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Boris Kustodiev: Portrait of infantry general and member of State Council Count Nikolai Pavlovich Ignatiev. Study for the picture Formal Session of the State Council. Oil on canvas. 57.8 × 48.8 cm. The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Although Klier establishes that 'Neither the Russian governing elite nor society wanted pogroms' he goes on to say the 'they believed they understood them and they certainly empathised with them' (p.86). They saw the pogroms as an understandable reaction to exploitation by Jews. Klier (p.236) quotes the romantic novelist, Zenaide Ragozin, who acted as a spokeswomen for the Russian view of the world in North America, as saying, in an article drawing on the arguments of Iakov Brafman, that the Jews 'are a parasitical race who, producing nothing, fasten on the produce of land and labour and live on it, choking the life out of commerce and industry as surely as the creeper throttles the tree that upholds it.' 

Ignatiev gave his views on the origin of the riots in a memorandum to Alexander II submitted in August 1881:

'Having recognized how harmful to the Christian population of the country is the economic activity of the Jews, their tribal seclusion and religious fanaticism, the government for the past twenty years strove by a whole series of measures to promote their assimilation and almost equalized their rights with those of the native inhabitants. In the meantime, the anti-Jewish movement which began this year in the South [...] has proved irrefutably that in spite of all the government's efforts, the abnormal relations between the Jews and the indigenous inhabitants continue as before [...] The main reason for behavior so uncharacteristic of Russians lies in circumstances of an exclusively economic kind. In the last twenty years the Jews, little by little, have taken over not only trade and production but through rent or purchase significant amounts of landed property. Because of their clannishness and solidarity, all but a few of them have bent every effort not to increase the productive forces of the country but to exploit the native inhabitants, and primarily the poorer classes. This provoked the protest of the latter, finding such deplorable expression in acts of violence. [...] Having energetically put down the disorders and stopped the people from taking the law into their own hands in order to safeguard the Jews from violence, an even-handed government must immediately take no less energetic steps to remove the abnormal conditions which now exist between Jews and natives and protect the latter from that pernicious activity which, according to the local authorities, was responsible for the disturbances.' (14)

(14) Quoted in Hans Rogger: 'Government, Jews, Peasants, and Land in Post-Emancipation Russia: Two specters: Peasant violence and Jewish exploitation', Cahiers du Monde russe et soviétique, Vol. 17, No. 2/3 (Apr. - Sep., 1976), p.173.

In October he established a Committee on the Jewish question under the chairmanship of his deputy, D.V.Gotovtsev, with a brief to examine fourteen proposed restrictions on Jewish activity to give the peasants 'a visible demonstration of the government's concern for their protection from Jewish exploitation' (quoted in Rogger, p.174). The end result was the introduction in May of a set of laws, called 'Temporary Laws', though they remained in force until 1917. Rogger and Aronson, (15) however, point out that quite a lot of the evidence received by Gotovtsev was actually favourable to an easing of the restrictions on Jewish life, most especially the proposal to allow them freedom to move and settle outside the Pale. The counter-argument to the view that Jews left to their own devices would exploit the peasant was that it was precisely the intensity of competition among the trading classes (Jews among themselves but also with Armenians, Greeks, Old Believers and increasingly with Ukrainians and Russians) and the legal restrictions placed on them that forced them into shady practises as the only means by which they could earn a living.

(15)  I.M.Aronson: 'The Prospects for the emancipation of Russian Jewry during the 1880s', The Slavonic and East European Review, Vol 55, No.3 (July 1977), pp.348-369.

In the event, the May Laws were less restrictive than Ignatiev's original proposal. To quote Rogger (p.179):

'Among Ignat'ev's sharpest critics were M. Kh. Reutern, Chairman of the Committee of Ministers and a former Minister of Finance, and the incumbent of that office, N. Kh. Bunge. They saw administrative arbitrariness and pogroms alike as undermining property rights, the nation's credit and good name, its hopes for economic stability and growth. The State Comptroller, D. M. Sol'skii, seconded them. "Today they are harassing the Jews," he warned. "Tomorrow it will be the turn of the so-called kulaks [...], then of merchants and landowners. In a word, if the authorities stand by passively, we can expect the development in the near future of the most terrible socialism."'

Rogger continues: 'After turning down both the original fourteen points of the Gotovtsev Committee, and the scaled down emergency program proposed by Ignatiev, the ministers voted, "in the interests of the local population", to yield to his urging on three points. Jews not already living there were forbidden to take up residence in the villages (it might help to forestall trouble), to acquire rural real estate through lease, purchase or any other device, or to conduct business on Christian holy days. The prohibition which Ignatiev and most of the provincial commissions wished to see put on the liquor traffic was rejected, either for fiscal or humanitarian reasons, though some minor restrictions were authorised.'

From a government point of view, then, the 'May laws' could be seen as quite mild, the more so because through most of the 1880s, when Ignatiev was replaced as Minister of Internal Affairs by Dmitry Tolstoy (Pobedonostsev's predecessor as Procurator of the Holy Synod) it appears that they weren't rigorously enforced. From a Jewish point of view, however, they were deeply shocking. Jews had just undergone the most terrifying experience and the government had more or less concluded that it was all their own fault. The impact on Jewish culture and politics was enormous. In particular it produced the first aliyah, emigration to Palestine. It is too large a topic to be dealt with here. I hope to take it up again, together with the related question of the radical politics of the 1870s, in a subsequent article.