On June 16, 1919, following a violent pogrom during the night, a medical team was dispatched to the shtetl of Kitaigorod (Kytaihorod), in the Podolia region in Ukraine. The team set up a makeshift infirmary to provide relief and medical treatment for victims. It also collected information about the unfolding of events during the preceding night and recorded the numbers of casualties. To assess the real extent of damage, injuries, and loss of life, the medical team inspected the homes of the shtetl’s inhabitants, most of whom were too traumatized to venture outside. The team noted the shattered glass in the windows and the broken doors of the buildings, which had been emptied of everything, even of the least valuable things. There were no samovars left – all had been looted – and therefore no water could be boiled to use in tending the wounded. “Traces of bullets are seen on the walls and ceilings of many homes. But most importantly,” wrote one of the medical team’s members, “there is blood everywhere… Kitaigorod is literally covered in blood. There is clotted blood on the pavements, on the walls, on the street…”1
In the official report he sent to the nearby larger Jewish community of Kamenets-Podolsk (Kamianets-Podilskyi), the same writer emphasized how uncommon what he had witnessed was. His report cites the high proportion of casualties; he notes the fact that the number of the dead exceeded that of the wounded; and he remarks upon the unusual brutality of the pogrom, in which families had been massacred in their entirety and children killed before their parents’ eyes. The report concludes with these words: “We have reached the tragic conclusion that the carnage in Kitaigorod is unparalleled, even in the history of anti-Jewish pogroms.”2
But the events in Kitaigorod actually constituted only one of the thousands of pogroms that overwhelmed the Jewish population of the hundreds of towns and cities of the former Tsarist Empire, all as part of an unprecedented wave of violence against civilians unleashed during the Russian Civil War (1917-1921).3 Because of their death toll, their intentional focus on killing and annihilation, their degree of destruction, and their scope of sexual violence, in their extent and impact the pogroms of the Russian Civil War are overshadowed only by the Holocaust.4 Like the writer from the medical team in Kitaigorod, victims of the violence also perceived the stark difference between earlier instances of anti-Jewish outbreaks and the pogroms of the civil war. In order to convey their experience and the intensity of violence, witness accounts in Yiddish preferred the term khurbn, or “destruction.”5 In the Russian-language accounts, the terms “slaughter” (reznia) and “blood bath” (krovavaia bania) came to replace “pogrom.” Some victims tried to find a standard of comparison for the events by comparing the violence to the Armenian genocide of 1915.6 The historian Elias Tcherikower, who devoted most of his life to the meticulous collection of witness accounts and documents about the pogroms of the civil war, referred to the violence as one of the worst catastrophes in Russian Jewish history.7
The Russian Civil War was a chaotic and ruthless conflict among a spectrum of more or less organized, more or less well defined troops and armies striving to gain political and territorial control after the downfall of the Tsar and following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The Red Army fought in the name of Bolshevik rule, and faced the White movement, a coalition of anti-communist forces trying to take over post-Revolutionary Russia.8 Led by Symon Petliura, president of the Directory of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, Ukrainian troops also faced the Bolsheviks in a harsh struggle for independence after the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917. After taking control of Western Ukraine on behalf of the Second Polish Republic, Polish troops also clashed with the Red Army as they continued to press eastward in what came to be known as the Polish-Soviet War. The other competing factions in the civil war included a very diverse group of peasant bands that proliferated, especially in Ukraine, but also in Belorussia and Central Russia. Among these, the so-called Green Army dissociated itself from the ideology of the other combatants, but remained staunch in resisting the Red Army’s grain requisition policies to feed its troops; while the anarchist bands led by Nestor Makhno, having initially cooperated with local communist forces, eventually refused Soviet authority. In Ukraine, countless smaller insurrections led by so-called “atamans” continued to undermine the newly established Bolshevik authority well into the early 1920s. In the whirlwind of violent takeovers, the former Jewish Pale of Settlement, where the overwhelming majority of the Jews of the Russian Empire had lived up until the Revolutions of 1917, became one enlarged battlefield.
