Downton Abbey and the Odessa pogroms

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I really wish that someone would teach Julian Fellowes something about Russia. In October 12th’s episode, Downton Abbey’s characters, both Russian and British, repeatedly referred to a female Russian “off-stage” character by the masculine version of her surname. Surely Mr Fellowes should not be writing about Russians at all if he doesn’t know something as simple about Russian culture as the fact that Russian surnames take masculine and feminine forms? Not impressed.

In last night’s episode, things got even worse. Lady Rose met a handsome young man, a banker whose father had recently been given a title, who mentioned that he had Russian ancestry. It transpired that his family had been forced to leave Odessa due to the pogroms of 1859 and 1871. Odessa (or Odesa) is actually in Ukraine, but that’s not really all that relevant: many people there even now self-identify as Russians. What is relevant is the fact that the Odessa pogroms of 1859 and 1871 were, whilst shocking and inexcusable, fairly minor incidents, more about economic rivalry than anything else, and perpetrated largely by the local Greek population rather than any sort of Russian/Ukrainian authorities or organised mobs.

“Pogroms” as they are usually understood really began after the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 and the passing of the anti-Jewish May Laws in 1882. Incidentally, most of them were in Ukraine, Poland and Moldova, not, as many people seem to think, in Russia. Fiddler on the Roof’s set in Ukraine rather than Russia, but many people don’t seem to realise that either. There wasn’t a major pogrom in Odessa until 1905, at which there was a major wave of pogroms sweeping across the Russian Empire. If you want to write about pogroms in Odessa, write about what happened in 1905. It was perhaps particularly horrific because Odessa was such a “Jewish” city – it had long been so, and really it continued to be so until the 1940s.

Furthermore, Odessa, although it does perhaps get rather stereotyped, was famous for being radical, revolutionary, and a bit dodgy. In some ways it was a bit of a Wild West place in the second half of the nineteenth century, attracting all sorts of runaways and other slightly shady types. Having said which, it did have a substantial middle class as well. Some of the Jewish population of Odessa did leave in the 1880s, and I suppose some may have left after the much more minor incidents of 1859 and 1871, and some of those families may have, within two generations, got to the stage where they were naming their sons Atticus, talking in posh voices, buying stately homes and being given titles, but I don’t think Julian Fellowes really did his research very well here.

It’s very laudable that he wanted to show how much Rose’s friend’s family had achieved in so short a time, and how Lady Rose herself was pleasantly lacking in religious prejudice, but he really might have picked somewhere other than Odessa! It would have worked much better if Atticus Aldridge’s family had left Warsaw or Vilnius following the Russian crackdown on both Jews and Catholics after the Polish-Lithuanian Uprising of 1863-4. Historically, that would have made a far more likely tale.

41 thoughts on “Downton Abbey and the Odessa pogroms

  1. Celina Perez

    I appreciate your perspective. As soon as the episode was over I popped online and attempted to find something connected with those dead and found your post. I don’t necessarily find it completely necessary to have exact historical facts in a made for tv drama, but I do appreciate trying to figure it out on my own. Thanks again!

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      • William Weiswasser

        Dear Ms. Perez,
        You replied to Ms. Louie DeRose’s comment in regard to her “perspective.” She did not express her “perspective”; she expressed FACTS that undermined the historical veracity of the Downtown episode in question.
        You state that you “don’t necessarily find it completely necessary to have exact historical facts in a made for tv drama.” Are you looking for mere fantasy? If so, why not watch a cartoon made for children?
        Historical drama [emphasis on HISTORICAL] has a duty to BE historical in order to have any validity in providing adults a human perspective on the past.
        If, in your words, “exact historical facts” are not important to you, why not have pre-WWI people using computers and cell phones? It would make things so much more accessible to today’s historically ignorant viewers.

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  2. Sena

    Here’s my question about the episode: Why does the one Russian guy get so angry when he discovers the truth about Atticus? He storms off and the other, long-haired one follows him calling “Nicholi”. Does that make sense? I don’t understand why he stormed off.

