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POGROM IN ORSHA

It all started in a rather usual way. Such events took place not only in Orsha but also in other towns in Russia. On October 17th, 1905, Nikolai II signed a manifesto “On improvement of the state order”, which granted the people their civil liberties.

1.

The residents of Orsha found out about the manifesto the following day, on October 18th and in the evening a group of young people, mainly Jews, organized a noisy manifestation by the building of the police administration. The manifestation was qualified as a peaceful one and the official documents stated “the young people were expressing their joy in connection with the new manifesto and the liberties it granted”.

The manifestation was over in about two hours and its participants went home peacefully. The following morning thousands of people came out into the city streets – both Jews and Christians. The city mayor addressed the clergy with a request to hold a thanksgiving service in public. It was not the end, however. The crowd, feeling drunk with the new rights, headed for the city prison. In their hands the people were carrying flags and banners with slogans “Away with autocracy!”, “Long live the social-democratic republic!” They had only one request – all the political prisoners had to be freed. The prison authorities did not resist.

These events were so extraordinary and unexpected for the average residents that most of them, uneducated people, expressed open protest: their belief in autocracy was undermined. Since a large number of the people, participating in the demonstration, were Jewish, the discontent was easily projected on them.

2.

Incredible rumors about Jews were being spread all over the city: they were blamed for breaking some icons in a church, taking a priest’s chasuble, bashing and killing peasants in villages…

It was later written in the official documents that “these rumors were blindly believed despite their obvious absurdity”. The situation in the city changed very rapidly. People were spreading the rumors that the Jews were humiliating the Orthodox residents. On October, 20th a crowd of such people headed for the city administration and demanded the city mayor to become the leader of a pogrom. The mayor tried to calm them down and narrowly escaped being killed himself.

On October 21st crowds of peasants from neighboring villages, armed with axes and even guns, started flowing into Orsha. Several thousand people assembled in the city square. They were greeted by a police clerk, a 25-year old Tikhon Sinitsky and his two peers: superintendent Rakovsky and policeman Roman Zharin. They were the organizers of the pogrom.

Shouting provocative slogans, Zharin encouraged the people to start the pogrom. “We’ll show them!” – he shouted.

Soon a company of soldiers, headed by officers, joined the raging crowd. They started throwing stones at the Jewish houses. The Jews, who happened to be outside at the time, were humiliated and beaten up. The crowd split into several groups and spread all over the city. Immediately the city became empty. Its residents, not only Jews, hid in their houses, closed the window blinds and the doors. But it did not help.

The men, armed with hammers, knives, chains and axes, broke into the houses, bashing their owners, breaking the furniture and taking everything they could carry. Those who resisted were beaten even harder. “It was easy to understand, - said the official documents, - that a lot of blood would be shed in the evening. It was horrible to realize that something so spontaneous and cruel inevitable.”

On October, 22nd, the drunken people started breaking into the Jewish houses. They broke the fences, the doors, everything. The burgled flats were left with corpses and people beaten to unconsciousness. They did not feel sorry for children and old people… Long before the Hitler occupation the murderers killed children by hitting them on a tree or a house wall.

3.

The information about the pogrom quickly reached the nearby cities and on October 22nd twenty-three young men headed for Orsha to fight the drunken mobsters. There were two non-Jewish men among them. They were armed with revolvers and assumed they would be able to fight back. Several thousand brutal mobsters met them: the men were first cruelly beaten and then killed with stones or axes. Witnesses said: “Immediately after killing them the murderers took off their boots and searched the corpses for money and valuables. It was a genuine slaughter.”

“Then someone spread a rumor that “democrats” from Shklov were on their way to Orsha to protect the Jews. So the mob, including peasants and railway workers, assembled at the station. They were holding sticks and metal objects. Eight people got off the train. Unfortunately, seven of them happened to be Jewish. They had no idea of what was happening in Orsha and arrived in the city on business. Seeing the armed crowd they all dashed into the nearby forest, two of them even had to run into a swamp. A Christian man was left alive. Five Jews out of seven were killed. They were first beaten beyond recognition and then finished off with stones and sticks. If any pogrom witnesses protested against the violence, they were threatened to be killed as well.”

