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  • Jews, Pogroms, and the White Movement:A Historiographical Critique
  • Oleg Budnitskii (bio)

During the Russian Civil War (1918–20) Russian Jewry1 suffered a tragedy comparable to the period of Hetman Bohdan Khmel'nytskyi and surpassed only by the Holocaust. Historians differ in their estimates of the number of victims of anti-Jewish pogroms, the bloodiest of which occurred in Ukraine from 1919 to the beginning of 1920. No statistics were kept, of course, and the numbers put forth in the literature range from 50,000 to 200,000 dead.2 To these we should add tens of thousands who were maimed, raped, and robbed.

Despite the magnitude of these events, their circumstances and consequences have been insufficiently studied. The tragedy of Russian Jewry in 1918–20 has tended to exist "in the shadow" of the Holocaust. Some historians, not without basis, see connections between the pogroms in the era of the Russian Revolution [End Page 751] and the Nazi genocide. "In some ways," writes Abraham Greenbaum about the pogroms of the Civil War epoch, "especially since killings were sometimes carried out as a kind of 'national duty' without the usual robbery – they bear comparison with the Holocaust some twenty years later."3 Richard Pipes writes, possibly with some exaggeration, that "in every respect except for the absence of a central organization to direct the slaughter, the pogroms of 1919 were a prelude to and rehearsal for the Holocaust." The accusation of Jewish "involvement in Bolshevism" and the "deadly identification of Communism with Jewry" paved the way for the mass destruction of European Jewry, and in this respect the "spontaneous looting and killings left a legacy that two decades later was to lead to the systematic mass murder of Jews at the hands of the Nazis."4

It is true that Fedor Viktorovich Vinberg and other Russian rightists emigrated to Germany and there disseminated to a German audience the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," and Alfred Rosenberg had a distinct influence upon the emergence of Nazi ideology. However, the influence of certain Russian anti-Semites on the German scene should not be denied, and their influence should not be treated as decisive. Pipes' claim, following Walter Laqueur, that "the rationale for Nazi extermination of the Jews came from Russian right-wing circles" is greatly overstated.5 Ultimately, the notion that the involvement of Jews in Bolshevism (or, more precisely, the indissoluble link between Judaism and Bolshevism) led to the destruction of European Jewry during World War II is no more than a variation on the theme of Nazism as a "response" to Bolshevism.6

The importance of the "Jewish question" in the history of Russia's Civil War cannot be overemphasized, and the events of these years had an even greater significance for the fate of Russian Jewry (and, indeed, European Jewry in general) [End Page 752] in the 20th century. Before investigating this problem further, we must first analyze the existing historiography on the "Jewish question" in the Russian Civil War. This article critically explores the literature concerning one of its most important aspects – the history of the relationship between participants in the White movement and the Jewish population of the former Russian empire. Analysis of several of the more significant works demonstrates that these relations were much more complex than has been hitherto recognized. They cannot be reduced simply to a duality of executioners and their victims. I of course do not mean to "whitewash" the White movement; its participants so besmirched its name that no objective historian could bleach it clean. Rather, my task is to formulate, on the basis of the existing literature, the essential questions that confront historians examining the "Jewish question" in the Russian Civil War. I wish to emphasize that my goal is not to cover all the existing literature on the topic, but to consider those works that are both most significant and representative.

However, the number of works devoted to these events is surprisingly modest. The vast majority were published in the 1920s and 1930s, and were primarily documentary collections rather than works of history.7 In addition, research tended to localize its topic in both geographic and chronological terms...