Review of Elissa Bemporad’s Legacy of Blood

Irina Astashkevich

Elis­sa Bem­po­rad, Lega­cy of Blood: Jews, Pogroms, and Rit­u­al Mur­der in the Lands of the Sovi­ets. (Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2019). 252 pp. $78.00, hardcover.

“Jews use Christian blood to make matzah” is a persistent prejudice that has haunted the Jews throughout history. This vile slander, known as “blood libel,” takes many forms and, along with pogroms, was one of the most prominent manifestations of tsarist antisemitism that followed Jews into the Soviet period. In her latest book, Legacy of Blood, Elissa Bemporad establishes and discusses the “afterlife” of this phenomenon that persisted throughout Soviet history, despite the popular narrative that there was no ritual murder under the Soviets. This line of inquiry is intricately intertwined with the study of another widely and wildly misunderstood and misinterpreted phenomenon: the alliance between the Jewish population and the Soviet government.

Bemporad lends a new perspective to these two most extensively discussed, yet generally misinterpreted, topics of Soviet Jewish history. Her analysis brings the discussion into a totally new domain. For decades, the historiography on pogroms has moved away from the claustrophobic conception of pogroms as a Jewish catastrophe specific to the Russian Empire to its current understanding as a universal phenomenon. David Engel’s recent re-evaluation of the meaning of “pogrom” and Steven Zipperstein’s innovative analysis of the Kishinev massacre demonstrate this transition in scholarship. 1 1 David Engel, “What’s in a Pogrom? European Jews in the Age of Violence,” in Dekel-Chen, Jonathan et al. , eds., Anti-Jewish Violence: Rethinking the Pogrom in East European History (Bloomington, 2011): 19–37; Steven Zipperstein, Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History (Stanford University Press, 2018).

Emerging historiography has focused on internal pogrom dynamics (Kopstein, Wittenberg) 2 2 Jeffrey S Kopstein, and Jason Wittenberg, Intimate Violence: Anti-Jewish Pogroms on the Eve of the Holocaust (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2018). ; on pogroms as evolving manifestations of antisemitism in modern history (Hagen, Smith) 3 3 William W. Hagen, “The Moral Economy of Ethnic Violence: the Pogrom in Lwow, November 1918,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft (2005): 203-226.; Helmut W. Smith, Exclusionary Violence: Antisemitic Riots in Modern German History (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002). ; on genocidal interpretation of pogroms (Zavadivker) 4 4 Polly Zavadivker, “Blood and Ink: Jewish Chroniclers of Catastrophe in Twentieth Century Russia.” PhD. diss., University of California, Santa Cruz, 2013. ; and on gendered violence during pogroms (Aleksiun, Astashkevich) 5 5 Natalia Aleksiun, “Intimate Violence: Jewish Testimonies on Victims and Perpetrators in Eastern Galicia,” Holocaust studies 23, 1-2 (2017): 17-33.; Irina Astashkevich, Gendered Violence: Jewish Women in the Pogroms of 1917 to 1921 (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2018). . Modern pogrom historiography is interdisciplinary in nature, and Legacy of Blood follows this new tradition by bringing together micro-history, psychology, and the history of ideas, among others. This multidimensional perspective enables Bemporad to establish a distinct connection between the pogroms of the Civil War and the blood libel accusations that later re-emerge under the Soviets. Persistent as ever, blood libel evolved in the twentieth century as a manifestation of antisemitic sentiment, often in its most visceral form, that did not disappear even after the pogroms stopped. This central evolutionary concept brings Legacy of Blood into direct dialogue with Snyder’s Bloodlands 6 6 Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, (New York: Random House, 2011). and Slezkine’s House of Government 7 7 Yuri Slezkine, The House of Government: A saga of the Russian Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017). – two notable studies that discuss Soviet atrocities from different, yet similarly universalist perspectives.

