Spoiler alert: I’m currently working on a series of articles about the Russian Revolution for my ongoing World War 1 series at The Common Reader. The problem with any topic as broad as this, however, is that there is inevitably some information that will end up on the cutting room floor. I’ve decided that some of the information that won’t make my articles there, I’d share here on my own personal site. So over the next few weeks I may be a little “Russia heavy” in some of my posts. This week, I’m talking about a murder in Kiev that occurred in the years leading up to the First World War.
This particular story was one I read from Orlando Figes book A People’s Tragedy.* Figes details an incident that occurred in 1911, some six years before the February Revolution of 1917. In a cave outside of Kiev, some children found the corpse of a schoolboy that had forty-seven stab wounds in the head, neck and torso. Near the body were some personal effects, which identified the victim as Andrei Yutshinsky, a thirteen year old student of Sofia Ecclesiastical College.
There was a great deal of outrage in Kiev over the murder. Because of the number of stab wounds, some ultra-nationalist groups in Russia claimed that it was a ritual murder by the Jews. They based their claims on a document called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which had been forged by tsarist police and published in St. Petersburg, Russia, some nine years before. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion purported to reveal a dastardly plot by the world’s Jews to bring about global domination, by infiltrating Western Christian societies, corrupting them morally and controlling their media and banking institutions. It was, of course, antisemitic rubbish that preyed upon the prejudicial fears of those who already loathed and hated Jewish people. But it was effective. A copy was even found in the personal effects of Tsar Nicholas II after his murder at the hands of the Bolsheviks.
As rumors spread throughout Kiev in the weeks after the murder, public outrage began to build against Jewish people in the city. The rumors were repeated in the press, which accused the Jews of engaging in ritualistic murders and tortures and consuming Christian blood. Even members of the Duma, Russia’s parliamentary body, signed a petition demanding the government bring to justice the “criminal sect of Jews.” Advisers of Nicholas himself were convinced the Jews were responsible, and finally, the authorities found someone to blame.
The scapegoat was Mendel Beiliss, a clerk in a Jewish-owned factory whose only crime was that his place of employment was near the cave where Andrei’s body had been found. According to Figes, Beiliss was not even a particularly devout Jew, only rarely attending synagogue. But he was arrested and held in prison for two years, awaiting trial for the murder of Andrei. Witnesses were paid off to testify against him, and the physicians in charge of the autopsy were forced to change their report to reflect the ritualistic murder theory. The press ran stories accusing Beiliss of drinking Christian blood.
In the meantime, two junior policeman found the real murderer. It was the mother of a
playmate of Andrei’s, a woman named Vera Cheberiak. Vera was a member of a criminal gang responsible for a string of robberies in Kiev, and the stolen loot was stored at her house. Andrei was playing with her son Yevgeny, when they discovered the stolen goods. During a fight with Yevgeny, Andrei threatened to tell the police about the robberies. Yevgeny told his mother, who told the gang, who in turn murdered Andrei and dumped his body in the cave. In a shocking twist, Vera even testified at his trial that she had seen Beiliss kidnap Andrei. She also poisoned Yevgeny, her own son, because he was the one person who could verify who really killed Andrei.
In 1913, Beiliss was put on trial. The trial was a farce, and it was later revealed that even though Russia’s own Minister of Justice and Tsar Nicholas himself knew who was responsible, they still allowed Beiliss to stand trial because they thought it would prove the existence of Jewish ritualized murder. But by the time Beiliss stood trial, some publications had already revealed who really killed Andrei, and the word had begun to spread. Still, the tsarist regime persisted, even arresting and sending into exile a number of defense witnesses, and the judge was given a gold watch by the Tsar and promised a promotion in the event of a conviction. In spite of all this, the government’s case was revealed to be fraudulent and fell apart, and Beiliss was acquitted.
No one was ever held responsible for what happened to Mendel Beiliss. The gang who really killed Andrei were never tried, and the government officials who tried Beiliss were never punished. In fact, some even received promotions. The Russian government did receive a lot of international criticism, and eventually, a form of justice caught up to Vera Cheberiak, who was arrested and shot by the Bolsheviks in 1918 during the Red Terror. Beiliss emigrated to Palestine and eventually the United States, where he died in 1934. Only one year before his death, another government had risen to power in Europe, a government who also used The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to poison their citizens against the Jewish people. This time, however, it was happening in Germany, and the antisemitism there would lead to the genocide of millions of Jewish people.
*Figes account of this story is on pages 241-244 of his book.