Anti-Semitism in Russia. Russian disinformation and inspiration of anti-Semitism

  • Pogroms of the Jewish population in Russia
  • Russian disinformation and inspiration of anti-Semitism
  • Official anti-Semitism in Stalin’s era
  • Anti-Semitism in modern Russia
  • Masking of Russian anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism in Russia has always been largely of a state nature. Jews have never been welcome in the country of tsars. To prevent Jews migration from the territory of the Republic of Poland to the native Russian lands, the Empress Catherine II (1762-1796), by an act of December 23, 1791, established a special settlement zone in the western part of the Russian Empire. The zone constituted 20% of Russia’s European territory. Only this area, corresponding more or less to the former territory of the Republic of Poland, could be inhabited by people of the Mosaic religion. Thus, all Jews were expelled from the rest of the lands under the Russian rule. It is worth noting that even in the zone itself they were forbidden to settle in rural areas. In 1810, Alexander I (1801-1825) allowed the exceptionally rich Jewish merchants and military officers to stay outside the zone. In 1836, a new border of the zone was marked out. Another law aimed against the Jewish population was the so called May Act. In 1882, Alexander III (1881-1894) introduced “May laws” that forbade Jews to settle in the countryside and in towns with population lower than 1,000 inhabitants. The settlement zone survived until 1917.

Despite these restrictions in Russia, Jews were not safe even within the settlement zone. In 1821, a pogrom took place in Odessa on the Back Sea. Jews were considered to be the supporters of the Turkish Sultan. The city was inhabited by a large Greek community (Greece was fighting for independence at that time). In that pogrom, 14 Jews were killed at the hands of the Greek attackers. Another pogrom in this multicultural city took place on Easter 1859. Behind the attack were the Greek sailors . In 1871, in the next anti-Jewish action, the Greek inhabitants of Odessa were joined by Russians. It is believed that what triggered the pogrom  was a rumor about the profanation by Jews of an orthodox church. The following years of the nineteenth century brought a further increase in nationalist and anti-Semitic sentiment in Russia.

Hatred for Jews in the country tsars was often economically motivated. Usually, the frustration caused by the economic crisis was directed against Jews. In 1891. the Jewish population was expelled from two capital cities of the Russian empire – St. Petersburg and Moscow. The Jews community was banished to the aforementioned settlement zone .

Pogroms of the Jewish population in Russia:

The first major wave of pogroms swept through the Russian state between 1881and 1884. Their number is estimated to be ranging from 224 to 284. Pogroms were inspired by the Russian authorities and the organizations supporting them. The direct reason was the participation of a Jewess – Hesia Helfman in the successful assassination of Tsar Alexander II (1881). Although most of the members of the conspiracy organization Narodnaya Volya were of Russian or Polish descent, but this Jewish participant was made to appear as the mastermind behind the assassination of the ruler. A large part of pogroms took place in today’s Ukraine, where the antagonism of the local population with regard to Jews was quite strong and had a historical background (Khmelnytsky uprising, massacre of Uman).

On April 15 and 16, 1881, a pogrom took place in Jelizawietgrad during the Orthodox Easter. Quikly it spread to the surrounding villages in the Kherson governorate. On April 26, 1881, another pogrom took place in Kiev. Local people not only robbed the shops and places of residence of the Jews, but they also committed numerous rapes and murders. Despite the apparent counteraction by the police, a wave of pogroms spread in the following months to the nearby governorates.

Russian disinformation and inspiration of anti-Semitism;

To this day, many anti-Semitic circles defend the book „Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (1905). It describes a fictional council of Jewish leaders. They make alleged plans for Jews to achieve world domination. The work was commissioned by Ochrana – the Russian secret political police. Its purpose was to blame the Jewish community for the political and social problems of Russia at that time. The text of the book was fabricated by the experts in disinformation: Maciej Gołowinski and Piotr Raczkowski (who headed the foreign outposts of Ochrana between 1885 and1902). Both counterfeiters compiled the text from a different work and changed it to sound anti-Semitic. „Protocols of the Elders of Zion” were a plagiarism of the French satire of Emperor Napoleon III. Within a fairly short time, properly propagated, the work became the most popular anti-Semitic text. It had a huge impact on the public debate not only in Russia, but also in the whole world. Even in Nazi Germany the authenticity of „Protocols” was taken for granted. In the Third Reich, the book became even an obligatory reading.

