became known that pamphlets calling for the pogroms had been printed on the press of the government secret police.

Two further pogroms occurred in 1906. The first took place in Bialystok in June. About 80 Jews lost their lives and the mob looted and murdered under the protection of the military and police forces, who systematically opened fire on the Jews. This pogrom occurred during the session of the first Duma, which sent a commission of inquiry to Bialystok. It also held a debate, in which direct responsibility for the pogrom was placed on the authorities. The second took place in Siedlce in August and was directly perpetrated by the police and military forces. About 30 Jews were killed and 180 wounded. With the suppression of the first Russian revolution, the pogroms were brought to a halt until the downfall of the old regime in 1917.

The pogroms of 1903–06 stimulated a great nationalist awakening among the Jews of Europe, encouraged the development of organized self-defense movements among Jews, and accelerated Jewish emigration for the Second Aliyah and the formation of the Hashomer society in Ere? Israel.

1917 to 1921

The third wave of pogroms occurred during the years 1917–21, in scope and gravity far surpassing the two previous outbreaks. These attacks on the Jews related to the revolutions and the civil war which took place in Eastern Europe during this period. At the end of 1917, pogroms had already occurred in the townlets and towns within proximity of the war front. The riot was headed by groups of soldiers from the disintegrating czarist army and consisted of unruly acts against Jews by drunkards and of looting. Many pogroms of this type occurred in the Ukraine after the declaration of its independence in 1918. The first pogroms to be accompanied by slaughter of Jews were, however, perpetrated by units of the Red Army which retreated from the Ukraine in the spring of 1918 before the German army. These pogroms took place under the slogan “Strike at the bourgeoisie and the Jews.” The communities of Novgorod-Severski and Glukhov in northern Ukraine were the most severely affected.

After a short period of confusion, the Soviets adopted stringent measures against pogromists found in the ranks of the Red Army. In addition to a fundamental and comprehensive information campaign, severe penalties were imposed not only on guilty individuals, who were executed, but also on complete army units, which were disbanded after their men had attacked Jews. Even though pogroms were still perpetrated after this, mainly by Ukrainian units of the Red Army at the time of its retreat from Poland (1920), in general, the Jews regarded the units of the Red Army as the only force which was able and willing to defend them.

In the spring of 1919, at the time of the retreat of the Ukrainian Army before the Red Army which occupied Kiev, units of the Ukrainian Army carried out organized military pogroms in Berdichev, Zhitomir, and other towns. These pogroms reached their climax in the massacre at Proskurov on Feb. 15, 1919, when 1,700 Jews were done to death within a few hours. On the following day, a further 600 victims fell in the neighboring townlet of Felshtin (Gvardeiskoye). Those responsible for these pogroms went unpunished, and henceforward the Ukrainian soldiers considered themselves free to spill Jewish blood. The Jews regarded Simon Petlyura, the prime minister of the Ukraine and commander of its forces, as responsible for these pogroms (in 1926 he was assassinated while in exile in Paris by Shalom Schwarzbard).

The general chaos which reigned in the Ukraine in 1919 resulted in the formation of large and small bands of peasants who fought against the Red Army. The commanders (atamans) of these bands occasionally gained control of whole regions. The Jews in the villages, townlets, and towns there were constantly terrorized by the peasants, who extorted money (“contributions”) and supplies from them or robbed and murdered them. These atamans included Angell, Kazakov, Kozyr-Zyrko, Struk, Volynets, Zeleny, Tutunik, and Shepel. The ataman Grigoryev, who in May 1919 seceded from the Red Army with his men, was responsible for pogroms in 40 communities and the deaths of about 6,000 Jews in the summer of 1919. He was killed by Ataman Makhno, who led a peasant rebellion in eastern Ukraine and endeavored to restrain his men from attacking the Jews. One of the most notorious pogroms carried out by the peasant bands was that in Trostyanets in May 1919, when more than 400 people lost their lives.

In the fall of 1919, there was a wave of pogroms committed by the counterrevolutionary White Army, under the command of General A.I. Denikin, in its advance from northern Caucasus into the heart of Russia. This army, which sought to restore the old regime, proclaimed the slogan: “Strike at the Jews and save Russia.” Its officers and soldiers made savage attacks on the Jews in every place which they occupied. The most sinister of these pogroms was in Fastov at the beginning of September 1919, in which about 1,500 Jewish men, women, and children were massacred. The soldiers of the White Army also perpetrated similar pogroms in other regions of Russia: in Siberia, where they were led by Admiral Kolchak and where the Cossack battalions of Baron R. Ungern-Sternberg gained notoriety for the systematic destruction of many communities in eastern Siberia and Mongolia; and in Belorussia, where Bulak-Balachowicz was in command in 1920.

During 1920–21, when the Red Army gained control of Ukraine, the armed anti-Soviet bands still retained their full strength and the pogroms and brutalities against the Jews assumed a character of revenge, such as the massacre in Tetiev, in which about 4,000 Jews were put to death and the whole townlet was set on fire. The anti-Jewish movement set the total annihilation of the Jews as its objective and destroyed whole townlets. Only the military weakness of the attackers prevented a holocaust of Ukrainian Jewry.

During this period of pogroms, Jewish self-defense organizations were formed in many places throughout the Ukraine. The “Jewish Militia for War against Pogroms” of Odessa was renowned; it prevented pogroms in the largest community of Ukraine. Such groups were created in many towns and townlets, but they were not always capable of withstanding military units or large armed bands. It was only after the consolidation of the Soviet regime that they received its support and played an important role in the suppression of the armed counter-revolutionary movement.

It is difficult to assess the scope of the pogroms during the civil war years and the number of victims they claimed. Partial data are available for 530 communities in which 887 major pogroms and 349 minor pogroms occurred; there were 60,000 dead and several times that number of wounded (according to S. Dubnow). The pogroms of 1917–21 shocked East European Jewry, as well as world Jewry. On the one hand, they rallied many Jews to the Red Army and the Soviet regime; on the other, they strengthened the desire for the creation of a homeland for the Jewish people and a powerful and independent Jewish force. This aspiration found its expression in the Zionist movement, the He-?alutz movement, and the Haganah in Ere? Israel.


Zionist Organization, Die Judenpogrome in Russland, 2 vols. (1909); Dubnow, Hist Russ, 3 (1920), index; Yevreyskoye istoriko-etnograficheskoye obshchestvo, Materialy dlya istorii anti-yevreyskikh pogromov v Rossii, 2 vols. (1919–23); I. Halpern, Sefer ha-Gevurah, 2 (1944), 104–58; 3 (1951), 1–229; E. Heifetz, The Slaughter of the Jews in the Ukraine in 1919 (1921); Committee of Jewish Delegations, The Pogroms in the Ukraine (1927); L. Khazanovich, Der Idisher Khurbn in Ukraine (1920); E. Tcherikower, Anti-semitizm un Pogromen in Ukraine 1917–1918 (1923); idem, Di Ukrainer Pogromen in Yor 1919 (1965); J. Schechtman, Pogromy dobrovolcheskoy armii na Ukraine (1932); N. Gergel, Di Pogromen in Ukraine (1928); A.D. Rosenthal, Megillat ha-Teva?, 3 vols. (1927–31); A. Druyanow (ed.), Reshumot, 3 (1923); R. Feigenberg, A Pinkas fun a Toyter Shtot (1926); Yevreyskiyepogromy 1918–1921album (1926); He-Avar, 9 (1962), 3–81; 10 (1963), 5–149; 17 (1970), 3–136.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
“Kiev pogrom (1881),” Wikipedia.