Jewish Self-Defense and Black Hundreds in Zhitomir. A Case Study on the Pogroms of 1905 in Tsarist Russia
by Stefan Wiese
In a case study, this article re-examines three key aspects of the anti-Jewish pogroms of 1905-1906 in Tsarist Russia: the concept of “Black Hundreds” as the major perpetrators, the question of whether state authorities approved pogrom violence, and finally, the significance of Jewish self-defence. Contemporary observers and subsequently modern scholars as well, interpreted the pogrom in the city of Zhitomir in April 1905 as a classic example of those three characteristics of the entire pogrom wave. However, a close examination suggests that the relevance of “Black hundred” instigators has been grossly overestimated and the ambivalent behaviour of the police and military forces can largely be attributed to structural conditions of their service, such as a lack of personnel, of resources and of competence. Zhitomir’s self defence unit is portrayed as a contentious generational, emotional, and political project which by its very nature as an instrument of socialist activists pursued more objectives than the mere prevention of anti-Jewish violence. Finally, misperceptions regarding the pogroms are explained by the predominance of the pogrom of Kishinev in 1903 as an interpretive template for the ensuing anti-Jewish riots. The article thus provides interpretations that may lead to a more complex picture of pogrom-style violence in the late Russian Empire.
Black Hundreds and pogrom agitation
The beginnings of the self-defense in Zhitomir
The standoff at Cathedral Square
The failing defense of Podol
The civil authorities
“We will show you that Zhitomir is not Kishinev,” some Jews in the city of Zhitomir put forward self-confidently in April 1905.1 They anticipated a pogrom and organized for self-defense, striving to avoid the “shame of passivity” that Kishinev’s Jews were thought to bear since the infamous pogrom of 1903; and their concern proved well-founded before the end of the month. From 24 to 25 April pogromists beat Zhitomir’s Jews, destroyed and looted their property – but not without facing resistance. The city’s self-defense did its best to limit pogrom violence, and it soon became renowned for its courage and “overwhelming success.” Among Bund members it was no less than a “legend.”2 “The Times of Kishinev,” one Bundist paper concluded enthusiastically, “have gone forever.”3 Yet, the Zhitomir pogrom is considered a turning point not only with regard to pogrom defenders, but to pogrom perpetrators as well. “It was during Zhitomir that the Black Hundreds, the terrorist arm of the Russian right, first began to gain prominence as the instigators of pogroms.”4 This aspect was further emphasized by Simon Dubnow, who once again linked the pogrom to its Bessarabian predecessor: “In Zhitomir there was a massacre, staged by the Black Hundreds with the assistance of the police. It was a ‘second Kishinev’.”5 This article seeks to re-examine the events surrounding the pogrom of Zhitomir, the role of self-defense and Black Hundreds in its course and the meaning of references to Kishinev for contemporary and recent interpretations of anti-Jewish violence throughout the period of the first Russian revolution.
Among the wave of anti-Jewish pogroms in 1905, the case of Zhitomir is representative due to its rather limited scope and by the ordinariness of its setting. Prior case studies focused on the major pogroms in Odessa and Kiev – cities remarkable as centers of the revolutionary movement, of the emerging political Right in Russia and as the scene of large-scale mutinies ahead of the pogrom. On the contrary, Zhitomir was, though being the center of Volhynia province with almost 90,000 inhabitants, one third of them Jews, distinctly provincial in character. Even the railroad constructers decided to circumvent it and rather connected the nearby district town of Berdichev in 1870.6 Lacking any significant industry, Zhitomir was a city of craftsmen and public servants, or, as a former Social-Democrat agitator recalled in 1926, of “retired Sergeants and clerks.”7 With this statement, the author obviously intended to anticipate criticism from his Soviet readers about the poor situation of the revolutionary movement in the city. In fact, the impact of revolutionary agitation had been limited until 1905. The General Jewish Labor Bund (Bund) had been seriously weakened by a Secret police roundup in December, 1903.8 Other socialist parties such as the Social Democrats (RSDRP) and Social Revolutionary Party (PSR) had failed to capitalize on the Bund’s crackdown. The RSDRP did not even begin to agitate the city’s masses before 1905.9 Obviously, revolution was not the major concern of the inhabitants of Zhitomir. In fact, there were other things to worry about. Since 1904, Russia was in war with Japan, and what had been designed as a “small, successful war,” turned out to be the biggest military disaster since Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War. As news about lost battles and incompetent military leadership spread, the populace was increasingly aroused by rumors about corruption of military officials, military mobilizations and alleged peace negotiations.10 Reportedly, villagers in the nearby province of Podolia were even afraid of “the impending coming of the Japanese.”11
Another reason for the agitation of minds at the beginning of 1905 was a series of Jewish pogroms in a number of towns and villages at the southeastern periphery of the Empire. Its starting point was the well-known pogrom of Kishinev in April 1903. In the capital of Bessarabia the blood libel had spread, or, to be more precise, had been actively promoted by Pavel Krushevan, editor of a local newspaper and notorious anti-Semite. During two days of rioting, 51 people were killed, 49 of them Jews, some 450 persons were injured and property damage was estimated at some 2 Mill. Rubles.12 Official statements depicted the pogrom as a spontaneous outburst of interethnic tensions, which ultimately were the result of “Jewish exploitation,” whilst unofficial interpretations highlighted anti-Semite agitation in the press, the seemingly coordinated actions of the rioters and inadequate intervention of the authorities. This implied that the pogrom had been organized or at least tolerated by the state. From that point of view, it seemed highly questionable, whether Kishinev would remain an isolated incident. After all, Russia had already experienced a wave of pogroms in the early 1880s that provided a reference point for all those who feared that violence might spread once again. In fact, what followed were initially isolated incidents, such as the pogrom in Gomel’ in August 1903. In 1904, after the declaration of war on Japan, a total of 49 smaller scale pogroms occurred, many of them during the period of wartime mobilization.13 All in all, there was a background of continuous low-level-rioting when tensions mounted in the city of Zhitomir in early 1905.
