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Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History

A review of Steven Zipperstein's new book

Steven Zipperstein’s new book, Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History, is uncannily timely: today in particular we might appreciate the irony of fate that American anti-racism can trace one line of origin to a backwoods region of the Russian Empire. This region, Bessarabia, is among those parts of Eastern Europe that have frequently changed hands: the land belonged to the Ottoman Empire, 19th century Romania, the Russian Empire, interwar Romania, then the Soviet Union. Bessarabia has historically been “a mutt of sorts,” in Zipperstein’s phrase. When the First World War began, most inhabitants of this deeply multilingual region were illiterate. There were few paved roads. The region was fertile but impoverished: the infant mortality rate was nearly sixty-seven percent. The metropolis, Kishinev (today Moldovan Chișinău), was home to some 110,000 people; these included Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians, Jews, Greeks, Poles, Germans, Armenians and Roma. Although this made Kishinev the Russian empire’s fifth largest city, the urban infrastructure was weak. Kishinev had, and has, a reputation for what Zipperstein calls “moral laxity.” In the early twentieth century, prostitution, smuggling and corruption were pervasive.

In 1903 the Russian Pavel Krushevan published in Moscow Bessarabia, an extravagant coffee-table-sized book with lush illustrations, praised by Tsar Nicholas II himself. The object of Krushevan’s aesthetic appreciation was the Bessarabian countryside; the cities he found less inspiring. In Zipperstein’s description, Krushevan’s “portrait of Kishinev highlighted the handsome city center while also describing its marketplaces as being threatened by raven-like images — dark, alien, eerily thin — of Jews, their faces obscure, their designs on unsuspecting locals anything but clear.” Many historical sources claim that peasants did feel exploited by Jews. Many others claim that everyday Jewish-gentile relations were amicable. Zipperstein judges both claims to be true.

For Jews, Easter was an anxious time: the Christian holiday was an occasion for antisemitic harassment in general, and blood libel accusations in particular. In 1903 Easter Sunday fell on April 19th. The pogrom in Kishinev, Zipperstein writes, “began inconspicuously, as so many riots do.” First to be plundered were Jewish liquor stores; “[t]obacco stores were ransacked next, with the remnants of their merchandise, too, scattered on streets now swimming in a mixture of rainwater and liquor.” It was a balmy spring day. Children began to throw stones. It is hard not to think of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”: “The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green. . . .The children had stones already.”

Two days later, forty-nine people had been killed, 586 maimed, and an unknown number of Jewish women had been raped. The violence was a shock. The Kishinev pogrom captured the attention of millions well beyond the Russian empire; it “pushed the Dreyfus Affair to the margins.” It was a horror that seemed singular at the time.

* * *

Later Kishinev came to seem distinctly like a prelude to the Holocaust, which came to seem distinctly like the teleological culmination of Jewish history in Eastern Europe. In the traditional narrative, the determinism is ironclad. Zipperstein is skeptical of this determinism. He sets out to “defamiliarize a familiar story,” beginning with the word “pogrom,” whose origins lie in the Russian word for “thunder.” Kishinev introduced “pogrom” into English and other languages, and the word proved itself “sturdily portable.” The West, Zipperstein explains, came to understand Jewry through “pogrom” — a signifier often invoked as an all-explanatory transcendental key, eclipsing any need to return to empirical sources.

In his writing, Zipperstein adopts a Chekhovian sparseness. He willfully resists the temptation towards pathos. Years ago, the Moldovan journalist Mikhail Khazin left Moldova with Krushevan’s personal archive. Zipperstein visits the aged Khazin, who now lives in Boston, in an apartment just a few blocks from Fenway Park. In the months leading up to the Kishinev pogrom, Krushevan had been publishing an antisemitic newspaper called Bessarabets. “Manuscripts don’t burn,” Mikhail Bulgakov writes in Master and Margarita. And in the case of Kishinev, this is true: rich primary sources have survived. Zipperstein reads the journals of Krushevan, of the poet Hayyim Nachman Bialik, and of the reporter Michael Davitt. Taken together, the sources’ conclusions seem unambiguous: the lesson of Kishinev is that Eastern Europe is a place of persecution and terror — and shame. And Zionism was a response not only to persecution and terror, but also to shame. No longer would Jews cower in hiding places while their shops were pillaged and their women raped. They would become fighters. Zionism would be an antidote to emasculation.

This has long been known. But what has not been known — or perhaps known but not understood? Zipperstein writes of “familiarity and ferocity”: Jews were raped and killed by people they knew personally. This is what so haunted Jan Tomasz Gross when he came upon the records of the July 1941 Jedwabne massacre: the intimacy of it all. For many years scholars of the Holocaust were preoccupied with understanding the dispassionate desk murderer. The debate inspired by Gross was about neighbors killing neighbors. This tempts us to juxtapose different cases: Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Kashmir, for instance. “Aziz, are you there, too?” asks the girl being raped, before she is cut to death with a chain saw. The Indian journalist Rahul Pandita tells this story in the aching memoir Our Moon Has Blood Clots: A Memoir of a Lost Home in Kashmir — but Aziz and the girl could be transposed to Jedwabne, or to Kishinev. Among the most gruesome accounts collected by Bialik is that by a young married woman named Rivka, who is raped by a series of men, beginning with Mitya, a man she knows, has known for many years but has never — we sense — been afraid of before this Easter Sunday.

