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.

issue 03 / July 2012 by Stefan Wiese