Pogrom victims in front of a vandalized house in the Bessarabian city of Kishinev, 1903

Topham/The Image Works

Pogrom victims in front of a vandalized house in the Bessarabian city of Kishinev, on the southwestern edge of the Russian Empire, April 1903

Wittgenstein posed the question: Why did one crucifixion captivate the world for two thousand years, while tens of thousands of other people crucified by the Romans remain utterly forgotten? One obvious answer is that we react to stories, not statistics: a haunting story exists for one crucifixion; statistics barely account for the rest.

Steven J. Zipperstein has written a smart and sensitive book about an event—the pogrom of 1903 in the Bessarabian city of Kishinev, on the southwestern edge of the Russian Empire—that poses a similar question. Why did this pogrom receive worldwide attention and acquire a symbolic status in modern Jewish life as the exemplary pogrom, although “only” forty-seven Jews were killed? Compared to the 1905 pogrom in Odessa, in which 2,500 Jews were murdered, the Kishinev Pogrom seems small-scale. And yet the Odessa Pogrom never seized the Jewish imagination or, for that matter, the world’s. What made Kishinev so memorable?

The Kishinev Pogrom lasted a day and a half. It began on Easter 1903, a dry, sunny April day. The weather is important: Zipperstein believes that had it rained, it would all have turned out differently. While pogroms were usually chaotic, there was some method to the one in Kishinev, which strengthens the suspicion that the tsarist government was behind it. The houses of Jews were specifically targeted: a group of children hurled stones at them until the adults broke in, brandishing clubs. The perpetrators—among them a curiously large number of seminarians—had pillaged a Jewish-owned liquor store, so they were fortified by considerable amounts of alcohol.

Looting was a significant aspect of the pogrom, but it also included the gang rape of Jewish women and—after widespread chanting of “Death to the Jews!”—murder. The hooligans left Jewish-owned houses and shops in total devastation. It is estimated that about two thousand people participated in various aspects of the pogrom.

But despite these horrific details, the question of what turns an event or site into a larger symbol remains a vexing one. There is no reason to believe that there is one explanation for all such cases. Even if we limit ourselves to especially notorious atrocities and massacres, such as those at Lidice, Nanking, Babi Yar, Guernica, Musa Dagh, Oradour-sur-Glane, Deir Yassin, or My Lai, let alone Hiroshima, the question remains. The magnitude of the massacre may serve as part of the explanation in the case of Babi Yar, Nanking, or Hiroshima, but most of the other examples were relatively small in scale and in number of victims.

Works of art or literature may also provide an explanation. There is little doubt that Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem was crucial to making Babi Yar a symbol. In the case of Guernica, Picasso’s painting is probably the sole reason it became a household name. Indeed, many believe that “Guernica” refers to the painting and not a place. Franz Werfel’s 1933 novel The Forty Days of Musa Dagh turned the mount of Moses in southern Turkey into a powerful symbol not only of the plight of the Armenians but of genocide more broadly, so much so that, according to the literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Werfel’s was the most sought after book in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. Isaac Babel witnessed Odessa’s pogrom as an eleven-year-old. He was saved by a Christian family, but his uncle was murdered. Twenty years later Babel published “The Story of My Dovecot,” in which the pogrom cast its long shadow. Yet the story didn’t make the Odessa pogrom famous, perhaps because it was written much later, or because it is centered on the experience of a child.

In the case of Kishinev, works of art are significant. Haim Nahman Bialik’s 1903 poem about the pogrom, “In the City of Killing,” helped propel him to the status of national Hebrew poet and shaped the way the pogrom has been seared into the Zionist consciousness, particularly among those of my generation who were raised in the Zionist labor movement. Bialik was thirty when, shortly after the pogrom, he embarked on a mission to Kishinev, where he amassed a great deal of evidence about what had taken place there. He even managed to interview extensively some of the women who had been raped—a taboo subject among the Jewish religious community. (Puzzlingly, apart from the poem Bialik never published his findings, which were found in his archive and appeared only after his death.)

The narrator of the poem is a prophet sent by God to observe what happens at the site of the slaughter. But Bialik’s God is a meek one: He stands by helpless as the Jews are being killed. The poet’s cry is directed to heaven as much as it is to earth. It is a cry of despair, aimed at the God of his youth. This theological outcry has largely been overlooked, as the poem is usually understood to be a call for regaining a measure of dignity by standing up to one’s assailants.


