Pogroms in Imperial Russia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Pogroms in imperial Russia marked the outbreak of mob violence against Jewish communities as part of a rising wave of popular unrest in Russia that culminated in the Revolution of 1905.

Summary of Event

The early years of the twentieth century were a time of mounting popular unrest in Russia, as rapid and uneven economic change was producing serious social tensions. The peasants, who still made up about 70 percent of Russia’s population, had to cope with a series of disappointing harvests in the central agricultural region as well as high taxes imposed by Minister of Finance Sergey Yulyevich Witte to pay for his program of state-sponsored industrial development. Industrial workers, many of whom were unskilled or semiskilled peasants who sought factory work to supplement their agricultural earnings, faced harsh living and working conditions and low wages. A severe depression, which lasted from 1900 through the end of 1902, worsened their plight. These circumstances gave rise to a growing number of strikes by industrial workers and peasant attacks on the estates of the landed nobility. A new round of mob assaults on Jewish communities in Russia took place against this backdrop of rising tension and confrontation. Pogroms Jews;Russia Anti-Semitism[Antisemitism];Russia [kw]Pogroms in Imperial Russia (1903-1906) [kw]Imperial Russia, Pogroms in (1903-1906) [kw]Russia, Pogroms in Imperial (1903-1906) Pogroms Jews;Russia Anti-Semitism[Antisemitism];Russia [g]Belarus;1903-1906: Pogroms in Imperial Russia[00650] [g]Lithuania;1903-1906: Pogroms in Imperial Russia[00650] [g]Moldovia;1903-1906: Pogroms in Imperial Russia[00650] [g]Russia;1903-1906: Pogroms in Imperial Russia[00650] [g]Ukraine;1903-1906: Pogroms in Imperial Russia[00650] [c]Government and politics;1903-1906: Pogroms in Imperial Russia[00650] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;1903-1906: Pogroms in Imperial Russia[00650] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1903-1906: Pogroms in Imperial Russia[00650] Alexander II Alexander III Nicholas II [p]Nicholas II[Nicholas 02];pogroms Plehve, Vyacheslav Konstantinovich Pobedonostsev, Konstantin Petrovich Witte, Sergey Yulyevich

The situation of the Jews in Russia was difficult even without the threat of physical attacks. With few exceptions, Russia’s five million Jews (almost half of the world’s total number of Jews) were prohibited by law from living in the historical heartland of the Russian Empire. They were confined either to the portion of Poland that was under Russian control or to a region that had become known as the Jewish Pale of Settlement, which included Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova (Bessarabia), and the provinces immediately north of the Black Sea. Even in these territories, the Jews were a distinct and unpopular minority, constituting only 13 percent of the population.

Most of the Jews lived in cities and larger towns. They earned their livelihoods as merchants or craftsmen, or they worked in the developing industrial sector. Jews rarely owned land, and those who lived in the countryside were under pressure from the government during most of the nineteenth century to abandon occupations, such as tavern keeping and the operation of mills, that brought them into close contact with the non-Jewish peasants. The government relaxed some of these coercive measures during the reign of Czar Alexander II (1855-1881), but this relatively liberal interlude ended with the assassination of the czar in March, 1881. His successors, Alexander III and Nicholas II, revived and even strengthened the discriminatory policies against the Jews, which remained in force until the overthrow of the monarchy in 1917.

The assassination of Alexander II by revolutionary terrorists touched off the first massive wave of pogroms. Anti-Jewish riots had occasionally broken out in Russia in previous years; indeed, an 1871 disturbance that took place in the Black Sea port of Odessa was the first to become known as a “pogrom,” a term derived from a Russian verb meaning “to smash” or “to destroy.” What was new about the pogroms of 1881 was that they were not isolated eruptions of violence. An official report counted 259 pogroms in 1881; many of these spread like ripples from cities and large towns to nearby villages.

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The ripple effect was related to difficult economic circumstances that were afflicting Russia at the time. The assassination of the czar took place during an industrial downturn that coincided with a series of poor harvests. Unemployed factory workers and hungry peasants seem to have been responsible for the spread of the pogroms as they wandered from place to place in a desperate search for new sources of income. Their frustrations fed on the shock of the murder of the czar, the long-standing antagonism toward Jews by the non-Jewish majority in the Pale of Settlement, and a consciousness of official discrimination against Jews, which was distorted into a belief that the government approved of assaults on Jews.

The rapid spread of the pogroms took the government by surprise, so its attempts to contain the violence were not effective at first. By 1882, however, the new czar, Alexander III, despite his personal hatred of Jews, ordered his provincial officials to take stern measures to capture and punish those who attacked Jews and their property. Once the government’s opposition to pogroms became clear, anti-Jewish outbreaks once again became isolated occurrences.

The second wave of pogroms began in Kishenev (now Chişinău), the provincial capital of Moldova, on May 2 (April 19 by the Julian calendar then used in Russia), 1903. Two days of rioting, which began on Easter Sunday and the last day of Passover, left nearly fifty Jews dead and hundreds more injured. In addition, enormous damage was inflicted on Jewish-owned property. A second pogrom took place in Homyel’, in Mahilyow province, in September. The attackers encountered effective resistance from Jewish self-defense units, which limited the damage done to the Jewish community. This time, however, the government, in marked contrast with Alexander III’s stern measures after the 1881 pogroms, responded in a weak and confused manner.

