The weeks following the tsar’s abdication were heady times, when the Provisional Government, made up of former members of Russia’s Duma, and the Petrograd Soviet vied for power. The Provisional Government set to work abolishing the death penalty, granting civil liberties and an amnesty for political prisoners – including those in exile – and ending religious and ethnic discrimination.
For Russia’s Jews, the Provisional Government promised almost unimaginable freedoms. For nearly 40 years, since the terrible pogroms of 1881, Jews had been emigrating in great numbers from the Russian Empire to America – the land of the free – seeing it as the fabled promised land. Now it appeared that the Promised Land was coming to Russia, there would be no longer be any need to emigrate.
Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, brother-in-law of the recently deposed Tsar Nicholas II, was in Kiev in March 1917, still part of the Russian Empire and at the heart of the Pale of Settlement, where Jews were forced to live in the Tsarist era.
He described “triumphant demonstrations which have been organised to celebrate the country’s newly acquired freedom. The days are filled with endless meetings, and countless orators are promising peace, triumph and freedom.” Demonstrators marched through the streets carrying banners with the slogans:
“We demand immediate peace!”
“We demand the return of our husbands and sons from the front!”
“Down with the government of capitalists!”
“We need peace, not bloodshed!”
“We demand an independent Ukraine!”
For although the Provisional Government had granted significant reforms, it had not pulled Russia out of the war, which was bleeding the country dry and sapping morale. Nor did it address the thorny issues of land reform and the dreadful living standards, particularly among the peasantry.
The Grand Duke was fearful of the revolution, and above all, that it could allow Jews to gain power. “All these freedoms are all very well, but meanwhile we, for some reason, are obliged to suffer more than any other citizens. It seems we are heading, rapidly and irrevocably, towards a republican regime. I fear that we are not ready for this, and Russia will fall apart. Already, Ukraine wishes to become an independent republic. And above all, the Yids will now gain a great deal of power, as we’ve already seen in Kiev, but if they continue in this way, a pogrom is inevitable, and they are terribly afraid of this.”
In the coming months and years, the Grand Duke would be proved horribly correct.
Quotes from Project1917.com
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.