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      • William

        Yes, PLUS the historical fact that Russia was [and to only a slightly lesser extent remains] very anti-Semitic. Notice in the scene that the displaced Russian aristocrat denounces Atticus [and his family] as “not Russian!!” because he infers from when the family left that they are Jewish. It was not any implied political involvement in the Russian Revolution that took place generations AFTER the family left but the mere fact of being Jewish that sufficed for the aristocratic bigot to explode in fury.
        The Atticus character explained to Lady Rose that his family was Jewish, but that did not suffice for the questioner to understand the obvious point. The reason is that many (most?) professed Christians have no knowledge of the deep history of anti-Semitism that has been practiced and promoted by so many of their churches and co-religionists. It was only c. 30 years ago that Pope John Paul II declared, contrary to centuries of Vatican teaching, that Jews are not in fact responsible for the death of Jesus.
        Anti-Semitism, sadly, is alive, well, and growing. Having a scapegoat to blame for problems is important for many people.

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  3. Feminizing Russian names has no direct English use, we are just as well off to ignore them.
    It sounds like your definition of a pogrom is different from a Jewish immigrant, or Russian might think, if the violence is similar, and one is a victim, it is reasonable to call a spade a spade, or an anti Jewish uprising a pogrom.

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    • Yes, but the early attacks in Odessa didn’t lead to widespread emigration, which was what the programme was suggesting, and it’s incorrect to use the wrong form of someone’s name – you wouldn’t call Maria Sharapova “Maria Sharapov”, for example. Thanks for your interest :-).

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    • William Weiswasser

      Jim,
      People who have zero interest in history and in accuracy might be “just as well off to ignore” errors and inaccuracies, but ostensibly good quality historical dramas should not be dumbed-down to accommodate the least informed of the viewers. They are little interested in truth and will usually be sufficiently coddled by the garbage that fills most of commercial TV.

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      • To be fair, Downton Abbey was a lot more accurate than some historical dramas – that horrendous programme on the Tudors which combined Henry VIII’s sisters as one person because they thought viewers might get confused about him having two sisters (why??) springs to mind!

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  4. Leis Tabb

    Living in the states, I was only able to watch this episode this week, having recorded it as I was out of town. I found the oblique reference very appropriate in the setting. Having the character refer to the 1859 and 1871 programs was more fitting to having his family being accepted into British society. The proximity of the 1859 event to the Crimean War is appropriate as well as that was a British war.

    I agree that Lady Rose’s lack of Concern for his ancestry refreshing, but she had been overseas for years so was probably less rigid than many in the times. In all, this reference to a series of prejudicial events, where they wer anti-Semitic or not as one poster references, is an important historical connection. Education makes us all better informed and better able to make judgments and decisions.

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    • William

      The “events” of 1859 and 1871 in Odessa were pogroms, not “programs” and they were, murderously, far from unique.
      Vicious anti-Semitism was hardly limited to the Russian and British empires. Inform yourself about the infamous Dreyfus Affair in late 19th century France as only one of very many examples.

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      • Lewis Tabb

        it is interesting that you waited 6 months to reply to this post. Spell check on the iPad changed pograms to programs. Although I am Christian, I am quite familiar with history as it applies to Jews and other religious or ethnic groups. In my opinion, the fact that the program (Downton Abbey, not the pogrom) brings in a Jewish character of high standing for the times is refreshing. It is important that history as it actually happened, not as the published history books are written, appears in widespread media as it is much more likely that people will absorb the material.

        No one who is educated denies that history is full of discrimination against groups that are different, especially if they are successful. I am quite familiar with the Dreyfus Affair as well as the Sacco-Venzetti scandal in the US 20 years later. Today is the 20th anniversary of the Serbian genocide of the Bosnian Muslims in Bosnia. My point is that many groups have suffered discrimination and persecution, BUT the depiction of Atticus in the show in a positive way is laudatory. And it reflects a bit of history that most viewers had no prior knowledge of.

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      • William

        Thank you, LT, for your reply.
        For information, the reason I did not write sooner is that I did not see the episode in question until less than 24 hours ago. I had recorded it and simply did not get around to it until then.