Zipperstein lingers on Bialik’s poem but argues that he did not do for Kishinev what Picasso did for Guernica. He also invokes the Irish journalist Michael Davitt as a major contributor to the Kishinev story. Davitt’s reports were among the most vivid and accurate portrayals of the pogrom’s immediate aftermath. They were crucial in stirring international attention to it, yet it is still worth pausing over why a Hearst newspaper took such an interest in Kishinev and sent Davitt there in the first place. He arrived with a rather grim view of the Jews as exploiters of the local peasants. But he had a fiercely independent mind and paid close attention to what he saw—and what he saw was ugly.

The history of pogroms goes back a long time, but the Russian word pogrom is relatively new and gained currency around 1882, with the so-called southern storms—a wave of violent anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish communities in the tsarist empire. Pogrom, which loosely means “destruction” or “demolition,” became a loan word in many languages, and its meaning was extended from attacks on Jewish communities to attacks on vulnerable ethnic or religious groups anywhere in the world. These included pillage, rape, destruction of property, and physical harm, but not death. Kishinev is the first pogrom of the twentieth century that had all of those things as well as murder.

The word pogrom is one of the reasons that Jews during World War II were slow to understand the nature and scope of the Nazi atrocities. They believed that what was taking place in the conquered territories was yet another wave of pogroms of a familiar kind, on a larger scale, perhaps, but still localized, and in no way a systematic annihilation of the Jews. To view the Holocaust through the prism of the pogrom was a tragic blunder—an understandable one, but a blunder nonetheless.

One of the connotations of the word is an attack on the innocent that is spurred by the law-and-order forces of a regime to divert public anger toward a scapegoat. While this is true of many pogroms, and in particular the ones that took place after the tsarist government claimed that Jews had been involved in the failed revolution of 1905, it is not true about the pogrom in Kishinev. In a quiet, nonpolemical tone, Zipperstein corrects this misperception, as well as many others.

His book begins with a vivid description of Kishinev and the countryside. It is extremely helpful for those for whom Bessarabia—now largely within the independent country of Moldova—seems as remote as Outer Mongolia. Even by the low standards of tsarist Russia, Bessarabia was a neglected backwater; it had only 144 miles of paved roads. Zipperstein provides a guide to Kishinev, including street-by-street details, whose usefulness becomes apparent as he proceeds with the story. The outside world knew little about Kishinev, though for a while its population of 110,000, of which Jews constituted 47 percent, was larger than Kiev’s. There were several wealthy Jewish families, most of whom fled before the actual pogrom started, but after witnessing the vicious incitements in the days before. The socialist Bund party, which was dominant among the Jews at the time, seized on this fact to show that pogroms affected the poor disproportionately. And yet the Jews’ main problem was not poverty. It was vulnerability.

The common view is that the tsarist government was in one way or another involved in the pogrom. The minister of interior at the time was Vyacheslav Pleve. If we accept Isaiah Berlin’s shrewd characterization of an anti-Semite as someone who hates Jews beyond necessity, then Pleve hated Jews far beyond necessity—obsessively and consistently. It is no wonder, then, that he was suspected of stirring things up in Kishinev. Moreover, a letter purportedly written by him in late March 1903 set loose his subordinates on the city’s Jews. Yet that letter is now known to have been forged, and the true villain behind the pogrom was someone else entirely: Pavel Krushevan.

Krushevan was a local writer of some repute. He has been written off as a rather obscure, insignificant figure, but that, Zipperstein shows, is a grave mistake. For one thing, Krushevan was associated with the reactionary, ultra-nationalist, and anti-Semitic Black Hundreds movement. But he was also responsible for writing and publishing in 1903 the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, whose effects haunt us to this day. The Protocols consists of supposed conversations among a Jewish cabal, which had in fact been lifted from a French satire written by Maurice Joly and aimed at Napoleon III. Though Joly’s satire had nothing to do with Jewish matters, it was nevertheless peppered with references to Jews and their money.


