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One of the theories of the origins of the 1881 pogroms is that they were fomented by Great Russians who had come to the area in search of work:

'The spring of 1881 found large numbers of Great Russians in the south and southwest regions of the Empire. In addition to those who normally sought seasonal jobs in the usually rich fields of the Ukraine, there were those thrown out of work in St. Petersburg and Moscow by the industrial crisis and depression of 1880-1881. The local crop failures and near famine of these years gave little promise of finding gainful employment. Still they came ... Being strangers far from home, these workers undoubtedly felt a strong sense of rootlessness, alienation, and anonymity. Many must have lost hope in their prospects for finding employment. They were hungry; homeless, embittered, and given to occasional acts of thievery and assault. Cases are on record of unemployed labourers in this region in this period committing crimes simply in order to be thrown into jail, where they were at least guaranteed something to eat. A pogrom had the advantage that it promised, as a bare minimum, a bellyful of vodka.' (5)

(5) I.Michael Aronson: 'Geographical and socio-economic factors in the 1881 anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia', the Russian Review, Vol 39, no.1 (Jan 1980), p.21. John Klier (Russians, Jews and the Pogroms of 1881-2 - see the next footnote, p.53), it should be said, disagrees with this, saying that in the government archives the great majority of those arrested for participation in the pogroms were of peasant origin and lived locally. He also says they were mostly ethnic Ukrainians. Given Ukraine's desire for separation from Russia it really ought to take possession of its pogroms so that we start calling these 'Ukrainian pogroms' rather than 'Russian pogroms'. 

Without suggesting that such workers were influenced by the 'philosophical anti-semitism' that was developing in St Petersburg, we might suggest that they were influenced by the phenomenon that had given rise to it - the sudden appearance in St Petersburg of a new class of very rich and powerful Jews associated with the rapid expansion of banking and industry and the effect this was having on a proletariat in the very early stages of its development. To quote Aronson again (p.31): 'the pogroms were more the result of Russia's modernisation and industrialisation process than of age-old religious and national antagonisms.'

The pogroms started in Elzavetgrad in the Ukraine during the Easter 'Bright Week' (the week following Easter Sunday celebrations). (6) The immediate context was the assassination the previous month of Alexander II, the 'Tsar liberator', responsible for the emancipation of the peasantry from serfdom in 1861, and also for a considerable easing of the restrictions that had been placed on the Jews.

(6) This account is mostly based on John Klier; Russians, Jews and the Pogroms of 1881-2, Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp.17-48. Elizavetgrad is South of Kiev. At the time it was part of the governorate of Kherson. Since 1917 it has gone through some interesting name changes. In 1924 it became Zinovyevsk (Zinoviev was born there); in 1934 it became Kirovo, changing in 1939 to Kirovograd. Since 2016, following a law forbidding the use of Soviet-era names, it became Kropyvnytskyi, after a locally born playwright. It is still in an oblast named Kirovograd because that is mentioned in the constitution of Ukraine and can't be changed without a referendum.

According to Klier trouble was expected in Bright Week and the local Chief of Police called in an army contingent to deal with it but after nothing had happened in the first three days they withdrew. Klier points out that the forces available to the police were totally inadequate. In Elizavetgrad there were 87 police for a population  of 45,000; in Pereislav, where the trouble spread, 16 for 16,000; in Poltava, 76 for 40,000. Since Emancipation, rural peasant communities were supposed to be self governing with an elected village elder and two elected policemen. These posts were unpaid and people were reluctant to take them on. For those who did take them on the temptation to corruption was strong and they had a bad reputation. By 1900 throughout the Empire as a whole there were some 8,500 policemen to a total population of 90 million.

Despite the connection with Easter, Klier is dismissive of the idea that the pogrom was religiously inspired: 'the model of peasants emerging from the Russian Orthodox Paschal service intent on settling scores with "Christ killing Jews" is nowhere to be found in any pogrom report. There was no such thing as an "Easter Sunday" pogrom in Orthodox communities.' (p.68). I might add that if there was it would have to start at the earliest at 3.00 in the morning. The Orthodox Good Friday services are as it happens full of anti-Jewish sentiment. But the point about Bright Week is that it is a period of carousing and drunkenness, which tended to take place in taverns run by Jews who therefore found themselves in the middle of it. The Elizavetgrad pogrom was sparked off by a quarrel in a Jewish-owned tavern. According to Klier, the Orthodox clergy intervened 'almost without exception' against the pogroms when they broke out and they were under orders from the Holy Synod, the governing body of the Church, at the time run by Pobedonostsev, to give anti-pogrom sermons. (7)

(7) Though he does, pp.51-2, refer to twelve priests being arrested among the pogromshchiki.

