Blood Libel in Late Imperial Russia: The Ritual Murder Trial of Mendel Beilis

Blood Libel in Late Imperial Russia: The Ritual Murder Trial of Mendel Beilis

by Robert Weinberg


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On Sunday, March 20, 1911, children playing in a cave near Kiev made a gruesome discovery: the blood-soaked body of a partially clad boy. After right-wing groups asserted that the killing was a ritual murder, the police, with no direct evidence, arrested Menachem Mendel Beilis, a 39-year-old Jewish manager at a factory near the site of the crime. Beilis's trial in 1913 quickly became an international cause célèbre. The jury ultimately acquitted Beilis but held that the crime had the hallmarks of a ritual murder. Robert Weinberg's account of the Beilis Affair explores the reasons why the tsarist government framed Beilis, shedding light on the excesses of antisemitism in late Imperial Russia. Primary documents culled from the trial transcript, newspaper articles, Beilis's memoirs, and archival sources, many appearing in English for the first time, bring readers face to face with this notorious trial.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253011077
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 11/20/2013
Series: Indiana-Michigan Series in Russian and East European Studies
Pages: 204
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Robert Weinberg is Professor of History at Swarthmore College and author of The Revolution of 1905 in Odessa: Blood on the Steps (IUP, 1993) and Stalin's Forgotten Zion: Birobidzhan and the Making of a Soviet Jewish Homeland.

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Blood Libel in Late Imperial Russia

The Ritual Murder Trial of Mendel Beilis

By Robert Weinberg

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2014 Robert Weinberg
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01114-5


The Initial Investigation

The nature of relations among Jews and non-Jews and Kievan politics after 1905 will shed light on why antisemites wanted the authorities to treat the murder of Andrei Iushchinskii as a case of ritual murder. By the turn of the twentieth century, Kiev, the historic cradle of Christianity in the Russian Empire, was a major industrial and commercial center. In 1859 the Imperial government began permitting Jews to settle freely in Kiev. Until then the presence of Jews in the city had been limited, but Tsar Alexander II, who took the throne in 1855, issued a series of decrees opening up the city to Jewish merchants, artisans, and soldiers who had completed their military service. The number of Jews living and working in Kiev exploded in the half century after 1859 due to the migration of Jews from areas surrounding Kiev. Whereas several thousand Jews lived in Kiev in 1864, at the time of the Beilis trial the police recorded some 58,000 Jews residing there, or about 12 percent of the city's total population. Most Kievan Jews eked out meager livings as shopkeepers, workers, and traders, but some Jews managed to amass fortunes as factory owners, merchants, and financiers.

Like cities elsewhere in the Pale of Settlement, Kiev was not spared the ethnic, social, and political strife that characterized most urban centers. Tensions between Jews and non-Jews could run high, especially during times of political crisis: pogroms rocked the city in 1881 and 1905, resulting in significant property damage, injuries, and loss of life. Kiev also experienced the proliferation of political organizations: in the quarter century before 1914 revolutionaries, liberals, and nationalists were active, vying for adherents and challenging tsarist authority. This was particularly so during 1905 when workers, peasants, students, and nationalists challenged the established order throughout the Russian Empire.

Political democratization and mass politics in Kiev after 1905, however, did not result in a shared commitment to civic equality and tolerance. Relations between Jews and non-Jews remained tense in the post-1905 period: from 1908 to 1911 Jewish newspapers reported that members of the Union of the Russian People were acting as vigilantes, roaming the streets of Kiev and beating up Jews. Right-wing political activists and organizations, in the words of historian Faith Hillis, "mastered the art of mass political mobilization, capturing the city's political institutions and the hearts of its toiling masses by 1907." They promoted an antisemitic agenda that frequently embraced violence and contributed to a sense of insecurity among Kiev's Jews. Unlike elected officials in other cities who sought to reduce ethnic tensions, Kiev's city council offered little consolation to Jews, who viewed the city elders as "reluctant sanctioners" of the pogrom. One daily newspaper in Kiev called the city council "a Black Hundred council with a hooligan mayor." In addition, according to Kiev's Ukrainian nationalists, Jews dominated the city and benefited from an imperial bureaucracy that curried favor with them. Hence, when Andrei's body was found antisemitic activists were eager to blame Jews in an effort to unnerve Kiev's Jewish community, already wary of the open hostility of the city government and right-wing organizations, with accusations of ritual murder.

