I must have a weakness for books about Ukraine. From Andrey Kurkov’s novel Death and the Penguin to Askold Krushnelnycky’s An Orange Revolution: A Personal Journey Through Ukrainian History to Tim Judah’s In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine I’ve featured a number of these books on my blog. Succumbing to my weakness for books about Europe’s second largest country I borrowed through Overdrive a copy of Edmund Levin’s 2014 book A Child of Christian Blood: Murder and Conspiracy in Tsarist Russia: The Beilis Blood Libel.
A Child of Christian Blood is the tragic story of Mendel Beilis. A non-practicing Jew, father of five, and clerk at a Kiev brick factory lived an uneventful life until a young neighbor boy was found murdered. Like something out of Kafka’s The Trial, a few months later without a shred of evidence Beilis was sent to prison for two years (under Russian law, a prisoner had no right to legal counsel until he was charged) before being formally charged with blood libel, the impossible crime of killing a Christian boy by draining his blood for the purpose of making Passover matzos.
Unfortunately for Beilis, the deck was horribly stacked against him. According to Levin, the reactionary and rather dim-witted Tsar Nicholas II was a notorious anti-semite, who saw Beilis’s trial as the perfect opportunity to bolster his decrepid monarchy by scapegoating the country’s Jews. In hopes of pleasing the Tsar the Empire’s resources were marshalled against Beilis. Promises were made should Beilis be found guilty judge and prosecution alike would receive generous promotions. An array of “expert witnesses” (one of which, Alexeevich Sikorsky was the father of aviation pioneer Igor Sikorsky) were enlisted to testify blood libel was practiced by Russia’s Jews and therefore Beilis was the murderer. Tsarist officials selected a jury composed solely of rural residents, fearing one made up of educated, Kiev urbanites would likely vote for acquittal.
To risk sounding alarmist I saw a few similarities between Tsarist Russian and today’s America. The societies of early 20th century Imperial Russian and Ukraine were starkly divided between conservatives and liberals, much like that of early 21 century America. Today in our country we see a divided media with right wing cable news, websites and talk radio promoting conservative views while print media and politicized late night talk shows lean liberal. A hundred years ago the only news media Russia and Ukraine had were newspapers but those too were a cacochany of conservative and liberal voices. (Covering the Beilis trial for one liberal Russian newspaper was Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov, father of Lolita author Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov.) But probably my most disturbing takeaway from A Child of Christian Blood was seeing just how many ambitious officials bought into the Tsar’s antisemitc agenda in hopes of advancing their careers. Like the Sarah Sanders Huckabees of the world who parrot Trump’s lies they forget whenever autocrats are dethroned their toadies fall with them.