26 November 2020

Reflections on the Black Hundreds

A balanced look at the Black Hundreds, not the hysterical 'THEY WERE EVIL!'  reaction of modern, left-wing historians.

From The Mad Monarchist (1 July 2015)

The period encompassing what turned out to be the final years of the Russian Empire has been the subject of intense focus by historians around the world and a preponderance have done everything possible to slander and defame the Romanov monarchy and all those who supported it. As a result, it has become all too common for people to take for granted that the Russian Empire was an evil regime and that all who supported it were villains and all who opposed it were heroes. Of course, seldom mentioned is the fact that most Russians retained their loyalty to the Czar and that none of the revolutionary regimes which succeeded the monarchy came about by the democratically expressed will of the people which the revolutionaries always claimed to champion. However, that is the situation and one group which had been particularly vilified, due to the fact that few to none were so zealous in their support of the Russian imperial monarchy, was the group of people who came to be known as the Black Hundreds. As usual, while the Black Hundreds have been vociferously demonized, at the same time most doing so have little to no understanding of who the Black Hundreds actually were, why they came into being and why they did the things they did.

In the first place, it is important to keep in mind that there was never a single organization known as “the Black Hundreds”. The name was applied to a number of separate organizations of various sorts that all held the same basic point of view. There was no official starting point for them, no single program and no centrally directed campaigns governing their actions. The Black Hundreds were reactionary in that they emerged in response to the increasing revolutionary activity in late Imperial Russia and they were conservative in that they sought to preserve the Russian Empire as it was which is exactly why so many others then, and particularly now, opposed it; because the Russian Empire did not fall in line with prevailing liberal world opinion being a staunchly Orthodox Christian absolute monarchy. The Black Hundreds looked at the turmoil, treason and violence that was becoming ever more commonplace in Russia, the national setbacks the country had suffered and, not surprisingly, yearned to go back to the example of Russia at its zenith of power under Czar Nicholas I. They endeavored to be the defenders of the three pillars that made up the motto of Czar Nicholas I, “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality”. Those are the things they defended and would fight for.

Contrary to what most believe, most of what the Black Hundreds did to further their cause was peaceful. They held special prayer meetings and Church services, organized lectures to educate the public on the sacred nature of the monarchy, the central role of the Church and the dangers posed by the revolutionaries. They held marches and demonstrations to show their loyalty to their Czar and to counter opposition rallies held by the revolutionary crowd. This is something that, while not being the whole story, is invariably ignored altogether but the fact is that the major of the activity of the Black Hundreds was completely non-violent and consisted of praying for their Czar and motherland and educating the populace on the importance of faith, loyalty and the Orthodox monarchy. However, there is also no denying the fact that there were those among the Black Hundreds who went further and not a few. This is the part that most historians talk about and are only too happy to relate. Anyone who has read anything about this period of Russian history will certainly have heard of the assortment of assassinations, violent demonstrations and pogroms in which the Black Hundreds were implicated. They are also usually quick to point out the support for the Black Hundreds that came from the Imperial Family when mentioning these.

There is no denying that such events took place, however, the context of these violent acts are invariably ignored completely. The Church services, patriotic demonstrations, newspaper publishing and educational campaigns are ignored entirely and all the focus is on killings, violent demonstrations and particularly the pogroms. However, these were, again, actions taken in response to the violence, acts of treason and murder taken by the revolutionaries. If one understands the desperate situation Russia found itself in, it should be no surprise that there would be those who determined to take a stand and to fight back against it. In terms of law enforcement, the government could do only so much. There was revolutionary infiltration of the police after all and even had their been no traitors or corruption in the police force, for an empire as vast as Russia with so huge a population there was only so much they could do. The authorities could not be everywhere at all times and the revolutionaries were very adept at covering for each other and manipulating the legal system to their own advantage. The Black Hundreds were motivated to action by the dangers afflicting their country and were not prepared to sit back and do nothing while their motherland, their Czar and their faith was under attack.

Several politicians, for example, who had shown themselves to be enemies of the monarchy, were assassinated by elements of the Black Hundreds. Regardless of what one thinks of such actions, the fact is that they paled in comparison to the number of assassinations carried out by the revolutionaries and their motivations were completely different. Acts of violence committed by the revolutionaries were done in an effort to derail the legitimate Russian government, to thwart actions to improve the country and to cause chaos and turmoil. The acts of violence committed by the Black Hundreds were done in an effort to destroy treasonous elements (who made no secret of their treason by the way but in fact gloried in their status as traitors) and to protect the Russian Empire as it existed and had always existed. When they found revolutionaries or people supporting what was essentially treason or anyone who threatened the Russian monarchy, Orthodoxy or the unity of the Russian Empire, they took action. The revolutionaries were not playing by the rules, as it were, so the Black Hundreds saw no reason why they should not respond in kind. If the revolutionaries were prepared to kill to destroy the Russian Empire, the Black Hundreds were willing to kill to protect it.