The autopsy found no evidence that Andrei's killer had drained and collected his blood. Dr. I. N. Karpinskii, the city's coroner, performed the first autopsy on March 22nd, two days after the body had been found. He removed the top of the cranium as well as the heart and other internal organs for additional examination and use as material evidence. His report, issued on March 24th and published in local newspapers the following day, contained nothing on ritual murder. The autopsy reported that Andrei was found wearing a white linen shirt covered with blood, underpants, also splattered with blood, and one sock caked with blood. Gray clayish soil (of the kind found in the cave) and dried leaves were also found on his clothing and body. The dead boy's bloodstained cap, jacket, belt, and other sock were found nearby in the cave, but his pants and overcoat were never recovered. The autopsy report provided a detailed summary of the condition of the body and the nature of the wounds, noting that some four dozen puncture and stab wounds on Andrei's head, neck, and upper torso, some inflicted with such force that the object used (most likely an awl) penetrated the heart and lungs, and damaged the skull. The coroner found no evidence of sexual abuse (see Document 7). It was clear from the autopsy report that the murderer, or even murderers, killed Andrei in a frenzied and uncontrolled fashion, and kept stabbing him long after he was dead.

Antisemites wasted no time to voice accusations that Andrei was the victim of a ritual murder. Intriguingly, the coroner received a letter on the morning he performed the autopsy that mentioned the approximate number of wounds found on the corpse. The letter's author claimed that Andrei had been the victim of a ritual murder. In addition, the dead boy's mother received a similar letter the day before the autopsy report was made public. Only someone involved in the murder would have known this fact, raising the possibility that the person (or persons) responsible for the murder were trying to direct the police investigation toward Jews.

On March 26th the investigating authorities ordered a second autopsy. The reasons for this decision are not clear. Some members of the police and prosecutorial staff presumably had read the letters received by the coroner and Andrei's mother, and they had begun to consider the possibility that Jews had indeed murdered the boy as part of a religious ritual. Perhaps some of those responsible for solving the crime believed a second autopsy would reveal evidence of ritual murder. The second autopsy report was released nearly a month later, on April 25th, and like the coroner's report, it concluded that Andrei had died as a result of trauma caused by the stab wounds, not as a result of actions designed to drain his blood for collection.

Accusations of ritual murder became public as early as Sunday, March 27th, the day of the funeral. Nikolai Pavlovich, an antisemitic rabble-rouser who belonged to two extreme right-wing organizations, the Union of the Russian People and the Society of the Double-Headed Eagle, disturbed the solemnity of the occasion by distributing leaflets along the route of the procession and at the cemetery. The leaflets raised the specter of blood libel, accusing Jews of murdering Andrei for ritual purposes. Even though they were unsigned, they had all the hallmarks of publications of antisemitic parties. Most significantly, the leaflets, stressing the supposed danger Jews posed to Christians in the Russian Empire, called upon the Russian people to seek vengeance by attacking Jews (see Document 8). Concerned that Pavlovich's appeal might lead to public disturbances, the police arrested Pavlovich for disorderly conduct, and he sat behind bars until mid-April when the authorities dropped the case against him.

Despite the absence of any evidence pointing to a ritual murder or even the involvement of Jews in the killing, Andrei's death quickly acquired broad attention by late April. By then conservative and Black Hundred newspapers all across the Russian Empire had embraced the theory that Jews were guilty of killing Andrei. These newspapers hammered home the point to readers that ritual murder was alive and well, and they demanded that officials redouble efforts to discover the Jewish killers. Zemshchina (The Realm), a monarchist paper from St. Petersburg, published an editorial by S. Glinka who took to task the editors of the newspaper of the liberal Kadet party for their refusal to acknowledge the obvious, namely that Jews had engaged in ritual murder for nearly a millennium. For Glinka there was no puzzle to the murder, as the Kadets asserted, and he echoed an accusation found in the antisemitic press that the opponents of the tsar and autocracy were working with Jews to derail the murder investigation (see Document 9).

