A historian explains how a small, victorious war led to the pogroms of 1905

Andrii Portnov, a history professor at European University Viadrina, talks about antisemitism in Ukrainian cities of the Russian Empire, “riots of minors,” and parallels with the year 2014 in the Donbas.

After a small, victorious war [with Japan] turned into a major failure, the Russian Empire experienced the Revolution of 1905. After numerous uprisings that took place onboard ships, in garrisons, and on the squares of dozens of cities, Tsar Nicholas II issued the October Manifesto. A parliament thus came into being in practically the last European state with a powerful monarch. 

But in addition to all the positive changes in the obsolescent empire, there were also dark aspects of this revolution. In the fall, after the manifesto was issued, a wave of anti-Jewish pogroms swept through various gubernias. Professor Andrii Portnov says that in some cities, it was possible to avoid violence, but elsewhere the government simply closed its eyes to it. 

Andrii Portnov: The best example is the Polish city of Łódź. At the time, it was part of the empire. Like in Katerynoslav, for example, there were many workers, industries, and Jews. A pogrom was expected there because people already knew that they had taken place in other cities. But there was no pogrom in Łódź. Why? There is no simple answer.

Andriy Kobalia: Was there antisemitic sentiment? 

Andrii Portnov: Yes, without a doubt. The situation there is as follows: on the one hand, you have the conduct of the local imperial elites, and on the other—the mood among the local political parties and the strategy of the Jewish community. That’s why in Łódź, it was possible to avoid anti-Jewish violence.

It sounds a bit harsh, but instead of anti-Jewish violence, there was anti-Polish violence. I’m talking about the brutal and bloody clashes between two groups of Polish political parties. They even used the term “small civil war.” Just think, a Polish civil war in the Russian Empire, where Jews form forty percent of the population.

If we go back to Katerynoslav, it would appear that, even though there is no certainty here with regard to what I have read in the sources, the phenomenon of Jewish self-defense first appeared in 1905. My Dnipro is the city where this began. When the first anti-Jewish demonstrations and arson attacks on shops in the city began taking place, a group of several hundred people split into smaller units. For the most part, they were members of Jewish socialist parties. There were self-defense detachments in areas with the largest number of Jewish shops. And they tried to stop groups of pogromists.

These detachments possessed illegal firearms. In other words, they were generally outlawed in the empire, but these Jewish detachments had them. It is important to know that the members of these groups were not just Jews; there were also convinced opponents of ethnic hatred.

Andriy Kobalia: Who were these people? Do we know about them?

Andrii Portnov: They were usually very young. Generally, all police reports about the pogroms and demonstrations of 1905 state that it was unbelievable, but the impression was that it was students and gymnasium students. There were also workers, but often minors. The age range was from 15 to 25. Of course, there were no wealthy landowners because they were the victims in this situation.

Some historians are convinced that most of those pogromists and revolutionaries were workers from Katerynoslav. There were many factories in the city and tens of thousands of workers. Others say that there were also students and others. I would say that there were various population groups involved.

I was struck by the fact that the newspapers in Katerynoslav, in their reports about fatalities and clashes, tried to list the names and ages of those who had been killed. Later they stopped doing this because there were so many of them. They wrote: “Yesterday Jews were killed in clashes on such-and-such a street. Gender, name, age.” At the time, people paid attention to such things, and they wanted to record the name of the victim. When the pogroms ended, the victims were buried solemnly in a mass grave at the Jewish cemetery. I’m talking about up to a hundred people.

Andriy Kobalia: Let’s go back to the comparison with Łódź. There, several forces tried right away to do everything to prevent pogroms from taking place. What did the local authorities in Katerynoslav do? Why didn’t they try to stop the pogromists? There definitely was a police force and, possibly, army troops. In other words, there were forces [of law and order]. And the pogromists were a disorganized mob. Why didn’t they stop them? 

Andrii Portnov: In 1905, Katerynoslav was the twelfth largest city in the empire. Unfortunately, in the majority of cases, in Odesa, Kyiv, and Kryvyi Rih, pogroms happened because the local authorities, the police, and troops, generally either did nothing or took action belatedly.

