One could be forgiven for thinking that an event that occurred in the outskirts of the Russian Empire over a century ago is irrelevant. Dr. Steven Zipperstein, a Stanford University historian who visited Wayne State University this past fall, disagrees. In his book Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History, Zipperstein argues that a 1903 massacre in present-day Moldova was instrumental in the formation of the NAACP and modern Israel, while foreshadowing subsequent violence against Jews. The story has eerie parallels to xenophobic sentiments of today.
The word “pogrom” refers to the violent outbreaks against Jews occurring in the late 19th and early 20th century Russian Empire. The pogrom Zipperstein writes about occurred in Kishinev in 1903 (today Chisinau, Moldova). Located in Bessarabia, which is nestled between modern Romania and Ukraine, Kishinev was the fifth largest city in the Russian empire. However given its distance from Moscow, Kishinev had a life of its own. A dusty and landlocked city, it was known for its ethnic diversity and large Jewish population. For years, these diverse peoples lived in relative peace.
The peace began to crumble at the turn of the 20th century, culminating in an April, 1903 in a massacre that left 49 dead. The immediate cause was a myth, perpetuated by the local press, that, in preparation for Passover, Jews typically killed a young Christian and drain his his blood for ritual to make Passover Matzo. When a young Christian boy was coincidentally found dead in 1903 around Easter time — a time of year when anti-Jewish sentiments among Christians ran especially high — the local Christians used it as an impetus to attack the innocent Jews. Christians ransacked Jewish stores and homes, and eventually the Jews themselves while the Russian imperial authorities turned a blind eye. The violence continued the following day with over 600 women raped. It was a culmination of a long history of antisemitism in Russia, and, Zipperstein argues, it convinced Jews that integration into mainstream Russian society was impossible; they needed to find a home elsewhere.
One of the main antagonists in this episode was Paul Krushevan, who is believed to have written the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Zipperstein gained access to a hitherto unanalyzed stash of Krushevan’s personal papers for this book. The thesis of the Protocols is that Jews conspire to control the world, a trope that is still eerily common today when some speak of Jewish figures such as George Soros, Tom Steyer or Michael Bloomberg secretly pulling the strings of American democracy in order to benefit a small capitalist class. A marxist interpretation of the pogrom claimed that the gentiles were envious of the Jews accumulating wealth, and thus used their ethnicity as an excuse to advance their own monetary interests. Krushevan was the publisher of the popular newspaper Bessarebets, which he used to fan the flames of his conspiracy. This shows the terrifying power of disinformation, making the story important today.
I first heard the story while taking Dr. Aaron Retish’s class on Imperial Russia. The class opened our eyes to the nuances of tsarist Russia’s expansionism, which sometimes was achieved through force. We gained a theoretical and real-world understanding of the empire, as we took part in unique activities, such as meeting with native Belarussians who were part of the first State Department group to ever travel to the United States, a significant diplomatic feat. Later in the semester, Dr. Howard Luopvitch and the Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies hosted Dr. Zipperstein for a lecture on his book at the law school. Our Russian history class attended the talk, and Dr. Zipperstein was nice enough to stick around after and have a Q&A with us. The experience taught us a lot about what it is exactly that historians do.
Historians do not just teach us only what happened, but rather show why these events happened and why they matter. Though the 1903 Kishniev pogrom is incredibly well-documented and has been written about many times, Zipperstein explains its larger significance. He shows how it influenced the political thought of Chaim Weizman, one of the founders and the first president of the State of Israel, how it led to the formation of the Haganah, the forerunner of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), and how it served as a dire warning for future atrocities that would strike the Jews of central and east Europe, a warning that, in hindsight, many Jews failed to heed.
Even closer to home, Zipperstein links the pogrom to the founding of the NAACP, whose largest chapter is in Detroit. Its founders traveled to Russia and saw the pogroms firsthand, and were astounded when they saw similar atrocities taking place in Springfield, Illinois. Perhaps this is where Zipperstein goes a step too far; his investment in proving the importance of this obscure pogrom causes him to overreach and give it more causal agency than it truly had.
Nonetheless, Zipperstein’s warning is clear. Desperation and envy lead to hate. Hate needs fuel, and oftentimes that fuel is found in an ethnic or religious “other.” Misinformation, also known as “Fake News,” or lies told by societal leaders, can lead to real actions as we saw in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, in mosques after 9/11, with Hispanics and illegal immigration, and, with the coronavirus spreading as I write, the Chinese. The only way to combat future pogroms or events like them is through vigilance, for, to quote Geroge Orwell, whether it is Kishinev or Wuhan, “The squalid brawl in a distant city is more important than it might appear at first.”