Inventing the Pogrom: Assigning Meaning to the Kishinev Massacre

How the word “pogrom” became one of the surprisingly few Russian words that have ever made it into English.

Inventing the Pogrom: Assigning Meaning to the Kishinev Massacre

Pogrom by Steven J. Zipperstein. Liveright. 288 pages.

STEVEN J. ZIPPERSTEIN’S POGROM: Kishinev and the Tilt of History is, among many other things, the story of how the word pogrom became one of the surprisingly few Russian words that have ever made it into English. It was the 1903 massacre of Jews in Kishinev (now Chişinău in the post-Soviet Republic of Moldova) that made pogrom a household word, but why? It was neither the first nor the worst such atrocity in the history of Russia’s Jews. What was different about it?

What was different was, first, the speed with which the Kishinev story came to be told and, second, the radical variety and the literary brilliance of how it came to be interpreted. Events do not mean: they are assigned meaning. Facts do not live on the ground: they live in the mind.

The story of Kishinev has been told many times by now. Zipperstein’s focus is on the reasons for that very frequency and the consequences of it, rather than on the episode itself. True, in the third chapter of this compact, six-chapter book, he does review the brutal facts: 49 dead, 600 injured, further hundreds viciously raped. These facts matter, and he does not leave them out. But Zipperstein is a Stanford cultural historian of literary sensibility. “This book started,” he writes in his acknowledgments (astonishing in themselves for the number of archives visited), “as a cultural history of the Jews of Russian and Eastern Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.” That history, had he written it (he may yet), would be a vast undertaking on the model of his admired The Jews of Odessa: A Cultural History. Instead, he has done here something that is smaller, but also subtle, elegant, and masterful. He has turned the writing of the Kishinev story and its varied reception into a prism whose spectrum illuminates an astonishing range of subjects within a geographical triangle whose corners are Imperial Russia, the United States, and Israel. Wherever the light falls within that great triangle, Zipperstein — drawing on his exceptionally broad preparation — brings something new and unexpected into view.

The assignment of meaning to the Kishinev massacre began with a Zionist physician, Dr. Jacob Bernstein-Kogan, “an overweight, underpaid, midlevel political activist,” who after the massacre went door to door among Kishinev’s surviving, wealthier Jews raising funds to pay for telegrams to the wider world. “A warmhearted man,” Zipperstein calls him, “armed with little more than the addresses of foreign newspapers and the stamina to stay awake all night,” Bernstein-Kogan believed that the Kishinev atrocity mattered and that the world would care about it if the world only knew the facts: a seminal act of faith in humankind.

One of these telegrams reached the London office of the Hearst newspaper corporation, which dispatched an Irish nationalist journalist, Michael Davitt, to cover the story. A thorough professional, Davitt stayed in Kishinev for weeks interviewing survivors. As serially published, his reports, even though in deference to the journalistic delicacy of his day he left out the rapes, presented a picture of such savagery that they made his point to stunning effect: there could be no future for the Jews in the Russian Empire. In 1903, half of the world’s Jews were living in the western provinces of the Russian Empire. Today, almost half of the world’s Jews are living in Israel. The moral that Davitt provided to the Kishinev story would help to set that epochal demographic change in motion. Even at the time, Zipperstein reports, Davitt’s reports brought an immediate 1.25 million rubles of relief to the Jewish community of Kishinev, much of it from Jews in Europe and the United States.

But Davitt was not the only writer dispatched to Kishinev to prepare a report for publication. Another was the aspiring poet Chayim Nachman Bialik. Like Davitt, Bialik spent weeks in Kishinev, interviewing survivors and taking copious notes, which Zipperstein consults to telling effect. But Bialik made the daring decision to write, rather than a prose report, a long, lacerating poem entitled “In the City of Killing.” “Still seen,” Zipperstein writes, “as the finest — certainly the most influential — Jewish poem written since medieval times,” even though it was more widely read at the time in its Russian translation than in the original Hebrew, Bialik’s was a searing moral indictment of the cowardice of the Jewish men of Kishinev. They could have defended the honor of their women; they didn’t. Bialik lit into them with the fury of an Ezekiel:

And see, oh see: in the shade of that same corner
under the bench and behind the barrel
lay husbands, fiancés, brothers, peeping out of holes,
at the flutter of holy bodies under the flesh of donkeys […]
they lay in their shame and saw — and didn’t move and didn’t budge.

