Why Were There so Many Violent Pogroms in Russia in the Later Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

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Why were there so many violent pogroms in Russia in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?

Contemporary sources on this topic have often pointed to the Russian authorities claiming they incited the violence that was prevalent towards Jews in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In fact John Doyle Klier claims that “almost without exception secondary sources argue that the tsarist authorities actively planned, encouraged or at least welcomed pogroms”.[1] While there is some evidence to suggest that the authorities played a role in encouraging anti-Semitism and allowing violence to continue many historians have argued that this theory does not stand up to scholarly research of primary sources. Many more factors have been put forward for the sudden wave of violence that broke out in 1881 and continued sporadically over the next few decades. Factors such as the unstable environment, both socially and politically, caused by Russia trying to modernise through a series of reforms, or the instability of authority during the soviet revolution, allowing pre existing anti-Semitism to spill over into outright violence.

Like many countries in Europe Russia has a long history of anti-Semitism. However unlike many other countries Russia retained many anti-Jewish policies that resulted in segregation and poor living conditions even in the nineteenth century, as Neil MacMaster writes “Tsarist Russia, among all European states, had retained the most powerful and elaborate legal and political system for the segregation and oppression of the Jewish minority”,[2] most notably the laws regarding Jewish settlement which limited them to the Pale of settlement and segregated them from the rest of the populace. This bred hostility and effectively marked the Jewish community as the unseen ‘other’ to their Christian neighbours. This arrangement is important to consider in studying the pogroms since in the mindset of the perpetrators it is far easier to attack a collective undefined group rather then an individual neighbour or someone living within their community, “the greatest anti-Semites are men who have probably never seen a Jew in their lives”.[3] Combined with this, other policies that “forced them into the same professions that they were denounced for monopolising”[4] meant that anti-Semitism was perpetuated from the authorities and just furthered all of the stereotypes that bred hostility against the Jews in the first place ultimately resulting in violence.

This phenomenon however is not sufficient to explain the extreme outbreaks of violence, since anti-Semitism alone does not account for such drastic measures. One argument that was particularly prevalent in contemporary times is that the government not only actively played on this anti-Semitism but also encouraged it and some would even go so far as to say organised the pogroms themselves. Proponents of this argument point to the outbreaks of violence after the assassination of Alexander II claiming that the authorities used this as the “safety valve”[5] for the built up hostility towards the problems caused by his reforms. Despite the fact that only one “irreligious women of Jewish decent”[6], Gesia Gelfman, was loosely involved in the terrorist group behind the assassination “officially inspired rumours were spread that Jews had played a leading part in the revolutionary upheaval”.[7] This theory is compounded by Theodore R. Weeks who claims that the involvement of Gesia Gelfman was “used by Russian conservatives to whip up a press frenzy in the months [after the assassination] against the Jews, as disloyal revolutionaries”.[8] It is also consistent with James Parkes theory that although “the murder had nothing to do with the Jews, the government needed a scapegoat”[9] and as had often been the case “the Jews were the obvious choice”.[10] Ultimately the most alarming allegation is that “the people were encouraged to let off steam on their Jewish...
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