Nineteenth Century to Twentieth Century Russia: Pogroms, the Rise of Communism and Bolshevism, and the Forgery of the Elders of Zion
Beginning in the late eighteenth century, Jews in czarist Russia were largely forced to live in an area of western Russia referred to as the Pale of Settlement. The Pale included 15 provinces in northwestern and southwestern Russia, including modern day Belarus, Ukraine, and Lithuania. While Jews were legally able to settle throughout the Pale, residency outside of its borders was typically illegal. The Pale remained in effect until the Russian revolution in 1917.
Russian antisemitism had historically relied on classic tropes rooted in Christianity. This included the blood libel, which sparked horrific violence that introduced the concept of the pogrom to the rest of the world. Pogrom is a Russian word that means to wreak havoc or violently destroy, by way of an organized massacre, particularly of Jews. The earliest recorded pogrom took place in 1821 in Odessa, where Jews and Greeks lived together. Greece was under Ottoman occupation and Greeks were seeking independence. The Ottomans executed the Greek Patriarch of Constantinople, Gregory V, and sparked riots. In Odessa, Greeks accused Jews of aiding in and celebrating Gregory’s death. Accusations of the blood libel continued to surface in the ensuing years and riots against Jews became more common. It was not until 1903, however, that the word pogrom would garner international attention and enter the global lexicon. On April 8 of that year, Easter Sunday, gangs armed with knives and axes killed 49 Jews and wounded hundreds more in the city of Kishinev.
The czarist government viewed pogroms as a reaction against anti-czarist forces, so authorities largely looked the other way. Historians are at odds over whether the Russian state provided support to the attackers. Pogroms presented authorities with an opportunity to demonstrate their own usefulness by allowing rioters to destroy Jewish property and then ending the action in a show of state power. The pogroms also shifted the public’s focus away from the government’s own repression and onto a scapegoat: Jews. Nonetheless, researchers have found little to no direct evidence that the Russian government supported the pogroms.
In the mid-nineteenth century, Russian antisemitism began to focus on the economic impact of Jews, casting them as representatives of an increasingly oppressive capitalist system during the time socialism began to take hold in Russia. As in Europe, Jews were treated as second-class citizens or worse, while the government saw them as useful distractions and sources of blame. Prior to the introduction of communism, czarist Russia began forcibly conscripting Jews into the military in 1827. Jews were forced into the Pale less than 10 years later in 1835. However, in the 1850s and 1860s, Czar Alexander II initiated a series of reforms meant to allow higher-class Jews to participate in politics and do business outside the Pale. At the time, Poland was under Russian rule, but a rebellion for Polish independence began in Warsaw in 1863 that led to a further entrenchment of Russian authority and culture in Poland in the following decade. Alexander viewed the Jews as useful in continuing the spread of Russian culture in Poland during this time.
The assassination of Alexander II by revolutionaries in March 1881 also acted as a catalyst for riots against Russian Jews. That August, special commissions in various regions of the Pale questioned whether Jewish economic activities were negatively impacting Russians. A quota on Jews was introduced in 1887, and Jewish lawyers were barred from practice without permission in 1889. Jews had a recorded presence in Moscow dating back to the fifteenth century, and the Jewish population grew during the time of the forced conscription of Jews that began in 1827. Between 1891 and 1892, however, some 20,000 Jews were forced from the city as new laws ordered the expulsion of Jewish artisans and veterans.
Russia at the time was one of the poorest countries in the world. The country had employed a feudal serfdom until Czar Alexander II did away with the system in 1861, creating a new peasantry outside of Russia’s urban areas. Alexander had intended for this new peasantry to be a counterweight to the urban peasantry, which was more vocal about workers’ rights. Czar Nicholas II ascended to head of state in 1894 and soon came under pressure to implement reforms, including the creation of a parliament. The First World War led to food shortages and stretched thin other resources. In addition, anti-German sentiment gave rise to suspicions that continued after the war. Jews living in the isolated Pale settlements primarily spoke Yiddish, a mix of German, Hebrew, and Russian. To the untrained ear, however, the language can be indistinguishable from German, which led to accusations against Jews of being German spies. Further raising suspicion of Jews were the increasingly popularized connections between Jews and the growing communist movement.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published their Communist Manifesto in 1848, which advocated for workers to own all land, resources, and the means of production as a community. Only these changes, they wrote, would bring true equality. Socialism, according to Marx, was a stepping-stone toward a fully communist society. Marx himself was not Jewish, though his father had been born Jewish and later converted to Lutheranism. Marx, in fact, was notoriously antisemitic and spoke out against Jewish “filth” and what he considered highly unethical Jewish business practices. Another leader within the early communist movement, Leon Trotsky, was himself Jewish but completely secularized. Nonetheless, Russians created a linkage between the Jewish lineage of Marx and Trotsky and other secular Jews in the early communist movement and the invention of communism itself.