It is worth mentioning that „Protocols of the Elders of Zion” were used by the KGB to provoke anti-Semitism and hatred for the West in Muslim countries. The Soviet secret services distributed hundreds of thousands of copies of the Arabic translation of this manipulative text in the Islamic Word. On the orders of the KGB chief Yuri Andropov disinformation was spread that „the elders of Zion sit in the US Congress.” At present, there are still circles in Russia, including the Russian power elite, that believe in a false picture of the world and conspiracies presented in the “Protocols”.

Pogroms of the Jewish people in Russia in the 20th century

The beginning of the 20th century was yet  another phase of bloody pogroms in Russia. Inspired by an extreme nationalist movement Black Hundred, the pogrom in Chisinau (1903) brought 49 dead and several hundred injured. What triggered the pogrom was a manipulated article in an anti-Semitic newspaper. It had reported that a Christian boy, named Mikhail Rybaczenko, was murdered in Dubosary. The newspaper blamed the murder on Jews, falsely suggesting they needed the child’s blood to prepare matzos. In October 1905, bloody pogroms took place in Odessa. As a result, over 300 people were killed and several thousand sustained injuries. The total number of victims of the pogroms of the Jewish population from 1903-1906 is estimated at over 3,000 people. Another mass pogrom took place in 1917–1921 during the Bolshevik revolution and the civil war in Russia. It is estimated that as a result about 70,000 Jews were killed. 

Another interesting example of anti-Semitism in tsarist Russia is the so-called Bejlis trial. In 1913, a Ukrainian Jew Menahem Mendel Beilis was accused of a ritual murder. He had allegedly murdered a Christian child with the aim to use his blood to make matzos. Bejlis was acquitted by the jury (composed exclusively of Christians). The trial itself was widely reported by international media.

In the twentieth century, Soviet Russia and then the Soviet Union was one of the largest Jewish population center (apart from  and the US). The February and October Revolutions significantly changed the attitude of the state authorities towards the Jewish population. Like other minoritie it obtained equal rights. “The settlement zone” (read above) was eventually abolished. (1917). People of Jewish origin also gained important positions in the party and state apparatus (Yakov Sverdlov, Lev Trotsky, Lev Kamenev, Grigory Zinoviev). In 1934, the Jewish Autonomous Area with the capital in Birobidjan was established in the Far East near the Soviet-Chinese border. Many Soviet Jews were still forced to emigrate to the region, but they never constituted even a half of its population.

The apparent change in the situation of Jews did not mean the elimination of anti-Semitic accents in social and political life. The first manifestation of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union was undoubtedly the conflict between Stalin and Trotsky in the second half of the 1920s. Stalinist propaganda directly exploited the following, coarse association -„A Jew is a Trotskyist, a Trotskyist is a Jew.” Jewish origin was also exploited to form conspiracy theories during the Great Purge in the 1930s. The unlikely oppositionists were supposed to take on aliases to hide their Jewish names (the so-called „Trotskyist-Zinoviewov-Stemmas” plot). Due to the accusatory activity, Department IV of the NKVD was commonly referred to as the „Jewsection”, i.e. the Jewish section.

The attack of Third Reich on the Soviet Union (1941) led to the cessation of anti-Semitic activities. Stalin even created the Jewish Antifascist Committee (JAFK). It was in charge of the promotion of a positive image of the Soviet Union in the West, primarily in the US. But shortly after there was another wave of anti-Semitism.