The citizens of Zhitomir had no doubts about the imminence of large scale violence. Corresponding rumors flooded the streets, naming alleged dates and targets of the expected outbursts – “everybody is talking about a [future] pogrom,” Zhitomir’s local newspaper observed.14 A leaflet, issued by the local Social Revolutionaries, even announced that the local administration would be held responsible for the prospective pogrom.15 At first, outbreaks were predicted for 7 April, the beginning of Passover, and then for the Easter holidays (from 17 April), that were known to be especially prone to anti-Jewish outbursts since the Odessa Pogroms of the 19th century. 16 The Governor ordered military forces to patrol the streets, Jews prepared to leave the city, the RSDRP cancelled that year’s May Day demonstration (18 April) to avoid a pogrom and yet again, no violence occurred.17 When later observers emphasized that the pogrom that did eventually occur afterwards had been announced previously, and even the date had been known beforehand, they usually failed to note that predictions of this kind had proven highly unreliable in the past.
Why did the rumors about imminent violence seem so plausible to the inhabitants of Zhitomir? A probable answer is that there were actors present in the city who were interested in fuelling the tensions. Previous scholarship, implicitly using the events in Kishinev as an interpretative template for all pogroms to come in the following years, focused on the impact of anti-Semitic press reporting and the Black Hundreds as instigators. Yet, in Zhitomir the only private local newspaper was leftist displaying far from anti-Semite colors. All utterances of pogrom perpetrators (pogromshchiki) about their motives, as far as they have been preserved, referred to local incidents and rumors. In contrast, accusations spread in the central press about the Jewish financial support of Japan or about their avoidance of military service were not present. This indicates that the influence of the national press was extremely limited, especially with regard to those social groups from which the bulk of pogromists were recruited. If the central rightist press had any impact on the mounting tensions in Zhitomir, this could only have been through intermediaries, which leads us to the concept of the Black Hundreds, so commonly referred to in writings on the pogrom wave of 1903-1906. Unfortunately, there is an eminent lack of clearness in what exactly the Black Hundreds were supposed to be.18 For example, they were called the “terrorist arm” of the “Union of the Russian People.”19 But Black Hundreds could also refer to conservative intelligentsia circles preaching the use of anti-Jewish violence, to rightist grassroots movements or to complex organizational structures that encompassed different levels of the authorities and the popular masses.
Principal objections against the use of these different concepts of Black Hundreds to explain pogrom violence might be that most formal structures of the rightist movement in the Russian Empire appeared only after much of the pogrom wave was over and long after the Pogrom in Zhitomir.20 The implication of governmental structures into the pogroms has been disputed by Western “revisionist” historiography. For example, the rightist movement most suspicious of complicity in the pogroms, the “Union of the Russian People,” did receive some degree of support from the Ministry of the Interior, but no earlier than in summer 1906, when the pogrom wave was already abating.21 Moreover, it should not be forgotten, that the concept of “Black Hundreds” responsibility was primarily an idea of the liberal and leftist intelligentsia. It was motivated by the then widely held conviction, that the common people, the narod, were intrinsically unable to engage in collective action when stripped of outside leadership.22 When members of the intelligentsia elaborated on the identity of these instigators, they introduced two further convictions: that from the state’s perspective the pogroms were instrumental as a means to temper the revolutionary movement and that the state wielded preponderant power over the populace. The military and police apparatuses, including the Gendarmerie and Okhrana sections of the Secret police, were considered so mighty that the idea of rightist mass unrest happening throughout the country against their will seemed improbable.23 Yet, both convictions: the instrumentality of the pogroms for the state as well as its power to organize them at will must be called into question in the light of current research. This can be demonstrated using the example of Zhitomir.
