the pogroms of the Russian Civil War

WHAT IS A POGROM?

A pogrom is a violent riot or attack against the Jewish People with the aim of massacring or displacing the population (note: sometimes the word “pogrom” is used to refer to violence against other ethnic groups; however, the word was coined specifically to describe violence against the Jewish People, and for this reason, I and many other Jews prefer for it to be used in this context only).

The word “pogrom,” meaning “to destroy, to wreak havoc, to demolish violently,” was coined to describe the antisemitic violence that targeted the Jewish communities of the Russian Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With that said, though the word didn’t exist yet, pogroms against the Jewish People date back over 2000 years and span nearly every corner of the globe.

 

THE RUSSIAN CIVIL WAR

The Russian Civil War (1917-1923) was a multi-party civil war that broke out in the Russian Empire in the aftermath of the overthrow of the Russian monarchy. In total, it’s estimated that 7 million to 12 million people died in this war, many of them civilians.

The Russian Civil War led to various territorial changes, resulted in the collapse of the Russian government, and was decisively won by the Bolshevik forces, which went on to establish the Soviet Union. At the eve of the Russian Civil War, an estimated 5.3 million Jews lived in the Russian Empire.

 

JEWISH BOLSHEVISM CONSPIRACY

The antisemitic conspiracy theory of Jewish Bolshevism alleges that Jews were responsible for the Russian Revolution of 1917. A related conspiracy, the Jewish Communism conspiracy, claims that Jews dominate communist movements around the world (ironically, Jews are also blamed for the ills of capitalism). The latter conspiracy is also related to the white supremacist “Zionist Occupation Government” conspiracy.

The living conditions for Jews in the Russian Empire were oppressive and abysmal. Unsurprisingly, many Jews aligned themselves with anti-tsarist movements. Nevertheless, less than 20,000 Jews identified as Bolsheviks in the 1920s, comprising only around 5% of Bolsheviks in total.

Nevertheless, anti-communist forces — both in Russia and elsewhere, such as Nazi Germany or even during the period of McCarthyism in the United States — believed the conspiracies. These conspiracies frequently led to systemic violence against the Jewish People.

 

WHITE TERROR

The White Terror refers to the organised mass murders perpetrated at the hands of the anti-Bolshevik White Army during the period of the Russian Civil War. It’s estimated that the White Army murdered some 20,000 to 100,000 people.

While the White Army targeted various groups, Jews were at the receiving end of most of the violence, thanks largely due to the antisemitic conspiracy theory of Jewish Bolshevism. For example, a White Army general stated that the people needed to arm themselves to defend themselves from “the evil force which lives in the hearts of Jew-communists.”

In response to the violence, many local Jewish communities attempted to arm themselves. Soon, however, they realised that they couldn’t possibly put up a fight against the exponentially larger and more powerful White Army. As such, many chose to join the Bolshevik Red Army for protection.

 

A PRE-HOLOCAUST GENOCIDE

Even the most conservative estimates calculate that some 50,000 Jews were massacred in pogroms during the Russian Civil War. Most estimates calculate that up to 100,000 were murdered; the Soviet authorities themselves put the number at 200,000.

The majority of the pogroms during the Russian Civil War took place in Ukraine and Poland; however, they also spread to every other region in the Pale of Settlement (the Pale of Settlement was a region encompassing parts of Ukraine, Poland, and Latvia, as well as all of Belarus, Lithuania, and Moldova. The Russian Empire confined Jews to this region). In total, over 2000 pogroms took place. At least 60,000 Jewish refugees fled the region, and millions were internally displaced.

The pogroms of the Russian Civil War were the deadliest pre-Holocaust attack in modern Jewish history, with historians overwhelmingly describing the violence as “genocidal.” While initially most of the pogroms were perpetrated by average townspeople, eventually the violence was ritualised and militarised. These pogroms arguably laid the groundwork for the Holocaust some 20 years later.

 

TORTURE (TW: SEXUAL VIOLENCE)

The perpetrators of the Russian Civil War pogroms not only murdered tens of thousands of Jews, but they also tortured the Jewish population. Most notably, the rioters raped Jewish girls and women in a massive wave of systemic sexual violence. Jewish men were humiliated, with rioters cutting off their beards and desecrating their Torahs. In at least one case, the rioters barricaded all of the town’s Jews into the synagogue and burned them alive. Other times, Jews were paraded across the villages and shot once they reached the edge of town.

Oftentimes, the pogroms were treated as a public spectacle, with drunken townspeople dancing and celebrating the violence.

 

RED ARMY POGROMS

While the majority of the pogroms during this period of the Russian Civil War were perpetrated by local anti-Bolshevik nationalist armies, the Soviet Red Army was also guilty of indiscriminately massacring Jews.

Though the Soviets passed laws condemning antisemitism in 1918, hundreds of years’ worth of systemic violent antisemitism during the reign of the Russian Empire could not be undone with a single measure. Specifically, the majority of the pro-Bolshevik Soviet peasantry and working class were deeply antisemitic, often laying blame on the Jewish People for their economic conditions and considering Jews the “class enemy.” In fact, it’s estimated that the Red Army was responsible for perpetrating one out of every 10 pogroms during the Russian Civil War.

The Soviet regime never took responsibility for the violence, instead the blaming counterrevolutionary anti-Bolshevik nationalist forces.

For a full bibliography of my sources, please head over to my Patreon