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by S.M. Dubnow

A Project Gutenberg EBook




In the beginning of May, 1881, the well-known diplomatist Nicholas Pavlovich Ignatyev was called by the Tzar to the post of Minister of the Interior. At one time ambassador in Constantinople and at all times a militant Pan-Slavist, Ignatyev introduced the system of diplomatic intrigues into the inner politics of Russia, earning thereby the unenviable nickname of "Father of Lies."

A programmatic circular, issued by him on May 6, declared that the principal task of the Government consisted in the "extirpation of sedition," i.e., in carrying on a struggle not only against the revolutionary movement but also against the spirit of liberalism in general. In this connection, Ignatyev took occasion to characterize the anti-Jewish excesses in the following typical sentences:

  The movement against the Jews which has come to light during the   last few days in the South is a sad example, showing how men,   otherwise devoted to Throne and Fatherland, yet yielding to the   instigations of ill-minded agitators who fan the evil passions of   the popular masses, give way to self-will and mob rule and, without   being aware of it, act in accordance with the designs of the   anarchists. Such violation of the public order must not only be put   down vigorously, but must also be carefully forestalled, for it is   the first duty of the Government to safeguard the population against   all violence and savage mob rule.

These lines reflect the theory concerning the origin of the pogroms, which was originally held in the highest Government spheres of St. Petersburg. This theory assumed that the anti-Jewish campaign had been entirely engineered by revolutionary agitators and that the latter had made deliberate endeavors to focus the resentment of the popular masses upon the Jews, as a pre-eminently mercantile class, for the purpose of subsequently widening the anti-Jewish campaign into a movement directed against the Russian mercantile class, land-owners and capitalists in general. [1] Be this as it may, there can be no question that the Government was actually afraid lest the revolutionary propaganda attach itself to the agitation of those "devoted to Throne and Fatherland" for the purpose of giving the movement a more general scope, "in accordance with the d signs of the anarchists." As a matter of fact, even outside of Government circles, the apprehension was voiced that the anti-Jewish movement would of itself, without any external stimulus, assume the form of a mob movement, directed not only against the well-to-do classes but also against the Government officials. On May 4, 1881, Baron Horace Guenzburg, a leading representative of the Jewish community of St. Petersburg, waited upon Grand Duke Vladimir, a brother of the Tzar, who expressed the opinion that the anti-Jewish "disorders, as has now been ascertained by the Government, are not to be exclusively traced to the resentment against the Jews, but are rather due to the endeavor to disturb the peace in general."

[Footnote 1: John W. Poster, United States Minister to Russia, in reporting to the Secretary of State, on May 24, 1881, about the recent excesses, which "are more worthy of the dark ages than of the present century," makes a similar observation: "It is asserted also that the Nihilist societies have profited by the situation to incite and encourage the peasants and lower classes of the towns and cities in order to increase the embarrassments of the Government, but the charge is probably conjectural and not based on very tangible facts." See _House of Representatives, 51st Congress, 1st Session. Executive Document No. 470, p. 53_]

A week after this visit, the deputies of Russian Jewry had occasion to hear the same opinion expressed by the Tzar himself. The Jewish deputation, consisting of Baron Guenzburg, the banker Sack, the lawyers Passover and Bank, and the learned Hebraist Berlin, was awaiting this audience with, considerable trepidation, anticipating an authoritative imperial verdict regarding the catastrophe that had befallen the Jews. On May 11, the audience took place in the palace at Gatchina. Baron Guenzburg voiced the sentiments of "boundless gratitude for the measures adopted to safeguard the Jewish population at this sad moment," and added: "One more imperial word, and the disturbances will disappear." In reply to the euphemistic utterances concerning "the measures adopted," the Tzar stated in the same tone that all Russian subjects were equal before him, and expressed the assurance "that in the criminal disorders in the South of Russia the Jews merely serve as a pretext, and that it is the work of anarchists."

This pacifying portion of the Tzar's answer was published in the press. What the public was not allowed to learn was the other portion of the answer, in which the Tzar gave utterance to the view that the source of the hatred against the Jews lay in their economic "domination" and "exploitation" of the Russian population. In reply to the arguments of the talented lawyer Passover and the other deputies, the Tzar declared: "State all this in a special memorandum."

Such a memorandum was subsequently prepared. But it was not submitted to the Tzar. For only a few months later the official attitude towards the Jewish question took a turn for the worse. The Government decided to abandon its former view on the Jewish pogroms and to adopt, instead, the theory of Jewish "exploitation," using it as a means of justifying not only the pogroms which had already been perpetrated upon the Jews but also the repressive measures which were being contemplated against them. Under these circumstances, Ignatyev did not see his way clear to allow the memorandum in defence of Jewry to receive the attention of the Tzar.

