Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History

By – April 6, 2018

A wave of mob-led mas­sacres — pogroms — swept across the Pale of Set­tle­ment in Rus­sia in the ear­ly 1880s, reach­ing hun­dreds of shtetls. The next wave, begin­ning in 1903, was even worse, with thou­sands of Jews mur­dered. Yet one pogrom stands out in his­tor­i­cal mem­o­ry as the sym­bol of them all: Kishinev, where 49 Jews were mur­dered on East­er week­end in 1903.

Pro­fes­sor Steven Zip­per­stein decon­structs the leg­end, show­ing how many of the com­mon expla­na­tions of the pogrom’s caus­es sim­ply aren’t true. There is no evi­dence that it was planned in advance by Russ­ian offi­cials, for instance, though that claim is wide­ly believed. A let­ter attrib­uted to the Min­is­ter of the Inte­ri­or, Vyach­eslav Kon­stan­ti­novich Ple­hve, had sup­pos­ed­ly proved the government’s role, but there is no evi­dence he wrote it. And a col­league of Plehve’s explic­it­ly said the min­is­ter had no con­nec­tion with the events in Kishinev.

That sets the stage for Zipperstein’s inquiry into why Kishinev became such a wide­spread and durable sym­bol. The answer to that ques­tion is eeri­ly con­tem­po­rary: the impact of the media, and the elo­quence of a great work of art. News of the pogrom went viral because the head of the Zion­ist movement’s cor­re­spon­dence bureau in Kishinev, Jacob Bern­stein-Kogan, sent telegrams to news out­lets in Europe and Amer­i­ca. He informed the Hearst news­pa­pers that the writer Michael Davitt had been an eye­wit­ness to the mas­sacre, and as a result, Davitt’s dis­patch­es appeared in the New York Amer­i­can, where they were avid­ly followed.

The poet Hayy­im Nah­man Bia­lik was also in Kishinev at the time and was moved to com­pose what. Zip­per­stein calls the finest — cer­tain­ly the most influ­en­tial — Jew­ish poem writ­ten since medieval times.” City of Killing” evokes the hor­rif­ic details of the sadis­tic mur­ders and bru­tal rapes in Kishinev. It was an instant sen­sa­tion. Like Picasso’s Guer­ni­ca or the film An Incon­ve­nient Truth, Bialik’s poem gal­va­nized the pub­lic to take action.

That took many forms. City of Killing” rein­forced the urgency of Zionism’s goal to secure a refuge for Jews. The poem, and Davitt’s reports of the pogrom, also spurred the cre­ation of the Haganah, the pre­cur­sor to the Israel Defense Force. Beyond the Jew­ish world, they helped inspire the found­ing of the NAACP and influ­enced Mahat­ma Gandhi.

Zip­per­stein saves his biggest rev­e­la­tions for last. He was able to gain access to the long-lost pri­vate papers of Pavel Kru­she­van, a Kishinev writer and a fero­cious anti-Semi­te who had agi­tat­ed against Jews for years, espe­cial­ly in the local news­pa­per he pub­lished. Zip­per­stein con­cludes that ulti­mate­ly it was Kru­she­van and his asso­ciates who incit­ed the pogrom.

Krushevan’s news­pa­per, it turns out, was also the place where The Pro­to­cols of the Elders of Zion” was first pub­lished, under the head­line The Pro­gram of World Con­quest by Jews.” The Pro­to­cols” had been shown to be clum­si­ly adapt­ed from a French satire about Napoleon III dat­ing from 1864. Zip­per­stein con­cludes that its appear­ance in the Kishinev news­pa­per points to Kru­she­van as cre­ator, or co-cre­ator, of its anti-Semit­ic incarnation.

Zip­per­stein writes about his deep schol­ar­ship acces­si­bly, with a light touch and in a dis­tinct­ly per­son­al voice. Pogrom has much to offer not only stu­dents of Jew­ish his­to­ry, but to any­one fas­ci­nat­ed by the effects of media, cul­ture, and per­son­al­i­ty on the course of human events.

Discussion Questions

Until its mem­o­ry was over­whelmed by the hereto­fore unimag­in­able hor­rors of the Holo­caust, the 1903 pogrom in the town of Kishinev (now Chisin­au in post-Sovi­et Moldo­va) was the epit­o­me of Jew­ish per­se­cu­tion and suf­fer­ing. But despite its dev­as­tat­ing feroc­i­ty, with forty-nine killed and hun­dreds raped, the Kishinev pogrom was nei­ther the first nor the worst instance of mass vio­lence against Jews in the Rus­sia. What account­ed for its icon­ic status?

That ques­tion, and the man­i­fold last­ing effects of the pogrom, are at the heart of Steven J. Zipperstein’s mas­ter­ful Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of His­to­ry. Zip­per­stein shows how the extra­or­di­nary efforts of a Zion­ist physi­cian in Kishinev to quick­ly noti­fy news­pa­pers around the world of what had occurred led to exten­sive cov­er­age, espe­cial­ly by the Hearst papers, which result­ed in an inter­na­tion­al uproar. Also of key impor­tance was Hayy­im Nach­man Bialik’s epic poem, In the City of Killing,” which gave new impe­tus to the Zion­ist movement.

Iron­i­cal­ly, the world­wide con­dem­na­tion of the pogrom was attrib­uted to a Jew­ish con­spir­a­cy by its insti­ga­tor, the vir­u­lent­ly anti­se­mit­ic news­pa­per edi­tor Pavel Kru­she­van. Pro­fes­sor Zip­per­stein presents new and pow­er­ful evi­dence that, to back this charge, Kru­she­van authored the infa­mous forgery The Pro­to­cols of the Elders of Zion.