        I agree in general with your comments but with a real caution. While the quality of Downton Abbey is certainly higher than the average fare on the mass media, the general level of ignorance of history is such that many people are easily manipulated into believing serious distortions. While astute viewers will read between the lines and understand more, e.g., from Miss Bunting than her words alone express, the fact remains that not all are astute and for some a presentation like Downton is merely quaint but not instructive. One of the great strengths of a series like Downton, with its generally high standards, is that it humanizes and fleshes out history that some otherwise find dry and opaque. If, as the old cliché goes, a picture is worth a thousand words then a well done drama is worth far more. That can be so, at least for those who are open to experiencing such drama as more than mere entertainment.

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  5. A very interesting discussion, and one I came for to this site: I too was curious about the historical references to pogroms in Odessa, even more so because a relatively obscure novel, “Ali and Nino” that uses my first name for the girl rather than for the boy was written by a Jew from Odessa. The fine distinction between Odessa being in Russia or Ukraine is, it seems to me, less relevant to the historical reference than the question: could a Jew make it in the England of the time from immigrant to nobility in a few generations? Are there examples that Mr. Fellowes could make a composite character from? Not knowing English history I would not know any, but making it as an immigrant to the top of the heap sounds more believable if it had referred to the United States. Presumably Lady Crowley’s ancestors came from Germany to the us in the early 1800s rather than from Russia (or what is now Ukraine, Poland, Belarus, Moldova or what have you) in the 1900s…

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    • Lewis Tabb

      Well before this was set, Benjamin Disraeli had been prime minister of England in the late 1800s. Disraeli was a founder of the Conservative Party and was Jewish. I believe he was of some noble ancestry, but nonetheless, a Jewish leader in any western country at the time was remarkable. In the 50 – 70 years between the programs and the setting in this season, much change had come over England and the U.S. not the least of which was WWI and the founding of the Zionist movement. Although unusual, the family’s ascendancy to prominence was not unprecedented.

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      • I’m not aware that Disraeli had noble ancestry, although he may have done. His family were originally Jewish, although they converted to the Church of England after his father fell out with some synagogue leaders – and, as you say, he became Prime Minister. He was made an earl and was a very close friend of Queen Victoria. The Rothschilds are another well-known example. I think it says a lot of positive things about Britain and America that there was this tolerance of minority religions :-). Thanks for your interest!

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      • Nino Pereira

        My point was not so much that England would lack prominent Jews, but that it seemed unlikely for an immigrant, and an Ashkenazi Jew at that, to make it there in a mere two or three generations. At the time there were relatively few Jews in England, most of them from the Sephardic side (as indeed is my own anchestry); this vague impression, from stories like that of Maria Nunez, were revived by looking up ‘Synagogues in London’, bringing up hits as http://www.centralsynagogue.org.uk/about-us/ and http://bevismarks.org.uk/.

        Quite apart from these quibbles, I found the Jewish angle in Downton Abbey an interesting and even somewhat refreshing sideline to the main story. It could have been done too through Lady Edith’s association with intellectuals in her new job as a publisher, but doing it through Rose’s modern view on things works equally well.

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      • This series of Downton Abbey’s set in the 1920s, and there was a small wave of Ashkenazi immigration into Britain after the Polish-Lithuanian uprising of 1863-4, and then a much bigger wave after the introduction of the May Laws in the 1880s, increasingly so after the 1905 revolution set off a wave of horrific pogroms, so there was quite a large Jewish population here by the 1920s. However, as you say, very few of the people coming here at that time, most of whom would’ve come to Britain with very little money, would’ve “made it” socially or economically by the 1920s, and earlier immigration into Britain was mainly Sephardic, mainly from Amsterdam which developed close ties to London after William of Orange became King of England as well as Stadtholder of the United Provinces, and, even in the 1920s, most of the more prominent British Jews, those who’d have had links to high society were of Sephardi descent, so it probably would have been more realistic to have made Rose’s husband someone from a Sephardi family.

