The history of antisemitism in Europe stretches back as far as Ancient Rome, but persecutions of Jews became widespread during the Crusades, beginning in the early 11th century when the wholesale massacre of entire communities became commonplace. From the 12th century, the justification for this state-sanctioned violence became the blood libel accusation: the idea that Jews ritually murdered Christian children and used their blood in the celebration of Passover.
Nowhere in Europe was the blood libel more tenacious, credible, and long lived than in the Russian Empire, particularly during the late Imperial period, which saw large scale pogroms and harsh restrictions visited upon the empire's Jewish population. The Russian Revolution of 1917 attracted many Jews to its cause, thanks in large measure to Bolshevik condemnations of antisemitism and persecution of the Jewish minority. These numbers grew in the wake of the brutal Civil War that followed from 1918 - 1922 when the White Army revived the pogrom with particular vigor.
What happened after the Bolshevik victory is the subject of Elissa Bemporad
's new book, Legacy of Blood: Jews, Pogroms, and Ritual Murder in the Lands of the Soviets
(Oxford UP, 2019), which won the National Jewish Book Award (Modern Jewish Thought and Experience). Bemporad probes the underbelly of the "Soviet myth"— that the USSR had eradicated the pogroms, banished the notion of a blood libel to the scrapheap of other opiates for the people, and vanquished antisemitism as part of the regime's broad anti-religious campaign — and discovers that both pogroms and the blood libel had a robust afterlife in the USSR.
As she traces changing attitudes towards Jews in the USSR, Bemporad also examines the uneasy and often ambivalent but mutually dependent, and ever-shifting relationship between the regime and the Jewish population as the Soviet century unfolds. Legacy of Blood looks at the re-emergence of overt antisemitism in the occupied territories of the USSR during World War II and the troubled return of the Jews to mainstream society after the war. The result is a meticulously researched, thought-provoking, and eminently readable book that adds much to both Jewish and Russian historical scholarship.
Elissa Bemporad is an Associate Professor of History at CUNY Graduate Center and the Jerry and William Ungar Chair in East European Jewish History, Queens College of CUNY. She is the author of Becoming Soviet Jews: The Bolshevik Experiment in Minsk
(Indiana University Press, 2013) and the forthcoming A Comprehensive History of the Jews in the Soviet Union
, vol I (NYU Press).
Jennifer Eremeeva is an American expatriate writer who writes about travel, culture, cuisine and culinary history, Russian history, and Royal History, with bylines in Reuters, Fodor's, USTOA, LitHub, The Moscow Times, and Russian Life. She is the award-winning author of Lenin Lives Next Door: Marriage, Martinis, and Mayhem in Moscow and Have Personality Disorder, Will Rule Russia: A Pocket Guide to Russian History.