* * *

“The habit of civilization is fragile,” writes the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz, who spoke from experience. Borders slip quickly. Kishinev was a border — at the time, of what could be conceived. Truth is also a border. Zipperstein wants to return to the grounding of empiricism and build interpretation from there, aware that meanings have already grown from fictions and can never be un-meant. Guilt and innocence are also borders. In Kishinev, these borders, too, begin to slip. Zipperstein delves into the unpublished notes taken by the Irish journalist Michael Davitt, a meticulous chronicler. “Jewish men appear, except in rare instances,” writes Davitt in his notes, “to have acted as contemptible cowards. In no instance have I heard from women of any courageous stand being made either by their husbands or sons.” That Davitt refrains from mentioning this in his published work only makes the historian trust his notes more. Zipperstein makes clear that the Jews in Kishinev in no way deserved their fate; they were innocent, and yet. . . what do the men do when the women are raped? They flee, they hide — and afterwards request permission of the rabbis to divorce their defiled wives .

Outside of the doors of the rabbi’s study, there was silence about these rapes, these broken engagements and divorces. The silence was shattered by the poet Bialik, who was dispatched from Odessa to Kishinev shortly after the pogrom:

And see, oh see: in the shade of that same corner

under the bench and behind the barrel

lay husbands, fiancés, brothers, peeping out of holes

at the flutter of holy bodies under the flesh of donkeys

choking in their corruption and gagging on their own throat’s blood

as like slices of meat a loathsome gentile spread their flesh — 

they lay in their shame and saw — and didn’t move and didn’t budge,

and they didn’t pluck out their eyes or go out of their heads —

and perhaps each in his soul then prayed in his heart:

master of the universe, make a miracle — and let me not be harmed.

Bialik’s “In the City of Killing” came to be regarded as the most important poetic work written in Hebrew since the Middle Ages. The right-wing Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky translated “In the City of Killing” into Russian — and recited it brilliantly, Zipperstein adds.

* * *

Zipperstein describes his book as both a microhistory and international history, for Kishinev “provides the opportunity to cut across standard barriers separating Russian and Jewish, European, Palestinian Jewish, and American Jewish history and to wade through the pogrom’s residue in many different, oddly mismatched corners.” Precisely these “oddly mismatched corners” allow him to pursue his fascination with what Hegel describes as “the causality of fate”: the fact that actions so often have consequences in excess of their intent.

It was not the tsarist government (which in any case disliked disorder), Zipperstein believes, but rather a radical right-wing movement fomented by Krushevan and his newspaper Bessarabets, which bears primary responsibility for Kishinev. Zipperstein’s preoccupation with Krushevan is not a search for a satisfying demon, but rather a curiosity about how the actions of this man in particular proved to have such immense repercussions:

Capable of producing the vilest, most contemptible trash, Krushevan also wrote work of distinction, even beauty. He was rightly depicted during his lifetime as a sensitive, yielding man and a hysteric; a rank pogrom monger and yet also Bessarabia’s most distinguished intellectual. His evocation of Bessarabia’s landscape in a full-length book on the region. . .is skillfully executed, a moving depiction of the quiet, undramatic wonders of the province’s meadows, rivers, and woods.

In the apartment not far from Fenway Park, Khazin handed Zipperstein Krushevan’s diary. Those pages revealed an autodidact who taught himself French; a man whose mother died when he was a child and who was raised by a stepmother who was most likely Jewish; a man who hated the wealthy, despaired over his poverty, and suffered from nightmares of crustaceans eating humans; a man who fell in love with a Cossack man and wished that he had been born a woman. All of this was the unvoiced background to Krushevan’s 1896 book Chto takoe Rossiia? (What is Russia?) and its “message that the Jewish march toward world hegemony clashed with Russia’s existence and must be stopped.”

There was still more: it was likely Krushevan who authored or co-authored The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the antisemitic conspiracy theory that remain history’s most famous forgery. It was, in any case, Krushevan who was the first to publish that text — in nine installments in August and September 1903 in his Petersburg newspaper Znamia. Authorship had long been attributed to the tsarist Okhrana, but Zipperstein’s research persuaded him that it was Krushevan who deserves the credit, and that Kishinev was the immediate precursor: Krushevan blamed the pogrom on the Jews, claiming it was a Jewish trick to be turned into a story of antisemitic persecution.

In Pogrom’s final chapter, Zipperstein takes the reader across the ocean to America. There Kishinev “would propel a new cadre of activists, many of them Jewish, for whom the conflation of lynchings and pogroms would be second nature.” One of these activists was the Russian-born Jew Anna Strunsky. In 1905, then in her late twenties, Strunsky met William English Walling, a graphomaniac Wunderkind from a wealthy Kentucky family. The two set off together for the Russian Empire; they stayed for two years, through the 1905 Revolution and its aftermath, through another wave of pogroms. Strunsky interviewed victims in the hospital. Not long after the couple returned to the United States, they hosted the founding of the NAACP in their New York apartment.

About the “causality of fate,” one could add still more: among the East European Jews who fled to the United States in the aftermath of Kishinev were the parents of Samuel Friedman, himself barely a toddler when he crossed the ocean. In 1940, a black chauffeur in Connecticut named Joseph Spell was accused of raping his white employer, a woman named Eleanor Strubing. Friedman, now grown up, argued the defense case together with a young NAACP lawyer named Thurgood Marshall. Spell was acquitted. In August 2017, armed white supremacists rallied in Charlottesville, Virginia, injuring over two dozen people and killing one woman. The feature film Marshall, based on the case of Joseph Spell, was released shortly afterwards.

Marci Shore is associate professor of history at Yale University and the author, most recently, of The Ukrainian Night: An Intimate History of Revolution.

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