        It is an interesting sideline, isn’t it? Not something that’s usually addressed in these sorts of period dramas.

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      • William

        To refer to “pogroms” as “programs” is offensive to Clio, the mythological muse of history. Facts and accuracy do matter.
        Before imagining that by the 1920’s England and the U.S. had matured into tolerant societies one should study the English fascist Oswald Mosley (supporter of the German Nazis) and the KKK who openly marched in great numbers even in the U.S. North.
        We are far from true tolerance. Suffice it to see how only days ago apologists of human slavery objected fiercely to the removal of the racist Confederate flag from the buildings of government that are supposed to represent all in society.

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      • William

        Tolerance of minority religions in England? What a fanciful idea. Disraeli was born in 1804 and his father had him baptized a Christian in 1817. It was not until 1858 that Jews were permitted to be members of Parliament.
        Had Disraeli not been converted to the dominant, intolerant majority religion in England he would not have been permitted to seek a seat in Parliament until he was 54 years old.
        Members of dominant groups love to tell themselves that their dominance is benign.

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    • By the 20th century, yes – there were several Jewish families with titles by then, and Edward VII (ruled 1901-1910) in particular had close friends who were Jewish. The Rothschilds are probably the best known example. We haven’t been told much about Lady Crawley’s family, but I suppose if they’d moved to the US from Eastern Europe after the Polish-Lithuanian rebellion of 1863-4, rather than when the pogroms started in the 1880s, theymight have had time to “make it” to the top by the late 19th century. Thanks for your interest :-).

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  6. Chris Deeley

    All very interesting. Disraeli claimed noble descent through his father, which was incorrect. However, his mother could trace here ancestry back to the time of the Roman empire. Oliver Cromwell facilitated the movement of Jews from Amsterdam to London in 1656. Some of my ancestors were amongst them – the Cardozo and Navarro families. The former did quite well in the tobacco trade of East London. Most left the Jewish congregation in favour of Christianity or agnosticism. Some acquired coats of arms and became quite wealthy. Some emigrated to New York in 1756 where they became part of an elite Jewish sect (also in Newport, Rhode Island – long before Mrs Astor and her “400”). Other Jewish families also did well financially and were able to integrate themselves into English society within three generations. Note that the character in Downton Abbey is Jewish, but may not have been a practicing Jew. He may even have been baptised as a Christian (as many were).

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    • I think the Downton Abbey character is meant to be a practising Jew, if not a particularly religious one, but, yes, a lot of successful Jewish immigrants to Britain did convert to Anglicanism, in the days when being Jewish, Catholic or even Nonconformist didn’t go down very well with the “Establishment”. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the next Downton series :-).

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      • William

        It is far more than generous to state that not being Anglican “didn’t go down well with the ‘Establishment.’ ” Accommodating to an assertive religious majority has often been necessary to keep one’s head above water, to understate it greatly.

        That is hardly limited either to the past or to the UK. Look at today’s governors in the states of South Carolina and Louisiana, both descendants of immigrants from India. Raised where they were, converting to the locally dominant form of majority Christianity played an important part in their being accepted by the local society. And look how ballistic some professed American Christians go at the mere thought that their president could be anything other than their co-religionist. Although some of them finally understood that publicly attacking a politician’s race is unacceptable they remain proud to attack his supposed (even though unproven) religion. While the U.S. has finally elected a non-white as president and will likely soon elect a woman, there remain great numbers of professed Christians in my native land who would never dream of voting for anyone who had the audacity to acknowledge following a different belief.

        And do remember the startled reaction of Maggie Smith’s character on learning that Lady Rose’s new beau was Jewish: “there is always a problem!”

        Bigotry, alas, remains in style for many.

