Steven J. Zipperstein
Kishinev and the Tilt of History
New Books in Eastern European StudiesNew Books in Genocide StudiesNew Books in HistoryNew Books in Jewish StudiesNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in Religion & FaithNew Books in Russian and Eurasian StudiesNew Books Network April 27, 2018 Moses Lapin
In what has become perhaps the most infamous example of modern anti-Jewish violence prior to the Holocaust, the Kishinev pogrom should have been a small story lost to us along with scores of other similar tragedies. Instead, Kishinev became an event of international intrigue, and lives on as the paradigmatic pogrom – a symbol of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. The facts of the event are simple: over the course of three days in a Russian town, 49 Jews were killed and 600 raped or injured by their neighbors, a thousand Jewish-owned houses and stores destroyed. What concerns Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History (Liveright/W. W. Norton, 2018) is less what happened and more the legacy, reception, and interpretation of those facts, both at the time and today. Pogrom is a study of the ways in which the events of Kishinev in 1903 astonishingly acted as a catalyst for leftist politics, new forms of anti-semitism, and the creation of an international involvement with the lives of Russian Jews.
In an introduction that sets the context of Russian-Jewish life at the opening of the 20th century, and five essay like chapters that follow, Professor Zipperstein uses different types of sources, marshaled from archives across the world in concert with well known accounts, to weave together a study of the ways in which the pogrom has been received and imagined from a myriad of different perspectives. A poetic memorialization by the man that would become the “national poet” of Israel, Haim Nachman Bialik, based on his eyewitness account, a journalistic investigation by Michael Davitt in Within the Pale: The True Story of the Anti-Semitic Persecutions in Russia culled from newspaper reports published around the world, as well as previously unknown connections to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and to American radical politics. We read of an provincial event that captured the imagination of an international community, Jew and non-Jew alike, and provided them with a peephole into the lives of Russian Jewry. In many ways, this reception was paradoxical: by some, Jews were perceived as victims of popular violence, while others saw them as masterminds of a media-driven conspiracy.
In an age where much of our relationship with world events is shaped by often times contradictory media perspectives, Pogrom speaks to the ways in which this operates and its unwitting consequences. Here, Kishinev does not represent a pristine memory of a single story but rather exposes many of the historical trends of the 20th century and helps us further understand the relationships between media and power, between violence and empathy, and the ways in which we come to understand the unfolding narratives around us.
Steven J. Zipperstein is the Daniel E. Koshland Professor in Jewish Culture and History at Stanford University.
Moses Lapin is a graduate student in the departments of History and Philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, if both Descartes and my mother are correct then I am not.