Davitt agreed with Bialik, his notes show, about that cowardice, though he saw fit not to include any such indictment in his Hearst reports. Zipperstein, however, one of whose themes throughout is the correction of the record where it can be corrected, finds not only that some of the Kishinev’s Jewish males did indeed fight back (some died fighting), but also that their Gentile attackers, as they incurred international opprobrium for their crime, used this very Jewish “aggression” to blame their victims and exonerate themselves. No matter: Zionism made its own the moral that Bialik assigned to the Kishinev pogrom: as the Diaspora Jew was a coward, so the Zionist Jew — the New Jew, the Israeli Jew — must be a warrior. For better and (some Israelis think) for worse, Bialik remains to this day a part of Israel’s school curriculum.

Yet it is Zipperstein’s account of a third Kishinev interpreter that makes his book a minor historical masterpiece. Until Pavel Krushevan’s arrival in Kishinev, relations between Gentiles and Jews there and in surrounding rural Bessarabia had been better than almost anywhere else in the Russian Empire, this according to the local Jews themselves, Zipperstein reports. Relations began to darken as Krushevan, an extreme anti-Semite and Russian chauvinist, launched Bessarabets, a newspaper relentlessly excoriating Kishinev’s Jews for supposed exploitation of the surrounding peasantry.

Why did he so hate the Jews? No attempt to reduce Judaeophobia to something psychologically or economically explicable ever quite accounts for the element in it of sheer, malignant prejudice, but Zipperstein brings an extraordinary documentary find to bear on his psychological reading of the young Pavel’s formation. Mikhail Khazin — an elderly Jewish journalist recently immigrated from Moldova to Brookline, Massachusetts, and a friend of Krushevan’s deceased nephew — entrusted to Zipperstein a cache of Krushevan’s personal papers that had been given to him at his friend’s death. From these, Zipperstein learned that Pavel’s beloved mother had died when he was a small boy, and that he had been raised by a Jewish stepmother, his father’s second wife. He was deeply aggrieved over the poverty that, as he saw it, had blighted his life, and that he

wished, according to his diary, that he had been “born a lady.” He was passionately in love with a Cossack whom he described as his krasavitsa (the beautiful one). On these pages he alternated between despair little short of manic — and dreams of grandeur. […]

Suffering souls, unfortunate desires
And the relentless swarm of heavy, black doom.

Enmeshed as he apparently was in a lifelong tangle of grief, frustration, and anger, Krushevan was nonetheless a talented writer, the author of a beautiful, even poetic celebration of the pastoral Bessarabian (Moldovan) countryside.

When he turned his talents to scapegoating Kishinev’s Jews in Bessarabets, his attacks were not without effect. The enterprising mayor of Kishinev, Karl Schmidt, thought Kishinev’s Jews were a great asset to the town, but he had no newspaper to spread his views. Krushevan did.

As Zipperstein reconstructs the paradigmatic pogrom, it was definitely a planned event with Krushevan in the role of master organizer. That Michael Davitt had made this very point in his newspaper accounts and in a book that followed seems to have been quickly forgotten. Zipperstein estimates that Krushevan was aided by no more than six or seven close collaborators. However, these few evidently recruited a larger, reinforcing terrorist band from the local Russian Orthodox seminary. As ruffian boys began to throw the first stones on Easter Sunday afternoon, as adults then began to join in, and finally as roving gangs began to congeal into a mob of riotous looters, the seminarians showed up to add an incendiary element of religious venom to the rioters’ already rampant lust for liquor, merchandise, women, and the vile joy of vandalism. The police quickly lost control, if they ever seriously tried to impose it. The army was eventually called in to shut down the pogrom, leading to hundreds of arrests but almost no convictions. A scandalous letter, tracing the origin of the pogrom to the highest levels in official Moscow, quickly became part of the Kishinev legend, but the letter was a forgery. Minister of the Interior Vyacheslav Konstantinovich Plehve, though an undoubted anti-Semite, had not instigated the slaughter. The instigator was Pavel Krushevan.

“Ever since embarking on this book,” Zipperstein writes, “I have found myself keenly intrigued by Krushevan.” Any historian might be, for Krushevan is the extremely rare instance of a man as crucial to the causation of a historic event as to its interpretation. If Krushevan had never written an anti-Semitic word after the Kishinev pogrom, the pogrom that he ignited would be historic because of Davitt’s and Bialik’s interpretations alone. But Krushevan’s interpretation, published pseudonymously in another of his newspapers once the pogrom had exploded into an international scandal, was the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, whose influence over the past century at least equals and may exceed Davitt’s and Bialik’s combined.