It is not impossible that the pacifying portion of the imperial reply which had been given at the audience of May 11 was also prompted by the desire to appease the public opinion of Western Europe, for at that time European opinion still carried some weight with the bureaucratic circles of Russia. Several days before the audience at Gatchina, [1] the English Parliament discussed the question of Jewish persecutions in Russia. In the House of Commons the Jewish members, Baron Henry de Worms and Sir H.D. Wolff, calling attention to the case of an English Jew who had been expelled from St. Petersburg, interpellated the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Sir Charles Dilke, "whether Her Majesty's Government have made any representations to the Government at St. Petersburg, with regard to the atrocious outrages committed on the Jewish population in Southern Russia," Dilke replied that the English Government was not sure whether such a protest "would be likely to be efficacious." [2]

[Footnote 1: On May 16 and 19=May 4 and 7, according to the Russian Calendar.]

[Footnote 2: The Russian original has been amended in a few places in accordance with the report of the parliamentary proceedings published in the _Jewish Chronicle_ of May 20, 1881.]

A similar reply was given by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Lord Granville, to a joint deputation of the Anglo-Jewish Association and the Board of Deputies, two leading Anglo-Jewish bodies, which waited upon him on May 13, [1] two days after the Gatchina audience. After expressing his warm sympathy with the objects of the deputation, the Secretary pointed out the inexpediency of any interference on the part of England at a moment when the Russian Government itself was adopting measures against the pogroms, referring to "the cordial reception lately given by the emperor to a deputation of Jews"

[Footnote 1: May 25, according to the European Calendar. From the issue of the _Jewish Chronicle_ of May 27, 1881, p. 12b, it would appear that the deputation was received on Tuesday, May 24.]

Subsequent events soon made it clear that the Government, represented by Ignatyev, was far from harboring any sympathy for the victims of the pogroms. The public did not fail to notice the fact that the Russian Government, which was in the habit of rendering financial help to the population in the case of elemental catastrophes, such as conflagrations or inundations, had refrained from granting the slightest monetary assistance to the Jewish sufferers from the pogroms. Apart from its material usefulness, such assistance would have had an enormous moral effect, inasmuch as it would have stood forth in the public eye as an official condemnation of the violent acts perpetrated against the Jews--particularly if the Tzar himself had made a large donation for that purpose, as he was wont to do in other cases of this kind. As it was, the authorities not only neglected to take such a step, but they even went so far as to forbid the Jews of St. Petersburg to start a public collection for the relief of the pogrom victims. Nay, the governor-general of Odessa refused to accept a large sum of money offered to him by well-to-do Jews for the benefit of the sufferers.

Nor was this the worst. The local authorities did everything in their power to manifest their solidarity with the enemies of Judaism. The street pogroms were followed by administrative pogroms _sui generis_. Already in the month of May, the police of Kiev began to track all the Jews residing "illegally" in that city [1] and to expel these "criminals" by the thousands. Similar wholesale expulsions took place in Moscow, Oryol, and other places outside the Pale of Settlement. These persecutions constituted evidently an object-lesson in religious toleration, and the Russian masses which had but recently shown to what extent they respected the inviolability of Jewish life and property took the lesson to heart.

[Footnote 1: It will be remembered that the right of residence in Kiev was restricted in the case of the Jews to a few categories: first-guild merchants, graduates from institutions of higher learning, and artisans.]

One hope was still left to the Jews. The law courts, at least, being the organs of the public conscience of Russia, were bound to condemn severely the sinister pogrom heroes. But this hope, too, proved illusory. In the majority of cases the judges treated act of open pillage and of violence committed against life and limb as petty street brawls, as "disturbances of the public peace," and imposed upon their perpetrators ridiculously slight penalties, such as three months' imprisonment--penalties, moreover, which were simultaneously inflicted upon the Jews who, as in the case of Odessa, had resorted to self-defence. When the terrible Kiev pogrom was tried in the local Military Circuit Court, the public prosecutor Strelnikov, a well-known reactionary who subsequently met his fate at the hands of the revolutionaries, delivered himself on May 18 of a speech which was rather an indictment against the Jews than against the rioters. He argued that these disorders had been called forth entirely by the "exploitation of the Jews," who had seized the principal economic positions in the province, and he conducted his cross-examination of the Jewish witnesses in the same hostile spirit. When one of the witnesses retorted that the aggravation of the economic struggle was due to the artificial congestion of the Jews in the pent-up Pale of Settlement, the prosecutor shouted: "If the Eastern frontier is closed to the Jews, the Western frontier is open to them; why don't they take advantage of it?" This summons to leave the country, doubly revolting in the mouth of a guardian of the law, addressed to those who under the influence of the pogrom panic had already made up their minds to flee from the land of slavery, produced a staggering effect upon the Jewish public. The last ray of hope, the hope for legal justice, vanished. The courts of law had become a weapon in the hands of the anti-Jewish leaders.

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