At the beginning of the 20th century, the autocracy in Russia faced a growing movement for political reform, increased democracy and freedom of speech. Tsar Nicholas II found it difficult to crush uprisings with brute strength as his predecessor, Alexander III, had done.
Fearful of revolution, the Tsar tried to deflect opposition to his government through a war with Japan and pogroms (violent attacks) against the ‘enemy within’ - the Jews. Jews were oppressed as an ‘anti-Christian’ people. The many legal restrictions on Jews were justified on the grounds of preventing them ‘corrupting’ the Russian peasantry.
This meant that Jews formed a perfect scapegoat for Russian nationalists based on the divine right of the tsar to rule unopposed. As Russian Interior Minister of the day Vyacheslav von Plehve put it, “we will drown the revolution in Jewish blood”.
These attacks, carried out by the ultra-nationalist group the Black Hundreds, were often incited by claims of anti-patriotism by the Jews. There was a belief that Jews would desecrate Christian icons or even kill Christian children to drink their blood.
In his diaries, Nikita Krushchev described witnessing a pogrom in his home town of Yuzovka in Donbass. “Some of the miners were telling about how the 'yids' marched around calling the Russians abusive names, carrying banners, and bearing their 'yid tsar' on their shoulders.” Once the name of the tsar had been sullied, any act of brutality could be justified.
What followed was three days of violence and looting against the Jews and their property by the Black Hundreds, who carried pictures of the Tsar, patriotic banners and Christian imagery. These actions were repeated across the country in the period 1903-1906, most notably in Odessa, where up to 2,500 people lost their lives.
There are some comparisons to be made with our country today.
Take, for example, the small number of Muslims who burnt an image of a poppy on Armistice Day. A disrespectful act, but nevertheless an isolated incident carried out by a tiny minority of Muslims, and roundly condemned by the Muslim community at large.
Why then the hysteria surrounding it? These events mirror the claims of anti-patriotism wielded against the Jews, and serve the same purpose: making them the ‘enemy within’ and creating a patriotic duty to stop them undermining the Russian/British way of life, diverting working class people’s anger from their true oppressors and directing it towards an easy target.
While the outcome of Russian anti-Semitic feeling was the Black Hundreds and their pogroms, the outcome of Islamophobia here has been the English Defence League and their ‘protests’ in Muslim populated areas of the country. In places such as Luton and Bradford, violence and damage to property is carried out against the local population, along with outrageous chants such as “Allah is a paedo” and “if you all hate pakis clap your hands”.
The current promotion of patriotism – the Diamond Jubilee, Armed Forces Day and flag waving encouraged at sporting events – offers a legitimate rationale for racists to feel ‘pride’ in themselves and hatred from people who can be portrayed as the ‘other’.
A significant contributor towards anti-Semitism in early-20th century Russia was the press, who provided anti-Semitic agitation in exchange for funds from the state. This partnership between the state and the press is also mirrored in our society, with the right-wing media providing much of the anti-Islamic sensationalism.
The right-wing media wage a war of words with headlines from The Sun including "Muslim schools ban our culture", "Muslims tell us how to run our schools", "Christmas is banned: it offends Muslims", and "BBC puts Muslims before YOU!".
It’s important we question why the government and police continue to allow events such as the EDL march through Luton to occur (just as the government and police did in Russia) when they are in violation of the laws that prohibit incitement to hatred on racial or religious grounds, and are morally repugnant to anyone interested in freedom and equality. And if we are interested in the elimination of street-level fascism, it’s important we look past leaders such as the EDL’s Tommy Robinson, to who the real beneficiaries of such actions are.
Playing the anti-Muslim card is a tactic for politicians whose policies of war and privatisation are being increasingly questioned. Jack Straw attacked the right of Muslim women to wear the veil, and Cameron denounced multiculturalism on the day the EDL marched through Luton. This is in the context of the western ‘Crusade’ against Muslim countries for their oil and the profits to be made there.
Patriotism really is the last refuge of the scoundrel. It was so in Russia then, and is the same in Britain today.
In the parks, halls and public spaces around Kings Cross
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