Laczó on Zipperstein, 'Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History'

Steven J. Zipperstein
Ferenc Laczó

Steven J. Zipperstein. Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History. New York: Liveright, 2018. 288 pp. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-63149-269-3.

Reviewed by Ferenc Laczó (Maastricht University) Published on H-Nationalism (May, 2019) Commissioned by Cristian Cercel (Ruhr University Bochum)

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Steven Zipperstein’s newest book contains erudite essay-like chapters that combine microhistorical explorations of the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 with broader reflections on transnational currents impacting the course of global history. While forty-nine Jews were murdered and many more raped and beaten in Kishinev, the book is interested not only in how and why this tragedy unfolded but also in how and why the impact of the stories surrounding the pogrom in some sense outgrew the scale of the gruesome events. As Zipperstein demonstrates particularly in the second half of his book, the Kishinev pogrom cast an extraordinary shadow, with many oddly mismatched residues in different corners of the world. Intriguingly for our own times, despite the wealth of readily available information, various distorted interpretations of it have proliferated ever since. One of the main aims of Zipperstein’s stimulating book is therefore to study the uneasy interplay between truth and fiction surrounding this most infamous and consequential pogrom in the Russian Empire and thus to ultimately grasp “how history is made and remade, what is retained and elided, and why” (p. 23).

The book begins with a lively portrait of Bessarabia and its largest city, Kishinev, on the eve of the pogrom. As Zipperstein explains, Kishinev may have been a rapidly growing city prior to 1903 and the fifth-largest in the empire but it had remained rather obscure, so its name could subsequently be immediately associated with deadly anti-Jewish violence. Zipperstein suggests that there was in fact little in the daily life of this far-flung and only recently acquired province of the Russian Empire that could have predicted the eruption of such a massive—and therefore all the more shocking—wave of violence. At the same time, even by Russia’s own standards, the city and its surrounding region were characterized by sharp contrasts and thus, as Zipperstein perceptively notes, amicable day-to-day relations between Jews and non-Jews coexisted uneasily with a sense of exploitation and various forms of resentment. 

Having set the stage, the book proceeds to reconstruct in minute detail the unusually well-documented pogrom of Kishinev. As the author highlights, the violence was characterized by a frightening interplay of familiarity and ferocity. In his account, the pogrom was fueled by the relentless mobilization conducted by some six to seven local antisemites gathered around Pavel Krushevan’s newspaper Bessarabets (which, it ought to be noted, Krushevan had already sold by the time the pogrom erupted) and, more specifically, by a ritual murder charge right before it and various malevolent rumors during its unfolding. As the violence erupted, a mob of villagers joined the core group consisting of fanatical antisemites and local seminary students. On day one, when around two hundred people participated in the riot, many adolescent Moldavians from surrounding areas were among them. By day two, the violence had greatly escalated and resulted in the murder of forty-nine individuals as well as widespread rape and theft, with nearly two-thirds of the city directly affected. The Russian state authorities and, most particularly, the poorly prepared military reacted inadequately to the unfolding violence, but they jailed some nine hundred of its perpetrators, thereby revealing their rather agreeable intentions. All of the above is also meant to imply that, contrary to popular belief, the pogrom was not instigated by the central Russian government. The so-called Plehve letter, which surfaced a month after the pogrom and was meant to demonstrate the government's involvement, was in all likelihood an inauthentic document (its exact origin remains unknown).

Zipperstein’s next chapter is devoted to an exploration of how the pogrom was represented in the two most influential works responding to it, namely Hayyim Nahman Bialik’s poem “In the City of Killing” (published in Hebrew in 1904, first translated into English in 1906) and Michael Davitt’s book Within the Pale: The True Story of Anti-Semitic Persecutions in Russia (1903). The two authors, both with concrete and precise knowledge of the pogrom, identified Kishinev as a major historical turning point: the sudden eruption of mass violence was meant to capture the experience of Russian Jewry more generally and reveal the utter vulnerability of their situation. As Zipperstein argues, having spent some five weeks in the city exploring uncomfortable details, Bialik recast his own earlier humiliations as rage directed at the Jews of the city. His famed poem pointed to the failings of Kishinev’s Jewish men and aimed to provoke Jews to finally take action. Zipperstein subsequently shows that Davitt was less concerned with Jewish passivity and his first-rate journalism had a slightly different agenda: to warn of the likely catastrophic future of Russian Jews and emphasize how essential their emigration from the Tsarist Empire would be. Intriguingly, acts of Jewish self-defense, which doubtlessly accompanied the horrific attacks, tended to be sidelined in such pro-Jewish accounts, whereas descriptions inimical to Jews recurrently highlighted what they self-servingly depicted as the militancy of local Jews (p. 87).