This Jewish association with communism led to a number of pogroms against Jews in Russia before the Bolsheviks revolted against Czar Nicholas in 1917. The Jewish association with communism raised suspicions about Jews around Russia, which would spread to Europe as Russians left the country during the Bolshevik Revolution.
Shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, another enduring conspiracy theory against Jews would capitalize on the increased mistrust of the Russian Jewish community. Beginning in 1903, portions of what were allegedly minutes from the meeting of a secretive Jewish cabal bent on world domination began appearing in the Russian newspaper Znamya (“The Banner”). In 1905, Russian writer Sergei Nilus published The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion in full as an appendix to another book. The exact origins of the Protocols is unknown, but it is believed that they were influenced by an 1868 book entitled Biarritz written by Hermann Goedsche, though the linkage is disputed.
In all, the Protocols consist of 24 chapters outlining every aspect of a global Jewish conspiracy to gain world dominance and subjugate “the GOYIM.” (Goyim is the plural of the biblical Hebrew word goy, which translates to “nation.” It is commonly used to describe non-Jewish nations in the Hebrew Bible, e.g., Lo yisa goy al goy cherev—nation shall not take up sword against nation. ) Allegedly, these chapters were the recorded minutes of a secret cabal called the Elders of Zion that was orchestrating the conspiracy. The Protocols touches on many of the historic antisemitic themes that have previously been described and explored. The Protocols portray a Jewish antipathy toward gentiles, portraying them (in Protocol No. 11) as a “flock of sheep” to be slaughtered by Jewish “wolves.” In Protocol No. 12, the alleged Jewish authors admit to controlling the press, which is used to control the masses as well as gain access to governments and government secrets. Declaring the stupidity of “the GOYIM,” the Protocols explain that the Jews created and spread Free Masonry in order to spread their influence through the proliferation of Free Mason lodges (Protocol 15). Altogether, the 24 Protocols describe complicated and outlandish plans to dominate and subjugate gentiles under the rule of a new Jewish aristocracy led by a Jewish king.
The initial reaction to the Protocols was fear and hatred toward the Jews behind the alleged conspiracy. The Russian Revolution in 1917 saw the exodus of anti-Bolsheviks who brought the Protocols with them as they resettled in Europe and the United States. These immigrants viewed themselves as victims of the revolutionary violence that had gripped Russia. They sought to explain the sea change in Russia that had overturned czarist rule and broken down the society they had known. The Protocols put a face on the hidden forces that had supposedly orchestrated the revolution as well as other catastrophic global events.
Conspiracies of Judeo-Bolshevism and the Jewish instigators behind the Russian Revolution soon reached the United States, where industrialist Henry Ford helped to further popularize them. In 1920, Ford began to reprint the Protocols in his newspaper, The Dearborn Independent. Using a ghostwriter, Ford published columns under his name that blamed Jews for orchestrating and profiting from World War I, and other conspiracies.
Although the fiction of the Protocols is undisputed, conspiracy theorists and others continue to present it as proof of a Jewish cabal guiding world events. Islamist propagandist Abdullah al-Faisal, for example, said he learned of the Protocols in prison and recommended it as “an excellent source of knowledge.”
As Russian migrants entered Europe in the twentieth century, they brought with them this distinctive form of Russian antisemitism. The concept that Bolshevism was a Jewish movement began to spread across Europe and Jews’ involvement in other revolutionary activities in Europe (such as the German Bund) led to the theory of Judeo-Bolshevism. The papal nuncio in Munich, Eugenio Pacelli, described the stream of revolutionaries entering Bavaria in letters to the Vatican in April 1919. Pacelli—who would go on to become Pope Pious XII—described gangs of Russian Jews leading the charge. This fueled accusations by the far right, particularly in Germany, that Jews were responsible for Bolshevism. Back in Russia, violence against Jews spiked. Between 1917 and 1923, anti-Bolshevik revolutionaries called “the Whites” repeatedly slaughtered Ukrainian Jews.
This association of Jews with Bolshevism drove the fear of Jewish revolution across Europe after World War I. In the 1930s, the fledgling Nazi regime blamed Jews and communists for Germany’s economic downturn, pointing to the Soviet Union’s role opposite Germany in the war. Jews were seen as the leaders and financiers of the communist movement, which threatened to topple European governments as it had czarist Russia. A 1920 letter from the Catholic Church of Poland further raised the warning in Europe about Bolshevism:
Bolshevism is striding toward the conquest of the world. The race that has led Bolshevism has already made the world subject to gold and banks, and today, driven by the eternal imperialist desire that flows in its veins, turns to the last campaign of conquest in order to force the nations under the yoke of its regime…. Bolshevism is truly the living embodiment and manifestation of the Antichrist on earth.
Communism, though thoroughly devoted to atheism, had successfully reignited ancient Christian antisemitic tropes that portrayed Jews as agents of Satan. Bolstered by the Protocols, Russian antisemitism created an enduring association of Jews with the creation and violence of communism.