One of the aspects of the post-WWII anti-Jewish campaign was the so-called Crimean case. In February 1944, the aforementioned Jewish Antifascist Committee, under the leadership of an activist Salomon Michoels, raised the issue of the establishment of a „Jewish Autonomous Republic” in Crimea with the government of the USSR. Stalin  was outraged. He considered the proposal to be in breach of the territorial integrity of the Soviet state. He saw it as an attempt to detach Crimea from the USSR establish ties with the US and transfer the new republic under the authority of US. All this was disinformation. However, as a consequence, many members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee were arrested. On August 12, 1952, fourteen of them were executed on suspicion of the alleged espionage for the United States.

The Soviet-led propaganda stigmatized people of Jewish descent by putting their original names in brackets. During the period of1948-1953, at least 248 authors writing in Yiddish, 106 actors, 87 painters and sculptors of Jewish origin died in the aftermath of various repressions.

Official anti-Semitism in Stalin’s era

Another example of the official nature of anti-Semitism in the Stalinist era was the so called “ “doctors’ conspiracy case” (1952-1953). It is one of the most blattant political provocations in the USSR with an anti-Semitic context. Its main purpose was to unleash widespread terror and another purge. At the beginning of 1953, several dozens of doctors from Moscow, mainly of Jewish descent, were falsely accused of conspiracy aimed to annihilate the Soviet political leadership. The death of Stalin in March 1953 saved the accused medics from death. It also  brought an end to the official anti-Semitic campaign. One may be tempted to say that in the whole history of the USSR, anti-Semitism was never more intense than it was by the end of Stalin’s life.

In the following years, the life of Jews in the USSR continued to face serious difficulties related to the religious or economic sphere. Serious restrictions were still applied in the recruitment of Jews to universities and to some professions (proportionally to the number of Jews living in the USSR). The desire to emigrate to the state of Israel  was growing stronger among Jews. But the rupture of diplomatic relations between the USSR and Israel in June 1967 in the aftermath of the Six-Day War made leaving for Israel extremely difficult. The Soviets’ support for Arab states also led to another anti-Semitic campaign in the mass media and the state-controlled propaganda apparatus. During Brezhnev’s time, many Jews became involved in the opposition movement. At the same time, the question of Jews  became an important element of the Soviet Union’s relations with Western countries. 

Anti-Semitism in modern Russia

In modern Russia, we can indicate multiple manifestations of anti-Semitism. At the beginning of January 2005, 20 deputies of Russia’s State Duma publicly accused Jews of committing ritual murders. They visited the Prosecutor General’s office demanding that the Russian government „ban all Jewish organizations.” The said MPs accused them of extremism and described them as „anti-Christian and inhuman, whose practices reach as far as committing ritual murders.” They also claimed that  multiple evidence of such religious extremism was confirmed by the court. The charges exploited the common, traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes, such as the claim that „the entire democratic world today is under the financial and political control of international Jewry. And we do not want our Russia to be among such enslaved countries.” These and other misleading statements could be read in an open letter to the Prosecutor General. The letter, commonly referred to as ”the letter of five hundred” was then published in the newspaper „Rusoslaw Orthodox”. It is worth adding that quite often anti-Semitic views are spread by a notorious Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky. In 2005, five boys  aged between 9 and 12 went missing in Krasnoyarsk. Their bodies were found in urban canals. The crime has not been explained to date. However, some Russian nationalist groups at the time claimed that the children had been murdered by a Jewish sect for ritual purposes. Russian nationalist organizations demanded that the authorities order a search in the synagogues and on the matzah bakery. Anti-Semitic slogans were also strongly emphasized when Russian president Putin was dealing with the oligarchs. The press pointed to the Jewish roots of Boris Berezowski and Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Masking of Russian anti-Semitism

Russian propaganda seeks to mask the real picture of the Russian anti-Semitism while using the anti-Semitic card to conduct information attacks on Poland.

In fact, anti-Semitism in Russia (which the current authorities are trying to hide and create a false picture of Russia as a country free from anti-Semitism) is part of a wide range of manipulated activities carried out by Russia. By means of the abovementioned methods, the Russian Federation aims to disrupt international relations of the Western world, especially transatlantic relations.

In this article, we present only a brief analysis of the Russian anti-Semitism from a historical perspective to modern times. More on this subject is to be published soon.

Author: OP07