Kniga pogromow. Pogromy na Ukrainie, v Biełorussii i yevropeyskoy chasti Rossii v pieriod grazhdanskoy vojny 1918-1922 gg. Editor in chief: Miliyakova, L. B. Main contributors: Zuzina, J.A., Miliyakova, L. B., Rosenblat, E.S., and Jelenskaja, I. E. With the participation of Sereda, W.T. Moscow: ROSSPEN, 2007, 996 pages.


The great wave of pogroms which swept through the western part of the crumbling Russian Empire at the end of the First World War and in the early years of the Soviet rule was the greatest Jewish tragedy before the Holocaust. It generated interest not only in the Jewish, but also in the international press as well as among the politicians of the victorious powers, triggered relief efforts by Jewish organizations from other countries and influenced the course of the Paris Peace Conference as well as some of its decisions. Official missions investigating the situation of Jews and representatives of relief organizatons from the United States visited Poland (at the time engaged in a war with the Soviet republics and the West Ukrainian People’s Republic). It should be noted that the title of this documentary collection is not entirely accurate as certain documents do not pertain to the civil war in crumbling Russia but to frontline fighting in the Polish-Soviet War, including on territory which was to be part of the Second Polish Republic subsequent to the treaty of Riga.

During this wave of pogroms there were reports in international press (not only Jewish) from the territories affected by the war and pogroms, though—as it often the case with newspaper sensations—these were not always accurate. Soon enough people who survived and managed to escape to other countries began to publish their stories; they were also printed in the second half of the twentieth century (mainly in Yiddish), though the memory of the tragedy which occurred decades before has been overshadowed by more recent accounts of Holocaust survivors and witnesses.

The editor of this volume observes in her extensive and impressive factual introduction that: ‘People at the time realized that pogrom violence could not be understood solely on the basis of official accounts, as was the case with the pogroms of the 1880s and 1905-7. As a result various Jewish social organizations in the largest cities (mainly Ukrainian) began collecting interviews with the victims and witnesses of pogroms—testimonies of ordinary people’ (p. iv). These efforts continued until 1922 and were also undertaken by Soviet institutions and led to the establishment of a large collection of documents. These had a complicated history in the following decades. A sizeable component, the Eliyahu Tcherikover collection, was taken to Berlin in 1920, before being transported to Paris and finally New York (in 1942). Another part was located in Vilna (Tcherikover was the co-founder of the YIVO, the Jewish Scientific Organization) and was probably lost during the war. Some documents remained in Moscow. Those taken to Berlin and Vilna became the basis for publications (and Tcherikover’s books) about the pogroms. Lengthy, albeit far from comprehensive, bibliographic details may be found in the notes to the introduction and the documents. The documents which remained in Moscow and those prepared by Soviet institutions were locked away for many years and made available to historians only after 1990.

The historical-geographical introduction to the collection(by Y. S. Rozenblat and I. E. Yelenskaya) familiarizes the readers with the changes of borders on the territory mentioned in the accounts (though these do not indicate all the changes in frontiers or the most important cities referred to in the documents). Editorial guidelines are laid out in the introduction describing the various archives involved (by I. A. Zyuzina).

In all 364 documents are included, mostly in full (omissions in some documents are clearly marked), almost exclusively from the State Archive of the Russian Federation—principally material collected by Jewish organizations. Only two documents are from the Russian Government Archive of Social and Economic History. The documents are grouped in three geographic sections. The section ‘Ukraine’ contains 206 documents (including 9 articles from newspapers, 5 previously published); ‘Belarus’ consists of 74 documents (including 8 articles, 16 published before); ‘Russia’ contains 64 documents (including 16 articles, 1 previously published). Most documents are in Russian, some in Belarusian or Ukrainian. The editors have kept the original language form, adding notes in a few instances for words obscure to many readers, though a few of them contain mistakes: the words ‘reweria’ and ‘lazolszczyk’ are treated as Polish words (p. 586). The editing is of a high standard, though with occasional inconsistencies. The ones I noticed are not essentially relevant and they were most likely caused by the difficulty of the tasks faced by the editors.

