I read a section from the Vital book (A People Apart by David Vital, Oxford) on the Russian pogroms of the 1880s. Vital feels that 1880 was a watershed in Jewish European history – as significant in its own way as 1789 and 1933. Here for the first time the massacre of Jews was tolerated by the State as a diversion from political and economic problems which threatened the stability of the government. The cataclysmic events during that decade were a major shift in the progressive development of assimilation and civil rights that the Jews had attained since the French Revolution. The Jews were once again seen as an enemy within, but now, as the underclasses were beginning to suffer from the downward cycles of capitalism, they were blamed not so much for killing Christ as for helping to strangle the native economies through their link with international finance.
Of course there was some truth in these fears but, as Vital quite rightly points out, the focus of blame was directed, as always, toward the wrong people. For the vast majority of Jews suffered from the same excesses of Capitalism as the Russian peasantry. The Jews who had gained enormous wealth through their cross-national dealings were mainly exempt from the terror.
Vital spends a lot of energy trying to come to some determination about the cause of the brutal upsurge in sectarian violence that erupted with such ferocity and lasted for several years before dissipating into random attacks. According to him there were over 200 towns and villages that were plundered with many Jews injured and killed. The question is, why? Why then? And why was it most severe in south western Russia? The closest he comes to a reasonable answer had to do with the collapsing economic and social order with all the fears it engendered. And the identification of the Jews with the worst and most rapacious elements of capitalism which was going through a savage readjustment. I think to understand this period and the violent flare-ups – which, I suspect, were not only acted out as pogroms against the Jews but against other easy symbols of oppression as well – we’d need to know more about the economic changes that were taking place at that time in Russia. And how much this was affected by the new unemployment caused by the freeing of the serfs and their consequent dispossession breaking free from the soil but not yet brought into the lumbering industrial system. But the point I took away from this reading is that progroms have proven to be useful devices for channelling brute anger that otherwise would be directed at the Tsar – in whatever form he might be.
21 September 2002