The crowd was hostile towards the head of Orsha goods depot and a doctor, who arrived in the city. A local priest refused to join the crowd and was threatened as well. One of the pogrom organizers warned him sharply: “You cannot joke with us.”

On October 22nd the vice-governor of Mogilev and a dragoon squadron were sent to the city. The policemen, who had organized the pogrom were dismissed but the crowd could no be stopped. All the vice-governor’s attempts to calm down the crowd were pointless. The people shouted: “He is with the Jews! He has been bribed!”

Then the crowd rushed to smash up the rest of the Jewish shops and houses. The dragoons did not try to stop them claiming they had not received an order from the police.

The vice-governor had nothing else to do but request the main organizer of the pogrom, Sinitsky, to stop the crowd. He was the one who could influence the raging people. Sinitsky was flattered – he realized he had all the authority and powerd – so he agreed. In exchange he demanded weapons and a guarantee he would not be under any threat. For some reason he did not realized he could be sent to prison. He only kept repeating: “I have the power to decide whether to continue the pogrom or to stop it. All the Jews call me a mobster. I am not a mobster, I am a patriot.”

… Only when an infantry battalion and cavalry troops arrived here from Vitebsk the mobsters agreed to stop the violence. The considered themselves to be the winners.

Thirty-two people were killed in the pogrom and hundreds of people received severe injuries.

4.

Memorial to victims of 1905 pogrom. Photo taken in 2009.
Memorial to victims of 1905 pogrom. Photo taken in 2009.

The investigation was very slow, just as it was expected. Only on November 12th, 1907, two years later, the local court finally brought the charges against the pogrom participants. 58 people aged from 16 to 66 were on trial. Some of the most active participants had actually been promoted in their jobs. For instance, the pogrom organizer, clerk Sinitsky, was appointed a copyist of the police administration. His closest assistant Rakovsky was appointed a supervisor in a women’s prison.

Several other policemen and railway workers were charged as well. Three people of the accused were less than 17 at the time. The oldest of them, a 66-year-old Bitukov, explained that on the day of the pogrom he was unwell – his legs hurt. As soon as he heard that Jews were being killed at the railway station, he forgot about his ailments and “walked with difficulty”, leaning on his cane, to the station… He was late for the main “spectacle”: he saw beaten up people lying on the ground, some of them were still alive. “The patriot” finished them off with his cane…

There were more than 350 people who witnessed the events. Only 250 of them came to court, mainly Christian. The ones who did not come were Jewish – they had left Orsha. America became their second home.

The questioning of the witnesses took ten days. The verdict was as follows: 26 people were acquitted, 3 sentenced to four months in prison, 2 – to six months, 16 – to eight months. One person was sentenced to a year in prison, 2 people – to 1.5 years, including Sinitsky.

After hearing the verdict the convicts looked baffled: nobody had expected the whole story to end like that. They were sure they were not guilty. Sinitsky then said loudly: “Do not get discouraged! Thank God, we have an institution we can appeal to. The sentence will not be carried out!”

Unfortunately, he was right. The tsar announced amnesty to 22 pogrom participants. They even managed to avoid the symbolic punishment they had been sentenced to.

Arkady Podlipsky

Еврейское местечко под Минском


Jewish settlements in Vitebsk region

Vitebsk Albrehtovo Babinovichi Baran Bayevo Begoml Beshenkovichi Bocheikovo Bogushevsk Borkovichi Braslav Bychiha Chashniki Disna Dobromysli Dokshitsy Druya Dubrovno Glubokoye Gorodok Kamen Kohanovo Kolyshki Kopys Krasnopolie Kublichi Lepel Liady Liozno Lukoml Luzhki Lyntupy Miory Obol Oboltsy Orsha Osintorf Ostrovno Parafianovo Plissa Polotsk Prozorki Senno Sharkovshina Shumilino Sirotino Slaveni Smolyany Surazh Tolochin Ulla Verhnedvinsk Vidzy Volyntsy Yanovichi Yezerishe Zhary Ziabki

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