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In the previous article in this series I tried to give some idea of the context in which, first in 1871 in Odessa, then in 1881 in more central parts of the Ukraine (though it touched Odessa again) pogroms broke out for the first time in the Russian Empire. I stressed the traditional role of Jews as the commercial class in the areas of Poland that had been incorporated into the Russian Empire in the late eighteenth century, very crudely summarised as a system in which the classes were defined by religion and ethnicity - Polish Catholic landlords, Ukrainian or Belorussian Orthodox peasants, Jewish middlemen, the Jews performing the role of 'bourgeoisie', the class which everywhere in Europe was challenging the landed aristocracy as the ruling class and in the process developing a materialist and liberal philosophy in opposition to traditional ritualistic religious systems.

The position of the Jews as the commercial class in the formerly Polish 'Pale of Settlement' was becoming more and more untenable, especially following the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 and the failed Polish rebellion of 1863. The emancipation of the serfs had increased the ability of the peasantry to provide these services for themselves, thus putting more pressure on a competition already exacerbated by the steady increase in the Jewish population, at a rate faster than the Slav population. The failure of the Polish rebellion, together with the emancipation of the serfs, had also greatly weakened the position of the Polish landlords who had in the past been major patrons of the Jews in their manufacturing, trading, money-lending and administrative roles.

While this deterioration was true for the great majority of Jews, a minority whose financial position was already secure, was in a position to profit from the increased possibilities for trade and industry so that the gap between poor Jew and rich or even moderately comfortable Jew was increasing and was assuming an intellectual form with Orthodox Judaism and hasidism widespread among poor Jews, and the haskalah - the Jewish secularising enlightenment - taking root and giving rise to more European bourgeois-liberal ideas among the more securely established Jews (with Odessa as a major centre for Jewish intellectual life).

Under the Polish system the Jews had had a system of self government - the kahal - which conferred a sense of community across divisions of wealth, but the kahal had been abolished by government decree in 1844, though, as we shall see, it was widely believed that it still existed in a more informal, clandestine manner.

In the previous article I asked how the functions of a commercial class were fulfilled in Russia itself ('Great Russia'), given that Jews were only allowed to settle there under very stringent and exceptional conditions. I took up Richard Pipes's argument that although there was a legally constituted merchant class, the conditions under which it was forced to operate were such that it could not fulfil its role and certainly could not develop into a bourgeoisie on the European model. In consequence its role was largely divided between serf and landlords, with serfs, while still remaining serfs, sometimes accumulating large fortunes.

This naturally puts us in mind of the Russian 'kulak' (the word derives from the Russian word for a fist). John Klier, who I take to be the main authority on Russian-Jewish relations - at least in the English language literature - has an interesting discussion on the relations between the concepts 'Jew' and 'kulak'. He quotes the influential Kiev based paper Kievlanin in 1868: 'the Jews fully correspond to the Great Russian kulak.' (1)

(1) John Klier: Imperial Russia's Jewish question, 1855-1881, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p.321.

Kievlanin had been founded four years earlier with Russian government support as part of a campaign to 'russify' Ukraine in opposition not so much to the Jews, or Ukrainians, as to the Poles. (2) The Jewish writer Ilya Orshanski in the rival paper Den', arguing that Great Russia should be open to Jews, said that there was little danger that the Jews would exploit the peasants because it was already being done by the kulaks. Later, at the time of the pogroms, a writer in the influential 'thick journal' Delo asked why if the anti-Jewish pogroms had been caused by Jewish exploitation there were no pogroms against the kulaks. They were worse than the Jews. The Jews 'resemble summer midges who got in one's throat, eyes and ears, rather than the [kulak who was a] poisonous fly.' The main difference between them was that the Jews were numerous and poor and therefore, because of the competition, lowered prices, while the kulak raised them. The Jews were forced to play this role by the situation in which they found themselves, while the kulak had chosen it: 'There was always something left in a field harvested by a Jew, while a kulak blighted it to the roots.' (3)

(2)  John Klier: 'Kievlanin and the Jews: a decade of disillusionment, 1864-1873', Harvard Ukrainian Studies, Vol 5, No 1 (March 1981).

(3)  Klier: Imperial Russia's Jewish question, pp.326-7.

The legislation on the emancipation of the serfs was accompanied by what appeared to be the first stages of a process of emancipation of the Jews. This included legislation allowing the most successful section of the Jewish merchant class ('merchants of the first guild') to settle in St Petersburg. The effect was almost immediate and quite startling. It saw the establishment of the first commercial banking system in Russia chiefly associated with the Gintsberg family, providing the credit for an immediate expansion of Russia's industrial capacity and the establishment of a railway network, also largely dominated by Jews, notably the Poliakoff family.