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At the start of his reign, Tsar Alexander II of the Russian Empire (which included Poland and other formerly independent countries) coined the famous phrase "No dreams" towards the millions of Poles in Congress Poland , Western Ukraine, Lithuania, Livonia and Belarus. The result was the Polish Uprising of January 1863, bloodily suppressed after 18 months of fighting. Thousands of Poles were executed, tens of thousands were deported to Siberia. It is important to remember that all of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was excluded from Alexanders reforms. Martial law in Lithuania, introduced in 1863, lasted for the next 50 years. Native languages Lithuanian, Ukrainian and Belarusian were completely banned from printed texts. The Polish language was banned in both oral and written form in all provinces except the Congress Kingdom, where it was allowed only in private.
After several previous attempts on his life, Tsar Alexander II was the target of several bombs thrown at his armoured carriage in St Petersburg on 1 March 1881 by a revolutionary group, Narodnaya Volya (Peoples Will). That was the day he had finalised a new constitution for Russia (and only Russia). He got out after the first bomb, to comfort his dying Cossack guardsmen. Another bomb was thrown and exploded near him; he was seriously injured, dying minutes later in his Royal apartments. The bomb thrower was Ignacy Hryniewiecki, a Catholic Pole born in Grodno, now Belarus . One of his co-conspirators in the assassination group was a Jewish girl called Gesia Gelfman. Her origins were the excuse needed by the Tsarist anti-terrorist police, the Okhrana, and the new Tsar Alexander III to launch anti-Jewish propaganda alleging that the assassination had been a Jewish plot. This in turn led to anti-Jewish actions and bloody pogroms in many parts of The Pale (an area stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea encompassing what is now Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, and west Ukraine). Thousands of Jewish families and individuals fled, if they could, many trying to emigrate to America and Britain. Many who bought what they thought would be trans-Atlantic passages on ships from Hamburg were in fact forced to disembark at Tilbury docks in London and told that they had arrived in America, the ticket touts filling their places with other passengers.
Although Tsar Alexander II was a reformer, introducing the emancipation of Russia’s serfs in 1861 and working on a draft of Russia’s new constitution in 1881, the revolutionaries – and in particular those who came from The Pale, which was not included in the reforms – believed that his new measures were a ruse and that in fact autocratic rule would be continued. They wanted the kind of parliamentary democracy and free speech that they could see in other parts of Europe and the United States.
The reformist movement spawned many revolutionary groups in the last quarter of the 19th century, such as “Land and Liberty” in 1876. A failed assassination attempt on the Tsar in 1879 resulted in the execution of 17 conspirators. Censorship was tightened, known reformers were arrested. “Land and Liberty” split in 1879: the majority, who favoured terrorism, established People’s Will. Several attempts to blow up the Tsar failed (the wrong train was blown up, a bridge was destroyed, and a mis-timed bomb under the Tsar’s dining room killed dozens but not him). The police set up a special department, the Okhrana, to catch the terrorists.
“People’s Will” was led by Vera Figner when its previous leaders were arrested. Born to Jewish parents in Kazan, Russia, in 1852, she was the oldest of six children and was sent away to a private school in 1863. She was influenced by an uncle who held radical political views. She moved to Switzerland to get medical training. There she met Russian political exiles and was converted to revolutionary socialism. After her medical training she returned to Russia and worked in Samara and Saratov. She joined the “Land and Liberty” group and when it split in 1879, she joined the People's Will. Several figures in the group were arrested and in March 1881, Figner became the leader of the People's Will. She was involved in planning several acts of terrorism, including the successful assassination of the Tsar. She was arrested in 1883 and sentenced to death, later commuted to life imprisonment in Siberia. She was released in 1904 and joined the Socialist Revolutionaries. Figner was critical of the Bolshevik Government after 1917 and was watched by the secret police. She died in 1942.
