pogrom (meaning “riot” or “devastation” in Russian) was an
act of mob violence perpetrated against Jews in Russia during the
late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.
The first major pogroms erupted after the assassination of
Czar Alexander II on March 1, 1881.
The czar had implemented some reforms during his reign
including freeing the serfs and allowing some Jews in “useful”
occupations to live outside the Pale of Settlement—the western
provinces where they had been restricted by law since the 1790s.
Nevertheless, he ruled as an autocrat, prompting various
radical groups, identified under the catchall label of
“Nihilist,” to seek destruction of the autocratic regime and
its replacement with a communist system.
During the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, incidents of
revolutionary terrorism escalated within Russia.
A group called Narodnaya Volya (“People’s Will”)
targeted high government officials and royal figures, and on March
1, 1881, assassinated the czar.
assassin of Czar Alexander II was not Jewish and had only one
Jewish associate, but false rumors about the involvement of the
long-hated religious minority swept the country.
For a year beginning in April 1881 pogroms occurred in over
160 Russian towns and cities, where Jewish homes and property were
destroyed, women raped, and large numbers of men, women, and
children injured or killed. Although
the imperial government had not organized the pogroms, it largely
ignored them and appeared to sanction them. The government made matters worse by issuing edicts on May
15, 1882 under which all Jewish-held mortgages and leases were
cancelled and Jews were forbidden to live outside cities and towns
in the Pale of Settlement. That
meant that a half-million Jews living in rural areas were
compelled to relocate to towns within the Pale, and by 1891
700,000 Jews living east of the Pale were forced within its
a result of the pogroms and “May Laws,” hundreds of thousands
of Russian Jews immigrated to the United States.
in the February 11, 1882 issue
of Harper’s Weekly condemned the violence against Jews in
czarist Russia, arguing that the government’s “sympathy with
the rioters … amounts to complicity.” The story detailed the stream of immigrants entering the Port
of New York, and ended with a sincere if futile warning: “If Russia has any regard for the public opinion of
Christendom, she will do justice to her Jewish population.”
In the next week’s issue, an illustrated article
referred to the Jewish immigrants as “refugees from the rage
persecution and legal discrimination in Russia continued over the
years, including the expulsion of Jews from Moscow in 1891. That year, over 75,000 Jews immigrated to the United States.
In his editorial
for the July 4, 1891 issue
of Harper’s Weekly, George William Curtis asserted that
no one can reasonably doubt Czar Alexander III’s “approval of
the cruel policy of exclusion.”
The editor equally criticized the treatment of non-Jews in
Russia. The list of
“flagrant and brutal” atrocities against the Russian people
included arbitrary arrests, imprisonment or exile without trial,
and suppression of free speech and a free press.
Curtis encouraged a movement in Britain and the United
States that advocated constitutional government for Russia in
place of czarist despotism or communist nihilism.
an editorial two months later, Curtis commented
the American government’s attempt to raise with the czar’s
administration the issue of Russian Jews immigrating to the United
States. The editor
observed that the Russian government exiled but did not direct the
emigration, and that “as a class the Russian Hebrews are not
desired in this country.” The
latter remark, in the context of his other comments on the subject
and an earlier (1877) charge that anti-Semitism was “a prejudice
which is simply monstrous,” seemed to reflect not so much a
religious or ethnic bias on Curtis’s part as a class prejudice:
unlike earlier German Jews, many Russians were unskilled
workers. It may also
have been his sense of how the Jewish Russians were being received
in the United States. (Many
nations had been unwilling to accept the refugees).
editor mentioned a petition signed by notable Americans
encouraging the U.S. government to back plans for a Jewish
settlement/state in Palestine (of which he was skeptical).
Baron Hirsch discussed in the July and September editorials
referred to Maurice Hirsch, a German-Jewish financier and
philanthropist who established the Jewish Colonization Association
in 1891 in order to facilitate resettlement of Russian Jews to
North and South America, particularly Argentina and Brazil.
Hirsch did not back the Palestine proposal because he
considered it to be unrealistic at the time.
February 11, 1882,
p. 93, c. 2-3
article, “The Hebrew Exodus from Russia”
February 18, 1882, p.
illustrated article, “Exiles
July 4, 1891, p. 490, c.
editorial, “Russia and
September 5, 1891, p. 671, c.
editorial, “The Hebrew
Exodus from Russia”