In Zhitomir, the emergence of politically organized Rightist forces dates back to no earlier than to the revolutionary events of fall, 1905. It was the patriotic manifestation of 21 October that “provided the first impulse to organize Black Hundreds.”24 One might hint at the orthodox Bishop Antonii, a prominent spokesman of the emerging radical Right in Russia living in Zhitomir, as a possible pogrom organizer, evidence from November 1905 indicates that he did not refrain from approving violence against socialists in private correspondence.25 However, there are no sources indicating his involvement in any pogrom preparations, and his words after the pogrom in Kishinev and prior to that in Zhitomir cast serious doubt over his willingness to accept pogrom-style violence in general.26 Yet, the events prior to the Zhitomir pogrom do provide an example of Black Hundreds agency: the notorious leaflets signed by a putative “Iarema” that had been circulating in the city since the end of March 1905.27 Written in Ukrainian, it called on the populace not to believe in proclamations of the revolutionary parties because they were designed to disrupt popular trust in the Tsar and were authored by Jews. The latter, it said, allegedly conspired with Polish landlords unwilling to accept that peasants had been freed from serfdom. “The Poles promised them, that when serfdom was reenacted and Poland reconstituted, the kikes would lease churches and taverns.” With a view to Jewish grievances and discrimination, “Iarema” reminded the reader, that Jews had already lost a kingdom of their own; if they were discontent with the state of affairs in Russia, they should emigrate to “China or Japan or Palestine” instead of avoiding military service and marching with Red Flags, “revolvers and daggers.” Yet, the only plea the leaflet made, was to “beat the Jews at their wallets,” i.e. to sabotage Jewish trading activities.28
Unsurprisingly, the “Iarema”-leaflets caused serious alarm among the Jews of Zhitomir and beyond.29 The distinguished nation-wide daily “Russian News” [Russkiia vedomosti] reported on the pamphlet, and soon an abridged version was reprinted in the major intellectual journal “Russian Wealth” [Russkoe Bogatstvo].30 In Zhitomir and beyond, observers described the leaflet in terms of pre-pogrom-agitation, a well-established narrative since the massacre of Kishinev.31 However, there is ample evidence that the leaflet did not gain significant circulation, because only a very small number, less than ten copies, actually existed. This was claimed not only by the Chief of the local Secret Police Pototskii, who was a notorious anti-Semite and therefore an unreliable source, but also by the much more neutral district attorney of the Zhitomir district court [prokuror zhitomirskogo okruzhnogo suda] Kunakhovich.32 Later, a subaltern clerk of the province administration, Sausevich, forthrightly admitted that he had produced six copies of the leaflet as a “derision of the Jews” on his typewriter.33 There is some evidence to substantiate the claim that the leaflet was initially aimed at the Jews, not at potential pogrom perpetrators. According to the findings of the prosecution, the leaflet “appeared in considerable numbers exclusively among the Jews and its content is unknown to the Christian populace.”34 Furthermore, Sausevich admitted handing one of the leaflets to the daughter of his Jewish tenant, who then distributed it among her co-religionists. Thus, there is reason to dispute the interpretation of the Iarema leaflet as an instance of “open pogrom agitation” and as the true cause of the pogrom.35 Nevertheless, this interpretation was included in a survey of the pogrom, which still belongs to the most credited sources for historians.36 Sausevich’s action was surely a most cynical way of playing on the fears of Zhitomir’s Jews. However, interpreting the leaflet as pogrom agitation, contemporary observers missed the point. Neither was it a call to violence, nor was it spread among potential pogromists in any significant way. Its message was much too ambivalent and its hints at ancient Jewish kingdoms and emigration too diffusing to be instrumental as a call to arms. Furthermore, contemporaries stressed Sausevich’s position as a clerk at the Ministry of the Interior, implying state involvement in the pogrom agitation. Yet, “Iarema’s” message was aimed as much at the Jews as it was at Polish landlords. Hints at the imminent re-enaction of serfdom might have been understood as a plea for agrarian revolt, which was far beyond the interest of the Russian state. Despite indications that Sausevich was not the sole author of the leaflet, these are no grounds to suggest that he was carrying out a government or police plot against the Jews.37
There was one more hint at “Black hundred” activity in Zhitomir. It concerned the actions of police superintendent Kuiarov, head of the first police district of the city. As a later observer put it: “Zhitomir was saturated with rumors about the pre-pogrom agitation of superintendent Kuiarov.”38 In fact, most of the accusations against him were based upon hearsay.39 It must ultimately remain an open question whether or not Kuiarov really did agitate the “Christian population” against the Jews. Yet, if he did, the scope of his actions was obviously limited, otherwise more conclusive evidence might be expected, as tsarist central authorities took the allegations against Kuiarov quite seriously. After the pogrom, the Department of Police ordered an investigation into his role in the pogrom that ultimately found the accusations erroneous.40 This may be an overstatement, but the investigation itself indicates that Kuiarov neither acted on behalf of St. Petersburg, nor was the Police Department inclined to approve of pogrom agitation.
Kuiarov may have been an anti-Semite; he was certainly intolerant of the revolutionary movement, which was predominantly Jewish in Zhitomir. Furthermore, he bore responsibility for excessive police violence against demonstrators protesting the “Bloody Sunday” shooting in St. Petersburg on 26 January 1905. This earned him the despise of Zhitomir’s liberal circles, and eventually led to his assassination on 24 April. Furthermore, Kuiarov’s relationship with the leading officials of the city was far from good. In early 1905, he was charged with three lawsuits: one of them for the excessive violence of 26 January, and two for neglect of duty.41 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.42 Thus, even if we assume that Kuiarov moved the populace to violent action, there is nothing to indicate his involvement in a high-level network of pogrom instigators, as was claimed by one of the Jewish spokesmen in the ensuing lawsuit against the pogromists.43 All in all, pogrom agitation was far less prevalent and effective than many contemporary accounts suggested.
