The Anatomy of a Pogrom

By | Nov 01, 2023
Screenshots from videos taken at Makhachkala airport show rioters looking for Jewish passengers. Photo credit: Screenshots from videos shared by Nexta on X.

Chances are you’ve seen the videos that capture a thousand-strong mob breaking through the doors that lead into the gleaming terminal of the Makhachkala International Airport in Russia’s Northern Caucasus region of Dagestan this past Sunday. Stones are hurled at locked airplanes and at security guards as angry crowds run up and down the runways, stopping cars—even police cars—that are trying to leave the scene.

The reason for this commotion?

The reported presence of Jews, Israelis even, a planeload of them.

Make no mistake about these images: They constitute unequivocal documentation of a genuine pogrom.

In English, the word “pogrom” is used so often that it doesn’t get italicized. If you want to be technical about your choice of terms, the period when pogroms were commonplace events ended in 1921, at a time when the Red Army established control over Ukraine.

Derived from the Russian verb gromit’—to bust up, to rage—the word conjures bloody memories of the death throes of the Russian empire and the onset of Bolshevism, when Jews were declared to be responsible for their country’s woes and, often at the instigation of the authorities, were slaughtered by the thousands.

Pogroms fell into two categories. Some were entirely spontaneous, sparked when an incendiary story hit the peasants in just the right way, causing them to take up pitchforks and avenge imaginary misdeeds allegedly perpetrated by their Jewish neighbors. Pogroms of another sort—observed primarily in Ukraine between 1918 and 1921—were military and paramilitary actions by which warlords targeted Jewish populations.

Arguably, the events at the Makhachkala airport are consistent with a spontaneous pogrom. The Makhachkala mob was carrying Palestinian flags and seeking revenge for the bombing of Gaza. The October 7 attack on a peaceful population in southern Israel by a force of Hamas militants might be more akin to the second variety.

“The events in Makhachkala absolutely constitute a pogrom,” says Vassili Schedrin, professor of Jewish history at Queen’s University (Canada) and an archivist of the Norton Dodge Collection at Rutgers University. “The direct meaning of ‘pogrom’ in the Jewish context is an act of anti-Jewish violence. However, often that violence takes on a life of its own, as was seen in broad looting and destruction at the Makhachkala airport.”

Valery Dymshitz, a St. Petersburg, Russia-based scholar of Jewish literature and ethnography, who has written a book and a multitude of articles about the Jews of Dagestan, said the Makhachkala action doesn’t meet his criteria for a classical pogrom because there was no angry crowd busting up the houses in the Jewish part of town. “This was a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel [action] of the sort that we are seeing in large numbers all over the world,” he said in an email. “This meeting grew violent because of behavioral characteristics of young people in that area, who are predisposed to street violence, and because of criminal indifference on the part of the police.”

A pogrom is not the Holocaust, a government-planned effort to eliminate an ethnic group. It’s not the Gulag, the imprisonment of millions. It’s not Holodomor, a man-made famine. It’s not a revolution, and it’s not a war.

Surely, pogroms occurred here and there in the USSR and in the former Soviet territories after 1921, but they were uncommon events, the sort of thing that takes place off-camera and is denied by the authorities. Could today’s journalists have been expected to connect the term with the event that went down on the landing strips of Makhachkala?

The independent Russian press rose to the challenge. The word pogrom figured in all independent Russian-language media reporting on the Makhachkala events. You could see it in the headlines on Meduza, Dozhd, and Popular Politics, to name three great news sources that people who follow Russia in detail have come to trust for accuracy and erudite commentary.

Meduza provided an especially robust account of the events in Makhachkala.

While a classic spontaneous turn-of-the-twentieth-century pogrom began with a rumor or a fiery Easter sermon, the Makhachkala pogrom and actions that preceded it were triggered primarily by two Telegram channels: Utro Dagestan and ChP Dagestan, which started to report the sightings of Jews in the predominantly Muslim region.

Neither news channel seems to have much tolerance for Jews. In fact, the Instagram feed of Utro Dagestan features material that was clearly reminiscent of caricatures and pasquils that were used to incite pogroms of yore.