Another point that is often overlooked is that, while some Black Hundreds groups lasted until the Russian Revolution of 1917, most formed around 1905 and had ceased to be very relevant by 1907. During that time there were many acts of revolutionary violence and political assassinations by those trying to bring down the Russian Empire. During the Russo-Japanese War, increased stress on the national infrastructure caused strikes, riots and protests, the most infamous being “Bloody Sunday”. Enemies within Russia were very active and foreign elements were also on the offensive from outside with Japan providing funding for dissidents working to undermine and bring down the monarchy. The actions of the Black Hundreds, in short, did not spring up for no reason but were a reaction to very real and present threats against the Russian Empire and the Orthodox monarchy that was its foundation. Among the revolutionaries that the Black Hundreds took action against, a prominent element was the Jews and since the Black Hundreds have come to be so associated with anti-Semitism (which is still going on today), this has to be looked at.

There was, without question, plenty of anti-Semitism in the ranks of the Black Hundreds. The Jews were seized upon as a primary enemy, if not the primary enemy of everything that the Black Hundreds stood for. There is no denying that and it is clearly wrong to persecute anyone who was innocent of any crime. That is something pretty widely accepted. Just as important though, is to understand where this animosity came from and why it was not terribly surprising. There were certainly many Jews who were unjustly persecuted but there is also no denying the fact that the Jewish population was greatly overrepresented in the ranks of the revolutionary agitators. A disproportionate number of the revolutionaries plotting acts of terrorism to bring down the monarchy were, in fact, Jews. Given that, it is at least understandable why the defenders of the Russian monarchy would often take on an anti-Semitic mindset. Their fear and suspicion toward the Jews was not completely unwarranted. Plenty of Jews, in and outside of Russia, were enemies of the Russian Empire and made no secret of the fact. During the Russo-Japanese War for example, the Japanese war effort was bankrolled by a prominent German-American Jew named Jacob Schiff who loaned Japan huge amounts of money because he detested the way Jews were treated in Russia and hoped that a Japanese victory would destroy the Russian Empire.

Of course, when faced with enemies within from a minority group that was of a different race and different religion, some of whom had ties to foreign powers and supported anti-Russian elements at home and enemies of Russia abroad, it is no wonder that many in the Black Hundreds would become anti-Semitic and take it to extreme lengths. Unfortunately, this is far from uncommon. It often seems that the world is incapable of dealing with the Jews the same as any other people but only ever deals with them in an extreme way, blaming them for all the problems in the world one day and then not allowing any criticism of them at all the next. Even when groups such as the Black Hundreds had understandable reasons for being suspicious of the Jews, all too often this builds to absurd proportions so that we have the creation of a bogeyman which can still be seen among many today, something I have come to call “the magical Jew”. This is when anti-Semitism is taken to such lengths that people attribute super-human qualities to the Jews, as if they have magical powers to successfully deceive, dominate and exploit whole nations, which is all the more odd considering that those making such accusations often claim that the Jews are an inferior people to their own while at the same time claiming that these Jews are, by some “magic” able to completely dupe, outsmart and control entire countries full of people supposedly superior to themselves.

Such attitudes are, of course, completely absurd. In the case of the Black Hundreds, however, the villainy they attributed to the Jews was exaggerated but not totally unfounded. Their fears and suspicions were based on real threats and, as stated above, among those who were threatening the very existence of the Russian Empire, who were building bombs, assassinating royals and colluding with enemy nations, the Jews were disproportionately represented. How most of the Black Hundreds felt about the Jews is well known but what is less well known is why they felt that way. This was not blind hatred that came out of nowhere. Any enemy of the Russian monarchy was an enemy of the Black Hundreds and, unfortunately, many of the enemies of the Russian monarchy were Jews. It is unfortunate that some went too far with that but, given the context of when the Black Hundreds were at their peak, they were not something to be condemned. I certainly would not. It was a violent time and many tragic things happened but when their country and their Czar were being threatened, the Black Hundreds decided to do something about it, to take action and do whatever they could to defend that which was most precious to them and that is something I find laudable.

It was, however, a rather short-lived movement. Still, some groups of what had been the Black Hundreds remained to the end of the Russian Empire. It might surprise some to know that they were often the harshest critics of the White Russian faction. They were critical precisely because they were so loyal to the monarchy and while the Whites were certainly the “good guys” of the Russian Civil War, they were not all monarchists and for the Black Hundreds, absolute loyalty to the Czar and the Russian Orthodox faith were non-negotiable positions. Have these attitudes survived? It is hard for me to say. Recently, groups laying claim to the Black Hundreds legacy have reemerged over the turmoil in Ukraine, backing the position of Ukrainian re-union with Russia and blaming the current crisis on Jews in the Ukrainian government. How similar they are to the actual Black Hundreds of the past I cannot be certain. Were they so active in pushing for the full restoration of the monarchy in Russia rather than extension of the rule of the current Russian regime over Ukraine I would be more positive but I have yet to see that and remained concerned that, as has happened in other countries, the government may be winning monarchists over with gestures and promises while having no intention of ever actually doing anything to restore the monarchy. For that, the ultimate goal of the Black Hundreds of old, only time will tell.

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