Which measures did the Jews of Zhitomir take to prevent a pogrom? Some employed the traditional tactics of intercession with the authorities.44 This was not altogether naïve. After all, during Easter, at the height of pogrom expectations in the city, the Governor ordered the military and police forces to massively increase patrols. After the danger of an outburst had seemingly passed, some observers even tended to mock the measures taken as excessive and gratuitous: “It was even somewhat funny [smeshno] how the reinforced formations of soldiers and policemen safeguarded the empty streets.”45
Yet, a large fraction of the local Jewish population was not inclined to rely on the authorities for pogrom prevention. The lesson to be drawn from Kishinev was, in their view, to organize self-defense. This idea had already been advanced during the pogroms of the 1880s, although with limited effect.46 During the pogrom of Kishinev, there had been some instances of Jews resisting the violent mob. However, the overriding perception was that local Jewry bore the “shame of passivity.”47 Consequently, Labor Zionist groups as well as the Bund appealed to Russia’s Jews to no longer “stretch out their necks to be slaughtered,” and armed battle squads sprang up in the Pale of Settlement.48 The next large-scale pogrom after Kishinev in Gomel (28 August – 1 September, 1903) was the first to witness a well-organized Jewish self-defense. Although it ultimately failed to prevent the pogrom, the self-defense was still lauded as an appropriate means of “demonstrating to the blind masses that one may not beat and kill Jews with impunity.”49
Large swathes of the local Jewry supported the foundation of a self-defense unit in Zhitomir. But organizing 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. 50 For the activists of the revolutionary movement, the Jews’ fear of a pogrom was a precious resource for generating mass support. Thus, they did not fail to emphasize the imminent danger of an outbreak, for example in the form of leaflets. It must also be acknowledged that a conflict of interest existed between the majority of the Jewish population, that strove to prevent or minimize violence, and the agenda of revolutionary parties which, by their very nature, thrived through the destabilization and discrediting of state order.51
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.52 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.53 By then it became evident that the self-defense did not act in the interest of the entire Jewry of Zhitomir. Not only was it “hardly distinguishable” from “the underground activities of the revolutionary movements.”54 It was a contentious political project, and a generational one at that, because its active supporters were mainly socialist youths, and its Jewish adversaries the conservative elderly: “generational conflict was played out in terms of worldviews and identities.”55 Some of the more conservative Jews may have rejected the very idea of self-defense as fundamentally “un-Jewish,” and several local Jewish businessmen refused to pay their dues in support of the battle squads, resulting in their extortion.56 However, despite its particular character, the gentile populace largely equated the battle squads’ actions with those of “the Jews.”57 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. But there was yet another, distinctly emotional message conveyed in the actions of the self-defense: Jewish pride and self-assertion.58 Besides the events depicted, there were a whole number of incidents prior to the pogrom that were interpreted as indicators of a lack of servility on side of the Jews. Perhaps the most prevalent incidence of such conflicts were repeated gentile complaints about Jews jamming the sidewalks and unwilling to give way to passers-by.59 Some of them were, allegedly, even insulted and attacked by young men out of a Jewish crowd.60 Consequently, “people in the city began to say: The Jew is revolting, the Jews must be curbed [uniat’].”61 Apparently, a small part of the “Christian population” of Zhitomir was willing to tolerate only those Jews that readily demonstrated their purported inferiority in every day encounters. This, taken together with contemporary debates on the postponement of city council elections to the effect that restrictions on Jewish suffrage might be lifted,62 may remind the reader of Heinz Löwe’s proposal to interpret the Jewish pogroms of late Tsarist Russia as having stemmed from conflicts regarding the societal inclusion or exclusion of Jews. Also reminiscent is John Klier’s emphasis on the eminence of contested space.63 However, in Zhitomir the tensions described so far were not enough to spur a pogrom, despite the danger of an outburst seeming imminent.64
It was the self-defense 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.65 For instance, on 13 April 1905, a self-defense 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. 66
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.67 In more general terms, the very emergence of the self-defense was interpreted as a threat, because rumor 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.”68 In the mind of the populace, thus was the message of active self-defense 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.
As mentioned, Easter passed without any disturbances. What followed, was a prime example of Clark McPhail’s thesis about the relevance of the “structural availability” of potential rioters for an outbreak.69 The next holiday to come was Saint George’s day on 23 April - a Saturday. A number of young people from Zhitomir, many of them Jews, made a boat trip along the Teterev, where they encountered a group of inhabitants of the suburb of Pavlikovka and from Psyshche who celebrated the holiday with vodka and snacks on the banks.70 After exchanging insults, the peasants threw stones and the Jews fired their revolvers. The conflict shifted to Pavlikovka where a mob tried to rob the houses of the few local Jews. After a short while, alarmed by rumors about the events, a crowd of “several thousand” Jews approached the suburb from Zhitomir.71 Soon, a small military detachment arrived as well and lined up between the Jews and the much smaller group of some hundred “Christian” rioters. The latter were unarmed but benefited from their position on the upper side of a hill, which allowed them to throw rocks at the Jews. The Jews on their part made use of their revolvers, but any shot threatened to hit the soldiers standing between the parties. After a while, the vice Governor appeared on the scene. However, due to revolutionary slogans and shooting from the Jewish crowd, he immediately left, finding his presence “useless and even dangerous.”72 The Chief of Police Ianovitskii was more inclined to take responsibility, but his appeals to the pogromists proved to be futile. It was obviously beyond his capacities to reestablish public order. Furthermore, the military almost escalated the situation when a detachment of mounted artillery galloped right into the Jewish crowd, leaving a boy dead. Finally, emissaries of the self-defense took the initiative and negotiated a truce with the Chief of Police: they promised that the immense Jewish crowd would leave Pavlikovka peacefully if Ianovitskii would imprison the pogromists in return. Ianovitskii agreed; the Jews moved off and 25 rioters were arrested.73 That day passed without any further violence. However, the Chief of Police could not have been unaware of the unfavorable impression his actions had made on the non-Jewish population. Unable to solve the situation with his own forces, he had been forced to collaborate with the leadership of the illegal and politically hostile self-defense. In a suspicious step, Ianovitskii released the 25 arrested rioters that same evening after they had “promised to take part in unrest no more,” justifying this step with the fatal impression of an “exclusively Russian” arrest might make on the populace.74 We do not know whether the release was in fact motivated by anti-Semite policemen interested in fanning ethnic unrest, but it must be kept in mind, that it was not unusual to release persons, against whom no concrete charges could be made. The procedure had been the same with the 80 persons arrested after the strikes and demonstrations in January. Eleven persons were kept in arrest for carrying firearms or leaflets, while the remaining 69 were released.75 It is true that the Police did not protect public order convincingly, but it did so with regard to socialists and pogromists alike.
