Back to article index


Zhitomir and Kiev (modern boundaries)

Solzhenitsyn (pp.400-401) tells us that the Bund played a central role in the events following Bloody Sunday:

'The Bund immediately published a proclamation ("with around 200,000 copies"): "The revolution has begun. It has taken fire in the capital, its flames will cover the the whole country ... To arms! Seize the armouries by force and take hold of all the weapons ... Let every street become a battlefield."

'According to the Red Chronicle (8) account of the beginnings of the Soviet régime, "the events of the 9th January in Petersburg struck a chord with the heart of the Jewish workers movement: they were followed by mass demonstrations of the Jewish proletariat throughout the Zone of Residence. These were led by the Bund." To ensure mass participation in these demonstrations, detachments from the Bund visited workshops, factories, installations and even the homes of workers calling on them to stop work; they used force to empty boilers of their steam, tore out drive belts; they threatened the owners of the enterprises, here and there shots were fired, in Vitebsk one of them had sulphuric acid thrown at him. It wasn't "a spontaneous mass demonstration but a carefully prepared and organised action." N. Buchbinder regrets, however, that “almost everywhere the strikes were followed only by the Jewish workers… In a whole series of towns the Russian workers put up a strong resistance to the attempts to stop factories and plants.” There were week-long strikes in Vilnius, Minsk, Gomel, Riga, of two weeks in Libava. The police had to intervene, naturally, and in several cities the Bund constituted “armed detachments to combat police terror.” In Krinki (the province of Grodno), the strikers shot at the police, interrupted telegraphic communications, and for two days all the power was in the hands of the strike committee. “The fact that workers, and among them a majority of Jews, had thus been able to hold power from the beginning of 1905, was very significant of what this revolution was, and gave rise to many hopes.” It is no less true that the Bund’s important participation in these actions “might lead one to believe that discontent was above all the doing of the Jews, while the other nationalities were not as revolutionary as all that.”'

(8) According to the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia (3rd ed, 1970-9), The Red Chronicle (Krasnaia letopis') was 'a historical journal of the Petrograd (later Leningrad) Institute of Party History ... Krasnaia Letopis' was published from 1922 to 1934 and from 1936 to 1937. The journal published memoirs and articles on the history of the Bolshevik Party and of the Great October Socialist Revolution, devoting its main attention to the history of the Leningrad party organisation and the history of Leningrad's factories and plants.'

The last quotation comes from Semyon Dimanstein, an Old Bolshevik active in Vilnius in 1904 in opposition to the Bund, appointed head in 1918 of the Commissariat for Jewish National Affairs, and a supporter of the Jewish Autonomous Oblast in the Russian Far East (Birobidzhan). Executed in 1938. The Bund, it should be said, are barely mentioned in the 840 odd pages of Pipes's book.

Solzhenitsyn goes on to talk about the pogrom which occurred in April 1905 in Zhitomir, quoting Dimanstein as saying: 'It wasn't a pogrom but a fight against the forces of the counter revolution.' Stefan Wiese, whom I quoted earlier on Jewish determination to fight back against violence and insults, has an account of the events in Zhitomir which partly confirms Solzhenitsyn's view, but only partly. One is left with the impression of two different confrontations, one of which could be described as a confrontation between two equally aggressive parties, but the other is more like an old fashioned nineteenth century pogrom.

Zhitomir is situated to the West of Kiev, on the main road between Kiev and Brest. Jews constituted about a third of the population. The Christian population was divided almost equally between Catholic and Orthodox. There was a Catholic cathedral. The fact that modern Zhitomir has at least three Orthodox churches claiming to be 'cathedrals' - one attached to the Moscow patriarchate, one to the Kyiv patriarchate and a third I think attached to the older Ukrainian Autonomous Orthodox Church - suggests, together with its situation to the West, that there is a strong sense of Ukrainian national identity. So the rumour that Jewish self defence groups were using a portrait of the Tsar for target practice may not have been quite as offensive to the sensibilities of the Orthodox population as Solzhenitsyn thinks it should have been. Nonetheless the fact that Jews were retiring to the woods to train in the use of firearms was worrying enough in itself.