Until recently, conventional wisdom held that the Protocols had been fabricated around the first Zionist Congress in 1897 by the Okhrana—the tsarist secret police—and specifically by Pyotor Rachkovsky, the head of the Okhrana delegation in Paris, with help from a journalist named Matvei Golovinskii. Zipperstein claims, based on current research, that the two were not the authors of the Protocols and that the Okhrana were not behind it. Krushevan was the first to publish the Protocols in his newspaper, but his involvement as its main author has not been widely recognized.

Krushevan was also the main source behind a toxic conspiracy theory in the Protocols about a gathering of prominent Jews, headed by Edmond James de Rothschild, that supposedly explained how Jews controlled the world. The origins of the myth that ties Jews to great wealth and power is mysterious. Broadly speaking, Jews have done relatively well, but if you combine the wealth of all Jewish people today it would be about the same as the wealth of Holland—impressive, no doubt, yet no one would claim that Holland controls the world. Once again, we find a clash between scope and symbol. The connection between Jews and money has become a symbol—and no amount of factual evidence would convince anti-Semites of its lack of scope.

When the slain body of a Christian boy was found twenty-five miles from Kishinev on February 6, it was Krushevan who, writing in the St. Petersburg newspaper Znamya (The Banner), blamed the Jews, claiming that this was a ritualistic murder and that the Jews intended to use the victim’s blood to make matzoh for Passover. (The blood libel, according to which Jews murder Christian children at Passover so as to use their blood to bake the ritual unleavened bread, has a long history. It goes back to medieval England, where in 1144 the Jews of Norwich were accused of murdering a child by the name of William.) Krushevan was an immensely effective inciter; it is hard to overestimate his influence in bringing about the Kishinev pogrom.

Pavel Krushevan, 1900
Pavel Krushevan, author of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, 1900

The pogrom brought to the fore a touchy subject to which Bialik’s poem gave a formidable voice: the supposed cowardliness of the Jews (“with trembling knees/Concealed and cowering—the sons of the Maccabees”). In a town in which Jews made up almost half the population, how were two thousand hooligans, at most, able to inflict such devastation? Here, too, Zipperstein makes an important correction. It is not true that the Jews of Kishinev did not try to defend themselves. But since they did so without the backing of Jewish organizations, such as the Bund or any of the Zionist movements, their efforts were ineffective.

The victims of the pogrom were perceived to be deeply religious Orthodox Jews—an image that Bialik’s poem only enhanced (“To the Rabbi’s house they flitted”). For the Jewish socialists and Zionists of the time, such Jews were viewed as weak and completely dependent on others for protection, mainly the tsarist government. Historically, the general attitude among the Jews was that fighting and bloodshed were for the gentiles, not for them, the People of the Book.

And so Kishinev went down in history as a symbol of Jewish passivity. The rise of the socialist Jewish parties animated the issue of self-defense as a major concern of Jewish life. Bialik’s poem had a large influence in calling for a change in the attitude of the Jews and for countering violence with violence. The issue was not so much about preventing the loss of life as it was about defending Jewish dignity against humiliation and paralysis in the face of danger.

One of the most significant events in modern Jewish life was the mass exodus of Jews from tsarist Russia, especially to the United States. Jewish history tends to view the Kishinev Pogrom as the main factor driving Jewish immigration between 1889 and 1914. In 1882 there were 13,000 Jewish immigrants, whereas between 1904 and 1906—the years immediately following the pogrom—that number rose to a staggering 400,000. Yet the immigration of Jews had more to do with a demographic explosion: the number of Jews in tsarist Russia, where the majority of the world’s Jews lived, increased fivefold during the nineteenth century. This was accompanied by a marked downturn in their economic situation after they lost their virtual monopoly as middlemen between Russian landowners and the peasantry to a new class of gentiles. The impoverishment of Jews was sharp and painful; their future looked bleak.

The question remains, then, how a “squalid brawl in a distant city,” as Zipperstein, borrowing from George Orwell, calls it, managed to turn into a world event. One explanation has to do with geography: Bessarabia was close to the Austro-Hungarian border, which meant that smugglers could get telegrams out of Kishinev on a daily basis. Yet the Kishinev Pogrom resonated far and wide, particularly among the Jewish immigrants of New York’s Lower East Side, where entire issues of Jewish newspapers, such as the widely read Forverts, in Yiddish, were devoted to it.

