Patriotic Violence and the State: The Moscow Riots of May 1915
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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 4.3 (2003) 607-626



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Patriotic Violence and the State:
The Moscow Riots of May 1915

Eric Lohr


If patriotism is defined as allegiance to and affinity for a state and the state is defined as that institution which controls a monopoly on the legitimate exercise of violence, then an inquiry into the nature of patriotic violence should take seriously the role of the state. 1 This article closely examines the anti-German Moscow riots of 26-29 May 1915 and some other violent manifestations along patriotic lines during World War I, concentrating on the role of the state and its attitudes toward both patriotism and violence. The war itself, of course, was a massive exercise in the legitimate use of patriotic violence. I focus on the attitudes of the state toward patriotic mobilization and its monopoly on violence among civilians behind the front lines.

The Moscow riots primarily targeted ethnic Germans and foreigners, especially those from enemy states. The events brought the second city of the empire into a chaotic orgy of looting, arson, destruction, and violence that observers saw as akin to civil war or revolution. 2 Approximately eight were killed and 40 seriously injured by the rioters. When the troops finally intervened on 29 May, at least seven soldiers were killed and several dozen seriously injured, and an unknown number of civilians were killed and injured when the troops fired into the crowds. 3 Although a few earlier Jewish pogroms had higher death tolls, the financial losses were probably greater than in any other pogrom in Russian history, mainly because so many stores and factories were ransacked along with private apartments. 4 The Moscow Mayor M. V. Chelnokov estimated the damage at 70 million rubles shortly after the events. The Moscow Fire Chief reported that over [End Page 607] 300 firms had been burned plus dozens of apartments, private homes, estates, and dachas. 5 The total damage suffered by enemy subjects can be estimated at roughly 40 million rubles, while at least 579 Russian subjects (most of non-Russian descent) suffered over 32 million rubles' damage. 6

One would assume that an event of this magnitude would have drawn substantial attention from scholars. This is not the case, for reasons that should not long detain us. The most important was the official line established by the Bolshevik and Soviet historical establishment on the role of workers in the riots. Even before the Bolshevik rise to power, the party applied Vladimir Il'ich Lenin and Grigorii Vasil'evich Zinov'ev's 1916 declaration that "the working class was the only one not infected by chauvinism" to its official interpretation of the riots. An activist from Khar'kov, who had not been in Moscow and could not have known much about the events, wrote the first official Social Democratic declaration on the riots, arguing that they were entirely the result of a plot by the government and the Black Hundreds, who failed in their attempt to redirect worker hostility away from their true class enemies. Although a few worker-activist memoirs published in the 1920s retained some ambivalence on the issue, 7 later document publications and writings usually simply omitted both the pogrom and any other forms of patriotic collective action or violence. 8 The mature official [End Page 608] Soviet view was expressed in the single paragraph devoted to the pogrom in the massive official history of Moscow:

In order to divert the attention of the working masses from the revolutionary struggle, the Moscow military forces in the person of the City Military Commander Prince Iusupov and City Governor Adrianov, on 28-29 May 1915 organized, with the help of the Black Hundreds, 'Khitrovtsy,' and other such elements, a German pogrom. In so doing, the Moscow authorities wanted to incite chauvinism and gain workers' support for a fight to the victorious end. The revolutionary workers of Moscow were indignant at this dirty provocation. 9

The only study of the pogrom to date, by Iurii Il...


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