Gesia Gelfman, the daughter of a Jewish businessman, was born in Mozyr, Russia. She ran away to Kiev to train as a midwife when her father decided to marry her off at 17. She joined the All-Russian Social Revolutionary group. In 1875, she was convicted of distributing illegal literature and put in the St Petersburg Workhouse. In 1879 she was sent to finish her sentence in Siberia. She escaped and joined the People's Will. In 1881 she joined the other conspirators against the Tsar. After the assassination, police raided the house where Gelfman and her lover, Nikolay Sablin, were living. He committed suicide. She was arrested and sentenced to death, although the execution was postponed because she was pregnant. Soon after she gave birth, her daughter was taken from her and put into a foundling home. Gelfman died from peritonitis on 12th October 1882.
A consequence of the assassination was anti-Jewish pogroms, deriving in part from the fact that one of those implicated in the assassination, Gelfman, was of Jewish origin. Hryniewiecki was also falsely rumoured to be Jewish.
The Russian term "pogrom" became commonly used in English after a large-scale wave of anti-Jewish riots swept through south-western Imperial Russia (i.e. The Pale) in 1881-1884. The catalyst was the assassination of the Tsar. Officialdom, even the new Tsar, blamed Jewish conspirators. The Russian press played a big part. Local socio-economic conditions contributed significantly to anti-Jewish rioting: business competitors and railroad workers were antagonistic to Jews. The fact that the other assassins were all Christians had little effect on the spread of anti-Jewish rumours.
The pogroms started in Elizatvetgrad in April 1881. Thousands of Jewish homes were destroyed, women were sexually assaulted, and large numbers of men, women, and children were injured in 166 towns in what is now western Ukraine (two people were killed). The new Tsar, Alexander III, blamed revolutionaries and the Jews themselves for the riots and issued harsh restrictions against Jews. The pogroms continued for over three years, with at least the tacit support of the authorities, although there were also attempts by the government to end them.
Another, this time much bloodier, wave of pogroms broke out in 1903-1906, leaving an estimated 2,000 Jews dead, and many more wounded, as the Jews defended their families and property. More people of other nationalities were also killed or wounded. The New York Times described the First Kishinev pogrom of Easter, 1903: “…There was a well laid-out plan for the general massacre of Jews on the day following the Orthodox Easter. The mob was led by priests, and the general cry, ‘Kill the Jews,’ was taken up all over the city. The Jews were taken wholly unaware and were slaughtered like sheep…” The army actively participated in pogroms in Bialystok (modern Poland, 1906) and Siedlce (modern Poland, 1906). The most violently anti-Jewish movement during this period was the “Black Hundred”, which actively participated in pogroms.
The pogroms and the official reaction led many Jews to reassess their position within the Russian Empire. A significant period of Jewish emigration began. Two million Jews fled between 1880 and 1914, many going to Britain and United States.
Jews increasingly became politically active. The early secular Zionist movement grew in this period. The General Jewish Labour Union, known as The Bund, and Jewish participation in the Bolshevik movements were directly influenced by the pogroms. Likewise, the Jewish self-defence leagues (which stopped the rioters in certain areas during the second Kishinev pogrom) led many Russian Jews in particular to adopt Zionist policies.
1. The Poland that was set up by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 after the downfall of the Napoleonic era.
2. Hryniewiecki, sometimes spelled as Grinevitski in Belarusian, was born in Grodno in 1857 to a petty landowner. After attending school in Bialystok he was admitted to the Technological Institute in Petersburg. He joined the People's Will in 1880. Others involved in the plot against the Tsar included Sofia Perovskaya, Andrey Zhelyabov, Gesia Gelfman, Nikolay Sablin, Nikolay Kibalchich, Nikolay Rysakov and Timofey Mikhaylov. Hryniewiecki threw the bomb that killed the Tsar. He himself died shortly afterwards as a result of the same explosion. Sablin committed suicide. Gelfman died in prison. Perovskaya, Zhelyabov, Kibalchich, Rysakov and Mikhaylov were hanged on 3rd April, 1881.
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