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.