The next day began with what Donald Horowitz has termed the “lull,” as tense calm prevailed in the city.76 Around noon, Ianovitskii demanded troops to be sent to Cathedral Square, where a “crowd of Christian workers”77 was threatening to disturb public order. A company of soldiers was detached there under the command of captain Pinchuk, whose largely unbiased testimony is one of the most valuable sources on subsequent events.78 When he entered the square, he ordered the soldiers to array between a group of some 70 “tidily dressed Christian workers” that occupied the one side, and a number of Jews on the other. Pinchuk at first prompted the “Christian workers” to leave the square, but they replied that he had better take care of the armed Jews.79 In the other crowd, Pinchuk recognized some local students, some gentiles, mostly 17 to 20 years old, with gun barrels poking out of their pockets. They seemingly heeded his advice to leave the square but returned as soon as Pinchuk was at some distance. Afterwards, Ianovitskii came to the square as well, but his appeals to both crowds were no more successful than those of Pinchuk. As more Jews gathered, the self-defense lined up in front of them, still showing no inclination to hide their revolvers, apparently with the intention of deterring possible attacks.80 As the afternoon wore on, tensions seemed to ease at first, but eventually a limited clash of both crowds ensued, and Pinchuk noticed with surprise, that no single policeman was left on the square. He spent some time searching for a constable and shouted “where is the Chief of Police,” while stones were thrown and shots echoed in the streets. Only twenty minutes afterwards two policemen approached with a message from Ianovitskii saying that “he refused to suppress the unrest” and assigned power to Pinchuk. The latter on his part recalled Ianovitskii having opposed the use of force when the military was originally called in, and therefore sent one of his men to get a written firing order.
Around 6 p.m. Ianovitskii, escorted by eight Cossacks, approached Cathedral Square, where in the meantime military reinforcements had arrived to ensure that the crowds could still be separated.81 At the same time, news spread that superintendent Kuiarov had been assassinated. For the “Christians,” it was beyond question, that the police officer had been killed by a Jew, and the crowd shouted: “the kikes killed the police superintendent – beat the kikes.”82 It did not matter, that Kuiarov had in fact been murdered by a “Christian,” the Russian or Ukrainian Social Revolutionary Sidorchuk, who in turn was prevented from fleeing by a Jew.83 The attack on Kuiarov had apparently unsettled Ianovitskii profoundly. Pinchuk reported him to have muttered, tense and absent-mindedly “they killed Kuiarov, what will we do now?” On Pinchuk’s remark, that he would probably be compelled to give the firing order, Ianovitskii replied “no, no shooting.”84
Further military reinforcements nourished hopes of preventing an escalation, but the standoff continued. Then, around 8 p.m. rumors about an ongoing pogrom in the Jewish district of Podol agitated the Jewish crowd. At least four times Jews approached Pinchuk asking him to send military forces there. Finally, the self-defense chose to employ the same tactics that had proven successful in Pavlikovka a day ago. It was around 9 p.m. when its emissaries, Dr. Isser Binshtok and Nikolai Blinov, passed the military cordon to approach the Chief of Police for negotiations. They promised a self-defense retreat in exchange for the arrest of the “Christian” crowd. Ianovitskii agreed, and the emissaries went back to the “Jews,” where Blinov held a short speech. However, when both returned to the other side of the cordon, Ianovitskii had disappeared. Instead, they confronted a number of men who had just been arrested by the military, but broke free and eventually beat both Blinov and Binshtok with force. The latter was protected by an officer, who threw himself on the man and thus saved his life, while Blinov was left dead in the fray. 85
Soon afterwards, the standoff between the “Jewish” and “Christian” parties on the Cathedral Square was resolved. Maybe, to many Jews it became clear by then (as it did to Pinchuk), that the real pogrom was not going to take place in the city center, but in Podol.86 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.87
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, who were notorious for their unruly and criminal behavior and who had been prominent among the pogromist crowd in Pavlikovka the previous day.88 As some of the local Jews apparently anticipated an attack from the morning of 24 April, they incessantly kept watch at the bridge and the riverbank.89 Yet, it was not until 8 p.m., that three townspeople from Malevanka, among them the notorious troublemaker Emets, went down to the bridge with clubs in their hands, yelling “come here, brothers, come here” Some 40 people followed the appeal, most of them “hooligans” notorious for their unruly behavior, as one observer noticed. They tried to further increase their numbers by “appealing and threatening others,” but were still easily outnumbered by the Jewish crowd waiting on the other side of the bridge.90 The hooligans from Malevanka almost managed to cross the bridge, but immediately turned back when they were shot at. They retreated to Malevanka and made another attempt to mobilize supporters yelling: “The Jews are killing” and “come here, come here, our people are being beaten [nashikh b’iut].”91 This time, more men followed the call. Those unarmed supplied themselves with fencing posts from the street, and another attack on the bridge ensued, that was once again repelled by the shots of the self-defense.92 At the same time, among at least some of the inhabitants of Malevanka panic spread, because they were afraid of an imminent Jewish attack; women and children fled to supposed safe-places.93 The standoff at the Malevanka-bridge was then resolved in a way unexpected by the Jews, as 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-defense was crushed. In the course of a few minutes at least six persons were killed and 30 wounded.94 The pogromists began to sack shops and houses and to smash whatever valuables but could not be carried away, such as stoves and window panes. Only around 11 p.m. the state showed up in Poldol in the shape of some soldiers, who by their mere presence brought the pogrom to a preliminary end. 95
However, the next morning groups of peasants from several nearby villages entered Malevanka armed with pitchforks, scythes and axes. Again, they were accompanied and maybe led by Emets.96 Together with some locals, they approached the bridge to Podol. Yet, the soldiers posted on the other side, would not let the mob pass. Most peasants settled down on the river bank opposite and waited for things to come, while an element of the crowd once again used the forth to enter Podol to continue the previous day activities; women took a leading role in looting, with youths and children in the destructive vanguard. 97 Most Jews had already left Podol, to the effect that few of them were harmed physically that day. While the police were totally absent, the military did fend off successive attacks on the bridge. However, they did not prevent looting even if it occurred in the vicinity. 98 That day and the following smaller incidents of looting and physical violence occurred in different parts of the city, but serious physical violence was confined to a number of villages in the district. On 26 April, the Governor finally issued a conclusive firing order, military reinforcements arrived and the pogrom came to an end.
