Pogrom: The Historic Background

Attacks on Jews in 1880s Russia Spurred Immigration to America

Jews kept in arsenal in Kiev, Ukraine, in first pogrom
Depiction of Jews kept in an arsenal in Kiev, Ukraine, during the first pogrom in 1881. Getty Images

A pogrom is an organized attack upon a population, characterized by looting, destruction of property, rape, and murder. The word is derived from a Russian word meaning to commit mayhem, and it came into the English language to refer specifically to attacks perpetrated by Christians upon Jewish population centers in Russia.

The first pogroms occurred in Ukraine in 1881, following the assassination of Czar Alexander II by a revolutionary group, Narodnaya Volya, on March 13, 1881. Rumors circulated that the murder of the Czar had been planned and executed by Jews.

At the end of April, 1881, the initial outbreak of violence occurred in the Ukrainian town of Kirovograd (which was then known as Yelizavetgrad). The pogroms quickly spread to about 30 other towns and villages. There were more attacks during that summer, and then the violence subsided.

The following winter, pogroms began anew in other areas of Russia, and murders of entire Jewish families were not uncommon. The attackers at times were very organized, even arriving by train to unleash violence. And the local authorities tended to stand aside and let acts of arson, murder, and rape occur without punishment.

By the summer of 1882 the Russian government tried to crack down on local governors to stop the violence, and again the pogroms stopped for a time. However, they began again, and in 1883 and 1884 new pogroms occurred.

The authorities finally prosecuted a number of rioters and sentenced them to prison, and the first wave of pogroms came to an end.

The pogroms of the 1880s had a profound effect, as it encouraged many Russian Jews to leave the country and seek a life in the New World. Immigration to the United States by Russian Jews accelerated, which had an effect on American society, and particularly New York City, which received most of the new immigrants.

The poet Emma Lazarus, who had been born in New York City, volunteered to help the Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms in Russia.

The experience of Emma Lazarus with the refugees from the pogroms housed at Ward’s Island, the immigration station in New York City, helped inspire her famous poem “The New Colossus,” which was written in honor of the Statue of Liberty. The poem made the Statue of Liberty a symbol of immigration.

Later Pogroms

A second wave of pogroms occurred from 1903 to 1906, and a third wave from 1917 to 1921.

The pogroms in the early years of the 20th century are generally linked to political unrest in the Russian empire. As a way to suppressing revolutionary sentiment, the government sought to blame Jews for unrest and incite violence against their communities. Mobs, fomented by a group known as Black Hundreds, attacked Jewish villages, burning houses and causing widespread death and destruction.

As part of the campaign to spread chaos and terror, propaganda was published and spread widely. A major component of the disinformation campaign, a notorious text titled Protocols of the Elders of Zion was published. The book was a fabricated document which purported to be a legitimate discovered text advancing a plan for Jews to achieve total domination of the world by means of deception.

The use of an elaborate forgery to inflame hatred against Jews marked a dangerous new turning point in the use of propaganda. The text helped to create an atmosphere of violence in which thousands died or fled the country. And the use of the fabricated text did not end with the pogroms of 1903-1906. Later anti-Semites, including the American industrialist Henry Ford, spread the book and used it to fuel their own discriminatory practices. The Nazis, of course, made extensive use of propaganda designed to turn the European public against the Jews.

Another wave of Russian pogroms took place roughly concurrent with World War I, from 1917 to 1921. The pogroms began as attacks on Jewish villages by deserters from the Russian army, but with the Bolshevik Revolution came new attacks on Jewish population centers. It was estimated that 60,000 Jews may have perished before the violence subsided.

The occurrence of pogroms helped propel the concept of Zionism. Young Jews in Europe argued that assimilation into European society was constantly at risk, and the Jews in Europe should begin advocating for a homeland. 

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McNamara, Robert. "Pogrom: The Historic Background." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, thoughtco.com/pogrom-the-historic-background-1773338. McNamara, Robert. (2021, July 31). Pogrom: The Historic Background. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/pogrom-the-historic-background-1773338 McNamara, Robert. "Pogrom: The Historic Background." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/pogrom-the-historic-background-1773338 (accessed March 23, 2023).