Why were Jews the victims of pogroms in late nineteenth and early twentieth century imperial Russia?

Introduction

Historians define the pogroms as physical acts of violence directed against the Jews.[1] The Oxford English Dictionary describes them as being an ‘organized massacre’, however as they took many forms and involved different groups of attackers, I disagree with this definition and believe them to instead be spontaneous.[2] Pogroms can be seen as expressions of Anti-Semitic attitudes, meaning hostility and prejudice against the Jews.[3] In Russia, the pogroms predominantly occurred in three great waves: 1881-1884, 1905-1906 and 1917-1921, with 95% of these occurring in four years, 1881-1882 and 1905-1906.[4] During this period, Russia was experiencing urbanisation, a concept to which the population stressed over as the world around them became more modernised and unfamiliar,[5] This process caused large economic discontent, for which the Jews were used as a scapegoat for due to their success in comparison to the Russian peasant or worker, explained by the relative deprivation theory.[6] Furthermore, this was a period of instability after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II which again the Jews were blamed for.[7] With the combination of economic and political stress, it is unsurprising that social protest was displaced as natural competitive and survival instincts come into play. This can be explained by social Darwinism, as minorities such as the Jews, during this period of discontent, were seen as an obvious choice for target due to their ‘otherness’ with regards to race and religion as they were seen as saboteurs and exploiters; however, although the Jews were victims to these acts of violence, it is important to note that they were not the only minority group that were targeted.[8]

Main Text

The Jews were victims to the pogroms due to the larger dissatisfaction with Russia’s economy.[9] Russia was moving towards modernisation which brought about struggles for the general population. Jewish financers in particular were held accountable for this due to their wealth and productivism.[10] This was a predominant view in 1881, which saw economic depression and crop failures, causing many groups to suffer, particularly the Ukrainian craftsmen who were struggling to find employment.[11] Eleanore Sterling calls this the displaced social protest, whereby a group is used as a scapegoat for these problems.[12] During this time, masses of unemployed labourers were moving around in an attempt to secure work, exposing them to the Jewish population who usually separated from the wider population in the Pale settlement.[13] Furthermore, the Jewish population increased fivefold during the 19th Century; this combined with their prominence in the stock market made them a visible minority.[14] As the Jews were more modernized and integrated within society, this made their success intolerable to the Russian worker and peasant population who believed the Jews to be exploiting them, scapegoating them for everything that was wrong with modern society.[15] Walter Korpi labels this as the Relative Deprivation theory, whereby one resents the success and prosperity of another when falling upon hard times.[16] This is supported by the fact that those who were unable to find employment tended to be the ‘ringleaders’ of the pogroms; once these acts of violence erupted, the opportunity for peasants and ‘jealous townsmen’ seeking revenge for the ‘insults of everyday life’ presented itself.[17] Looting in particular could be seen as an opportunist attempt on their part to earn a short term gain of extra possessions or money, whilst also allowing to physically express their hopelessness and anger.[18] Perhaps to an extent, the Russian population partaking in these acts of violence, believed that attacking the Jews would be a solution to their economic problems by making the Jews feel unwelcome and excluding them, giving them no option but to move on, thereby ridding Russia of diversity and increasing the political and economic control, of which stability was absent from at this time.

One could argue that although the government didn’t necessarily deliberately promote the pogroms against the Jews, general political instability and the incapability of officials indirectly contributed to the widespread resentment Russia’s population was feeling, once again causing them to use the Jews as a scapegoat to justify violence against them. The assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 created a ‘maelstrom of rumour’ during a period of political uncertainty whereby the Jews were blamed for conspiring against the Russian population who held them responsible for the murder, seeing it as an attempt to spark a power struggle that would ultimately end with the Jews ‘ruling’ Russia.[19] Historians argue that although the pogroms were not a result of direct orders from the government, the hesitant response from the police, due to their unwillingness to appear sympathetic towards the Jews, gave the impression that the government condoned these acts of violence.[20] This allowed the pogroms to intensify in participation and frequency as the risk of punishment was perceived as being low – although in 1881-1882 there are instances where officials intervened, but only for the sake of the rioters’ safety as opposed to the Jews’; arguably however there was little they could do once the ‘mob violence’ had broken out.[21] This suggests that the Russian authorities lacked exactly that, authority, which prevented them from taking control in suppressing violent behaviour. This was hindered further by individual members of the police force who can be held accountable for the spread of the pogroms as they distributed Anti-Semitic propaganda in the form of leaflets, spreading the accounts of recent pogroms and inciting more.[22]