The inspiration for the development of self defence groups was Gomel, seen as the beginning of the reassertion of Jewish pride. According to Wiese:

'Large swathes of the local Jewry supported the foundation of a self-defence unit in Zhitomir. But organising the illegal battle-squads, obtaining firearms and establishing conspiratorial commando-structures was impossible without the resources of local socialist networks. In Zhitomir, the main players were the SR and the Bund [...] It must also be acknowledged that a conflict of interest existed between the majority of the Jewish population, that strove to prevent or minimise violence, and the agenda of revolutionary parties which, by their very nature, thrived through the destabilisation and discrediting of state order.

'This conflict inspired the battle-squad units of Zhitomir from the point of their first public action, which occurred during demonstrations against “Bloody Sunday” in January 1905. On 15 January, they participated in a rally, accompanying their revolutionary songs and slogans with revolver shots. Then, from 25 to 26 January, local socialists planned to impose a general strike on the city. Groups armed with knives and revolvers threatened those employers who were unwilling to close their shops down; some additionally had their windows smashed.'

As a result, despite the opposition of older Jews, 'The message of the revolutionary self-defense was thus construed by large parts of the non-Jewish population as ethnic, not social or political opposition.'

In addition, as a result of the new Jewish self assertiveness there were 'repeated gentile complaints about Jews jamming the sidewalks and unwilling to give way to passers-by. Some of them were, allegedly, even insulted and attacked by young men out of a Jewish crowd. Consequently, “people in the city began to say: The Jew is revolting, the Jews must be curbed.”' The quote is from a letter sent by the Attorney of the Zhitomir regional court to the Minister of Justice.

Ziev continues:

'It was the self-defence itself that added one more disquieting ingredient to the already delicate situation in the city, as its leadership began to convene secret meetings for the purpose of military practice and political agitation. For conspiratorial reasons, they usually took place in the forests outside the city; but here they could not pass unnoticed by local peasants. In the villages, news spread about hundreds of Jews, who practiced shooting at a portrait of the Tsar. While contemporary press accounts depicted the latter as a mere myth, an investigation by the deputy Director of the Police Department produced considerable if not definite evidence to suggest that the gunshots at the Emperor’s portrait had in fact occurred. For instance, on 13 April 1905, a self-defence meeting close to the village of Psyshche with speeches and shooting practice dispersed into small groups. One of them headed for the village crossing a sown field and was attacked by local peasants. Despite having defended themselves with firearms, one Jew was seriously wounded, while the peasants were left unharmed.

'News about the shooting of the Tsar’s portrait spread rapidly in Zhitomir and its surroundings, and so did the idea that Jews might seek vengeance for their defeat near Psyshche. Peasants began to guard their houses at night fearing Jewish attacks or arson. In more general terms, the very emergence of the self-defence was interpreted as a threat, because rumour had it that “the Jews intend to retaliate against the Christians for the pogroms of Kishinev and Gomel.” As Easter approached, it was even said that the Jews planned to blow up the (Orthodox or Catholic, by different versions) cathedral and to “massacre the Christians.” In the mind of the populace, thus was the message of active self-defence mingled with current fears of terrorist attacks and prevalent understandings of reciprocal violence. Hence, large parts of the gentile population expected a major outbreak of violence as much as did the Jews, but with the inverted role of prospective victim and perpetrator.'  

Trouble was expected at Easter and the governor had ordered a massive increase in military and police patrols but the actual confrontation began on St George's Day, when a group of Jews out on a boating trip were stoned by a group of peasants enjoying a picnic on the bank. This produced a standoff the following day on the Cathedral Square 'between a group of some seventy "tidily dressed Christian workers" that occupied the one side, and a number of Jews on the other'. In the middle of this news spread of the assassination of the police superintendent Kuiarov, head of the first police district of the city, accused of 'excessive violence' in putting down the troubles that had followed the events of Bloody Sunday. Later accounts attribute to Kuiarov a role similar to that of Khrushevan in Kishinev of fomenting anti-Jewish sentiment in the town but Ziev finds this very doubtful. He also points out that Kuiarov was in trouble with his own superiors: 'Zhitomir’s police chief stated that he was more than willing to have Kuiarov removed from office, the Governor confirming the necessity of this measure; his dismissal was imminent at the time of his assassination.' By Ziev's account the assassination had the effect of scaring the Chief of Police, Ianovitskii, into inaction, leaving the responsibility for dealing with the situation in the hands of the army which, however, was forbidden by its rules of engagement from using force without the permission of the civil authority. Ziev stresses, as did Klier writing about the nineteenth century pogroms, that in any case the Russian police were grossly undermanned and underfunded.