The salience of the pogrom was further manifested in eight Yiddish plays, which, though not significant from an artistic point of view, were successful in stirring emotion in their audiences. They helped bring about an unprecedented number of donations from Jewish Americans to the survivors. The relatively poor recent immigrants were known to send money back home; their sense of community and solidarity was well established. But this time donations also poured in from more established immigrants, mainly of Jewish-German origin, who historically tended to regard Jews from Eastern Europe with aloofness and condescension. When President Theodore Roosevelt denounced the pogrom, it became clear that the tragedy had managed to transcend Jewish circles.

One of Kishinev’s direct influences was on Zionism itself, with its relatively new mantra: The future is Palestine. But the pogrom affected all aspects of Jewish-Russian communities. Jewish political life became increasingly organized into political parties instead of the voluntary, ad hoc associations that had existed before. These new parties were centralized, doctrinaire, and disciplined.

The political and cultural symbiosis between Jewish life in Russia and the Lower East Side of New York was total. It was as if Bessarabia were no further away than 14th Street. The ideological debates within both communities were identical. Chief among them was, in a way, a revival of an old debate raised by the founder of Labor Zionism, Moses Hess: how to reconcile the tension between the universal appeal of socialism and the parochial ethnic concerns of nationalism. Each participant added many complicated layers to the debate, but the general dilemma of socialism vs. nationalism endured.

On one extreme were those who believed that the road to Jewish salvation lay in a socialist revolution that would topple the tsarist regime. Socialism would be the solution not only for the plight of the Jews but for all oppressed people. A growing number of Jews, especially among the youth of the semi-intelligentsia, subscribed to this view. Indeed, 30 percent of the political prisoners in Russia at the time were Jews. As the tsarist finance minister Sergei Witte asked Theodor Herzl in bewilderment: Why, if there are only seven million Jews out of 136 million people in the empire, do they constitute almost half of the revolutionary cadres?

The Bund, by far the largest Jewish socialist party, tried to combine universal salvation and a deep commitment to its fellow Jews, especially to the Jewish proletariat. The Bund stressed, however, that the solution to the Jewish problem should be found within the Jewish communities themselves and not in some utopian territory. In this it differed from “territorialists” who attempted to find a place where the Jews could live safely and freely—places such as New Jersey in the US or Santa Fe in Argentina. For a while, the tragedy of Kishinev convinced many (even Zionists) to accept the idea of Uganda, which had ostensibly been offered by the British, as such a dwelling place. And then there were the hard-core Zionists for whom only the Holy Land in Palestine would provide the solution for the Jewish predicament, for it was the only place to which Jews could be motivated to move as an organized nation. While the debate was still raging, tens of thousands of Jews began to leave tsarist Russia on their own, not waiting for the ideologues to resolve their notions of salvation.

It is no exaggeration to say that this debate was shaped to a significant degree by Kishinev: the pogrom highlighted the Jewish dilemma between relying solely on themselves and seeking a larger sense of solidarity in the form of a class-based revolution. Interestingly, the Kishinev Pogrom was also instrumental in raising another issue, especially in the United States, regarding the nature and the extent of Jewish identification with other oppressed people, African-Americans most obviously. Were the Jews morally obligated to show solidarity with other vilified communities, especially once the word “pogrom” became a generic term in American English and called for such comparisons? The similarities between Kishinev and attacks on black communities, for example the East St. Louis Race Riots of 1917, were not overlooked: Forverts called Kishinev and St. Louis “twin sisters,” arguing that they consisted of “the same soil, the same people.”

Zipperstein has more to say on the relation between the protection of blacks from lynching and Jews from pogroms. This relation provides “the immediate backdrop to the launching in 1909 of the first major American organization for the promotion of black civil rights: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP.” It was Kishinev in Russia that precipitated the call for the protection of blacks in the United States. This is indeed an astounding historical connection.

While Zipperstein’s book doesn’t directly address the historical puzzle of how the pogrom managed to endure as a symbol given its relatively minuscule scale, this admirable work of history provides us with many clues. As for Wittgenstein’s question of how to separate the symbol from the scope, there, too, Zipperstein manages to go beyond the statistics and to offer a story—one both singular and significant.