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  7. Thank you. I, too, turned to Google for more information. Since I first watched the “Russia’ episodes last year (and basically, made no connection), I have done some intermittent research regarding my mother’s family–Witt, and my father’s family–Trautman. I do have a copy of an old genealogy on the Trautman family and from that learned that the family had been forced out of Russia after having been brought in by Queen Katherine with settlement offers. My source indicated that the settlers were industrious, super organized and clean, and engendered envy. Also notable was that Queen Katherine’s deal excluded service in the armed forces–more envy. I had been most confused because my family identification was both immigration from Russia–but also identification was German. I did some research and did not learn anything about Jews. Since the family genealogy does not use the word Pogrom but I certainly knew the word and general historical significance, I wondered if my family had once been Jewish. By serendipity I was led a few months ago to Timothy Egan’s prize winning book, “The Worst Hard Time,” about the destructive settlement of the Oklahoma–Texas panhandle. Therein I learned that the settlers referred to themselves as German Russians.

    I have just finished my third book by Mr. Egan (also a writer for The New York Times) and have the fourth awaiting on my bookshelves. The people he described were those who took advantage of free land and were encouraged to farm land that should never have been farmed, resulting, in part. in the Dust Bowl. All his books are about American ecology and damage to the environment; his genius is in describing the harm done to people in the name of progress and often big business. it is not often that I read non-fiction and become teary-eyed.

    I will summarize by noting that the subject of Jews never appeared in this book. While I now live in West Texas, my own geography is Nebraska, Oregon, Illinois, and finally Texas. My mother’s and father’s families settled in the Sandhills of Nebraska–“My Antonia” country. While none of my family lived in the Panhandle, their distress during settlement and the Great Depression/Dust Bowl is palpable to me. Of course, the plight of immigrants driven from their homes is everywhere in the news and has a particular poignancy for those of us who have not forgotten where we came from.

    I am thanking you because you have provided another puzzle piece regarding my family. Clearly, my research can be described as haphazard at best, but pieces keep dropping into that puzzle.

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    • Glad to have been of help! A lot of Germans were invited into Russia during Catherine the Great’s reign, to settle the areas in the south which Russia was expanding into – the “Volga Germans” are particularly well-known, but there were other groups too. Those who were still there during the Second World War were expelled, others left earlier. I know that a lot went to the Canadian prairies, some to the USA, and some to South America. There’s a trilogy of books called “The Volga Germans”, by Sigrid Weidenweber, about German Russians, if that’s of any interest to you?

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      • Nino R. Pereira

        I don’t know if the presence of the Mennonites has already been mentioned in this context. They may well be seen as part of the Volga Germans, but if they were part of a much larger German contingent that went to Russia back then, they should be acknowledged as having a special interest in the exclusion from military service. Googling for ‘Mennonites Russia’ brings up many web sites with detailed information.

        After the second World War many of them left, to re-start their lives in agricultural communities where land was still cheap: Paraguay, Mexico, Canada, and, as I just found out, also Kansas.

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  8. Colonel Gregory Pischea USMC Ret.

    GREGORYE PEACHEY / US of British blood lines
    It has been a great pleasure reading the many inputs on this topic from season 5 of Downton Abbey. Thank you all for your insightful information.
    My family came to America in the early 1700’s from Sussex, where my ancestors (great etc. was Barron William Peachey. I’m 69 and the end of the family name with no sons to follow the name..

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  9. Louise DeRose

    To all, going on and on – for this particular TV drama I say ho hum… for the very few minutes it was part of the show it doesn’t really matter. For history buffs it’s another story.

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      • William

        No, you are not a “fussy history buff.” You care about historical truth. Those who do not are voluntary dupes.
        Also, you do not “appreciate” that “most people” aren’t; you acknowledge that most people aren’t. There is a difference.
        Acquiescence in the lowering of academic, journalistic, and intellectual standards supports mediocrity.

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    • William

      Ms. DeRose,
      To make your comment honest you should not dismiss [and insult] those who care about historical accuracy as mere “history buffs.”
      Your not doing so demonstrates you to be a person who has zero interest in truth. If you don’t care about historical truth, how can you pretend to care about present-day truth?

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    • Some people watch the programme for entertainment, some of us get stressed 🙂 over accuracy – each to their own! Thank you for commenting – it’s always nice to know that someone’s reading my waffling!

      Like

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