A Singular Event in Jewish History
Brief Historical Excursus into the history of Bessarabian Jews
After 1811-12 victorious campaign against the Ottoman Empire, Russia acquired Bessarabia and half of Moldavia, which had been the dependencies of the Ottoman Empire since the 16th century. The Treaty of Bucharest signed on 28th of May in 1812 put the end to Ottoman rule in these regions. The name Bessarabia was applied to the entire area, and Kishinev was acknowledged as the main city of the region. The estimated number of Jews inhabiting this territory was about 5.000 families.
At the beginning of Russian rule, their legal status was far better in comparison to the position of the Jews in the Pale of Settlement. The Russian government was interested in the fast development of this area and exempted Jews from paying taxes, by a series of decrees allowed them to buy and lease land (which was quite remarkable!), and did not put harsh restrictions upon the spectrum of possible occupations practiced by Jews. This, however, did not last long.
After the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, whose policy towards Jews was rather liberal, the reign of his successor Alexander III brought the period of reaction. The position of Jews in the whole Pale of Settlement worsened significantly. The pendulum swung back: all the privileges granted to the Bessarabian Jews were taken back and by a series of violent decrees they were equalized with the rest of Jewry within the Pale. Jews had to leave villages and move to the cities, were prohibited from leasing land and distilling brandy, which, for most of them, practically meant loosing their poor-already means for survival. These measures, according to the official rationale, were in order to stop the competition of Jews with their Christian neighbours. The presumption embraced by the government was that this led to the enrichment of the Jews and impoverishment of the Christians. Jews also were held to be responsible for the phenomenon of hard drinking so characteristic to Russian peasantry, and that is why there was a prohibition to produce spirits. I use the word “presumption”, because that is exactly what it was. The economic condition of Jews in the Pale of Settlement was not much better than of their Christian neighbours. Regarding the accusation of accustoming to hard drinking, the expulsion of Jews from the country did not have any positive effect, as it had been expected.
Prince Urussov, Russian aristocrat and liberally minded person, who was appointed as the Governor of Bessarabia after the pogrom, gave the following description of his impression regarding the condition of Jews in Bessarabia.
“The observer is struck by the number of Jewish signs in Bessarabian towns. The houses along the second-rate are occupied in unbroken succession by stores, big and small, shops of watch-makers, shoe-makers, locksmiths, tinsmiths, tailors, carpenters and so on. All these workers are huddled together in nooks and lanes amid shocking poverty. They toil hard for a living so scanty that a rusty herring and a slice of onion is considered the tip-top of luxury and prosperity. There are scores of watch-makers in small towns where the townsfolk, as a rule, have no watches. It is hard to understand where all these artisans, frequently making up seventy-five per cent of the total population of the city or town, get their orders and patrons. Competition cuts down their earnings to the limit of bare subsistence on so minute a scale as to call in question the theory of wages ....”
As a consequence of the Czar’s policy and the decrees mentioned above, the entire Russian South was enveloped in the flames of pogroms of 1882. But still, it is quite remarkable that nothing of this kind happened in Bessarabia that year. For most, the pogrom in 1903 in Kishinev came out of the blue. The Kishinev pogrom was quite a surprise; pogroms were expected where they used to happen, and nobody (except those who lived in Kishinev) seemed to imagine that it would occur in the relatively safe place. So, the natural question to be asked is: How could seismically peaceful place turn into violent volcano erupting bloody lava?