The volume constitutes an extremely valuable collection of documents unknown until now that greatly increases our knowledge of the tragic events of 1918-22. One needs to remember though that it is just a selection from an enormous collection which was created thanks to the dedication and hard work of Jewish activists and historians (Milakova rightly points out that they were the precursors of contemporary oral historians), and, in the last period of the pogroms, by officials of the Soviet administration officials. We may easily notice in the documents from the final months of the period covered in the book that that administration had already developed a distinctive language. The ideological character of these documents, particularly the terminology they employ, does not change the factual content of the accounts and their value as sources. The selection was dictated by the division of the initially assembled collection of documents, part of which probably shared the fate of other Jewish collections in the times of the Holocaust. Thus the records preserved in Moscow constitute the basis of the volume. Though the division of the documents was the result of chance in the sense that it did not depend on people’s intentions, it has meant that a considerable part of the testimonies from the initial period of the pogrom wave are to be found outside Russia. It is a pity that the team working on the book did not have the opportunity to do research on these documents. Secondly, even during the process of gathering the accounts, regional disparities occurred because institutions working on Ukrainian territory were the most active and consistent. Thirdly, any selection, even one carried out conscientiously (and there is every reason to trust the editors) causes impoverishment of the whole, especially when we deal with testimonies. Every witness saw some events but not all. Having different vantage points, witnesses often noticed different details and could not know anything about others. One key value of the published documents is therefore the fact that they include independent accounts of the same pogroms and towns. This sometimes means the omission of other no-less-important local tragedies but in return the reader is provided with material which enables critical analysis of the sources.

Despite the unavoidable scepticism required of a historian when working with any type of sources, attentive reading of the book and the use of other materials, often unavailable to the authors of the book, does allow one to draw some general conclusions. Obviously a review is not the right place for such an analysis, even an initial one; therefore, I will limit myself to a few observations.

There are clear regional disparities in the course of pogroms, in the slogans voiced by the perpetrators and in the consequences for the victims. The pogroms on Ukrainian territory seem to have been the bloodiest, with calls for the murder of all Jews. In the introduction, Miliakova descibes them as the precursor of Hitler’s programme of holding Jews responsible for the all the problems in the world. This issue deserves to be considered in greater depth and the historical circumstances in which both tragedies occurred should be analyzed. However, I was struck by the obvious ambivalence of the actions of Symon Petliura toward Jews (the call to fight against Moskals and Jews, document no 85, and the address to the soldiers calling them to stop the pogroms, document no 77), an ambivalence also seen in the actions of the German occupation authorities. On the one hand, general accusations leveled against Jews (expressing traditional antisemitic stereotypes) and on the other, an awareness of disastrous consequences of the violent pogrom movement for the stability of the political system. Documents which seem to suggest that the Ukrainian Galician Army had a better record and that its soldiers were less brutal than those of the Cossack army (documents no 20, 88, 89) are interesting. If this hypothesis turns out to be justified it would be worth considering the possible reasons for those differences.

Accounts from Belarusian territory, unfortunately less numerous, seem to lead to a conclusion that relations between the Christian (usually Belarusian) countryside and the Jews were rather good. Perhaps these relations were influenced by the existence of Jewish farmers (individual farms and sometimes whole villages) whose presence is not mentioned in Ukraine. Pogroms in Belarus were perpetrated mainly by outsiders, regardless of the ideological character of the formations which carried them out. Frequently here it is difficult to distinguish typical gangs of looters from groups of demoralized soldiers, even if these were formally under the command of higher authorities.

Polish troops (sometimes referred to in the records as the Greater Poland Army or Poznań Army) also behaved in a specific manner as emerges from the accounts from both Belarus and Ukraine. The Greater Poland soldiers plundered more often (even officers were involved), rarely murdered people (it seems that all raped women), but they were most notorious for ‘amusing’ themselves in a certain way—by cutting off beards of elderly Jews. As emerges from the documents in Polish archives, the soldiers from those formations also cut beards of Jews in Poland. In addition, one can find a mention of French soldiers from the military mission stationing in our country amusing themselves in a similar way. Reports concerning the conduct of Polish soldiers come mainly from Belarus and the facts listed in them are repeated in accounts from different towns allowing us to think that the information in these different reports is largely accurate. It is worth noting that plunder was reported almost exclusively during the retreat of the Polish army. According to the accounts, officers justified burning and demolishing train stations and other (also private) buildings with the order not to leave behind anything that could be useful to the attacking enemy. I have not come across any mention of similar orders when reading descriptions of pogroms perpetrated by other formations. Of course such excuses were unimportant to the victims or witnesses—the residents of villages and towns affected by the war; hence, they tried to stop both lawless pogroms and ‘legal’ destruction and looting (usually through bribery).

