This page was created by Elena Sokoloski. 

The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Pogrom

    On February 16, 1903, a boy named Mikhail Ribalenko was murdered at Dubossary, a village in Kherson, close to Kishinev. It would later become clear that he had become murdered by a family member after the fortune he could claim when the boy died, but as the search for the corpse went on, rumors began to circulate that the murder had been committed by Jews, who needed to obtain Christian blood for their Passover bread. This was, of course, a lie, but it was propagated by a newspaper that enjoyed significant government support in Bessarabia, the anti-Semitic Bessarabetz. No other newspapers were permitted to publish to counteract these rumours, and so the rumors culminated in a series of riots against Jews between April 19 and 21, on the Easter holiday (Adler ix).

    The slaughter was planned: some Jewish families had attempted to buy their safety from the police at the price of five roubles per family, but the resulting violence and destruction was still widespread (Ian-Ruben 6). Despite the warnings sent to the governor ahead of the violent outbreak, the police were inactive in the locales where the mobs were the largest and most violent, and the military was not summoned to quell the violence despite pleas for such intervention.

    In the official report on the “incident,” 2,750 families were affected, of which 2,538 reported monetary damage amounting to 2,332,890 roubles. 47 were killed, 92 were severely injured, and 345 were slightly hurt. The violence left 47 widows and 123 orphans, but in the words of officials at the time, the violence was not religiously motivated.

 

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    “There is, in Russia, as in Germany and Austria, a feeling against certain of the Jews. The reason for this unfriendly attitude is found in the fact that the Jews will not work in the field or engage in agriculture; they prefer to be money lenders. In this capacity, he takes advantage of the Russian peasant, whom he soon has in his power and ultimately destroys. They have tried to get Jews into agriculture, but they insist on being money lenders instead” (xii).

    “The situation in Russia so far as the Jews are concerned is just this: It is the peasant against the money lender and not the Russians against the Jews. There is no feeling against the Jews in Russia because of religion (xiii). The Russian readily assimilates with the people of all other races, and if he cannot assimilate with the Jew, it is apparent that the fault must be with the Jew and not with the Russian” (xiii).

 

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This image, composed by an unknown photographer in the immediate aftermath of the 1903 pogrom at Kishinev, tells an important visual story about the violence, the official response, and the kind of destruction that the mobs behind the violence sought out. The violence was widespread, and affected numerous individuals of different socioeconomic backgrounds: the city was rife with material for photography, but with limited resources and time, the photographer chose to capture this scene. In this analysis, I want to uncover why that might be.

The most striking element of the composition is the splendid building, in the style of Peterborgian architecture with a high arched door built of large flagstones, and tall windows opening up with the same flagstone motif from the door. There are numerous windows on both levels, which must have been expensive to fill with glass, and with what appear to be ornate decorative columns around the center windows and doors. Of course, it is not easy to ignore in the same first glance the destruction, with the broken-through window panes and, in some places, cracked frames. The building was clearly magnificent, and attacked in a way not meant to destroy it, but to disgrace it; to take from it all the dignity it commands when well-maintained and to leave it, standing but interrupted, as a statement by itself.

For the photograph, though, the building composes only the background: This is important, because it draws the eye to the ruin in the foreground, the magnificent old building setting the tone for the rest of the image. It is possible to decipher what looks like furniture, dragged outside and carefully ruined: Only a bookcase and round table are identifiable, the rest mangled beyond recognition. The wreckage lies clear of the road, suggesting that either the mob who created the mess prioritized keeping it clear even amidst their violence, or else that the trash was moved aside by others needing to pass, but wasn’t cleaned up.

There are four figures in the photograph: what appear to be two small pigs on the left, and two men on the right. The animals appear to have run through at just the right moment, and it’s unclear whether their presence is related to the other chaos at hand, or if they are routinely passing by. The men, however, appear to be standing among the rubble: One is clothed in all black, and the other with what looks like a captain’s hat, perhaps indicative of his status as a policeman. The fact that there is only one such figure is important: Had this been a more important instance of vandalism, we would expect to see more members of the security force present. Without the historical context of this photograph - that it was taken, of course, at the same time as many policemen were likely servicing many families whose homes or businesses had been destroyed - the photograph conveys a profound feeling of absence, as the only humans are just bystanders to the wreckage, observing but not attempting to move or clean it.

 

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So the pogrom went, observed by all, destructive, and denied as religiously-motivated crime by officials and commoners alike.

Adler, S. Voices on Kishineff from America," New York City. 1908.
Clark, Charles Upson. Bessarabia. 1927.
Hamm, Michael. The character and development of a Tsarist Frontier Town, Nationalities Papers, 26:1, 19-37.
Ian-Ruban, Wanda. What Defeat Would Mean to Russia. Outlook; 19 March 1904; pg. 687

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