REVIEW: A Famous Russian Pogrom Whose Horror Resonates Strongly Today


Pogrom:  Kishinev and the Tilt of History by Steven J. Zipperstein

Liveright, 261 pp.

By Jim Kaplan

Pogrom is an outstanding book, both for what it says directly and for all it implies.  What it says directly would be important enough to pay attention: that the Kishinev pogrom (Russian for “thunder” or “storm” in its origins) involving the mass murder of 49 Jews (and the rape and injury of hundreds more) in a God-forsaken corner of the Russian Empire in 1903, was a foretaste of the destruction of the East and Central European Jewish community, which occurred 40 years later. 

Pogrom also suggests, but does not state, that the conditions that led to Kishinev, and some of the consequences of it, are present around the world, perhaps most alarmingly, in America in the present day.  That is a surprise, because at first blush, Kishinev seems firmly rooted in its own century -- mostly the 19th -- as opposed to the globalized, digital 21st century of today. 

The reasons for the pogrom, Zipperstein argues, are numerous but their relative importance is not scientifically ascertainable.  No doubt explicitly religious animus played a critical role; the Kishinev pogrom occurred on Easter Sunday (and the day after), which, of course, focuses on the drama of the Crucifixion and the betrayal of Jesus.  The tightly held belief by some Christians that Jews were the culprits in the Easter story (as well as in atrocities against local Christians) seems to have been part of the motivation for their vengeful rage for destruction.  Zipperstein notes that shorter-term considerations like alcohol-fueled Easter Celebrations that loosened inhibitions and weather conditions (clearing and good, not stormy) on the second day contributed to the violence, and he makes clear that the fiercely anti-Semitic local press certainly played a role in stoking violence.

But most historians, including Zipperstein, focus on the social and economic forces in Kishinev and its province, Bessarabia, more broadly and zero in on the conflicts between  rural Christians tied to the traditional culture and agrarian economy, and urban Jews, who were traders, manufacturers, professionals, shopkeepers and generally involved in the growing market economy.  In this dynamic, Jews gained ground as Christians lost it, and all could see that some of the big houses in Kishinev’s nicest neighborhoods had transitioned to Jewish ownership. 

Looking beyond Kishinev, Zipperstein also demonstrates that change had come even to this remote corner of Russia, which made Christians, the former winners, more insecure and Jews more hopeful and resurgent.  Zipperstein, professor of Jewish Culture and History at Stanford University, illuminates how Kishinev was effected by late 19th century social change, the rise of markets and capitalism, and how these forces led to the surge in Russian pogroms over the following two decades, and then in the late 1930’s and 1940’s, the ultimate pogrom that engulfed Europe.

Zipperstein brilliantly, and consequentially, traces the shift in anti-Semitic ideology from one based mainly in religious difference to one based in economics and cultural conflict.  At the center of the Kishinev pogrom is Pavel Krushevan, a local Bessarabian reactionary intellectual, editor of the incendiary local newspaper at the time, and (as Zipperstein reveals) probably the major author behind The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, first published not long after the Kishinev pogrom, and one of the cornerstones of global anti-Semitic ideology ever since.  The Protocols are critical to Zipperstein’s analysis, in that the almost non-religious hateful ideology they express were very much a product of the modern, capitalist era. 

The Protocols view capitalism and its ideological opposite, socialism, as both in the service of a Jewish-led cabal that seeks world domination and enslavement of the common person.  The rationale of anti-Semitism thus shifted from nearly two millennia of punishing the Jews for killing God to Christian self-defense that is designed to avoid Jewish domination and subjugation to Jewish interests in the here and now.  Zipperstein explains the motivations behind the Kishinev pogrom this way: “From its start, their attack on Jews was justified as self-defense, a reasonable response to a pariah people, capable or any and all transgressions, whose toxic activities, as heavy as history itself, had to be put to an end.”  The Protocols were a reflection of the transformational shift from viewing Jews as a reviled, contaminated, peculiar, religious minority to an all-powerful conspiracy (with plenty of non-Jewish collaborators) bent on total control and enslavement of the non-Jewish world.  Anti-Semitic ideology since The Protocols has generally been in line with this shift, from Mein Kampf all the way to the internet ravings of the present day.

Zipperstein deals with much more in Pogrom, including the effect Kishinev had on Zionist sentiment (it surged), encouragement of immigration to the U.S. or Palestine (it too surged, particularly to the U.S.), Russian politics, and even its significant contribution to the U.S. civil rights and anti-lynching movements, and its direct links to the founding of the NAACP in 1909 and 1910.

But the book’s most profound impact might well be how we view anti-Semitic movements and their close progeny -- other racist or extreme nativist movements -- today.  Kishinev, in its links to a hatred of Jews that was really disguised fear and hatred of downward mobility and lost status, and the consequent development of conspiratorial and hateful extreme group-oriented ideologies to cast blame for this lost privilege, was one of the first of its kind.  Tragically, it was not the last.  And it raises a question for the future: widespread democracy and the rule of law were supposed to protect us from such things.  Will they?

Jim Kaplan is a Chicago lawyer and a contributor to The National Book Review who specializes in law and politics