Each group involved in the civil war resorted to anti-Jewish violence, but each was spurred on by different impulses and aims. Some soldiers and peasants engaged in violence against Jewish communities because they were drawn by the allure of plunder and extortion. Others perpetrated pogroms based on ideological convictions, to punish the Jews for alleged crimes, including the Jews’ supposed endorsement of communism and support for the Soviet cause. Still others identified the Jews as the great and insidiously powerful opposition to the success of the Ukrainian or the Polish national cause. While 1919 was the year when it reached its peak, anti-Jewish violence became a common feature of the fighting throughout the civil war, from 1917 through the early 1920s.9
The brutality of the civil war grew largely out of the experience of World War I. But in the former Russian Empire the civil war surpassed the world conflict in its intensity of destruction, numbers of casualties, and total unraveling of any existing social order.10 This, in turn, triggered a domino effect of epidemics, famine, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people. As a result, Ukraine – one of the worst epicenters of mass violence involving intra-ethnic clashes and paramilitary conflict subsequent to the unraveling of the Russian Empire – experienced a general loss reaching a total of 18 percent of its population: more than 5 of the 30 million people living in Ukraine in 1914 perished or went missing during the 1914-1922 continuum of violence; as many as 2.3 million were killed or displaced during the civil war alone.11 Caught amid the ongoing desperate and ruthless warfare and fighting, the Jewish population of the disputed territories proved an easy and defenseless target of the violence. According to the Jewish demographer Jacob Lestschinsky, between 1914 and 1921, 600,000 Jews died in the former Russian Empire, resulting in a 12 percent loss of the former Empire’s Jewish population overall.12
While the differences between earlier waves of anti-Jewish violence and the violence of the civil war were both obvious and staggering for the multiple sides involved, the pogroms of 1917-1921 also built on a blueprint that had crystallized gradually over time: ethnic riots against Jews had become highly ritualized confrontations in which perpetrators and victims alike shared some pre-existing knowledge of behaviors and roles to play. Quite besides elements of spontaneity, the pogroms of the civil war were also the product of an established culture of anti-Jewish violence. Unlike Tcherikower, in writing about the pogroms, the dean of Russian Jewish history, Simon Dubnow, focused on reiteration and continuity rather than rupture. In his historical assessment of the events, he linked the pogroms of the civil war to previous waves of anti-Jewish violence that had hit Ukraine, specifically to the massacres of Jews perpetrated by Bohdan Khmelnytsky and Ivan Gonta in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, respectively, and thus inscribed 1919 into a centuries-long single stream of Jewish martyrdom.13
The first chapter in the history of the pogroms of the long nineteenth century harks back to 1821, when anti-Jewish violence reached the shores of the Black Sea, hitting the multi-ethnic port of Odessa. Most of the pogroms in the course of the next century came as part of one of two distinct waves, in which the violence assumed the nature of a mass movement: the first one followed the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, on March 1, 1881; the second one grew out of the unrest in connection with the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) and the first Russian Revolution (1905).14 If in its original meaning the term “pogrom” had been used to mean an outbreak or attack against any ethnic or religious minority, by the late nineteenth and early twentieth century it had essentially become a synonym for anti-Jewish violence.15 These waves of anti-Jewish violence were not, as has often been mistakenly argued, instigated by Tsarist authorities against the Jewish minority to divert growing popular discontent from targeting the government.16 The pogroms rather grew out of a mesh of political instability and conflict, and typically constituted a popular response to social tensions, economic crisis, and religious resentment among different groups. In the words of the historian John Klier, all these outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence belonged to the same “pogrom paradigm,” which combined the fixed assumptions that Russian officials and publicists had developed in response to the outbreaks – including accusations of Jewish exploitation, religious intolerance, and the desperately low cultural level of the “dark masses” – with widespread negligence and corruption typical of the forces charged with maintaining law and order.17
From the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century, the deadly brutality of the anti-Jewish violence intensified: while the approximately 250 pogroms that took place during 1881-1882 resulted in a couple dozen fatalities, the following wave of nearly 700 pogroms, by stark contrast, produced more than 3,000 victims.18 Between October 18-22, 1905, Russians, Ukrainians, and Greeks killed over 400 Jews in Odessa alone.19 Pogroms also fanned out geographically: initially concentrated on the shores of the Black Sea, with time they spread to the southwestern provinces of the Empire, radiating outward from a center in present-day Ukraine and reaching areas in what is today Moldova, Belarus, Poland, and Russia.