Anti-Semitism is specifically hostility directed towards the Jewish race, therefore the fact that Anti-Semitism was apparent in the media suggests that the Jews were targeted due to them being of a different origin to the majority of the Russian population.[23] The pogroms therefore could be an example of social Darwinism, with the Jewish population having been determined as being a lesser race.[24] It is possible that the violence expressed was purely an example of the natural competitive instincts that animals experience, particularly when competing for scarce resources. Therefore it is almost predetermined that during periods of economic stress, a minority race will be targeted for such violence, particularly within ethnically diverse and uneducated populations, as these are more prone to turn these hostilities into acts of violence due to their lack of understanding.[25] The pogroms can be regarded as having been an ‘ethnic riot’ consisting of inter-group violence, whereby the victims are chosen by group membership stemming from distinct boundaries and divisions such as language, dress and location which creates social polarisation of the ‘us’ and ‘them’.[26] This ethnic prejudice extends past the accusations of Jews being responsible for assassination and the country’s political and economic problems, as the Jews were not the only group that were targeted in this way; although this is intensified during periods of change which evokes fear and insecurity surrounding the ethnic stranger who is perhaps expected to deviate from acceptable forms of behaviour, explaining why they were held accountable for societies issues due to the Russian’s lack of trust in ‘the other’.[27]


On the other hand, religion was a contributing cause of the Russian pogroms, particularly during periods of religious celebration. Pogroms occurred during the coinciding Jewish Passover and Christian Easter celebrations during Bright Week, after bringing together Jews and non-Jews for market days, providing opportunity for open confrontation under the influence of alcohol.[28] The Christian’s religious hatred of the Jews stemmed from their resentment at the Jews having denounced Jesus, leading to the authorities persecuting him, resulting in his crucifixion – the Russian Christian population had not forgiven them for being ‘Christ Killers’, despite over a thousand years having passed, obviously meaning none of the Jews targeted in these outbreaks of violence were responsible for the death of Christ.[29] It is possibly that this created a perceived parallel between the assassination of Tsar Alexander II and the crucifixion of Christ which intensified this religious conflict. However, superstition also derived from the Blood Libel, a myth which supposedly occurred at this time, during which Jews killed Christian children for their blood.[30] However these were nothing more than ‘irrational socio-psychological impulses’ causing them to believe that the Jews were plotting against Christians, despite lacking enforcement from reality as there is no credible evidence for this having ever happened.[31] Religious tension is evident due to the targets of violence during the pogroms, with Christians attacking symbols of Judaism such as Synagogues, study houses, prayer books & Torah scrolls.[32] On the other hand, it could be argued that these religious factors were purely a coincidence as the members of the Russian Orthodox clergy did try to prevent Anti-Semitic behaviour through both sermons and direct intervention, therefore it is most likely that the Jews were targeted for a combination of the economic and political stresses, which happened to be expressed by the Russian population at a time when the Jews were most visible, targeting items or buildings that only the Jews would suffer from.[33]

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Jews became victims of the Russian pogroms due to a general feeling of instability caused by sudden and dramatic changes politically and economically. It is possible that the Russian population saw the assassination of Tsar Alexander II as being parallel to the crucifixion of Christ, which holds a long-existing tradition of blame on the Jews. Furthermore, the theories of relative deprivation and displaced social protest are valid explanations for why the Jews were targeted on an economic basis, as the underdeveloped and uneducated Russian population struggled to thrive in a society going through industrialisation whilst the Jews prospered; arguably this is purely an example of natural competitive instincts, creating a social aspect to Darwin’s survival of the fittest. The Jews were easy targets for these attacks due to their high visibility in business, aesthetic traits and religious practices which highlighted their otherness, creating an invisible and territorial barrier between Jews and non-Jews – only intensifying the fear of the other and increasing the likelihood of further violence as this made way for Anti-Semitism due to a lack of understanding of this other race and religion. Whilst pogroms coincided with Easter and Passover celebrations and symbols of Judaism were noticeably vandalised, I do not believe religious disagreements to have been a main cause of the pogroms, but rather a target that would undeniably only threaten Jewish society. Ultimately, the pogroms were caused by the economic and political instability which were the main causes of the pogroms, for which Jews were used as scapegoats based on their otherness which stemmed from religious and racial differences, as they were considered less trustworthy and could be accused of exploitation.