The Jewish group on Cathedral Square eventually broke when they realised that 'the real pogrom was not going to take place in the city centre, but in Podol. Within the “Christian” crowd, one more Jew was beaten to death before the military encircled some 50 members of the mob and took them in the police station. Yet, even as they were escorted, two pogromists managed to stab another Jew, an accidental bystander, while the convoy was interrupted by a trolley car.

'Podol was the poor Jewish district of Zhitomir, situated along gulleys running down to the Kamenka river. A bridge connected it to the even poorer outskirt of Malevanka, inhabited predominantly by Russian old-believers, (9) who were notorious for their unruly and criminal behaviour.' Jews had been guarding the bridge in anticipation of trouble until the evening, when:

'some dozens of the hooligans bypassed the bridge and crossed the river at a nearby ford to enter into the Podolian “rear.” Taken by surprise, the Jews at the bridge panicked, and the self-defence was crushed. In the course of a few minutes at least six persons were killed and 30 wounded. The pogromists began to sack shops and houses and to smash whatever valuables could not be carried away, such as stoves and window panes. Only around 11 p.m. the state showed up in Podol in the shape of some soldiers, who by their mere presence brought the pogrom to a preliminary end.'

(9) For those who don't know, 'old believers' were Orthodox Christians who had refused to accept certain liturgical reforms introduced by the Moscow Patriarchate in the seventeenth century. Solzhenitsyn often draws attention to them as a religious minority who suffered more legal restraints than the Jews.

But the violence resumed the next day until 'On 26 April, the Governor finally issued a conclusive firing order, military reinforcements arrived and the pogrom came to an end.'

One interesting aspect of this is that the Christians were in general armed with sticks, stones, knives, while the Jews were armed with revolvers, which they made a point of displaying prominently. Yet, according to Wiese: 'Of the 18 persons killed during the pogrom, 16 were Jews. If one adds Nikolai Blinov [a Christian who tried to intercede with the Christian mob on behalf of the Jews - PB], there remains one person killed under unclear circumstances. Nine Christians were wounded so gravely that they required treatment in one of the city’s hospitals - compared to 82 Jews.' As Wiese comments 'Although insufficient firearm skills and nerves may have played a role, it seems that in Zhitomir the “battle squads” largely confined themselves to warning shots above the heads of the attackers.' Wiese doesn't say it but I think one can assume that, despite the new aggressiveness of the Jews, there was a feeling that actually to shoot one of the "Christians" would have terrible consequences. Either that or among Jews of revolutionary sympathies the notion of shooting peasants and workers was intolerable. It was much better to regard them as the dupes of dark forces.

The main lesson Wiese extracts out of all that is that the self defence groups were more effective in provoking pogroms than in preventing them. He concludes:

'The local Jews, it seems, did learn a lesson from the events. When a wave of over 600 exceptionally cruel pogroms swept across the Pale of Settlement in October and November 1905, Zhitomir was spared. No commentator attributed this to a success of the local self-defence. Instead, a crucial role was played by the conservative parts of local Jewry that had formed a “Union for the pacification” in the wake of the April pogrom. They understood the prevalent pattern of pogroms arising from patriotic manifestations and organised an ostentatious Jewish demonstration of devotion and loyalty to the Tsar with several thousands of participants at the very day a pogrom was expected to break out. Even the progressive Jewish journal “Voskhod” assumed that this step was the single decisive measure to prevent a new pogrom. Efforts to avert pogroms were not the exclusive domain of young radicals, and self-defence was not always the most promising way to prevent anti-Jewish violence ...

'The battle squads were designed to prevent and to limit pogroms, but at the same time, they were part of a political, generational and emotional project. The self-defence promoted, at least indirectly, a socialist revolution; it was an instrument of the young and unattached to claim power over the elderly, conservative and well established. Additionally, it emphasised Jewish self-assertion and pride. The conflict of objectives that prevailed between these goals has not yet been fully recognised by historiography, although it significantly contributes to the explanation of the self-defence’s failure, at least in Zhitomir.'