odessa's pogroms -- 2/15/22

Today's selection -- from Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams by Charles King. In 1905, Odessa experienced a series of pogroms. On the eve of revolution in Russia, the violence was terrifying:

"In contrast to earlier pogroms, there was now a coordinated response by the self-defense organizations that had already tested their mettle in June. Running battles filled the grid of streets in the city center. Political organizations claimed that revolution was in the air. Others sought revenge for past pogroms and riots. But self-defense groups were no match for the crowds that descended indiscriminately on Jewish shops, homes, and synagogues. Even in response to the most brutal acts of violence -- the killing of women and children, torture, rape, and mutilation -- the city authorities did little, claiming that the size of the disturbances proved impossi­ble to control. Police discipline had broken down, but the attitudes of municipal authorities against Jews were clear: the self-defense organizations were part of the problem, and they were now getting their just deserts. 'The position of the Hebrew element of the pop­ulation is one of great danger, in my estimation, as great bitterness exists against them on account of recent events,' wrote [Thomas] Heenan. 'The peasantry in many parts of the province are reported to be robbing, stealing, and even worse and telegrams have been received here begging for help. Taking it all and all I think I may safely sug­gest that the times are out of joint.'

"The red flags of revolt sometimes fluttered in the sea breeze. Crowds hailed the news from St. Petersburg that the tsar had granted the empire its first ever elected parliament. 'Here in the great commercial city of southern Russia,' wrote the correspon­dent for the Chicago Daily News 'there was a gloom, silence and abandon that spelled revolution, disorder and economic disaster.' But for people in the middle of these events, they had the look not of political change but of a nightmarish circus that upended all the city had built. Odessa's civilized core seemed to have withered and blown out to sea. As Lyubov Girs, the wife of a senior city official noted in her diary, 'Jewish pogroms are breaking out. [The Jews] have organized and armed themselves, and they are going so far as to shoot out of windows at the Russians. On Deribasovskaya Street all the Jewish stores have been smashed and the goods looted, and the riff-raff and their wives are strutting about in expensive clothes, boots, and fur coats .... The Jews on our street grabbed a dog and hung a label on his tail that said "Nicholas II."'

"In the end, perhaps three hundred Jews and another hundred non-Jews fell victim to the violence of October, adding to hundreds of people, both Jewish and Christian, killed the previous June. Odessans had never seen violence of this scale and scope. A score of different causes and motivations were braided together over more than a year of disturbances, street fights, and large-scale confron­tations. Political activism, drunkenness, boredom, fear, tit-for-tat attacks, and the religiously inspired antisemitism of the workers and peasants who ringed the city center all came together to pro­duce Odessa's descent into chaos.

"It was a series of events that touched the heart of the business and administrative classes, groups that had to a degree been exempt from the routine violence that had previously afflicted the dock­lands, Moldavanka, and some of the inner suburbs. Overall, the toll from assassinations, bomb blasts, shoot-outs, and mob attacks between February 1905 and May 1906 in the wider Odessa region was staggering: the dead included thirteen provincial governors and mayors, thirty police captains and senior officers of the gen­darmerie, twenty-nine bankers and leading businessmen, fifty-four factory owners, 471 other police officers, and 257 local constables, in all some 1,273 deaths that the Russian state attributed to 'terrorist acts' -- not counting the hundreds of ordinary citizens killed or injured over the same period."

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Charles King


Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2011 by Charles King


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