Contemporary commentators were quick to interpret the pogrom of Zhitomir as the latest link in a chain of events leading from Kishinev and Gomel’ to the massacre of Armenians in Baku in February 1905 and other contemporary violent outbursts.99 Black Hundreds activity and government instigation were the basic building blocks of their view of pogrom violence. Yet, the events of Zhitomir bear little evidence of the Black Hundreds as a powerful organization with government resources. Rather, it demonstrates small scale actors like the clerk who hid behind the pseudonym of “Iarema” and individuals adeptly assembling ad-hoc militant groups, such as the troublemaker Emets. Admittedly, the actions of the authorities raised suspicions about their involvement in the pogrom, and thus it becomes necessary to single out their role for examination.
To begin at the top of bureaucratic hierarchy, the Ministry of the Interior seriously urged the Governor of Volyn’, Petr Ivanovich Katalei, to “take the most resolute measures to prevent a major pogrom,” as soon as it got to know about the outbreak of violence.100 The same was true of Katalei’s immediate superior, the Governor General in Kiev, who not only advised his Governors subordinates to prevent pogroms, but also to “prevent the authorities from accusations of patronizing the dark forces commonly known as ‘Black Hundreds.’”101 But did Governor Katalei fulfill the duty imposed on him? Certainly, his absence from the scene of events requires explanation. According to his own subsequent account, Katalei was in his office at the time of the pogrom, requesting additional troops from the Governor General and issuing two appeals in which the inhabitants of Zhitomir were called to order.102 He received numerous phone calls from police officers and inhabitants of Zhitomir, which called for troops to be sent into various quarters. Yet, from his office, Katalei was unable to distinguish between justified and unsubstantiated pleas. As it turned out later, huge parts of the garrison had actually been ordered to safe parts of the city on the basis of mere rumors.103 However, it should be taken into account that in some places the presence of troops may actually have sustained order where it would otherwise have collapsed. After all, the scope of the pogrom was limited. In a city of 33,000 Jews, no more than 100 houses and shops were affected and 18 persons were killed.104 Still, the eminent lack of troops in Podol was the result of severe mismanagement by Katalei, but his ineffective action does not mean, that he approved of the pogrom. Rather, evidence suggests that he was frightened by the threat of a terrorist attack that had been announced in Socialist leaflets.105 The seemingly well-armed self-defense added credibility to that threat, and so did the assassination of Kuiarov. It may be recalled, that Katalei’s deputy had fled from Pavlikovka on 23 April for similar reasons. As far as we know, Katalei never used the terrorist threat to justify his actions during the pogrom. However, the Chief of the local Secret Police reported that Katalei was horrified after the pogrom, and even ceased to leave his heavily guarded home, until he was removed from office soon after the pogrom.106 [BACK]
In contrast, the actions of the military forces during the pogrom were largely adequate. Wherever they were present, they did prevent violence against the person, if not looting and destruction. The three murders that did occur on Cathedral Square may be attributed to the confused situation. Generally, the major obstacle to resolute action on part of the military was not its own indecisiveness, but a lack of guidance by the civil authorities. To understand this, it is necessary to take into account the rules of engagement for military forces within the Russian Empire. According to these rules, any use of force had to be ordered by a representative of the civil authorities, except for situations of mortal danger. The responsibility for suppressing popular unrest was a permanent point of contention between civil and military officials, but after the scandalous shooting of civilians on Bloody Sunday, it had become an even more delicate issue than before.107 This avoidance of responsibility best explains both why Katalei did not issue a firing order until 26 April and the opaque behavior of Ianovitskii on Cathedral Square, where, captain Pinchuk claimed, the number of military forces present had been “more than necessary, but there was no leadership.”108 This was no mere strategy of exculpation, as Pinchuk did indeed search for police guidance and, in light of the limitations placed on his office, demonstrated considerable initiative in preserving public order on Cathedral Square. The same can be said of the military detachment that prevented the pogromists from entering Podol the following day. The fact that they did not intervene against looting was not in disaccord with their duties, as mortal danger did not prevail and no police officer gave the order to intervene.
It was the police that failed to fulfill the key role assigned to them by the rules of engagement and thus bore a considerable share of responsibility for the ineffectiveness of the state forces in ending the pogrom. Contemporaries were quick to attribute police behavior to anti-Semitism, and in fact, police superintendent Kuiarov was not the only police officer in Zhitomir who was notorious for his contempt of the Jews. This is confirmed by an investigation of the district attorney, who nonetheless dismissed the interpretation of the pogrom then popular among the local Jews, being that the pogrom was staged by the police.109
However, if one highlights the structural framework of police service on the periphery of the Russian Empire in 1905, other explanations for police passivity emerge. Firstly, it should be noted that despite Imperial Russia’s reputation as a repressive police state, the forces of order were chronically underfinanced and underequipped.110 In Zhitomir with its almost 90,000 inhabitants, some 130 policemen were supposed to be on duty, but their actual number was even smaller due to a large portion (about one third) of vacancies.111 For example, the absence of policemen in Malevanka during the pogrom was not a case of bias towards pogromists, but the usual state of affairs.112 Low wages for policemen produced high fluctuation, and as hardly anyone applied for vacant positions in the lower ranks, the Chief of Police had to be content with officers “of highly questionable moral qualities [and] characterized by total ignorance of police duties.” 113 Terrorist attacks targeting primarily policemen and other officials further added to the demoralization. The newspapers in early 1905, including those in Zhitomir, were full of accounts of assassinations of policemen; well before the pogrom revolutionaries issued a leaflet announcing the “death sentence” for police superintendent Kuiarov.114 Similar threats were issued against the Chief of Police as well, which might at least partly explain the uneasiness that befell him in view of the battle squads on Cathedral Square. We certainly know that after the pogrom Ianovitskii was no less afraid of an assassination than the Governor.115 Yet, the crucial point was probably the equation of Jews and revolutionaries that established in Zhitomir before the pogrom. As the pogrom began, the already demoralized police forces of Zhitomir were no longer willing to defend the supposedly same Jews that threatened them with terrorist attacks, and that had killed one of their superiors.