Bemporad contends that the Soviet-Jewish Alliance stemmed directly from the pogroms of the Russian Civil War. Building on the detailed analysis of the violent pogroms that devastated and often eradicated Jewish shtetls all over Ukraine, Bemporad paints a panorama of the genocidal anti-Jewish violence during the Civil War. Although pogroms were not an uncommon expression of antisemitism in tsarist Russia, the pogroms of 1917-1920 exceeded the previous waves not only in scope, but in the unprecedented levels of violence that included the rape, torture, and mass murder of Jews. The militant groups and armies that engaged in this anti-Jewish violence justified their actions by accusing Jews of being Bolsheviks, and, conversely, all Bolsheviks of being Jews. This persistent Judeo-Bolshevik canard turned into a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy over time, since the Soviet-Jewish alliance was forged in the pogrom fires. Bemporad argues that this alliance was the most practical result of the Civil War atrocities because the Bolsheviks were the only ones who persistently fought to stop pogroms and combated antisemitism. The Soviet government continued their policy of curbing and eliminating antisemitism in the interwar period, which gave Soviet Jews a sense of security and empowerment. However, Jews entered into this alliance with multiple reservations, especially since most Jews were not Bolsheviks before the pogroms, but belonged to a variety of (mostly) national political parties. The Civil War shifted their allegiances. The Jews who survived pogroms tended to rely on the central Soviet powers to give them protection, since Civil War pogroms were often perpetrated by neighbors with tacit approval or even assistance from the local administration, which was then reluctant to aid Jews in property restitution after the violence was over. The traumatic experience of intimate violence– and, for Jewish women, of sexual violence–drove Jews to escape to large cities, where they would have more opportunity to move past their trauma and integrate into broader society. Bemporad concludes that even though the Jewish alliance with the state granted them equality, empowerment, and protection from neighbors and local authorities, “it was not unfailing, and it came with a price” (p.34)

The Soviet-Jewish alliance was perhaps less obvious to the Jews and Soviets themselves than to their enemies and opponents. By extrapolation, their enemies then transferred the traditional anti-Jewish accusation of blood libel onto the Bolsheviks, the enemies of Jesus . At first, the Soviet state condemned blood libel accusations, notably through its handling of the most notorious blood libel case – the Beilis affair. The Soviet state held a firm stance on this ritual murder case and prosecuted and punished the real perpetrators of the crime and those responsible in falsifying the investigation. Soviet politics of handling of ritual murder accusations, Bemporad argues, evolved over time to incorporate and achieve the goals of the state, which were not necessarily the same as those of Soviet Jews. For the Jews, the state’s condemnation of ritual murder meant that they were accepted as “normal” citizens of their country, thus giving the Jewish population a sense of belonging. The Soviet state used their efforts to eradicate blood libel accusations as powerful propaganda against the Russian Orthodox Church and other reactionary forces, including those abroad.

Ritual murder accusations persisted in the Soviet Union, as Bemporad proves, in the far-flung regions of Central Asia, the areas impacted by pogroms of the Civil War, as well as in the inner Russian provinces. The stunning paradox of state efforts to curb ritual murder accusations was that, while the Soviet administration showed no tolerance for blood libel accusations, each particular case started with an investigation as to whether it actually took place. Bemporad asserts that at no point were local administrations, or even representatives of the central powers, free of the popular prejudice that Jewish religious practices used human blood. Bemporad further argues that the actual investigations of blood libel differed case to case, even though the politics of zero tolerance for blood libel accusations was promulgated universally. The cases’ circumstances became publicly known (and condemned) in areas with traditional Jewish presence and Jewish connections to representatives of the administration and party leadership.