Why? Researchers generally agree that this behavior of the authorities was defining in the situation. If the imperial government did not counteract the pogromists, they continued. If measures were adopted, the wave would stop. This is the logic of violence: a mob of disgruntled people with cold weapons, not an army with rifles and machine guns.

Andriy Kobalia: A few shots, that’s all it takes. 

Andrii Portnov: Absolutely. If a police squad appears and says, “We’re shooting into the air, but if you don’t disperse, we’ll fire on you,” then the mob disperses, as a rule. But they didn’t do that.

Andriy Kobalia: Are there perhaps some memoirs that explain why?

Andriy Portnov: There are various memoirs. It appears that people on a certain level thought that those people needed to be allowed to blow off steam; what were the Jews to them? There is a notorious and terrible phrase that was uttered by Tsar Nicholas II after the pogroms; he said that it was actually the Jews themselves who were to blame for all these pogroms because they had turned the population against themselves, and that’s why they had behaved like that.

When the highest instance, the emperor, says that the victims themselves are responsible, what can one say about the governors?  These individuals, incidentally, never received any clear-cut order from above. They were told: “Do not allow under any circumstances.” Some of them could have been antisemites or thought, “Let them have some fun,” and we’ll stop them later. This is the precise reason why self-defense detachments arose: out of despair. Because the state wasn’t doing anything to protect them. This was a civilian population that was supposed to protect itself. To be more precise, they were protected by armed members of political parties.

The lesson of 1905 is very simple. When a legitimate government—imperial, in this case—refuses to put an immediate stop to violence, then a nightmare begins. In point of fact, this is similar to what we saw in Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014, when the legitimate authorities, in the form of the police, the prosecutor’s office, and the courts, did not put a stop to the “people’s republics,” and even abetted them. And horror began. But in Kharkiv and Dnipro, they stopped it.

There are special studies devoted to violence in the city. It spreads when a legitimate government disappears. In 1905 it disappeared in some cities for several days or months at a time. After the pogroms, martial law, which lasted quite a long time, was declared in Katerynoslav. That meant a curfew and more effective police patrols. But this happened only after all these victims perished.

Andriy Kobalia: Informal groups that commit violence often have the support of the local authorities. There are such examples not just in recent events but in the Revolution of 1905. Historian Andrii Portnov notes that the Black Hundreds organizations that were created during the pogroms enjoyed the support of the gubernial authorities. 

Andrii Portnov: Once again, it turns out that Katerynoslav was—no joke—a large center of the Black Hundreds movement in the empire. Why so? Many leading church hierarchs, politicians, and administrators belonged to the Union of the Russian People. This is described well in the memoirs of Dmytro Doroshenko, who was astonished at the might of this Black Hundreds movement and its unruffled attitude toward the Ukrainian movement. Why? Because they were searching for antisemitic elements in the Ukrainian folk tradition, and said that this was a deep tradition. This is a little-known fact.

The Black Hundreds movement became clearly defined after the Revolution of 1905. The consolidation of the Union of the Russian People was one of the consequences of these events. It became more organized, and without a doubt, the people who had taken part in these events joined it.

The elections to the First and Second Duma took place after the revolution, and in Katerynoslav, various figures took part, especially the very important but now forgotten Doctor Karavaev. He treated people from the lower classes for free and belonged to the Labor Party. Among the topics that he discussed frequently was the threat of the Black Hundreds. And what did they do to him? These were serious fellows; they simply murdered him. Some people came for a visit and killed him. This was a huge political incident throughout the empire. Karavaev’s funeral was a political demonstration. He was buried on the site of a stadium.

What is interesting about the Black Hundreds movement is that it had no fear of mass political meetings and popular newspapers. The distinguished Ukrainian Bolshevik and Briansk factory worker Hryhorii Petrovsky writes that it was painful for him to see, but his fellow workers eagerly subscribed to Black Hundreds newspapers. This antisemitic propaganda was read keenly by people who were supposed to be proletarian internationalists. And when someone was in the way, they killed him.

