The term pogrom came into widespread use in Russia in the late nineteenth century. Origin ally it defined an organized massacre for the destruction or annihilation of any group of people. Since 1905-6, in the English speaking world, it evolved into a term chiefly used to describe any riots directed against Jews in the modern era. Both in Russia and the West the term pogrom came to connote ”official planning and collusion,” and was contrasted with the term riot defined as spontaneous strife or disorder on the part of the populace. It has recently been argued that neither the term riot nor pogrom effectively captures the dynamics of the most violent occurrences involving large crowds, which tend to share the features of both definitions: elements of organization and planning on the one hand, and spontaneity on the other hand (Brass 1996).

The most extensively researched anti-Jewish riots are the pogroms of 1881-2, which swept the southwestern provinces of the Russian Empire. These pogroms are widely regarded as the major turning point in modern Jewish history. Among Jews, the pogroms prompted disillusionment with a solution to the Jewish Question based on civic emancipation and social integration. They resulted in new forms of Jewish politics of a nationalist type, such as Zionism, and the growth of socialist organizations aimed at Jewish proletarians. The Russian state, in turn, moved away from policies designed to promote Jewish acculturation and integration. There were approximately 250 pogroms, varying greatly in length and severity. They produced about 50 fatalities, of whom a half were the perpetrators killed during the suppression of the riots. Both the Russian government and society at the time depicted the pogroms as a popular protest against ”Jewish exploitation” in the countryside. This assumption inspired legislative efforts (the so called ”May Laws” of 1882) to segregate peasants and Jews by driving the latter out of the countryside. These measures did not prevent additional pogroms in March 1882, most notably in Balta (Podolia province). There was also a large pogrom in Warsaw on December 25, 1881, and serious but one off pogroms in Ekaterinoslav (1883) and Nizhnyi Novgorod (1884).

The pogroms of 1881-2 gave rise to a host of assumptions that became firmly established in the historical scholarship on anti Jewish violence in modern Russia: (1) that the pogroms were instigated, tolerated, or welcomed by Russian officials, on the national, provincial, or local level; (2) that the pogroms were invariably accompanied by atrocities, including rape and murder; (3) that Jews were always passive, unresisting victims, at least until Jewish socialists organized armed self defense in the early twentieth century; (4) that, especially in the twentieth century, pogroms were an officially inspired effort to divert popular discontent against the Jews, ”to drown the Russian revolution in Jewish blood”; (5) that the great wave of Jewish out migration from the Russian Empire in the quarter century before the Great War was prompted by pogroms and restrictive legislation. Since the 1980s, all of these assumptions have been questioned by new scholarship (Aronson 1990; Klier & Lambroza 1992; Rogger 1986).

The anti Jewish riot of 1903 in Kishinev, then the capital of Bessarabia province, has also been extensively analyzed in the historical literature. It also inspired a classic work of poetry by Chaim Nachman Bialik, ”The City of Slaughter,” written in Hebrew and Yiddish versions, which led to the creation of the legend of the Kishinev pogrom. The Kishinev pogrom, which broke out during Easter Week, and claimed at least 49 victims, gained greater notoriety than virtually any other anti Jewish riot in the Russian Empire. It discredited Russia abroad and reenergized all forms of Jewish political activity. As in the case of the anti Jewish riots of 1881-2, the same major assumptions that the local government was responsible for organizing the pogrom and that the Jews were passive, non resisting victims were made in the historical analysis in the first half of the twentieth century. These assumptions have been challenged by recent scholarship.

Another wave of anti Jewish riots discussed in the literature is the violence which accompanied the Revolution of 1905 in Imperial Russia and the attacks on Jews during the Russian Civil War (1919-21). It is recognized that the anti Jewish violence that erupted during the Civil War was the most brutal case, which exceeded any former riotous events in terms of the number of casualties and savagery. The total number of Jewish fatalities during Civil War pogroms is disputed, but certainly exceeded 500,000. There was also immense damage to Jewish property.

Sharp divisions remain on the issue of the causes of and the responsibility for the pogroms. In the past the general tendency was to put forward a monocausal explanation of violence by looking either to anti Semitic ideology or the need for plunder. Recent scholarship has tended to recognize that these events are the product of multiple causal tendencies, which may be intertwined, so giving rise to new complex explanations and interpretations of the anti Jewish violence of 1918-21. The crystallization of similar approaches can be observed in the recent analysis of anti Jewish violence in Poland between the two World Wars, 1918-39, and during the early post war period, 1945-6, which erupted on the largest scale in Poland, but also occurred in Slovakia and Hungary.

Other developments in the study of anti Jewish violence focus on the mass massacres of the summer of 1941 in Eastern Europe in the aftermath of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. The waves of killings carried out by sections of local populations in Lithuania, the Ukraine, Poland, and Romania brought about new questions concerning the nature of the mass murder of the Jews during World War II and about the reactions of segments of local populations to the Nazi anti Jewish policies. Other questions about the applicability of the word pogrom to these collective massacres and the connection between local anti Jewish riots and the genocidal project the Nazis brought to Eastern Europe are also being asked.

In recent scholarship one can also observe that most of the main approaches to the study of pogroms have been particular, descriptive, and statistical. There is an urgent need for a comparative approach and the contextualization of the pogroms within broader societal developments.


  1. Abramson, H. (1999) A Prayer for the Government: Ukrainians and Jews in Revolutionary Times, 1917-1920. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.
  2. Aronson, I. M. (1990) Troubled Waters: The Origins of the 1881 Anti Jewish Pogroms in Russia. Univer­sity of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh.
  3. Brass, P. R. (Ed.) (1996) Riots and Pogroms. New York University Press, New York.
  4. Klier, J. D. & Lambroza, S. (Eds.) (1992) Pogroms: Anti Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  5. Polonsky, A. & Michlic, J. B. (2004) The Neighbors Respond: The Controversy over the Jedwabne Massacre in Poland. Princeton University Press, Prin­ceton.
  6. Rogger, H. (1986) Jewish Policies and Right Wing Politics in Imperial Russia. Macmillan, London.

Back to Sociology of Race