After all, it should be kept in mind, that the police was ineffective not only against the pogromists, but against the revolutionary movement as well. Many of the socialist demonstrations before the pogrom passed without any arrests, and even the police violence of 25 January had been preceded by one and a half days of almost unhindered revolutionary activity in the city. In March 1905, the police, led by Kuiarov, succeeded in tracking down a meeting of a large number of local revolutionary activists, but, possibly due to a bribe, nobody was arrested. 116 Even the Head of the local Secret Police frankly complained, that the police acted “extremely slackly [kraine vialo]” against the illegal movement.117 Benevolence towards the perpetrators was by no means a necessary condition of police passivity vis-à-vis popular unrest.
In historiography, the pogrom of Zhitomir is not famous for the behavior of the authorities, but as a paradigmatic example of an effective self-defense. In view of the leading authors in the field, Zhitomir’s battle squads effectively prevented a “second Kishinev.”118 Only recently, tentative doubts about the efficacy of Jewish self-defense organizations have emerged.119 In fact, it is not difficult to support this view with contemporary evidence – and not only evidence from possibly anti-Semitic Tsarist officials. Instead, the possibility that self-defense actions might exacerbate local tensions was discussed quite openly in contemporary Jewish circles.120 It is impossible to consider the entire phenomenon of self-defense groups in this article, but since the self-defense of Zhitomir is praised for its “overwhelming success” and as a “legend among Bund members” in historiography, it may be worthwhile examining it as an example.121
The battle squads in Zhitomir were certainly successful at preventing violence in some instances, most notably during the standoff in Pavlikovka on 23 April. The same can be said for the first hours of the events at the bridge to Podol on 24 April, but further events there have already been shown to demonstrate a lack of effectiveness. The forces of self-defense collapsed as soon as beatings began – and not only in Podol, but also during the escalation near Psyshche on 13 April. One may recall the fact that none of the shots fired then hit a human target, even at close range. Of the 18 persons killed during the pogrom, 16 were Jews. If one adds Nikolai Blinov, 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.122 Therefore, it must be dismissed as a myth, that “in Zhitomir there was no pogrom but a war” in which “more Christians than Jews lost their lives.”123
The ineffective use of arms was a typical feature of the battle squads beyond Zhitomir as well: “In reality, the heroic story of the self-defense often turned into bitter disappointment, due to ineffective weapons and disunity among the different political parties.”124 But in Zhitomir, there are no accounts of discord among different units of the self-defense, and at least one witness, a retired officer, testified that some of the revolvers employed at the bridge must have been of good quality.125 According to the same source, “if the Jews had been capable of shooting, there is no doubt they would have killed all the 50 people of Malevanka [who attacked the bridge].”126 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. This tactic was rather wide spread and was crowned with success in a number of cases. Yet, in Zhitomir it ultimately failed to discourage the attackers, who after some time may have understood the central weakness of the self-defense: that it was good at putting up a threatening front, but much worse at the execution of violence.
In fact, the self-defense proved effective only in those situations, where it had the opportunity to capitalize on the weakness of the state forces and their willingness to prevent unrest regardless. In Pavlikovka and on Cathedral Square, leading officials agreed to negotiate with leaders of the self-defense on a par, although they knew that their opposites were leading figures of the local revolutionary movement. The self-defense’s discipline proved to provide sufficient leverage, convincing officials to fulfill the requirements of their political adversaries, at least in Pavlikovka. Discrediting the state was among the chief objectives of the Bund and its battle squads – and to prove that the authorities depended on the self-defense to implement what was supposed to be the state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force, certainly served this goal. In fact, the contradiction of state authorities allegedly organizing pogroms, but at the same time willing to cooperate with the self-defense against a pogromist crowd does not seem to have exercised an influence on the minds of contemporary leftist and liberal observers.
Furthermore, one should consider the effect the self-defense’s tactic of deterrence produced on the gentile population of the city. It is not implausible that many did in fact fear an impending Jewish attack. This can be proven for the surrounding villages, where families left their houses to hide in the woods; rumors from the city suggest the same.127 Even the ideas of Jews seeking “revenge” for Kishinev and Gomel’ did not come from thin air. Although there is no evidence for Zhitomir, elsewhere self-defense activists openly expressed their desire to exercise retaliation for the pogroms.128 Yet perhaps the most significant impediment to effective pogrom prevention on side of the self-defense was the same fact that other authors have identified as its “most important achievement”: its striving for a “new sense of dignity.”129 Ostentatious self-assertion on the side of the Jewish activists may have been an understandable objective, but it was not always instrumental in relaxing interethnic tensions. Therefore, the oft mentioned “provocative behavior” on the part of the Jews was not a mere anti-Semite fantasy. For instance, it can be assumed that the shooting of the Tsar’s portrait genuinely filled one part of Zhitomir’s inhabitants with indignation and for another provided a welcome pretext for highlighting the “dangerousness” of the Jews. Furthermore, the revolutionary fervor of the self-defense activists was not devoid of generational conflict against the older and more conservative segment of Jewish society, and undermined their more traditional efforts of avoiding pogrom violence, i.e. bribing officials and avoiding confrontation.130 This type of behavior was dismissed by the revolutionaries as “humiliating,” although it is not certain which approach was more effective in preventing violence.