Several days later Zemshchina published another editorial that picked up where Glinka's editorial left off. Ironically titled "Judaic Woe" (Iudeiskii gevalt—a mixture of Russian and Yiddish), the editorial declaimed that Jews were seeking to conceal the truth when they condemned newspapers for writing about ritual murder (see Document 10). Other right-wing papers also accused Jews of hindering an investigation into the blood libel. In late April Kiev's Dvuglavyi orel (The Double-Headed Eagle) reprinted an article from the conservative, The St. Petersburg Russkoe znamia (The Russian Banner) that offered an account of how Jews commit ritual murder, providing lurid details of how Jews supposedly drained the blood from the bodies of their victims. Known for stirring up public opinion against the Jews, Dvuglavyi orel added a not-so-subtle threat to Kiev's Jews if the police did not solve the murder (see Document 11).

Despite the strident tones expressed in the organization's mouthpiece regarding the irrefutable guilt of the Jews, Grigorii Vishnevskii, editor of Dvuglavyi orel, appealed to his readers to remain calm. In the same issue that carried the article from Russkoe znamia, he cautioned Kievans to not take matters into their own hands out of frustration with the slow pace of the investigation. As staunch supporters of the tsar, they should "have faith in the representatives of tsarist power" and not succumb to appeals by people acting irresponsibly in their calls to avenge the death of Andrei with violence (see Document 12).

Charges of ritual murder were reinforced when State Duma deputies representing the antisemitic right conducted an interpellation (the practice of parliamentarians asking government ministers to respond to formal questions) in late April. They inquired of a representative from the ministry of justice whether the government was aware of the "use of Christian blood" by Jews for religious purposes, and claimed that "a criminal sect of Jews" had murdered Andrei. What, the interpellators asked, was the government doing to find the killers? Grigorii G. Zamyslovskii, a State Duma deputy who would later join the prosecution of Beilis, asserted that officials were succumbing to pressure from the Jewish community to cover up evidence (see Document 13). Zamyslovskii was joined by Vladimir M. Purishkevich, a founder of the Union of the Russian People who used the State Duma rostrum to deliver emotional screeds against perceived threats to the monarchy (see Document 14). In response to the challenge posed by Zamylslovskii and Purishkevich, an official from the ministry of justice simply stated that the government was doing all it could to solve the murder. He requested that the State Duma remain patient, urging the deputies to give the government time to do its work and find the guilty party (see Document 15).

Not all conservative newspapers shared the views expressed by Zamyslovskii, Purishkevich, and Black Hundred organizations; the divide between conservative and progressive forces, was porous when it came to the issue of ritual murder. In May 1911 Kievlianin (The Kievan), a paper known for its anti-Jewish views, went on public record denying the veracity of the blood libel by pointing out the lack of concrete evidence over the centuries that Jews engage in ritual murder (see Document 16). Until the trial two-and-a-half years later Kievlianin joined the ranks of liberal and progressive voices in the Russian Empire that took a public stance against the scurrilous charges against Jews and the prosecution of Beilis. Dmitrii Pikhno, editor of Kievlianin, and Vasili Shulgin, son of the paper's founder, were antisemites and arch-conservatives whose positions regarding ritual murder and Beilis confounded their political allies. Pikhno and Shulgin unequivocally rejected efforts to use the unfounded belief in ritual murder for political purposes and published exposés of police malfeasance in the case. As Shulgin wrote in his memoirs, "To convict a Jew of ritual murder in the face of such paltry evidence was not only unethical but stupid. And it is useless to plead stupidity, and say it was not we who disgraced themselves before the world...." Shulgin believed that a ritual murder trial, which he was sure the government would lose, would harm the reputation of the monarchy.

The police in Kiev were under intense pressure and scrutiny to solve the crime, especially after the countrywide press picked up the story. Detective Evgenii F. Mishchuk was the police official who investigated the murder from the time the body was discovered until early May. During this period Mishchuk first turned his attention to Andrei's family because a rumor held that the dead boy was the beneficiary of a trust fund left to him by his biological father. The police detained the boy's mother (who cleaned homes and sold fruits and vegetables to help make ends meet), stepfather (who worked as a bookbinder), and grandmother, but released them after two weeks of interrogation because they had airtight alibis and it was determined that no trust fund existed. Mishchuk, who refused to countenance that a ritual murder had occurred, then turned his sights on Vera Cheberiak. He looked into her affairs because of her shady reputation as the leader of a gang of thieves and a fence of stolen goods. A rash of burglaries in Kiev had been frustrating the police for several months before the murder, with evidence pointing to Cheberiak as the guilty party. The police had in fact raided her apartment on March 10th, two days before Andrei disappeared and was presumably murdered, but they found no contraband and did not arrest her.