The Jewish response to the violence consisted of a number of different elements and varied by locality: it included the creation of armed self-defense units, supported by Jewish political movements that came into being in the late nineteenth century.20 Individuals, Jewish communities, and organizations initiated a frantic effort to collect data and first-hand accounts of the violence. Powerful literary texts appeared, amid the international outcry voiced in the press and explicit condemnation by politicians.21 The Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik immortalized the 1903 Kishinev pogrom and its 49 victims in his “In the City of Slaughter,” a landmark poetic work which would be read as a call for revenge and the active assertion of the Jewish right to a secure existence by generations of young Jews to come.
The history of modern ethnic violence consists of entangled layers of continuities and ruptures. As Eric Lohr has shown, World War I represented a turning point in pogrom history.22 Combining with long since classic and familiar anti-Jewish stereotypes, new ones were readily hatched during the war. The military authorities of the Imperial Army took measures to make it clear that they doubted Jewish allegiance to the Russian cause. Largely concentrated in the warzone, Jews were suspected of sabotaging the war effort by spying for the enemy – read, Germany in particular, due to the closeness of Yiddish and German – as well as engaging in speculation and corrupting soldiers’ morale. Further encouraged by the prevalent sense of distrust, a common attitude towards minority groups in times of war and turmoil, the Russian military high command promulgated draconian anti-Jewish measures: hundreds of thousands of Jews were expelled from their areas of residence and deported as members of an – overwhelmingly fictitious – enemy group to preserve essential interests of the state.23
More often than not, the deportations were accompanied by violence: with the acquiescence of their superiors, soldiers murdered, raped, and systematically plundered the deportees they were supposed to escort to their new assigned dwelling zones. Following this lead, pogroms thus often turned into organized military operations in the years following the Great War.24 It was poorly armed mobs, made up largely of civilians, that perpetrated the violence in 1903-5; in 1919, by contrast, the perpetrators were trained soldiers, proceeding with a high degree of discipline and organization, often as part of nation-wide political programs, far unlike the locally originated turmoil and unrest typical of the Tsarist era. In addition to the soldiers, even when civilians joined in the anti-Jewish attacks, they often replicated military organized violence tactics in the process. Drawing in 1922 upon the documents collected by the Red Cross, the Russian writer Sergei Gusev-Orenburgskii described a typical pogrom from the civil war period in this way:
“Armed men storm through a city or town, scatter through the streets, divide up in groups and break into Jewish homes, kill without distinction of age or sex, brutally rape the women and then murder them, extort money […]. Then each group proceeds to a second house, then a third, and so on, until there is absolutely nothing left to take. During the pogrom perpetrated on July 15-19 in Pereyaslav by Zeleny, the bandits made incursions into every house 20 to 30 times a day. In the end, they even took away the windows and the bricks… Both the murdered and the survivors were left undressed, often in their underwear, and sometimes naked.”25
Marked by looting, mass rape, and indiscriminate killing, these military pogroms were often carried out to advance ethnic cleansing of an area of its Jewish population. In some areas, the systematic violence unleashed against the Jews led to the Jews’ near total disappearance, a practice that warrants historians’ classifying these pogroms within the framework of genocidal violence.26
Fig. 1: Local Jews display a makeshift stretcher with the skulls of victims of the Fastov pogrom at the
memorial procession to commemorate the pogrom. The banner in Yiddish reads: In memory of those
killed during the pogrom, September 1919 in Fastov in Z. S. Ostrovskii, Evreiskie pogromy, 1918-1921,
(Moscow: Shkola i kniga 1926), 30. Courtesy of the Blavatnik Archive, New York.