Andriy Kobalia: Speaking of the pogroms of 1905 and the Black Hundreds, how did the courts function? Did they open cases? 

Andrii Portnov: No, cases were formally investigated—without success. Because the Black Hundreds had immense support, Nicholas II himself often said that he loved and supported these people. In Katerynoslav, higher church hierarchs, like bishops, said that they supported this. And everyone understood that this was serious.

In Soviet Katerynoslav, in the early 1920s, a show trial of Karavaev’s murderers took place; meaning, that the Bolsheviks held a trial of the pogromists who had done this in a different state, in another context. But they hadn’t killed a Bolshevik. He [Karavaev] had wanted to support the common people, but he was definitely not a Bolshevik. But he had wide support. So, the Soviet authorities held a show trial of the killers.

Andriy Kobalia: Of the real killers?

Andrii Portnov: Supposedly. We don’t know exactly. The killers were Black Hundreds with imperialistic sentiments. This was the logic: demonstrate that the Bolsheviks constitute a just government, but those people are accursed terrorists of tsarist times. But this is quite an untypical story about people who were killed fifteen years earlier. This happened in Katerynoslav.

Andriy Kobalia: Let’s go back to the events of 1917–1921. Then, too, there were many pogroms. Often they took place in areas where there was no government, or the government was constantly changing. Did Jewish communities learn any lessons from 1905? How do the pogroms of 1905 and 1919 differ? 

Andrii Portnov: In 1919, pogroms swept through practically the entire territory of Ukraine, and they were carried out by various political forces. In the case of Katerynoslav, as illustration, two of the worst pogroms took place there. One was carried out by [Anton] Denikin’s White Army, and the other—by Otaman Hryhoriyiv [Nikifor Grigoriev], the one whom Nestor Makhno himself later shot; he was proud to have killed him himself.

Andriy Kobalia: I think he wanted to kill [Symon] Petliura, too.

Andrii Portnov: Мaybe. He wanted to kill a lot of people. He was a colorful personality—but a killer, to put it bluntly. In the case of Katerynoslav, there were no pogroms by the armies of the UNR, perhaps because they only spent a short time there. But in the central regions of Ukraine, in Kyiv oblast, for example, most of the pogroms were carried out by subunits of the UNR army. And even though Petliura himself, of course, was against this and was very distressed by them, he was unable to stop them. Nevertheless, it was his responsibility as the head of the UNR government. I think that he was aware of this.

What is the difference between 1905 and 1919? In the first situation, it was the Russian Empire, and in the second—these were literally two different states. One minute it was White Russia then the UNR or the Bolshevik state. Politically, it was chaos. In 1919 the notion of legitimate authorities lost its meaning. Troops enter a city or a town, and they do as they please. There is a description of Denikin’s arrival in Katerynoslav. The authors sympathized with them and wrote: “We were waiting for our Russian army to arrive and bring order. But it turned out that Cossacks arrived, and they began smashing all the shops on Katerynynsky Prospect. We’re in shock. We waited, but bandits came.” And this was a rather typical situation.

Andriy Kobalia: In other words, if you compare the ordinary soldiers of all these armies, they were not very different in axiological terms. 

Andrii Portnov: These were brutal people accustomed to violence. They treated every new city as a source of money, property, and women. Makhno’s army enters—it rapes. The Whites—they rape. The Reds—they rape. These documented facts are terrible.

It is important to say that pogroms took place. Some units of the UNR army but not all, of course, took part in them. Petliura did not personally take part, and he condemned them, but this did not halt the pogroms.

Andriy Kobalia: A hundred years ago, in the complete absence of government and, thus, of a monopoly on violence, the exhausted Jewish self-defense force was often unable to protect its town. Since those days, several generations, governments, revolutions, and wars have passed. However, nearly every city in Ukraine has its stories about 1905 and 1919; stories that people don’t like to talk about for some reason.

This program is created with the support of the Canadian charitable non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.

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