In early May Geogii G. Chaplinskii, a prosecutor in Kiev who had been appointed to head the investigation by Minister of Justice Shcheglovitov in mid-April, removed Mishchuk from the case. Chaplinskii was aware that antisemitic State Duma deputies were monitoring the investigation, and he also wished to placate local antisemites who wanted to divert attention away from Vera Cheberiak, a member of the Black Hundreds. Chaplinskii accused Mishchuk of tampering with evidence and obstructing justice, trumped-up charges for which Mishchuk served three months in prison. It is difficult to gauge Chaplinskii's motivations for dismissing Mishchuk's findings and embracing the belief that a ritual murder had occurred. He may have done so because he sincerely believed Jews killed gentile youths for their blood, or he may have done so to facilitate his rise through the judicial bureaucracy by currying favor with his superiors who he assumed would appreciate his efforts to frame a Jew. Most likely he wanted to placate antisemites who claimed that failure to bring a case against a Jew would trigger anti-Jewish riots.

In particular, Chaplinskii was responding to the invectives of Vladimir Golubev, a university student active in the Society of the Double-Headed Eagle, who had emerged as the outspoken leader of those Kievans claiming that Jews had killed Andrei as part of a religious ritual. Not only did Golubev initiate efforts to steer the investigation of the murder in the direction of ritual murder, but he wanted to protect Vera Cheberiak, who helped Golubev finger Beilis as the killer. Indeed, without the persistent efforts of Golubev (and to a lesser extent Cheberiak), who untiringly cajoled and harangued police and judicial officials in Kiev to focus their investigation on Jews, it is unlikely that the authorities would have manufactured a case against Beilis, or any Jew for that matter. Golubev relied on receptive officials such as Chaplinskii who allowed him to manipulate the investigation and fashion the argument for ritual murder. Moreover, Golubev had come to the attention of Grigorii Zamyslovskii, who, as we have seen, shared the student's fervent hatred of Jews. Zamyslovskii used his connections to the corridors of power in St. Petersburg to meet with Minister of Justice Shcheglovitov, who assented to the efforts to frame a Jew for Andrei's murder.

After consulting with Alexsandr V. Liadov, an assistant minister of justice sent by Shcheglovitov on a fact-finding mission in early May, Chaplinskii appointed Nikolai A. Krasovskii as lead detective. Krasovskii was an able investigator that Chaplinskii mistakenly assumed would be more pliable than Mishchuk. But Krasovskii, one of several investigators known as the "Sherlock Holmes of Russia," refused to compromise his principles and, like Mishchuk, resisted pressure from Chaplinskii to focus on the ritual murder angle. Instead, he took up where Mishchuk had stopped and redoubled efforts to investigate Vera Cheberiak. Right after Mishchuk's dismissal in early May, Krasovskii and his assistant, police captain Evtikhii Kirichenko, conducted a search of the Cheberiak apartment with three other detectives on May 10. The police did not find any forensic evidence, but Kirichenko's interrogation of Zhenia Cheberiak reinforced his and Krasovskii's suspicions that Vera Cheberiak knew much more about the murder than she was admitting. Both mother and son denied that Andrei had visited them on March 12th, a bald-faced lie they retracted during later questioning.


Excerpted from Blood Libel in Late Imperial Russia by Robert Weinberg. Copyright © 2014 Robert Weinberg. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Dramatis Personae
Introduction: A Murder Without a Mystery
1. The Initial Investigation
2. The Case Against Beilis
3. The Trial
4. Summation and Verdict
Notes Index

What People are Saying About This

author of City of Rogues and Schnorrers: Russia's Jews and the Myth of Old Odessa (IUP, 2011) - Jarrod Tanny

Lucidly written, well argued, and rich with primary source material . . . the story unfolds like a gripping detective novel. . . . It is social history at its finest.

author of Jews and the Imperial State: Identification Politics in Tsarist Russia - Eugene M. Avrutin

A concise historical reconstruction of one of the most publicized and notorious ritual murder trials in the modern world. Written in a clear and engaging style, the book analyzes a wide array of archival and published primary documents . . . all of which help capture the drama and complexity of the Beilis case.

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