Late 19th, Beginning of 20th Century

by Julia Mazelev


"After Tsar and vodka, pogrom may well be the Russian word most widely understood and used by non-Russians," said historian Hans Rogger (314). The word "pogrom" became linked to anti-Semitic violence after the outbreak of three great waves of anti-Jewish rioting in the Russian Empire in 1881-82, 1903-06, and 1919-21 (Klier 13). The violence usually consisted of looting, assault, arson, rape, and murder (Ritter). According to John D. Klier, "Among the most striking features of the pogroms were their spontaneous and confused character, devoid of long-term objectives or goals...another important feature of the pogroms was their urban nature" (14). The pogroms often began in cities and then spread to shtetles, small towns with about 1000 people, centered around a synagogue and marketplace, within the Pale of Jewish Settlement (Kniesmeyer and Brecher).




Tsar Nicholas I created the Pale of Jewish Settlement in April 1835 ("The Pale of...") --- a limited geographical area where Jews were mandated to live. The Pale included Lithuania, Poland, the south-western provinces, and White Russia with a few variations until its end in 1917 (Ritter). "The Pale was the single most destructive legal burden borne by Russian Jewry, and one of the most enduring," said Klier (5). Within the Pale, Jews were banned from most rural areas and some cities (Ritter); they were prohibited from building synagogues near churches and using Hebrew in official documents; barred from agriculture, they earned a living as petty traders, middlemen, shopkeepers, peddlers, and artisans, often working with women and children (Kniesmeyer and Brecher). After 1861, "the Pale became choked by a huge, pauperized mass of unskilled or semiskilled Jewish laborers, whose economic condition steadily worsened," said Klier (6). "Often repeated," said historian Shlomo Lambroza, "the official view was that Jews were a parasitic element in the Russian Empire who lived off the hard earned wages of the narod [people]" (219).


By the time the term "anti-Semitism" was first used in the late 1870s, Jews in Europe were seen by many as  alien to the nation or the people (Kniesmeyer and Brecher). The peasants in Russia viewed Jews as aliens; their religion, language, food, clothing, and manners were all different, strange, and mysterious—even the government discriminated against them (Aronson 49-50). Russian bureaucrats believed that the teachings of Judaism itself, especially as conveyed by the Tulmud, lead Jews into unproductive, parasitical, and exploitative commercial activities (Klier 7). During the decade before the pogroms of 1881, a growing atmosphere of crisis surrounded the Jewish Question in Russia. Prompted by an increasingly militant Judeophobe press, Russian statesmen held their old prejudiced view of the Jews as a serious economic and social problem (Klier 11).


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Map of Pogroms 1871-1906.


The assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 threw the Russian government into chaos and directly preceded the first major outbreak of pogroms. Rumors that Tsar Alexander III had issued a decree instructing the people to beat and plunder the Jews for having murdered his father and for exploiting the people encouraged the pogromists (Aronson 45). Beginning with Elizabetgrad, a wave of pogroms spread throughout the southwestern regions, totaling 200 in 1881 alone (Kniesmeyer and Brecher). Approximately 40 Jews were killed, many times that number wounded, and hundreds of women raped ("The Pale of..."). "Once aroused to violent action, the [peasants] may have felt justified that by destroying and plundering the Jews’ possessions they were merely appropriating property which did not rightly belong to the Jews," said historian Michael Aronson (50). The authorities condoned pogroms through their inaction and indifference, sometimes even showing sympathy for the pogromists (Kniesmeyer and Brecher).


The Minister of the Interior, N. P. Ignatiev, began to attribute the pogroms not to revolutionary ferment, but to the conduct of the Jews themselves (Klier and Lambroza 41). In 1882, the Ministry of the Interior passed "temporary" May Laws in an attempt to chastise and reform the Jews, which lasted until 1917. These laws prohibited new Jewish settlement outside towns and shtetles, prohibited Jews from buying property in the countryside, and banned Jews from trading on Sunday mornings or Christian holidays (Klier and Lambroza 41). Instead of preventing further pogroms, these laws ushered in a new period of anti-Jewish discrimination and severe persecution (Kniesmeyer and Brecher). Regular pogrom outbreaks lasted until June 7, 1884, when the last pogrom of the series occurred in Nizhnii Novgorod; this pogrom was an exceptionally vicious one with its victims killed with axes and thrown from rooftops (Klier and Lambroza 41-42).


The next wave of pogroms began in the spring of 1903, in the midst of chaos and anarchy in the countryside, demonstrations and rioting in the cities, and violent anti-Semitic campaigns (Lambroza 195). Accusations of Jewish treachery in the Russo-Japanese war effort, accusations that Jews were at the forefront of the revolutionary movement and that Jews were murdering Christians all sparked the first pogrom in Kishinev (Lambroza 218). Forty-five people were murdered and 1,300 homes and shops plundered (Kniesmeyer and Brecher). The documentation shows that no orders were given to the police to end the riot (Lambroza 201). After the perpetrators of the Kishinev pogroms received only very light sentences, it became clear that pogroms had become an instrument of government policy, and Jews began to form self-defense units (Kniesmeyer and Brecher).


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Three pogrom victims in Odessa
who were members of the Bund
self-defense organization.


The Bund, a Jewish left-wing organization, organized defense networks among Jewish workers and community members (Lambroza 221). Five months later, when a pogrom broke out in Gomel, the Jewish community actively resisted. Lambroza said, "Gomel might have been significantly worse were it not for aggressive Jewish defense measures" (209). During 1903 and 1904, 45 pogroms occurred, 95 Jews and 13 non-Jews were killed, and 4,200 people were severely injured. The total destruction of goods and property due to looting, burning, and vandalism was estimated to be more than 5.21 million rubles (Lambroza 218). However, the worst anti-Jewish violence broke out in 1905, after Tsar Nicholas II was forced to sign the October Manifesto, creating a constitutional monarchy. More than 80 percent of the pogroms of 1905-1906 occurred in the 60 days following the release of the Manifesto (Lambroza 229).


During the Civil War of 1918-1921, 2,000 pogroms left an estimated 100,000 Jews dead and more than half a million homeless. Jewish self-defense units were occasionally able to stop the pogromists, partly with material support from the Soviet government (Kniesmeyer and Brecher). Although pogroms in Russia slowly died out after the Civil War, anti-Semitism persisted to the present time. Historians are still disputing what role the Russian government played in these violent attacks on Jews, and how the Russian government’s discrimination against Jews influenced their national identity and Jewish culture.


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Between 1914 and 1921
an estimated 300,000
Jewish children were orphaned.


Works Cited

  • Aronson, Michael. "The Anti-Jewish Pogroms in Russia in 1881." Klier and Lambroza 44-61.

  • Klier, John D. and Shlomo Lambroza, eds. Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History. Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1992.

  • Rogger, Hans. "Conclusion and Overview." Klier and Lambroza 314-372.

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