Whenever the Soviet administration took a public stance on blood libel, it condemned the culprits in terms of class struggle against the reactionary, anti-revolutionary elements supported by bourgeois nationalists. The Soviet state fought for the Jewish cause without, as far as it was possible, reference to the Jewish people. Bemporad clearly shows how the official language of condemnation of antisemitism made Jews very cautious in expressing complaints and tempered their enthusiasm, if only to avoid being branded as bourgeois nationalists. Most blood libel cases that surfaced in the Soviet press were disproportionately discussed in Yiddish-language publications, while the other national and the central Soviet media hardly reported those instances. Bemporad unpacks the larger picture of the state’s manipulation of pogrom memory by carefully analyzing the multitude of specific characteristics of the Soviet stance against antisemitism.

In the mid-1920s, the memory of pogroms, still stridently condemned by the Soviets, became a growing obstacle to the creation of a united, obedient, and reliable Soviet citizenry. Bemporad shows how Jewish pogrom memorials intensified the animosity between Jewish and non-Jewish neighbors who were being juxtaposed as victims and perpetrators in the recent pogroms. She also reveals how the publicized trials and public discussions of antisemitism undermined Soviet efforts to mold its citizens into docile conformists. These reasons motivated the official Soviet rhetoric of reducing pogroms to the paradigm of counter-revolutionary action and the branding of all pogromists as “bandits.” The growing Soviet ambivalence in evoking pogroms turned them into a distinctly Jewish site of memory. Bemporad asserts that, beginning with the second half of 1920s, pogroms became Jewish lieux de mémoire, while Soviet propaganda removed “Jewish” from the “Jewish People’s Tragedy,” sterilizing the history of the Civil War and shifting the focus of public memory onto pre-revolutionary tsarist pogroms . Soviet Jews were left to commemorate the Civil War pogroms alone, and were further silenced by the eradication of public pogrom memory and recognition.

Bemporad’s book is notable for its shift of focus from detailed case studies to larger conclusions, a shift which is achieved through the variety of sources she analyzes. Specifically, the history of pogroms is enriched by witness accounts and statements collected by the Yiddish writer, and the only female member of Tcherikower’s Editorial Board (a group of activists who collected evidence about the pogroms), Rokhl Faygnberg. Faygnberg chronicles the pogrom catastrophe that erased the shtetl Dubovo both materially and from Jewish memory. Incorporating this and other Yiddish sources, which have largely been overlooked in previous scholarship, enables Bemporad to create a polyphonic and dynamic picture of both the pogroms and the emerging Soviet-Jewish relationship. The Yiddish narrative is crucial to the discussion of the pogroms, which became an exclusively Jewish experience expressed in Yiddish, a language that was shared by a shrinking portion of the population.

Bemporad argues that blood libel accusations persisted in the Soviet Union due to the state’s failure to eradicate antisemitism. As has been proven already, although the Soviet state never deviated from the publicly held stance of combating antisemitism, in reality their position shifted significantly in the years following the Civil War. These shifts led to continuous outbreaks of ritual murder accusations throughout the 1930s against the backdrop of Stalin’s purges, that is, vast repressions of various social, ethnic, and religious groups, also known as “The Great Terror”. Bemporad highlights a number of factors that contributed to the recurring ritual murder accusations. The Soviet state never seriously tried to eradicate grassroots antisemitism among its population, especially among peasants. The urbanization of Soviet society saw the influx of “peasant” culture into the cities, complete with its persistent antisemitism. New townspeople were able to directly observe the increased number of Jews in positions of power in their new surroundings, which only fueled their prejudices. Thus, not only was antisemitism brought to the town, but complaints against the state were transferred onto the Jews, like in the popular opinion that Jews and the State constituted a single entity. Bemporad adds the striking insight that blood libel accusations were nurtured by the increasing amount of anti-religious state propaganda. Because anti-Judaism propaganda often focused on ritual slaughter, which was outlawed and openly discredited, the public eye was concomitantly exposed to graphic images of Jewish religious slaughter in pamphlets. Crude depictions of Jews drawing blood strengthened the belief in ritual murder.