One of the controversial issues surrounding the history and the preservation of the memory of the pogroms of the civil war is the thorny question of numbers. Because of the enormous population movements that World War I set in process, it is extremely difficult to retrace the precise impact that the violence had on the demographics of each city and town and thus determine exact casualties figures. The first attempt to establish and record the number of victims took place at the time of the violence itself, when, in August 1919, the Jewish Public Committee to Aid Jewish Pogrom Victims (better known as the Evobkom or Evobshchestkom) determined that 30,500 Jews had lost their lives up to the time of the count.27 Almost a decade later, the Jewish rights activist and sociologist Nahum Gergel used his work experience providing victim relief and his studies of pogrom statistics to argue that the total number of victims fluctuated between 50,000 and 60,000.28 The demographer Jacob Lestschinsky disputed this number, estimating that at least 75,000 Jews had been murdered in pogroms in the course of the civil war.29
In mid-1922, the Genoa Conference, an international diplomatic gathering convened to discuss post-World War I economic reconstruction of Central and Eastern Europe, took place, with Soviet officials offering their own version of the civil war pogrom numbers, which they had put together in the hope of being granted extra financial compensation for the victims of war. The People’s Commissariat for Nationalities and the Jewish Section of the Communist Party concluded that the anti-Jewish violence had produced between 100,000 and 125,000 fatalities, 150,000 people permanently incapacitated as a result of sustained injuries, 200,000 orphans, and 100,000 widows.30Some accounts by Soviet demographers placed the number of fatalities as high as 300,000.31 Everyone agreed that the violence had created catastrophic health and sanitary conditions for victims and their communities alike; epidemics, typhus in particular, may have been the cause of no fewer deaths than the pogroms proper had been.32 Combining direct and indirect casualties, approximately 10 percent of the Jewish population in Ukraine perished as a result of the pogroms; in the Kiev region, likely the most ravaged in the violence, 117 communities, or 145,874 people, had been affected by the pogroms, a figure accounting for one third of the total Jewish population in the area.33 The Russian Red Cross Committee to Aid Victims of Pogroms, working in close relationship with the Evobkom, estimated that between 1917 and 1920, one million Jews in Ukraine had suffered from pogroms and their consequences.34
While Ukraine remained the epicenter of the anti-Jewish violence after 1917, pogroms also spread to other regions. The battle for the borderlands, led by the Polish army, was marked by violent pogroms in Lemberg (Lviv today) in 1918 and in Wilno (Vilnius today) in 1920.35 Belorussia was also deeply affected by the pogroms perpetrated by Polish armies and by the insurrection of their ally, Stanislaw Bulak-Balakhowicz; according to a Evobkom report, by the end of 1920, 350,000 people had been hurt by anti-Jewish violence, while at least 196 pogroms in 179 localities may have claimed as many as 25,000 lives.36
An international uproar resonated over these revelations. On September 8, 1919, The New York Times ominously warned the world that “127,000 Jews have been killed and 6,000,000 are in peril.”37 Many Jewish intellectuals and writers chronicled the anti-Jewish violence they had themselves experienced, or analyzed the eyewitness accounts they had collected from survivors.38 Numerous recorded testimonies of the events, memoirs, and documents were published in the Soviet Union, France, and the United States. Like earlier pogroms, accounts of the anti-Jewish violence of the civil war reached the international diplomatic arena. At the Paris Peace Conference, convened to enable the victorious Allied Powers to dictate the peace terms to the Central Powers after their defeat in World War I, information about the civil war pogroms was presented and recorded.39
Yet despite all this, the civil war pogroms have largely been forgotten today. How can this be accounted for? To begin with, when the Jewish Delegations at the Paris Peace Conference drew the attention of the world to the fate of Ukrainian Jews – the communities who had suffered the most – France, England, and the United States responded by focusing their attention and concern almost exclusively on their new allies in Eastern Europe, namely, Poland and, to a lesser extent, Romania. The pogroms in Ukraine were relegated to a position of lesser urgency and significance in the ensuing political debates, their memory and history obfuscated in favor of developments in Poland and minority treaties negotiations.40
The Soviet politics of memory also played a key role in overshadowing the history of the pogroms of the Russian Civil War. The pogroms by their very nature represented a doctrinal problem for the Bolsheviks, resisting as they inevitably did the attempt to explain the violence through a Marxist lens. To be sure, a gamut of social classes were part of the perpetration of the violence, including the workers. The pogroms also targeted Jews of all classes, including the workers. As a result, for an extended period and especially throughout the 1930s, the need to account for the events in a satisfactory manner made the Bolsheviks tend to universalize the pogrom victims, crafting an official narrative that pitted a blurred group of the Revolution’s suffering and persecuted supporters against the bourgeois counterrevolution shown in a wholesale lump. The memory of the civil war pogroms was further downplayed in favor of the ideologically less problematic pogroms dating from the pre-Revolutionary years, which the Soviets had little trouble casting as violence orchestrated against the Jews by the Tsarist regime, a system of rule branded a priori evil.41 Finally, the violence which set off the genocide of European Jewry some twenty years later – and which also had its key coordinates in Ukraine – facilitated the erasure of the pogroms of the civil war from official and mass memory.