The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, Russian Orthodox Church headed by Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonostsev, ordered all priests to preach against physical assaults on the Jews, but the government did not vigorously prosecute the perpetrators of the Kishinev and Homyel’ pogroms. Only a handful of the hundreds of pogromists were convicted, and almost all of them received lenient sentences. The government prosecutors even suggested during the Homyel’ trial that pogroms were actually the fault of the Jews.

These mixed signals reflected the government’s anxiety over its inability to stem the rising incidence of peasant and worker unrest produced by poor harvests and the recent depression. Although Russian officials, such as Vyacheslav Konstantinovich Plehve, the notoriously anti-Semitic minister of internal affairs, did not, as was widely believed at the time, actually conspire in the organization of the pogroms, they were reluctant to impose severe penalties on the anti-Jewish rioters. They feared that such action would further anger the workers and peasants, thereby leading to additional violent outbreaks. They even regarded the pogroms as convenient diversions for popular discontent, which might otherwise be directed against government authorities.

The government’s weak response to the Kishinev and Homyel’ pogroms did not succeed in calming restless workers and peasants. The outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905)[Russojapanese War] in February, 1904, heightened the political and economic strains in Russia. Popular unrest of all kinds escalated in the summer and fall of 1904, exploding into revolution in the aftermath of the Bloody Sunday Bloody Sunday massacre of demonstrating workers in St. Petersburg on January 22, 1905. There were forty-three pogroms in 1904, and an average of about six a month took place in the first nine months of 1905. The announcement on October 30, 1905 (October 17 on the Julian calendar), of the October Manifesto, October Manifesto which granted limited constitutional reforms, ignited a massive eruption of violence, which included at least six hundred pogroms during the next two weeks. At least thirty-one hundred Jews died, and more than fifteen thousand were injured. The largest pogrom took place in Odessa, where about eight hundred Jews lost their lives and another five thousand suffered injuries.

Significance

Having broken the unity of the revolutionary opposition by issuing the October Manifesto, the government moved vigorously to suppress popular disturbances of all kinds: strikes, peasant uprisings, and pogroms. Once again, pogroms became only isolated occurrences rather than part of a general wave of popular unrest. However, the czarist regime had not succeeded in solving the underlying problems that had produced popular violence in the first place. The government still tacitly encouraged ethnic hostility by preserving, at the czar’s insistence, the Pale of Settlement and other discriminatory laws directed against Jews. In addition, the social and economic strains of World War I and the Russian Revolution touched off a new series of pogroms that began in 1917 and reached their height in 1919-1920, during the Russian Civil War. These continued attacks were a major factor in the emigration of large numbers of Jews from Russia to western Europe and the United States during the early years of the twentieth century. Pogroms Jews;Russia Anti-Semitism[Antisemitism];Russia

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baron, Salo W. The Russian Jew Under Tsars and Soviets. 2d ed. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Survey by a leading specialist in Jewish history pays scant attention to the pogroms but is a good introduction to the social, economic, and cultural aspects of Jewish history in Russia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gitelman, Zvi. “History of Soviet Jewry.” In From Mesopotamia to Modernity: Ten Introductions to Jewish History and Literature, edited by Burton L. Visotzky and David E. Fishman. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1999. Discusses the lives of Jews in Russia both before and after the revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Judge, Edward H. Easter in Kishenev: Anatomy of a Pogrom. New York: New York University Press, 1992. Case study of the Kishenev pogrom of April, 1903, illuminates the causes of the anti-Jewish riots and graphically illustrates their brutality.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Klier, John D., and Shlomo Lambroza, eds. Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. A collection of scholarly essays on the waves of pogroms of 1881-1884, 1903-1906, and 1919-1921.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Löwe, Heinz-Dietrich. The Tsars and the Jews: Reform, Reaction, and Anti-Semitism in Imperial Russia, 1772-1917. Chur, Switzerland: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1993. A revised edition of a book originally published in German in 1978.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rogger, Hans. Jewish Policies and Right-Wing Politics in Imperial Russia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986. Explores government policies toward Jews, especially the issue of government complicity in the pogroms.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Treadgold, Donald W., and Herbert J. Ellison. Twentieth Century Russia. 9th ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2000. Comprehensive volume includes discussion of anti-Semitism in Russia and the pogroms of the early decades of the twentieth century. Features maps and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wistrich, Robert S. Antisemitism: The Longest Hatred. 1991. Reprint. New York: Schocken Books, 1994. A lucid introduction to the history of anti-Semitism since ancient times, written as a companion volume to a three-part British television documentary.

Bloody Sunday

October Manifesto

First Meeting of the Duma

Formation of the Triple Entente

First Kibbutz Is Established in Palestine

Assassination of Pyotr Arkadyevich Stolypin

Anti-Defamation League Is Founded

Ukrainian Nationalists Struggle for Independence

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