Today in London radical history: Jewish workers’ demo protests pogroms in Russia, 1903.

The Kishinev pogroms were anti-Jewish riots that took place in Kishinev (Chişinău), then capital of the Russian province of Bessarabia (now the capital of the Republic of Moldova), on April 19 and 20, 1903.

Incited by populist newspaper in Kishinev, the which regularly published articles with headlines such as “Death to the Jews!” and “Crusade against the Hated Race!” (referring to the Jews), the riot erupted when a Christian Ukrainian boy, Mikhail Rybachenko, was found murdered in the town of Dubossary, about 25 miles north of Kishinev, and a girl who committed suicide by poisoning herself was declared dead in a Jewish hospital. The age-old anti-semitic myth that Jews would kill Christian children to use their blood in rituals was revived, and the town’s Russian Orthodox bishop incited violence against the Jews.

Imperial persecution was not new to the Jews of Russia. Their participation in the Russian revolutionary Socialist movement and trade union movements, especially in the large industrial centres in the Polish provinces, had led the ruling elites to support renewed persecution against them.

The pogrom began on April 19 (April 6 according to the Julian calendar then in use in the Russian empire) after church services on Easter Sunday. In two days of rioting, 47 or 49 Jews were killed, 92 severely wounded and 500 more also injured. 700 houses were destroyed, and 600 stores were pillaged. No official attempt was made by the police or military to intervene to stop the riots until the third day. Anti-semitism was not only rife in Russia as across Europe, but was also encouraged by the Tzarist regime as a way of diverting the anger of the poor to targets other than the aristocracy. Sadly many Russian peasants were only too happy to fall for this line. Unlike today when minority groups and migrants aren’t scapegoated for the social results of deliberate policies of the ruling classes. Oh wait…

Despite a worldwide outcry, only two men were sentenced to seven and five years and twenty-two were sentenced for one or two years. This pogrom was instrumental in convincing tens of thousands of Russian Jews to leave for the West or Palestine, and became a rallying point for early Zionists.

The anti-semitic outbreaks sparked anger in Jewish communities abroad, In London, many of the Jews of the East End had fled earlier Russian pogroms in the 1880s.

Rudolf Rocker gave an account of the solidarity demos held by the East End Jewish anarchists and other groups with the Jews being persecuted in Russia:

“In April 1903 the world was shaken by reports of a terrible pogrom against Jews in Kishineff, Russia. Later pogroms made it clear that this was not a spontaneous outburst by an ignorant populace, but a carefully organized massacre prepared in cold blood by the Tzarist police and authorities.

Anti-semitism had been for a long time used as an instrument of policy by the Tzarist government to divert the attention of the people from the the cause of their misery and poverty. Protest meetings were immediately held in both the East and West End of London, and early in May there was a huge demonstration in Hyde park, called by the Friends of a Free Russia, in conjunction with other bodies. Of course, we were there. Outstanding among the many speakers was Peter Kropotkin. I still carry a picture in my mind of Kropotkin as I saw him that day, his face pale with emotion, his grey beard caught by the wind. His forst words were hesitant, as though choked by his deep feeling. Then they came rushing out fiercely, each word like the blow of a hammer. There was a quiver in his voice when he spoke of the suffering of the victims. He looked like some ancient prophet. All the thousands who listened to him were moved to their depths. Who could have imagined then that the pogrom in Kishineff would seem like child’s play afterwards against the mass slaughter of millions in the Hitler period?

We also had a separate Jewish labour demonstration, which was held in Hyde Park on June 21st 1903. The initiative came from the Jewish Cabinet Makers’ Union, which called a conference for the purpose of all the Jewish political and labour organisations in London. All the Jewish trades unions sent representatives, as well as the Federation of Jewish Anarchists and the Jewish branches of the Social Democrats, the Social Revolutionaries and the Polish Socialist Party…

The two Yiddish dailies in London at that time, the Jewish Express and the Jewish Telephone, denounced the conference and all it was trying to do as an anarchist manouevre. The Jewish Express… told the Jews of the East End that if they went to our demonstration they would find that it was not directed so much against the pogrom in Kishineff as for socialism. It said that the Russian government had accused the Jews of Russia of being engaged in the socialist movement. Such a demonstration would give the Russian government an excuse to say that the charge was true, that the Russian Jews were linked with socialism.

The demonstration was held on a Sunday afternoon. It was the biggest manifestation of Jewish workers that London had seen till then. Thousands of Jewish proletarians marched in close ranks from Mile End to Hyde Park. It was a dull, unfriendly day, fitting for the angry sullen mood of the marchers. Thousands more had gone straight to the park… The speeches were in English, Yiddish, Russian and Polish. The London dailies estimated that there were at least 25,000 people people assembled around the three platforms. Besides our East End Jewish speakers there were Herbert Burrows, John Turner, Ted Leggatt, Harry Kelly, N. Tchaikovsky and W. Tcherkesov. Kropotkin was not well, and said he could not speak; but he came to the demonstration. He arrived late, and the crowd round our platform was so dense that he couldn’t get through to us. But some of the crowd recognized him; they lifted him shoulder-high and so passed him along over their heads till be reached our platform.

Having got there he made a short speech, first in Russian and then in English…

The demonstration had succeeded beyond our expectations, in spite of the incessant campaign against us in the two Yiddish London Dailies, and the way in which the Rabbis in the East End Synagogues had, with a zeal worthy of a better cause, preached for weeks past to their congregations to get them to boycott the demonstration.

I understand that the main motive for the opposition we met from the representatives of religious Jewry was their fear that such mass demonstrations abroad might endanger Russian Jewry still more. I am sure their fear was exaggerated; such huge demonstrations must have impressed the Tzarist government, and made it realize the extent of the feeling its pogrom policy aroused throughout the world. But it was an understandable fear, considering the state of continual uncertainty in which Russian Jewry had to live.”

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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