The essays included in this special issue of Quest thus comprise an important contribution to the study of a largely overlooked chapter in the history of modern ethnic violence. They shed new light on the complexities of the Russian Civil War pogroms and on the responses which the pogroms elicited. These included a massive humanitarian undertaking to bring aid to the victims. As Polly Zavadivker argues, this endeavor first took shape in the midst of the crises of World War I and continued during the civil war. It often intersected with political activism and gave rise to a fierce impulse to chronicle and document the catastrophe. The tactics and strategies that Jewish aid workers developed to respond to the political chaos and the mass violence of the civil war took their inspiration from developments in the pre-Revolutionary Jewish public organizational sphere.
A stunning array of cultural productions encompassing the visual arts and works of literature emerged following the pogroms of the civil war. One example of this is the powerful painting by Manuil Shechtman (1900-1941), a Ukrainian-born artist who himself survived the violence of the pogroms and attempted to make sense of his experience through art. The 1929 painting reproduced on the cover of this special issue, entitled Refugees, depicts Jews fleeing the pogroms. The painting was kept on display at the Jewish Museum of Odessa until World War II, and is now held at the National Art Museum of Ukraine, in Kyiv.
Yiddish writers tried to make sense of the pogroms in their own ways through literature. One of the most widely read literary responses to the violence of 1919 in Ukraine was by the Soviet Yiddish writer Itsik Kipnis, who chronicled the events of the civil war in the shtetl of Slovechno. In her article, Harriet Murav offers a nuanced close reading of the work of Kipnis, putting it in conversation with other forms of witness literature. Kipnis himself had witnessed and survived the violence, and in his account included the actual names of both victims and perpetrators. By doing so, he not only blurred the lines between factual document and creative writing, but also conveyed the emotional complexity created by the brutal subversion in neighborly relations that took place during the civil war. Through her analysis of Kipnis’ work, Murav invites the reader to resist a simplistic understanding of the events of the civil war through the commonly expected polarity of Jewish victimhood and non-Jewish perpetrators.
An understudied chapter in the evolution of cultural response to anti-Jewish violence is in films, including documentary works. Valérie Pozner’s essay in the present volume explores the ways in which the pogrom theme was treated both in fictional and non-fictional cinematographic productions. The first documentary films about the anti-Jewish violence appeared during the civil war, thanks to the initiative of the Evobkom. Alongside the numerous photos of victims, effects of destruction, and pogromists, a brief film was shot in Cherkassy in 1919 shortly after the pogrom perpetrated in the area by a Grigoriev-led band. During the 1920s, however, anti-Jewish violence in general and civil war pogroms in particular were gradually demoted and eventually disappeared from Soviet screens. With the exception of one movie, which was produced in Ukraine and released in 1929 and which clearly depicted a pogrom-making use of former victims and perpetrators as actors, the Soviets refused to sanction ethnic violence in the movie theaters of the USSR.
The marked radicalization of anti-Jewish violence instigated by the civil war was not the product of ongoing military conflict alone. As Christopher Gilley shows in his article, antisemitism was an inherent ideology promoted by the leadership of the Ukrainian People’s Republic army and played a key role in the violence. Analyzing a range of contemporary documents, including orders, proclamations, and reports, as well as memoirs, Gilley concludes that Ukrainian troops perpetrated pogroms because they believed that Jews were hostile to their state-building efforts. In other words, the unprecedented fierceness and lethalness of the violence of the civil war pogroms, neither anecdotal nor unintended, were an inherent part of the struggle for independence launched by the UNR Army.
