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Moldova as it is today. Odessa is just out of sight, on the Black Sea, beyond the Easternmost point of Moldova

The pogroms for which Russia is so famous - despite the fact that very few Russians were involved in them - occurred in two main clusters: 1881-2 (with further outbreaks in 1883 and 1884 which however, though vicious, were quickly and efficiently suppressed (1)) and 1903-6. As well as asking why pogroms occurred then we could also ask why they did not occur, at least on the same scale, between 1882(or 4) and 1903, and between 1906 and 1917.

(1)  According to the Jewish Virtual Library account: 'In the spring of 1883, a sudden wave of pogroms broke out in the towns of Rostov and Yekaterinoslav and their surroundings. On this occasion, the authorities reacted with vigor against the rioters and there were several casualties among them. The last great outburst occurred in June 1884 in Nizhni Novgorod, where the mob attacked the Jews of the Kanavino quarter, killing nine of them and looting much property. The authorities tried over 70 of the rioters and severe penalties of imprisonment were imposed on them. This marked the end of the first wave of pogroms in Russia.' As mentioned in a previous article Nizhni Novgorod was unusual in that it was outside the Pale of Settlement. Jews were living there because they had served in that area in the army.

The 1903-6 cluster could perhaps better be described as two clusters - 1903, dominated by Kishinev and Gomel, and 1905-6, the confrontations that occurred in the wake of the 1905 'revolution' and the 'October Manifesto', issued by the Tsar, conceding certain constitutional rights, including the establishment of a representational assembly - the 'duma'.

Kishinev, now called Chișinău, is the capital of Moldavia, now called Moldova, or at least of that part of it that was incorporated into the Russian Empire, initially under the name 'Bessarabia'. Moldavia and Wallachia had existed as semi-independent principalities under Ottoman rule but the area that included Kishinev was incorporated into the Russian Empire following the Turkish Russian war of 1806-12. Part of the territory, not including Kishinev, was regained by the Turks after the Crimean war but recovered by the Russians in 1878 when Romania gained its independence from the Ottomans. The whole area, including Kishinev, was taken by Romania in the chaos following the 1917 revolution and then incorporated into the Soviet Union as a result of the Second World War. It is now an independent state.

Its history is thus a little different from that of the other areas of the Pale, incorporated as a result of the Polish partitions. The population was largely Romanian speaking and, since the language of education and literature was Russian, there was a higher than usual illiteracy rate. Romanian is considerably more distant from Russian than Ukrainian. Kishinev had a Moldavian, Romanian speaking, majority but a large Jewish, yiddish-speaking, minority, highly visible through its shops and small businesses. The small minority characterised as 'Russian' was, Solzhenitsyn points out, mainly Ukrainian.

The pogrom that occurred in Kishinev over two days (Easter Sunday and Easter Monday) in April 1903 is particularly important, Steven Zipperstein, in his book Kishinev and the Tilt of History (New York, Liveright publishing Corp, 2018) says: 'Prior to Buchenwald and Auschwitz, no place-name evoked Jewish suffering more starkly than Kishinev' (p.xiii).

Kishinev stood out for several reasons. First, because of the attacks on persons. We have seen that in the 1881-2 pogroms there seems to have been a principle at work that attacks on property were allowed but not attacks on persons. In the two days of the Kishinev pogrom, forty nine Jews were killed (2), almost twice as many as in the whole 1881-4 period and there many cases of rape, including gang rape. Secondly, although it was widely believed that the 1881-2 pogroms had government support (1883 and 1884 clearly hadn't) it was very difficult to prove and, again as we've seen, modern historiography following after Hans Rogger, is sceptical on the subject. In Kishinev, however, a particularly virulent antisemitism had clearly been fomented by the government approved journal Bessarabets; and there seemed to be definite evidence of government support in a letter said to have been addressed by the Minister of Interior Vyacheslav Konstantinovich Plehve to the governor general, R.S. von Raaben, shortly before the outbreak ordering him, in the event of a pogrom, not to use force to suppress it. Simon Dubnow in his highly influential History of the Jews in Russia and Poland (vol iii, Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society of America, 1920) also mentions 'an emissary of the political police, the gendarmerie officer Levendahl, who had been dispatched from St Petersburg; after Easter, when the sanguinary crime had already been committed, the same mysterious envoy vanished just as quickly.' (p.71).

