Apparently, Jewish involvement in the revolutionary movement was notorious enough by 1881 to be taken for granted by many ordinary Russians.
How extensive was it, though, and how accurate the common perception? It is difficult to measure trends like this, but Solzhenitsyn does find some relevant numbers: in the first six months of 1879, 4 percent of the 379 persons charged with crimes against the state were Jews; for the entire year 1880, 6.5 percent of the 1054 persons tried before the Imperial Senate were Jews. This would seem to indicate that, on the eve of the pogroms, Jewish participation in the revolutionary movement was already beginning to surpass their share in the general population (around 4 percent).
The word “pogrom” (literally “devastation”) had been used before this time for anti-Jewish riots in Odessa in 1821, 1859, and 1871. These, however, had been isolated occurrences involving mainly the local Greek community, who were commercial rivals of the Jews. But the pogroms the world remembers began on the 15th of April 1881 in the town of Yelisavetgrad (now Kirovohrad), Ukraine. Once begun, peasants from the surrounding villages began arriving to take part. Local troops remained passive at first, not knowing what to do. A cavalry regiment in the vicinity eventually arrived to put a stop to the violence by the 17th. Some sources say there were no fatalities in this first incident; others say there was just one.
For several weeks following, pogroms broke out unpredictably in dozens of towns, including the major cities of Odessa and Kiev. “It was like the unleashing of an elemental force,” writes one of Solzhenitsyn’s Jewish sources; “the local populace who, for various reasons, wanted to mix it up with the Jews posted proclamations and appeals to recruit forces.” Common criminals and thieves followed in their wake. Jewish taverns were a favorite target, but shops and houses were also attacked. The assassination of the Tsar was more occasion than cause of this violence. Those close to the events emphasized economic grievances as the true motivation: Russians felt taken advantage of by Jews. Rioters are said to have believed themselves acting justly and “carrying out the Tsar’s will.” When police arrived at their houses later to recover stolen property, they protested “it’s our own blood you are taking!”
Many radicals were not at all displeased by the pogroms, which they hoped to steer in the direction of a general uprising against autocracy. One tract of August, 1881 even painted the Jews as the local “bourgeoisie,” and advocated “revolutionary” attacks upon them.
According to a Jewish contemporary of these events, “they pillaged the Jews, beat them, but did not kill them.” Other sources speak of six or seven victims. In the period 1880–1890, no one mentions multiple murders or rapes.
Nikolai Ignatiev, installed as Minister of the Interior in May 1881, decided on a policy of firm repression, although it was made difficult by the unforeseeable character of the outbreaks and his limited forces. Nevertheless, he ordered his men to fire upon rioters. In the towns of Borisov and Nezhin this resulted in fatalities. In Kiev, 1400 arrests were made. Many in the government felt this was still inadequate. The police chief of Kiev wrote apologetically to the Tsar that the local military tribunals had been too lenient with the rioters; Alexander III wrote in the margin: “This is inexcusable!”
Solzhenitsyn’s account, based on documents close to the events, differs dramatically from the common version whereby the pogroms were instigated by the government itself. The American Rabbi Max Raisin, e.g., in his widely reprinted History of the Jews in Modern Times, writes of “…the ravaging of women and the killing or maiming of thousands of men, women, and children”; and adds: “As was subsequently shown, these disturbances were inspired and premeditated by the government, which abetted the rioters in their work and hindered the Jews from defending themselves.”
In the autumn of 1881, at Ignatiev’s recommendation, a committee was created to draft new Jewish legislation in response to the pogroms. Unlike previous “Jewish committees”—there had been eight of them already—it operated on the assumption that assimilation was an unattainable goal. (This is what many Jews were starting to think as well.) The committee recommended looking to the past for guidance, apparently meaning the customs of pre-emancipation Europe. The new sentiment was that, “Jews had always been considered a foreign element, and must once and for all be considered such.”
Ignatiev himself recommended strong measures to prevent further trouble, including the expulsion of Jews from rural villages “so the inhabitants of the countryside may know the government is protecting them from exploitation by the Jews,” and also because “governmental power is unable to defend [the Jews] against pogroms which might occur in scattered villages.” The Imperial Senate found this proposal overly coercive and refused to ratify it. Instead, on the 3rd of May 1882 a set of “provisional regulations” was issued which merely forbade new Jewish settlement in the countryside. A list of villages exempt from the ban was appended, and it grew over time.
(The Occidental Quarterly, Vol. VIII, No. 3, Fall 2008).