Thomas Chopard studies the radicalization of the anti-Jewish violence of the civil war by focusing on a series of case studies. He analyzes the process of the complete extermination of a number of Jewish communities in Ukraine, which was entirely brought about through the participation of neighbors. While these exterminations were not representative of the violence of the civil war overall, comprising a limited number of instances instead, they nonetheless illustrate the extent to which antisemitic ideology had infiltrated Ukrainian society: with the brutality of war and revolution forming a daily backdrop, young anti-Bolshevik insurgents managed to mobilize the non-Jewish population, reshape the politics of the countryside, and promote ethnic cleansing.
Brendan McGeever explores the ambivalence with which Soviet authorities responded to manifestations of antisemitism and dealt with the wave of anti-Jewish violence of 1919. In his article, McGeever draws on Communist Party archives to demonstrate how solidly established, strong, and self-understood antisemitism was within the Red Army in 1919 in every single province across Ukraine. By focusing on the Grigoriev uprising against Soviet military control, McGeever shows the extent to which Bolshevik revolutionary discourse brought together antisemitic notions and racialized stereotypes, thus paving the way to anti-Jewish violence.
Many of the complexities of the pogroms of the civil war still deserve close attention and further research. It is the hope of the editors of this special issue of Quest that scholars will pursue the study of anti-Jewish violence of 1917-1921, thus enhancing our understanding of the Holocaust, of the ambivalent interplay between ruptures and continuities in modern ethnic violence, of the politics of the memory of violence in different geopolitical contexts, of the ways in which violence can sway the emotions and behavior of neighbors, of the role that mass rape plays in ethnic violence, and of how the utter chaos of conflict and turmoil can muddle the ethnic and gender identity of the perpetrator.42
Elissa Bemporad is the Jerry and William Ungar Professor in Eastern European Jewish History and the Holocaust, and Associate Professor of History at Queens College and the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of the award-winning Becoming Soviet Jews: The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk, (2013; National Jewish Book Award and Fraenkel Prize in Contemporary History). Her new book, entitled Legacy of Blood: Jews, Pogroms, and Ritual Murder in the Lands of the Soviets, will be published with Oxford University Press in fall 2019. Elissa is also the co-editor of two volumes: Women and Genocide: Survivors, Victims, Perpetrators, (Indiana University Press, 2018, with Joyce Warren), and Pogroms: A Documentary History of Anti-Jewish Violence, (forthcoming with Oxford University Press, with Gene Avrutin). She has recently been a recipient of an NEH Fellowship as well as a Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. Elissa's projects in progress include research for a biography of Ester Frumkin, a prominent Jewish female political activist and public figure in late imperial Russia and the early Soviet Union; and the first of the six volumes to comprise A Comprehensive History of the Jews in the Soviet Union, which will be published with NYU Press.
Thomas Chopard is a postdoctoral researcher at the French National Center for Scientific Research and part of the ERC-funded program “Lubartworld”; he has recently concluded his term as a research fellow at the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies. He holds a PhD from the EHESS (Paris, France) where he in 2015 defended a doctoral thesis on anti-Jewish violence in Ukraine between 1917-1924. Also in 2015, he published Le Martyre de Kiev: 1919. L’Ukraine en révolution entre terreur soviétique, nationalisme et antisémitisme, (Paris, Vendémiaire). His research focuses on anti-Jewish violence and, most recently, on Jewish migrations from Central and Eastern Europe during the 20th century.
How to quote this article:
Elissa Bemporad, Thomas Chopard, "Introduction" in The Pogroms of the Russian Civil War at 100: New Trends, New Sources , ed. Elissa Bemporad, Thomas Chopard, Quest. Issues in Contemporary Jewish History. Journal of Fondazione CDEC, n. 15 August 2019
La sezione italiana di Quest sarà online entro breve!
The italian section of Quest will be soon online!