Popular politics’ and the Jewish question in the Russian Empire, 1881-2

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In the autumn of 1881 the Russian police placed a visiting Englishman, Philip Benn, under secret surveillance.‘ A simple reason underlay official interest in Benn’s activities: he was a correspondent for the newspaper The Standard, and he was in Russia to report on the recent outbreak of anti-Jewish pogroms across the southern regions of the Empire.

The Russian government had good reason to be concerned. Publicity-shy at any time, the tsarist régime had been overwhelmed with negative publicity abroad over the pogrom violence. At best, the regime was pillaried as medieval or bar- baric, and the authorities of this great power portrayed as helpless in the face of public disorder. At worst, the forces of law and order in Russia were depicted as derelict in their obligation to protect the Jews, and local policemen were widely accused of participation in pogroms.

Bad publicity had other, more tangible costs. The financial affairs of the Empire were already in disarray as a result of the recent war with the Ottoman Empire. The maintenance of a strong credit rating on foreign exchanges was a state neces- sity in the eyes of the Ministry of Finance, whose officials were well aware of the obstacles posed to Russian forays into the international money-markets by uncontrolled internal violence.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs was more concerned with the possibilities of foreign diplomatic initiative in support of persecuted Jews, along the lines of Europe’s periodic threats to intervene on behalf of the Tsar’s rebellious Polish subjects. Public pressure on the British government for action appeared to be very real. The press carried reports of protest meetings in Manchester, Birmingham, Oxford, Sunderland and Plymouth.2 The public campaign cuhnin- ated in a huge meeting at the Mansion House in the City on 1 February 1882. It was addressed by leading religious leaders and Lord Shaftesbury. The meeting drew much critical attention from the Russian government, which warned that it would exacerbate tensions between Christian and Jew, and represented an unacceptable intervention in the internal affairs of a Great Power.3

Equally alarming to the Russian authorities was a petition campaign organized throughout Britain at the start of 1882 calling on the Russian government to abrogate all restrictive legislation falling on Russian Jewry. The Ministers of Internal Affairs and Foreign Affairs were in regular contact as to how to treat this matter. In London, the Russian ambassador, A. B. Lobanov-Rostovskii, consulted Nathaniel Rothschild, the head of the English branch of the famous banking family. Lobanov-Rostovskii resolved his dilemma of how to respond by accepting the petition from a Jewish delegation while simultaneously announcing that he would be unable to forward it to the Tsar. This was not a totally successful solution, as Lobanov-Rostovskii advised the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. ‘Roths- child, qui s’emploie a calmer l’émotion croissante de ses coreligionnaires, m’af- firmé que mon refus produirait la plus facheuse impression.’4

Added to these worries were parliamentary interventions, most especially by the Jewish MP Baron Henry De Worms, who called on the British government to find the

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