The long roots of Russian anti-Semitism

The most famous pogrom of all took place at Kishinev in 1903. Its consequences were felt for years.

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When a bird flies into a Lower East Side apartment in Bernard Malamud’s story, “The Jewbird”, its first words are, “Gevalt, a pogrom!” In Annie Hall, the Woody Allen character says that his grandmother would never have had time to knit anything like Annie’s tie because “she was too busy being raped by Cossacks”.

American Jews could joke about them, but for more than 40 years Russian Jews were terrified by the threat of pogroms, especially as Easter approached. Shops were looted, women were raped, people were killed. In his diary for 1920, Isaac Babel describes witnessing one such outbreak: “they cut off beards, that’s usual, assembled 45 Jews in the marketplace, led them to the slaughteryard, tortures, cut out tongues, wails heard all over the square.”

The most famous pogrom of all took place at Kishinev in 1903. Steven Zipperstein’s book is a magnificent account of what happened there and why its consequences were felt for years, on both sides of the Atlantic. “No Jewish event of the time would be as extensively documented,” he writes, “none in Russian Jewish life would leave a comparable echo.”

The book begins with a clear history of the age of pogroms, starting in the 1880s after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, and reaching a climax during the civil war after the Russian Revolution. “It seems clear,” Zipperstein says, “that no fewer than one hundred thousand Jews were murdered in these offhandedly brutal horrors, and at least that many girls and women raped and countless maimed between 1918 and 1920.”

Kishinev itself was one of the major towns in Bessarabia, a desperately poor part of Russia, between Moldavia and Ukraine. It had the highest infant mortality and illiteracy rates in the Russian empire, the fewest doctors and the fewest paved roads (144 miles in 1914). Jews dominated nearly all the region’s towns, including Kishinev, which had a population that was well over one-third Jewish at the turn of the century.

Kishinev was a tinderbox, a place of growing ethnic tensions, fertile ground for the infamous far-right groups known as the Black Hundreds. Peasants felt that they were exploited by Jewish merchants and shopkeepers. A steep fall in agricultural prices in the spring of 1903 raised tensions.

The Kishinev pogrom began, as so many pogroms did, on Easter Sunday. Children started throwing rocks at Jewish shops and it escalated from there. Businesses were ransacked – not one liquor shop was left unscathed. Two-thirds of Kishinev was affected. Entire streets were levelled.

But it was the violence of the attacks on Jewish people that is astonishing. They were hit with tables, killed with pitchforks and poles, smashed with crowbars. One man had his eyes gouged out. Numerous women and girls were sexually attacked. “I was pulverised,” said one victim, ‘‘and crushed like a vessel filled with shame and filth.”

What the rioters didn’t steal, they smashed. The mob included villagers from outside the city, or peasants living at the edge. Many brought wagons to take away stolen goods. But there were also Orthodox seminary students and right-wing anti-Semitic agitators. Often the worst violence was perpetrated by neighbours. Many victims knew their assailants. “Don’t touch me, Mitya,” one woman cried out. “You have known me for many years.” And “one raped woman spoke afterwards of having held her rapist as a baby in her arms”.

What made Kishinev stand out from all the other pogroms? This is one of the most original parts of the book. “The explosion in worldwide communications,” says Zipperstein, meant that news travelled fast across the Atlantic and then America. Crucially, Kishinev was near the border and news could spread quickly into Europe. Famous writers immortalised Kishinev: it features in Israel Zangwill’s The Melting Pot, a huge Broadway hit, and Hayyim Bialik’s famous poem, “In the City of Killing”. And, of course, there were huge numbers of Russian-Jewish immigrants in London’s East End and New York’s Lower East Side. For them Kishinev came to stand for everything that was terrible about autocratic Russia: violent, anti-Semitic and beyond repair. 

The central villain in the Kishinev pogrom was the journalist and editor Pavel Krushevan, the publisher of the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion. But perhaps the most interesting insight of all is the link between Russian pogroms and lynchings in the Deep South of America. In both cases, an ethnic minority, persecuted for years, was subjected to random acts of violence by neighbours from the majority ethnic group – poor, ill-educated, rural. Among the first to connect these two terrible recurring kinds of violence were William English Walling, the founding chairman of the NAACP – National Association for the Advancement of Colored People – and his Russian-Jewish wife, Anna Strunsky.

Pogrom is an outstanding mix of detailed social history, close readings of texts and historical storytelling. It is never dry or merely academic. Zipperstein moves between the details of what happened in Kishinev but always has an eye for the bigger story, especially for what it tells us about both modern Russian and Jewish history, and what pogroms came to symbolise for generations of American immigrants, Zionists and socialists. It is a superb work.

David Herman was a producer of “Voices”, “The Late Show” and “Start the Week”

Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History
Steven J Zipperstein
Liveright, 261pp, £22

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2018 issue of the New Statesman, God isn’t dead