All in all, the self-defense of Zhitomir can by no means be called successful in terms of pogrom prevention. As soon as violence escalated, it was not the battle squads, but the regular military forces that suppressed violence, though not in the most resolute manner. Lambroza rightly asserts that the self-defense became a “legend amongst Bund members.” However, he misses the point that it was in fact a legend by definition, deliberately produced by what might be called a Bundist PR campaign. Local revolutionaries clearly had an interest in glorifying the events, but the same was true of the higher echelons of the Bund, who were eager to depict the Zhitomir self-defense as an example for others to follow. Consequently, the Bundist Press spread appropriate accounts.131 One of the most celebrated aspects was the remarkable role of a Christian, Nikolai Blinov, in defending the Jews. Not long after the pogrom there were attempts in St. Petersburg to donate scholarships in his name and to publish a Blinov biography.132 One author called him an “emblem of higher humanity,” and the famous writer and folklorist Shlomo Rappoport authored an obituary for him titled “The Evening Sacrifice” with reference to Psalm 141, 2.133 Even postcards were printed with the portraits of the “victims of the pogrom of Zhitomir.”134 All in all, the campaign to depict the efforts of the self-defense as heroic and effective was so successful, that the emergent myth was adopted even by distinguished historians. It is beyond doubt that the attempts of Zhitomir’s Jews (and of Russian Jewry in general) to defend themselves were justified and even admirable. However, it seems that their actions may have contributed to a dynamic of mutual threat and violence that contradicted their own objectives.
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-defense. 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 organized 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.135 Even the progressive Jewish journal “Voskhod” assumed that this step was the single decisive measure to prevent a new pogrom.136 Efforts to avert pogroms were not the exclusive domain of young radicals, and self-defense was not always the most promising way to prevent anti-Jewish violence.
The Pogrom of Zhitomir differed significantly from the interpretations that eventually found their way into historiography. With regard to the case study, the concept of “Black Hundreds” can be sustained only in a most downscaled way as a general term for single pogrom instigators with limited resources and without substantial backing from the authorities. The second insight is that the state was much weaker in the province than most authors assume. The Police Chief of Zhitomir was forced not only to negotiate with the self-defense, but even to accept the conditions set by it if he wanted to prevent a violent outbreak in Pavlikovka, for example. Furthermore, while the military substantially contributed to the containment and suppression of the pogrom, the passivity of the civil authorities can be explained without assuming anti-Semitism as a motive, though its presence is not to be ruled out either. Lack of competence, personnel, general demoralization and the fear of terrorist attacks are sufficient factors in contributing to a refined picture of mismanagement on the part of the police and Governor.
Moreover, the Jewish self-defense played a role significantly different to that of prior findings. 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-defense 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 emphasized Jewish self-assertion and pride. The conflict of objectives that prevailed between these goals has not yet been fully recognized by historiography, although it significantly contributes to the explanation of the self-defense’s failure, at least in Zhitomir.
A possible explanation is that most studies on the pogroms in 1903-1906 were influenced by a certain set of convictions and assumptions that informed the interpretation of events in a way resembling the “pogrom paradigm” described by John Klier for the 1880s.137 This time, it was the events at Kishinev (and not of Odessa, 1871) that served as an interpretive template for the ensuing incidents of anti-Jewish violence.138 Black Hundreds, anti-Semitic press agitation, and state complicity were its major ingredients, and from the bulk of leftist, liberal and Jewish sources the paradigm was absorbed into scholarship. Of course, the findings of one case study are not sufficient to prove the falsity of these assumptions in general, but it might be worthwhile taking it as the starting point for a broader reassessment of the pogroms of that time.
Stefan Wiese, born 1982 in Quedlinburg. PhD candidate at Humboldt University Berlin. In his dissertation he examines the dynamics and varieties of pogrom violence in late Tsarist Russia. Further research topics: Jews, rumor and collective violence in Russian history, oratory in the CPSU Central Committee. Among his recent publications: “Lalaevs Haus brennt. Das Februarpogrom von 1905 in Baku – paralysierter Staat und Massengewalt im Russischen Reich,” in Journal of Modern European History 10/1 (2012), 117-138; “Gewalt in den Zeiten der Cholera. Begegnungen zwischen Autokratie, Intelligenz und Unterschichten im Russischen Reich während des Cholerajahres 1892,” in Seuche und Mensch. Herausforderung in den Jahrhunderten, eds. Carl Christian Wahrmann, Martin Buchsteiner, Antje Strahl, (Berlin: Duncker und Humblot, 2012), 325-346.
In 1905, Easter Sunday was 17 April both according to the orthodox and catholic calendar.
How to quote this article:
Stefan Wiese, "Jewish Self-Defense and Black Hundreds in Zhitomir. A Case Study on the Pogroms of 1905 in Tsarist Russia", in The Making of Antisemitism as a Political Movement. Political History as Cultural History (1879-1914) , eds. Werner Bergmann, Ulrich Wyrwa, Quest. Issues in Contemporary Jewish History. Journal of Fondazione CDEC, n.3 July 2015