For Krushevan, the salient fact about the Kishinev pogrom was not that so many Jews had died but that world Jewry had turned the incident into an international sensation in which the Russian Jews were portrayed as innocent, even saintly victims (one elderly Jew had died defending Torah scrolls from desecration) while the Russian Gentiles were portrayed as bestial murderers. How ever had the Jews done this? Clearly, their success demonstrated yet again the existence and clandestine power of the international Jewish underground. With the Zionists openly planning to use their immense hidden wealth to buy — literally buy — Palestine from the Arabs and Turks, the moral Krushevan wanted to draw from Kishinev was clear: the Jews were now poised to take over the world. Plagiarized in part from a fictional French dialogue between the Montesquieu and Machiavelli, the Protocols purported to expose this staggering plot in the words of the diabolically plotting Jewish elders themselves. Though other authorship has been alleged for the Protocols, Zipperstein convincingly demonstrates here that its first publication came from Krushevan’s own pen.

One Kishinev interpreter remains to be mentioned, this one from the third, American point in Zipperstein’s grand triangle. If one Kishinev moral was that the Jews of Russia should emigrate to Israel and take up arms against their enemies, another was that they should come to the United States and live in freedom as patriotic Jewish Americans. This was the moral drawn by Israel Zangwill’s 1908 play, The Melting Pot, in which the protagonist, a Kishinev Jew but now an American, cries out proudly and exultantly:

America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming! […] A fig for your feuds and vendettas! German and Frenchman, Irishman and Englishman, Jews and Russians — into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.

A 21st-century American can scarcely fail to notice that Zangwill rallied to his Melting Pot only “all the races of Europe,” yet a late surprise in Zipperstein’s book is that the parallels were indeed drawn at the time between Russian pogroms and the lynching of blacks in the USA. The Cleveland Gazette wrote: “The terrible massacres of Jews last week in Kishineff […] are only what have taken place many times in the south,” adding that “the inhuman brutes of the southern part of this country are actuated by the same miserable motives.” As a result, the direct forerunner of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was born in 1909 in the apartment of the Russian-born Jewish radical Anna Strunsky and her patrician, Kentucky-born, left-leaning husband William English Walling.

Zipperstein ends his book on a visit to the very street in Kishinev (Chişinău) where the worst violence occurred and with a stunning final sentence:

The dusty street is crowded in daytime with earnest, hard-working locals — women with their shopping bags, schoolchildren (there is an elementary school nearby), men lugging tools. Densely housed, a hodgepodge of Soviet-age construction and century-old piles, it is a place that has inspired lessons of heroism and shame, cowardice and militancy, loathing or trust for gentiles. As many would come to believe, it was here, in this crowded alleyway, where exile reached its sudden, bloody end.

What does Zipperstein mean to claim by this startlingly counter-intuitive closing sentence? Is it not the case that the exodus of the Jews from Russia began in Kishinev? And two generations later did the Nazi Shoah not trigger the further mass flight of desperate Jews from all over Europe? True, of course, both times, but it was after Kishinev that “many” — Jews first but others, like Michael Davitt, gradually joining them — “would come to believe” that the Jews’ long European sojourn could end only in their escape or their annihilation: it could not continue.

Exile truly ends, of course, only when the exiled return home, and where are the Jews now at home? Recalling the grand triangle with which I began, I read Zipperstein’s provocative final sentence as a claim that the 2,000-year exile of the Jews has ended in two kinds of homecoming: to Israel, with the storied ingathering of the exiles to the biblical Promised Land; and to the United States, the America of Israel Zangwill’s Melting Pot, where, to quote the bold title of a 2014 book by the sociologist Alan Wolfe, half the Jews of the world are now permanently At Home in Exile.

A remarkable claim, on either side, ending a quite remarkable book.


Jack Miles is the editor of The Norton Anthology of World Religions and a professor emeritus of English and Religious Studies at the University of California, Irvine.

LARB Contributor

Jack Miles, an ex-Jesuit, is the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning God: A Biography (1995), editor of The Norton Anthology of World Religions, and professor emeritus of English and religious studies at the University of California, Irvine.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!