Bibliography

Avrutin, Eugene M., ‘Pogroms in Russian History‘, Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, Vol. 14 No.3, Slavica, (2013)

Brunstein, William I. Roots of Hate: Anti-Semitism before the Holocaust, Cambridge University Press, (2003)

Claeys, Gregory.The “Survival of the Fittest” and the Origins of Social Darwinism’, in Journal of the History of Ideas 61.2 (2000), pp. 223-240, available at: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/15068/summary, [accessed: 21/03/17]

Farmer, Alan. Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, Hodder & Stoughton, (1998), p.13; Lindemann, Levy, Anti-Semitism

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History, Oxford University Press, (2009)

Klier, John Doyle. Russians, Jews and the Pogroms of 1881-1882 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Lindemann, Albert S. (Ed.) Levy, Richard S. (Ed.), Anti-Semitism: A History, Oxford University Press, (2010)

Lindemann, Albert S. Anti-Semitism before the Holocaust, Harlow: Pearson Education, (2000) p.8

Oxford English Dictionary, ‘Pogrom’, available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/pogrom [accessed: 21/03/17]

Oxford English Dictionary, ‘Anti-Semitism’, available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/us/anti-semitic, [accessed: 21/03.17]


[1] John Doyle Klier, Russians, Jews and the Pogroms of 1881-1882 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) p.58; Oxford English Dictionary, ‘Pogrom’, available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/pogrom [accessed: 21/03/17]

[2] Albert S. Lindemann (Ed.) Richard S. Levy (Ed.), Anti-Semitism: A History, Oxford University Press, (2010) p.179

[3] Oxford English Dictionary, ‘Anti-Semitism’, available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/us/anti-semitic, [accessed: 21/03.17]

[4] Lindemann, Levy, Anti-Semitism, p.177

[5] Klier, Russians, Jews and the Pogroms of 1881-1882, p.59

[6]Eugene M. Avrutin, ‘Pogroms in Russian History‘, Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, Vol. 14 No.3, Slavica, (2013) p.595

[7] Lindemann, Levy, Anti-Semitism, p.177

[8] Avrutin, ‘Pogroms in Russian History‘, p.587

[9] Avrutin, ‘Pogroms in Russian History, p.595

[10] Gregory L. Freeze, Russia: A History, Oxford University Press, (2009) p.237; Alan Farmer, Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, Hodder & Stoughton, (1998), p.13; Lindemann, Levy, Anti-Semitism, p.168

[11] Lindemann, Levy, Anti-Semitism, p.178

[12] Klier, Russians, Jews and the Pogroms of 1881-1882, p.62

[13] Klier, Russians, Jews and the Pogroms of 1881-1882, p.63

[14] Klier, Russians, Jews and the Pogroms of 1881-1882, p.63, ASL p.52

[15] Farmer, Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, p.14; Avrutin, ‘Pogroms in Russian History‘, p.586; Lindemann, Levy, Anti-Semitism, p.178

[16] Klier, Russians, Jews and the Pogroms of 1881-1882, p.62

[17] Lindemann, Levy, Anti-Semitism, p.178; Klier, Russians, Jews and the Pogroms of 1881-1882, p.77

[18] Klier, Russians, Jews and the Pogroms of 1881-188, p.65

[19] Freeze, Russia: A History, p.250; Klier, Russians, Jews and the Pogroms of 1881-1882, p.80-81; Lindemann, Levy, Anti-Semitism p.177

[20] Klier, Russians, Jews and the Pogroms of 1881-1882, p.82

[21] Lindemann, Levy, Anti-Semitism, p.177; Avrutin, ‘Pogroms in Russian History‘ p.590

[22] Lindemann, Levy, Anti-Semitism, p.177

[23] Albert S. Lindemann, Anti-Semitism before the Holocaust, Harlow: Pearson Education, (2000) p.8

[24] Gregory Claeys, ‘The “Survival of the Fittest” and the Origins of Social Darwinism’, in Journal of the History of Ideas 61.2 (2000), pp. 223-240, available at: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/15068/summary, [accessed: 21/03/17]

[25] Avrutin, ‘Pogroms in Russian History,‘ p.586

[26] Klier, Russians, Jews and the Pogroms of 1881-1882, p.79

[27] Avrutin, ‘Pogroms in Russian History‘, p.587; Klier, Russians, Jews and the Pogroms of 1881-1882, p.80

[28] Klier, Russians, Jews and the Pogroms of 1881-1882, pp.68-70; Avrutin, ‘Pogroms in Russian History‘, p.589

[29] Lindemann, Anti-Semitism before the Holocaust, p.10-11

[30] Lindemann, Anti-Semitism before the Holocaust, p.10-11, p.27

[31] William I. Brunstein, Roots of Hate: Anti-Semitism before the Holocaust, Cambridge University Press, (2003), p.38, Lindemann, Anti-Semitism before the Holocaust, p.10-11, p.24-27

[32] Klier, Russians, Jews and the Pogroms of 1881-1882, p.69-70

[33] Avrutin, ‘Pogroms in Russian History‘, p.589

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