(2) Zipperstein's figure. Solzhenitsyn has 38.

But perhaps most important in establishing the importance of Kishinev in the Jewish collective memory, were two pieces of writing - the poem City of Slaughter by Hayyim Nahman Bialik which, according to Zipperstein (p.xviii) is 'widely considered the most influential poetic work written in a Jewish language [Hebrew, though Bialik also produced a version in Yiddish - PB] since the Middle Ages'; and the detailed in-depth reporting of the Irish Nationalist and land reformer Michael Davitt 'whose book, based on his newspaper reports titled Within the Pale: the true story of anti-semitic persecution in Russia set the standard for Western descriptions of Russian Jewish life for the decade to come' (ibid, pp.xviii-ix).

Solzhenitsyn, basing his account on the case drawn up by the local prosecutor, V.N.Goremykin (a source dismissed by Dubnow as invidious) tells a story that is rather different from the other versions I have read.  He describes a relatively mild bout of stone throwing on the Sunday afternoon, dealt with inadequately by the police. 'In the evening the disorders calmed down. "No act of violence was perpetrated against the Jews that day."' (p.357, apparently quoting Goremykin). The police arrested sixty persons. By contrast Zipperstein says: 'Attacks on women that night were ferocious. In an apartment near the New Market on Nikolaevskii Street, one of the city’s major boulevards, a woman was raped repeatedly for four consecutive hours by members of a mob that included seminarians, according to Davitt.' (p.69). He goes on to say however: 'Curiously, despite the day’s horrors, many Jews - including communal leaders - remained convinced that the riot was not nearly as bad as had been feared, or that it had now been contained.' He agrees with Solzhenitsyn's figure of sixty arrests.

Solzhenitsyn goes on to say, again in quotes presumably from the trial, that the next day (7th April): '"More than one hundred Jews had gathered, armed with stakes and posts ['pieux et piquets' - following Harraps Dictionary they both seem to mean the same thing - PB], with rifles, here and there - some shots were fired. The Christians didn't have fire arms. The Jews said 'yesterday you didn't disperse the Russians, today we're going to defend ourselves.' And some were holding bottles of vitriol which they threw at the Christians they met"' 'The chemists shops ere traditionally kept by Jews,' Solzhenitsyn adds in a parenthesis. '"Rumours spread across the town that Christians were being attacked by the Jews" ... It was said that the Jews have sacked the cathedral and killed the priest ...' (p.357).

Interestingly Zipperstein confirms the Jewish effort at self defence on the Monday morning:

'Yehiel Pesker, the owner of a glass store at the New Market who, like Yisrael Rossman, went to inspect his shop early Monday for damage, encountered on the way home a large group of Jews - he recalled that they numbered at least two hundred - gathered in the wine courtyard, armed and prepared to fight. He saw the clubs in their arms; it turned out that several were carrying guns as well. Returning home inspired by what he had seen, Pesker set in motion plans to protect his building. He armed himself with a club, too, and instructed his neighbours to join him in battling the mob. This they did until they were overwhelmed.' He continues: 'In arguments made by defence attorneys at the trials of pogrom-related crimes, Sunday’s rioting was dismissed as a ruckus that would quickly have come to an end - much as the governor general assured the Jewish delegation on Monday morning - had Jews not overreacted. In this version it was the all-but-unprovoked aggression of Jews and subsequent rumours of attacks on a church and the killing of a priest that set in motion the unfortunate but, under the circumstances, understandable violence.' (p.87)