Bemporad dispels yet another myth: that there were no pogroms under the Soviets. Indeed, no mass pogroms occurred , but there were instances of anti-Jewish violence that the state contained as much as possible. The absence of pogroms, in contrast to popular belief, does not equate to the absence of antisemitism. In the Soviet period, the very word “pogrom” took on a new meaning, encompassing new aspects of anti-Jewish violence. Bemporad carefully discerns the subtle signs of a strong connection between the restrained manifestations of ritual murder accusations and the anti-Jewish violence and pogroms that began immediately after the German occupation of territories with Jewish populations. The Judeo-Bolshevik rumor merged inseparably with blood libel, which was supported by Nazi propaganda. It also combined with the blaming of Jews for the atrocities of the 1930s: Holodomor, the name used for state induced famine in Ukraine; dekulakization, or repressions directed against wealthier peasants; and the purges.

However, Soviet policies, which never officially deviated from zero tolerance of antisemitism, changed dramatically in the period following World War II. The war saw the revival of virulent antisemitism, but the Soviet authorities were more than reluctant to combat it. There were no official anti-pogrom campaigns, even as pogroms broke out in many places when surviving Jews returned; nor was there any assistance from the state to reclaim Jewish property. Brutal socio-economic transitions against the backdrop of anti-Jewish brutality have been argued by Gennadii Kostyrchenko 8 8 Gennadii Kostyrchenko„ “Gosudarstvennyi antisemitism v SSSR, 1938-1953.” (Moscow: Materik, 2005): 2010-2011.
and other historians, with whom Bemporad agrees, to be the reasons for the revival of popular antisemitism.Bemporad further claims that, in this turbulent situation, the Soviet state built its stability by incorporating popular disapproval of Jewish agency, encouraging the forced silence of the Soviet Jews while suppressing open violence. “Rather by regulating eruptions of violence in the society Soviets remained loyal to their pledge, to the alliance struck during the civil war, to the Soviet Jewish myth of the absence of pogroms” (p.124). The author doesn’t really discuss whether the Holocaust was commemorated in the Soviet Union, but rather focuses on the paradox that Soviets aimed to build upon growing anti-Jewish sentiment while preserving the decorum of Soviet-Jewish alliance. Bemporad shows that this was a breaking point in Soviet-Jewish relations that culminated in the new revival of the blood libel myth.

Bemporad concludes her monograph with a discussion of the metamorphosis of blood libel in Soviet society after World War II. The blood libel trope was given new life amidst the post-war hardships and poverty : “In the midst of a postwar crisis of identity, borders, and political power, memories of blood libel stories could easily intersect with fears of cannibalism and Judeo-Bolshevism” (p.136). Bemporad argues that the “Doctor’s Plot”, an antisemitic campaign against prominent doctors of Jewish descent in 1951-1953, presented a new incarnation of blood libel, since Stalin’s move to gain political advantage built on popular antisemitic sentiment and indeed received an overwhelming response. The Doctor’s Plot accusations of cannibalism and ritual murder remained neither an endorsed nor a contested part of unofficial Soviet culture, while the issue of antisemitism was displaced onto the realm of foreign policy.

Bemporad defines the history of Soviet Jews in the interwar and early post-war years as “one of simultaneous extraordinary empowerment and enduring vulnerability” (p.147). This duality is the most intrinsic feature of the Soviet Jews’ turbulent history. Both the myth of ritual murder and the imagery of the pogrom are very much alive in the post-Soviet territory, and that is why Bemporad’s research remains acutely relevant today. Legacy of Blood is a long awaited, much needed, and powerful contribution to the discussion of anti-Jewish violence in diverse historical contexts.

Astashkevich, Irina. “Review of Elissa Bemporad's Legacy of Blood.” In geveb, April 2022:
Astashkevich, Irina. “Review of Elissa Bemporad's Legacy of Blood.” In geveb (April 2022): Accessed May 26, 2022.


Irina Astashkevich

Irina Astashkevich is a visiting research associate at Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry, Brandeis University.