The behaviour of the various formations of the Polish army (including officers’ attitudes) during the fighting for the eastern borders of Poland deserves to be examined more closely. Little has been written about this in Polish historiography and usually in an apologetic tone but the issue cannot so easily be dismissed. Certain cases of soldiers’ lawlessness have been justified in recent times by claiming that Jews allegedly shot at Polish soldiers. It is remarkable that this ‘explanation’ for many pogroms can be found in documents contained in this volume, regardless of the political allegiance of the perpetrators. It thus difficult to accept that Jews in small towns had an agenda that led them deviously to shoot at the Polish forces, the Whites (for instance, Denikin’s division), Petliura’s troops or others. The logical conclusion would be that at least most of such accusations are mythical.

Not every incident referred to as a pogrom is rightly so described in scholarly literature. For instance, the execution of more than 30 Jews in Pinsk at the beginning of April 1919 (document no 211) occurred under an order of a Polish garrison commander who believed in the rumours he had heard; therefore, it had characteristics of a war crime. Many years ago, I published documents about this case from Polish archives.

The issue of why the pogroms occurred (both immediate and the deeper reasons stemming from people’s consciousness and social relations) remains valid. This question is fully discussed in the introduction to the book and the reasons given there are helpful in the search for an answer. It is notable that the myth of ‘ritual murder’ is not present among the accusations of pogrom perpetrators against Jews in Ukraine, though Kiev was the place where Beilis’s trial took place. Accusations that Jews supported (or spread the ideas of) the Bolsheviks and hence constituted a threat, were quite common. It is clear from the accounts that some Jews did indeed belong to the Bolsheviks but the majority of Jews feared them because they combated religion and propagated the idea of collectivism. Paradoxically though, that majority quite soon came to perceive the Soviet authorities (the Bolsheviks) as their last resort. They were at the time the only political force which categorically condemned antisemitism and tried to oppose the pogroms, though insubordinate Soviet military formations were sometimes also responsible for pogroms. The Bolsheviks did not trust Jews; therefore, they consistently refused the demand to provide weapons for the emerging Jewish self-defense squads, which often sprang up spontaneously, for fear that these would be used in for counter-revolutionary purposes.

It is probably worth taking a closer look at the previously mentioned neighborly relations between Belarusian and Jewish farmers and to compare that situation with the situation in a place where Jewish farmers were not present. The anti-Jewish disturbances in the Rzeszów region in the spring of 1919 which have been described elsewhere were not pogroms (in addition, their course was far calmer and the consequences almost bloodless). They were rather part of a typical peasant revolt, a social movement directed against landowners and small-town merchants (as well as the authorities that protected them). The ‘landlord’ was the class enemy (exploiter) of the peasant, and the merchant (usually a Jew) exploited the peasant because he bought products from the peasant cheap but sold his city products at a high price. Only working in the fields and not sitting behind the counter was genuine work. There were no Jewish peasants in either western or eastern Galicia. At most there were some Jewish owners of farms. Further to the east, under Russian rule, Jews made up a class of small entrepreneurs, including merchants. Obviously there were other factors conducive to pogroms, including the traditional belief that Jews had accumulated wealth by dishonest methods. Pogroms became a way of getting even, implementing people’s justice. And what about the cruelty of the perpetrators? Is this a something ‘specific’ to Ukrainians? We readily overlook the events of 1846 in Galicia, about which Stanislaw Wyspiański wrote: ‘myśmy wszystko zapomnieli/ mego dziada piłą rżnęli, /myśmy wszystko zapomnieli...’ (‘we have forgotten everything, they [a reference to Polish peasants during the Galician massacre] butchered my grandfather with a saw, we have forgotten everything…’).

Extensive notes written in small print at the end of the book are very valuable. I understand that the location of the endnotes was imposed by the lack of funds for publishing such a large work; therefore, I do not hold it against anyone that it is troublesome frequently to have to check the back of the book for endnotes while reading. Checking is certainly necessary because the endnotes contain complementary information and even fragments of documents which were not included in the main text. It is hard to accuse the editors of not making better use of foreign sources or making use of the collections of accounts stored in Israel or America. I understand that this was caused by objective circumstances. Gratitude is due for the reliable indexes of geographic names and people (though why without full given names?).

At the end of the introduction the editors thank 32 people (including people from Israel, Poland, Ukraine, and the United States) for their help in seeing the book to publication, for advice and critical comments. I was pleased to see the name of Professor Władysław Findeisen, President of the Józef Mianowski Fund, among those people. The editors of this book have not disappointed those who helped them.

Jerzy Tomaszewski, University of Warsaw