On its Instagram feed, Utro Dagestan features a photo of a wildly gesticulating, hook-nosed man wearing a black caftan and a black hat. His sniveling smile bares large, rat-like upper teeth and rotten lower teeth. Importantly, the photo also includes the logos of the Russian Sberbank and Visa. This image is accompanied by a short essay declaring that the police are enslaved by the Jews and that Jews occupy all key positions in the Russian government.

Dagestan has a small Jewish population—about 26,000 people, whose ancestors are believed to have been there since the sixth century. The bombing of Gaza appears to have brought antisemitism to a boiling point, and the community is reportedly considering evacuation to a safer place.

According to Meduza, on October 28, one day before the airport action, Utro Dagestan said that a hotel in the Dagestan town of Khasavyurt was “full of Jews,” and ChP Dagestan reported an alleged sighting of “an individual with an appearance consistent with that of a citizen of Israel.”

Jewish refugees from Israel were hiding out in Khasavyurt, the channels reported. The hotel, it should be noted, has a geographically improbable name—Flamingo.

As in an updated version of a Jewish grandmother’s story, crowds formed outside the Flamingo. Stones were thrown, windows smashed. Things quieted down only after the hotel administrator allowed representatives of the mob to enter the hotel and see for themselves that there were no Jews on the premises.

After this visual inspection failed to uncover Jews, someone put up this helpful sign on the Flamingo’s door: “Entry prohibited to Israelis (Jews).” According to press reports, the suspected Jew whose Semitic appearance kicked off the riot apparently turned out to be an Uzbek.

The next day—October 29—someone painted the words “Death to the Jews” and flung burning tires at the Jewish community center in another Dagestan city—Nalchik. The place, which was under construction, suffered fire damage.

Unlike the Flamingo, the airport had the potential to yield some real Jews. Cheap flights from Ben-Gurion routinely have layovers at Makhachkala, where passengers can catch planes to, say, Moscow. Of course, not everyone on these flights should be assumed to be Jewish. Tourists of all sorts, including religious pilgrims and patients seeking medical care in Israel, take these flights as well.

As the mob overran the airport, the passengers retreated into the planes, taking videos of rock-throwing men running from plane to plane. It seemed the rioters’ determination was not rewarded. There were some injuries, some arrests, but no Jews were turned up.

As this went on, Russia’s law enforcement authorities stayed out of the way. Riot police showed up 90 minutes after the start of the rampage. Who can blame them for taking their time? Confronting the screaming, bearded young men in Makhachkala is apparently more taxing than handcuffing bespectacled Moscow intellectuals who have the audacity to protest the war in Ukraine.

Will this happen again?

“As Vladimir Jabotinsky, a Zionist leader and thinker, put it in 1937, ‘It is not the antisemitism of men; it is, above all, the antisemitism of things, the inherent xenophobia of the body social or the body economic under which we suffer,’” says Schedrin. “Historically, we are not entering a new era, we are not yet done with the current one, because ‘the antisemitism of things’ will continue to exist. “Therefore, sadly, there are more pogroms to follow.”

Dymshitz said the authorities in Dagestan appear to have learned their lesson and will keep the streets under control.

However, unless everything ends immediately, this will accelerate emigration of the few Jews who remain in Dagestan, Dymshitz said. They would likely leave for the nearby Russian city of Pyatigorsk, located outside Dagestan, or to Moscow, or Israel.

The events in Makhachkala were important enough to warrant comments from Putin, who, of course, placed the blame on Western intelligence services and Ukraine: “You must be able to distinguish the root of evil,” Putin said. “Events in Makhachkala were inspired through social media directed from the territory of Ukraine, with the help of Western intelligence services. Ukraine, taking directions from its patrons in the Western intelligence services, is trying to inspire pogroms in Russia. This is filth. No other word for it.”

The Czar, who still describes the Ukraine war as a “special military operation,” had no problem calling a pogrom by its proper name.

It could have been worse. He might have called it a “spontaneous popular action.”

Paul Goldberg is the author of The Dissident, a novel, and president of the Union of Councils for Jews from the Former Soviet Union (UCSJ). Anastasia Aseeva is the executive director of UCSJ.

Videos taken at Makhachkala airport show rioters looking for Jewish passengers. Photo credit: Screenshots from videos shared by Nexta on X.

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