April 23, 2018
Stanford scholar illuminates how 1903 Kishinev pogrom happened, and its cultural impact today
Stanford historian Steven Zipperstein analyzes the impactful aftermath of the Kishinev pogrom, an anti-Jewish massacre in imperial Russia. Using new evidence, he sheds light on how the riot took place, separating fact from myth.
By Alex Shashkevich
In April 1903, a massacre of 49 Jews in Kishinev, a southwestern city in czarist-era Russia, shook the world.
Historian Steven Zipperstein, author of a new book on the Kishinev pogrom, says the massacre is a case study of how news warps into mythology that then becomes common knowledge. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)
Later widely regarded as a prototype for the Holocaust, the Kishinev pogrom spurred international ramifications, pushing Jewish political groups to organize and leading to the United States allowing relatively unrestricted immigration for Jews.
But how and why the riot happened became largely misunderstood by the public in the midst of false accusations and forged documents that clouded reality. Some of these misconceptions still persist today, Stanford historian Steven Zipperstein says.
Zipperstein, the Daniel E. Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and History, analyzed the aftermath of the pogrom and used new archival evidence to shed light on how and why the riot happened. The research is the subject of his new book, Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History.
Stanford News Service interviewed Zipperstein about his research.
Why did you start working on this project?
What interests me perhaps above all is how history is created – what actually sticks and what disappears from historical record. As someone who has written extensively over the years about the Jews of Russia, I’m acutely aware of which parts of that history have remained in the collective Jewish memory and which haven’t.
What I came to realize is that many paradigms that have come to influence the Jewish understanding of the past ended up being shaped by this one moment in history: the Kishinev pogrom.
Before the Holocaust, Buchenwald and Auschwitz, the word that most readily summed up Jews’ modern-day horror was Kishinev. All you needed to say then in Jewish circles across the cultural and political spectrums was the word “Kishinev,” and that would evoke images of tragedy. The Kishinev pogrom was not the first or the last – or the deadliest – of anti-Jewish riots. But it becomes a code word for anti-Jewish brutality, and I wanted to understand how that came to be.
Why does the story of how the Kishinev pogrom came to be remembered matters for us today?
Kishinev is a case study of how news warps into mythology that then becomes common knowledge.
I started working on this research long before the issue of “fake news” surfaced. The lessons from this piece of history especially apply in today’s political and news climate. I think it’s important for people to be aware that some of their beliefs about the world can be shaped by the same types of mythologies that tumbled from the Kishinev pogrom.
The fallout from Kishinev led to a consolidated distrust of political conservatism and a widespread belief that the archconservative government in the world, Russia, is willing to beat and rape people on its own streets. But these beliefs were not grounded in truth.
There were many reasons for people – perhaps especially for Jews – to dislike the government of imperial Russia. And there are many reasons as I see it to embrace the politics of liberalism or those of the left. But the misconceptions that tumbled from the Kishinev pogrom served to consolidate in ways that continue still to define Jewish life to the present day. This I found deeply intriguing – a reminder of how for so many of us, including me, what we tend to believe as empirically grounded is, to no small measure, the byproduct of belief.
What was the Kishinev pogrom and its impact?
The Kishinev pogrom was an anti-Jewish massacre that occurred over the course of a day and a half on April 19 and 20, 1903, in the imperial Russia’s city of Kishinev, now known as Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. Forty-nine Jews died, and hundreds were wounded and raped as a result of the riot, which was prompted by longstanding rumors, dating back as far as the 12th or 13th centuries, that Jews used Christian blood for ritual purposes.
A combination of factors ended up making Kishinev into the history it became. It was the first major anti-Jewish riot at the beginning of the 20th century, and it’s the first Jewish tragedy that gets photographed, appearing prominently in newspapers around the world.
As a result, the riot ends up having international ramifications. For example, the Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary organization that became the core of the Israeli army, was created largely in reaction to the Kishinev pogrom.
American Jewish radicals also drew a direct connection between the pogroms in Russia and lynching in the American South and the anti-black riots in the American North. And Kishinev ended up being a direct precursor to the founding of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), founded in 1909.
How did this event become misinterpreted and what are some falsehoods that still persist about it?
Most of what ends up being remembered about the Kishinev pogrom is actually a byproduct of forgery. And those misconceptions are still being widely believed by many Jews and some Jewish scholars today.
Part of the knowledge that ends up being canonized is that the pogrom was organized by the imperial Russian government, specifically by Minister of the Interior Vyacheslav von Plehve. A document that surfaces right after the riot, the so-called “Plehve letter,” which places the full responsibility for the pogrom on the shoulders of the government, has an enormous impact. Because of this letter America opens up relatively unrestricted immigration for Jews, in contrast to the Chinese, for example. But that Plehve letter is now known to be forged.
Another fabricated text that emerges is The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the most infamous of all anti-Semitic texts that describes a Jewish plan for global domination. Yet it became disseminated internationally, becoming a part of the Nazi propaganda used in later years by Adolf Hitler, and there are allegations in it of the desire for Jewish world domination that found echoes in the last U.S. presidential campaign.
Many also criticized the Russian army for not protecting the Jews and allowing the pogrom to happen. This is also misconstrued. My research, and that of others too, shows that the Russian army stationed nearby was called upon to stop the attack and does respond as soon as it is called upon to do so. But what armies do and don’t do in Russia during this period with regard to civil disorder is complicated.
I also demonstrate through new archival evidence that The Protocols was likely penned, or at least co-authored, by its publisher, the far-right journalist Pavel Krushevan. On the basis of archival material I discovered while researching this book – this material is now housed in the Hoover Institution – I’ve been able to deepen considerably our understanding of the origins of Krushevan’s beliefs and the complexity of his relationship with Jews.
Zipperstein is a professor of history in the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences.