A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel

BOOK: A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel
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Copyright © 2014 by Edmund Levin

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Schocken Books, a division of Random House LLC, New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, Penguin Random House companies.

Schocken Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to M. E. Sharpe, Inc., for permission to reprint material from “The Iushchinskii Murder and the Expert Psychiatric-Psychological Opinion,” by V. M. Bekhterev, translated by Lydia Razran Stone, from
Journal of Russian & East European Psychology,
vol. 41, no. 2 (March–April 2003).
English translation copyright © 2003 by M. E. Sharpe, Inc.
Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

The excerpt from “The Prioress’s Tale” has been adapted from
The Canterbury Tales and Faerie Queen: With Other Poems of Chaucer and Spenser,
by D. Lang Purves (Edinburgh: William P. Nimmo, 1870).

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Levin, Edmund.
A child of Christian blood : murder and conspiracy in Tsarist Russia : the Beilis blood libel / Edmund Levin.
pages   cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-8052-4299-7
1. Blood accusation—Russia. 2. Christianity and antisemitism—Russia. 3. Antisemitism—Russia—Case studies. 4. Russia—Trials, litigation, etc. I. Title.
BM585.2.L48 2013   305.892’4047—dc23   2013019938

eBook ISBN: 978-0-8052-4324-6


Jacket photograph © Juliet Ferguson/Alamy
Jacket design by Ben Denzer
Book design by M. Kristen Bearse


To the Memory of Selene and Martin Levin

There was in Asia, in a great city,

Among Christian folk, a street of Jewry,

Sustained by a lord of that country

For foul usury and lucre of villainy,

Hateful to Christ and to his company;

And through the street men might ride and wend

For it was free and open at either end.

A little school of Christian folk there stood

Down at the farther end, in which there were

Many children, born of Christian blood.

—from “The Prioress’s Tale,”
The Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer



Title Page





A Note on Dates and Terminology

Cast of Characters


Source Notes





In the spring of 1911, a young boy was found stabbed to death in a cave on the desolate outskirts of the city of
Kiev, then part of the
Russian Empire, his body riddled with some fifty puncture wounds. Four months later, a troop of police and gendarmes raided the home of a Jewish brick factory clerk named Mendel
Beilis and dragged him off to prison in the middle of the night. Beilis’s
trial for the murder of thirteen-year-old Andrei Yushchinsky, which took place in the fall of 1913, was the most sensational court case of its time and surely one of the most bizarre ever tried in an ostensibly civilized society. The case was front-page news around the world. The reason for the intense international attention: the Russian state had charged Beilis not simply with the boy’s murder but with the
ritual Jewish killing of this Christian child.

Beilis was an improbable candidate on whom to pin a crime supposedly associated with his “race.” As a Jew, he was barely observant and of modest
religious learning. But soon after the discovery of the body, the Russian anti-Semites known as the Black Hundreds were leveling the centuries-old slander known as the blood libel or blood accusation. A leaflet passed out at the boy’s funeral proclaimed,
“The Yids have tortured Andrusha Yushchinsky to death!” If a Jew was to be accused, Beilis turned out to be, for reasons that will become clear, the most convenient choice. Only slowly comprehending the tremendous significance of his case, Beilis found himself at the center of an anti-Semitic maelstrom.

The notion that, for their demonic purposes, Jews commit ritual murder to obtain Christian blood, generally the blood of children, had its origins in Western Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The blood libel was a hardy and persistent bacillus, sometimes lying dormant for decades, then erupting virulently. At the turn of the
previous century a spate of alleged “ritual murder” cases arose across Central and Eastern Europe. But there had never been a court case like the Beilis trial in Kiev, a prosecution that was pursued with the full backing of the state.

The corrupt and decadent Russia of Tsar Nicholas II was pervaded by a violently paranoid fear of “Jewish power,” as evidenced by the some fourteen hundred different government statutes and regulations limiting where Jews could live, what schools they could attend, and which professions they could pursue. In the century’s first few years the Black Hundreds killed and maimed hundreds of Jews in horrifying pogroms, with imperial officials often willfully ignoring the
violence. It was around this time that Russian anti-Semites are believed to have fabricated the notorious
Protocols of the Elders of Zion,
the Jews’ supposed secret plan for world domination.

In its judicial procedures, if not in its genuine respect for human rights, Russia emulated the West, with the full apparatus of courts, judges, and juries. To prove the charge of ritual murder, the prosecution would duly produce expert witnesses: pathologists, clergymen, even a psychological profiler. That the methods of Western justice could be so perverted in the service of this case is part of what gives Mendel Beilis’s story so much of its eerie resonance. The toxic mixture of the medieval and the modern was a formula whose destructive power would be fully realized in the heart of Europe a generation later.

I first heard of the Beilis case as a boy from my Russian Jewish grandmother, who would recount tales of the old country, and of the Jews’ persecution under the tsars, around the dinner table. (How I wish now I had written those tales down.) I recall her once telling a story or two and then saying with a half shake of her head and a pained and bitter smile, “And Mendel Beilis!” as if those three words contained a world.

Many years later, moved by that memory to learn more about the case, I was surprised to find that the last book about it had been written nearly a half century earlier and that the only account based on primary sources had been published in the
Soviet Union in the early 1930s. I also learned that, after the fall of the Soviet state, the
archival materials—including the original case files—had become accessible to foreign scholars. But no one had mined them to tell the full story of the Beilis affair from its strange beginnings to its dramatic and ambiguous conclusion.

Within weeks I was scrolling through thousands of documents on microfilm, later supplemented by hundreds more obtained directly from the archives, many of which were labeled “top secret.” My effort to reconstruct the two-and-a-half-year drama took me to Kiev, now the capital of
A hundred years to the day after the crime, I was walking the city’s streets, retracing the route young Andrei Yushchinsky had taken for a secret rendezvous with his best friend on the last day of his life. As I sat in the main Kiev library, reading remarkably well-preserved daily newspapers, I felt as if I was reliving the events as they happened.

The secret documents and other materials, especially the transcript of the thirty-four-day trial, do indeed contain a world—a complex and a fascinating one. The story encompasses the vast and varied panorama of East European Jewish life in the era: one of fantastically wealthy Jews, such as Kiev’s beet sugar magnates, of poor Jews, and of working-class Jews like
Beilis who saved their kopeks to send their children to Russian schools, hoping to give them a better life. But the story takes in much more: not only the network of the Jews’ persecutors and their intrigues, but the many good Christian Russians who tried to stop the case, and a parade of both colorful and malevolent lowlifes who figured into Beilis’s fate. The story also offers a surprising window into the revolutionary underground, which was to produce the men who would rule Russia in just half a decade’s time.

I found the characters to be exceptionally vivid and diverse. Among them: the murdered boy, Andrei Yushchinsky, an illegitimate child, poor and abused, often hungry, perennially hoping for the return of his real father who he believed would spirit him away from his squalor; Nikolai Krasovsky, “Russia’s Sherlock Holmes,” who attempted to find Andrei’s real killers in defiance of the regime and would pay for it dearly; the demonic
criminal gang leader Vera Cheberyak, a figure worthy of one of the great Russian novelists; and Mendel Beilis himself, the proverbial ordinary man trapped in extraordinary circumstances.

Beyond Russia’s borders, the frame-up of an innocent man provoked widespread indignation and drew in some of the era’s greatest personages. In Western Europe, the case struck an unpleasantly familiar chord; when Beilis was
arrested, only five years had passed since the final exoneration in 1906 of the French officer
Alfred Dreyfus, a Jew who had been falsely convicted of treason and imprisoned on Devil’s
Island. Leading cultural, political, and religious figures such as Thomas Mann, H. G. Wells, Anatole France,
Arthur Conan Doyle, and the archbishop of Canterbury rallied to
Beilis’s defense.

The story reaches across the ocean, to America, where the Beilis case made for an inspiring if often tardy and ineffectual collaboration between Jews and non-Jews. Rallies headlined by the likes of social reformer
Jane Addams drew thousands. But in a cross-cultural convergence of hatred, America also had its own notorious, and uncannily similar, anti-Semitic court case unfolding at almost exactly the same time. In August 1913,
Leo Frank, a Georgia pencil-factory manager, was convicted on a wrongful charge of killing a young female employee. Both cases presented themselves as surprisingly problematic and contentious matters for America’s Jewish leadership.

Within Russia, the Beilis case reached to the heights of a decrepit regime on the verge of collapse. The story’s trail leads up the chain of command, from local functionaries to ministers and all the way to Tsar Nicholas II, whose role—though its specifics are elusive—I believe was crucial. In all of its deceit, corruption, and sheer absurdity, the Beilis case powerfully illuminates the final chapter of the Romanov dynasty. Russians were haunted by a sense that their world was disintegrating: they shared an intuition of disaster, though they did not know what form it would take. The Beilis case fed into that anxiety, with Russians across the political spectrum pointing to it as a warning sign of a regime in a terminal state of decay.

I have been careful to present the characters in this book only in light of what they knew at the time. But the reader would do well to bear in mind what the characters do not know: that nearly all of them will be exterminated or swept away—doomed to execution or exile, to the firing squad or the émigré café. While some of the players may have merited their fates, many others did not; they were the best that Russia had to offer, exemplars of the liberal intelligentsia. Russia arguably has never recovered from their loss.

BOOK: A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel
2.23Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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