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

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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.

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Introduction: A Murder without a Mystery

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On the morning of Sunday, March 20, 1911,1 a group of children playing in the caves that dotted Kiev's Lukianovka district, a hilly suburb that overlooked the city, made a gruesome finding: the blood-soaked body of a partially clad boy. Propped up against a cave's wall in a sitting position, the corpse was riddled with about four dozen stab wounds to the head, neck, and torso, leaving the body drained of most of its blood. The boys’ clothes, both those he was wearing and those found scattered on the ground, were caked with blood.

The police who were summoned to the scene had no difficulty establishing the identity of the victim because his name was written inside the school notebooks lying nearby. Thirteen-year-old Andrei Iushchinskii had been reported missing by his mother Aleksandra Prikhodko earlier in the week. Last seen when he supposedly left for school on the morning of Saturday, March 12, Andrei had skipped class to visit his friend Zhenia Cheberiak, who lived near the caves several kilometers from Andrei's home in another suburb of Kiev. Joined by several neighborhood children, Andrei and Zhenia had been playing on the premises of a brick factory adjacent to the two-storied house where Zhenia's family occupied the top floor.

 

1: The Initial Investigation

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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.1 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.

 

2: The Case against Beilis

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From the early phases of the investigation, Chaplinskii ignored the findings of Mishchuk and Krasovskii that implicated Vera Cheberiak and the troika. Instead, he focused his efforts on developing a case against a Jew (or Jews) as a result of the pressure exerted by Vladimir Golubev. It was Golubev who suggested the scenario of ritual murder and encouraged Chaplinskii to look for a Jew. But before he found a Jew to frame, Chaplinskii looked for an expert who would support the ritual murder accusation. He found his expert witness in the person of Ivan A. Sikorskii, an eminent psychiatrist who taught at St. Vladimir University in Kiev. In May 1911 the examining magistrate of Kiev deposed Sikorskii with regard to the ritual nature of Andrei's murder. Sikorskii was asked to ascertain whether a “mentally diseased person” killed Andrei; whether the autopsy could reveal how the murder was carried out and the aims of the murderer or murderers; and whether the “murderers belonged to a certain people…” Sikorskii stated that, in his opinion, several persons participated in the killing in a deliberate effort to maximize the draining of blood from the body. He also underscored what he believed to be similarities between the murder of Andrei and other ritual murders. A specific national group with a psychological need to engage in “racial revenge” committed the crime, according to Sikorskii. Even though the words “Jew” or “Judaism” do not appear in his report, Sikorskii's use of the phrase “vendetta of the Sons of Jacob” leaves no doubt that he was suggesting that Jews were the murderers. Sikorskii clearly lacked the training and expertise to offer an opinion as a forensic specialist, but as a confirmed antisemite and staunch believer in the blood libel, Sikorskii devised a report that justified exploring the responsibility of Jews for Andrei's murder1 (see Document 22).

 

3: The Trial

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For thirty-four days in autumn 1913 the public's attention was riveted on the trial, which began on September 25th and ended on October 28th. Court sessions could run long, generally starting in mid-morning and sometimes lasting well into the evening, even midnight on one occasion. Despite the length of the trial, interest in the fate of Beilis did not flag, appearing to be the only topic of conversation for the duration of the trial. Reporters from over 100 Russian newspapers and correspondents from Europe, England, and the United States covered the proceedings. The daily press in Kiev and elsewhere in the country gave summaries of the trial, with a few even printing a verbatim copy of the transcript.

Detractors of the government suggested that the prosecution tried to stack the jury with peasants in the belief that it could influence the thinking of peasants more easily than it could manipulate the opinions of educated Kievans. Given the fact that six jurors came from the peasant estate (though only one farmed) and, according to one account, ten of the twelve jurors had only elementary school educations, there may be some truth to the accusation.1 The percentage of peasant jurors in the Beilis trial was much higher than the average for major cities. For example, peasants comprised less than 10 percent of jurors in Moscow and St. Petersburg, even though they were a dominant presence in the population.2

 

4: Summation and Verdict

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All members of the prosecution gave closing statements in support of the government's claim that Andrei was the victim of a ritual murder in which Beilis participated. As one of the civil plaintiffs seeking damages for Andrei's family, Aleksei Shmakov took an active role in court proceedings. For Shmakov, it was of paramount concern that the jury render a guilty verdict regarding the ritual nature of the murder. A fervent antisemite who relished the opportunity to pepper his questioning of witnesses with mini-lectures about Jewish customs and beliefs drawn from his prodigious reading of obscure pamphlets and books, Shmakov laced his comments with bitter invectives about the evil nature of Jews and Judaism. Earlier in the proceedings Shmakov denied that Vera Cheberiak and her gang killed Andrei, but by the time of his summation, annoyed with revelations regarding Cheberiak's lies and machinations, he offered the unlikely scenario that Cheberiak and Beilis were both guilty of murdering Andrei. According to Shmakov, Cheberiak lured the boy to her apartment and then handed him over to Beilis, who did the actual killing.

 

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