The book’s subsequent chapter analyzes, in an equally intriguing manner, the close connection between the Kishinev pogrom and the release of the first version of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. As Zipperstein phrases it without suggesting false equivalences, “much as the pogrom proved to many Jews and their supporters that the long, wretched arm of the Russian government was behind it all, The Protocols provided no less conclusive proof to antisemites of the limitless power of worldwide Jewry” (p. 16). As the book shows, Pavel Krushevan—the main ideologist behind the pogrom who was not personally present in Kishinev during its days though—in fact published the first version of the Protocols in his newspaper Znamia in 1903. In response to the manifold condemnations in the wake of the pogrom, Krushevan almost certainly authored or at least coauthored this largely plagiarized forgery, and most certainly penned both its introduction and afterword. The recent discovery of a cache of his personal papers finally allows researchers to more fully reveal the odd career of this rather distinguished intellectual and rank pogrom-monger. Having embraced a pro-autocratic brand of conservatism in the 1890s and with a maniacal focus on antisemitic ideas, in the immediate aftermath of the 1903 pogrom, Krushevan came to identify the Zionist movement’s Kishinev-based correspondence bureau—which had successfully transmitted news of the deadly violence abroad—as the headquarters of a carefully coordinated Jewish effort to harm the Russian Empire. More specifically, the head of the local bureau, journalist and philanthropist Jacob Bernstein-Kogan, “an overweight, underpaid, midlevel political activist” and someone whom Krushevan had known since their boyhood days in the same gymnasium, became, in Zipperstein’s memorable phrase, “his unlikely inspiration for the most terrifying Jew on the planet” (p. 182).

The closing chapter of this vivid book of demystification gauges the impact of the pogrom in the United States. The author’s primacy focus here is on the lessons concerning the confluence between Russian pogroms and antiblack riots and lynching in America. As Zipperstein shows, after the Kishinev pogrom, the critique of Russia’s sins would return to the front pages of American newspapers and such discussions of Russia would often bring to the surface embarrassing questions regarding comparable racial oppression in the United States. While complaints about how extended and sensationalistic reports on Russia tended to overshadow critical confrontations with local riots and instances of deadly lynching were recurrently and not unjustly made, as the author argues, the American reception of the Kishinev pogrom also helped develop a new sensitivity to such grave injustices. William English Walling and Anna Strunsky, a married leftist couple, did perhaps the most to directly connect the widely publicized persecution of Russia’s Jews to the issue of racial justice in the United States. They succeeded at bringing new attention to the plight of blacks, not least by being instrumental in establishing what became known as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (p. 203).

Beyond the detailed historical reconstruction and fine contextualization of the Kishinev pogrom, the book highlights the major impact this tragic event had on Jewish politics, on the foundation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and also on the creation of the devastatingly influential forgery known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. While the author is admittedly less concerned with the impact of the pogrom on the Left in the Russian Empire or on the Jewish national movement, this well-researched and intriguing series of essays shows how “Kishinev” would not only “come to serve as the bedrock for so much subsequent knowledge—accurate and inaccurate—about pogroms and their origins and significance” (p. xvii), but for various major political forces it would respectively constitute “the final nail in the coffin for the prospect of Russian Jewish integration, the ultimate verdict on the necessity for emigration to the United States or Palestine, the clearest of all clarion calls for revolution, and the starkest of all proof regarding Jewry’s uncanny worldwide influence” (p. 206). In short, Zipperstein succeeds at offering a captivating exploration of how history has been made and remade and what has been retained and elided in the process. He also offers several key insights into why exactly the deadly riot in a relatively obscure place like Kishinev would have such global repercussions, however, without fully accounting for the (admittedly mysterious) inverse relationship between lack of previous familiarity and subsequent importance attached.

Citation: Ferenc Laczó. Review of Zipperstein, Steven J., Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. May, 2019. URL:

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