Klier describes three 'waves' of pogroms. In Elizavetgrad itself, 418 Jewish homes were attacked and 290 shops and stalls wrecked. 601 people, mainly town-dwellers but with some peasants, were arrested and though they were soon freed, 480 people were brought to trial (it doesn't appear that very many were actually punished). Two days after the pogrom had begun, the governor of the province arrived and demanded the return of stolen property. So much was returned that a warehouse had to be hired to store it all.

Nonetheless the violence spread out, affecting in all, three cities, a railway station, two small towns and forty villages, with 882 Jewish homes attacked and 434 commercial buildings damaged. This first wave was finished by the end of April.

The second wave began on 26th April in Kiev and the surrounding area. I'm using Klier's dates and I think he is using the Old Style (OS) Julian calendar still in use in the Russian Empire until 1917. The governor here, Alexander Drenteln, had been the Chief of Gendarmes in St Petersburg at the time of the assassination of Alexander II and he was particularly anxious to avoid being involved in further trouble. The army was brought in before the pogrom started and he intervened personally to try to stop it. 500 people were arrested when a mob attacked the home of the wealthy Jewish sugar baron, Josef Markov Brodski. The army fired into the crowd killing four people. But as with the Elizavetgrad pogrom the violence spread, following towns and Jewish agricultural colonies along the railway lines South and East of Kiev to the Tauride and Ekaterinoslav provinces. This wave came to an end by the 10th May.

The third wave lasted from 30th June to 16th August 1881, covering the Poltava and Chernigov provinces, East and North of Kiev. It had been preceded by petitions from various towns in the area, for example Pereislav, Poltava, demanding the expulsion of resident Jews. During this period a total of eleven people were killed, all of them pogromists killed by the army. Kier (p.35 and pp.66-7) maintains that the pogromists were observing a principle of attacking only property and not persons, except where they encountered resistance. By the 16th August he says 'all significant pogrom activity in the Pale of Settlement came to an end.'

There was, however, a probably unrelated pogrom on Christmas day in Warsaw in the kingdom of Poland which was a supposedly autonomous part of the Russian Empire. It broke out after twenty five people were killed in a stampede in the Roman Catholic cathedral caused by a false fire alarm. It was believed that the cry had been raised by a Jewish petty thief wanting to evade capture.

In the Easter period in 1882 it looked as if the pogroms were going to resume in Ukraine when there was an outbreak in Balta, on the Odessa-Kiev railway line, a town with a population of about 20,000, more than half of them Jews. Trouble had been expected and Jews had been authorised to establish their own night patrols over the Easter period. This, according to Klier, is the only case in which government reports confirm the occurrence of rape.

Antony Polonsky, in a book published about the same time as Klier's, gives a total of 259 pogroms, 219 in villages, 4 (as we've already seen) in Jewish agricultural colonies, and 36 in cities or small towns. He claims that 25 Jews were killed in the 1881-2 pogroms, and he adds a 'final pogrom which occurred in Nizhny-Novgorod on 7th June and was accompanied by an accusation of ritual murder' when 'ten Jews were hacked to death with axes'.' (8) This may require some explanation since Nizhny-Novgorod (which under the Soviet Union became Gorky) is in Russia proper, outside the pale of Settlement. Wikipedia informs me that a Jewish community had formed in Nizhny-Novgorod on the basis of Jewish soldiers (Jews had been subject to conscription since 1827), 'required to live in the city where they served. They subsequently became merchants and traders.' The Wikipedia piece, without mentioning the 1884 pogrom, says that a synagogue was built there in 1881-3.

(8)  Antony Polonsky: 'The Position of the Jews in the Tsarist Empire, 1881–1905'. I think, though it isn't obvious from the text I obtained off the internet, that this is a chapter of Polonsky's book The Jews in Poland and Russia, Oxford and Portland, Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2010, Volume 2: 1881–1914. He says that the figures were given to him by Klier though I haven't found them in my notes on Klier's book.