Beckman Fellow 2012-13

Eugene Avrutin


The Velizh Affair: Ritual Murder in a Russian Border Town

Now largely forgotten, the Velizh affair (1823-1835) resulted in the longest and one of the most comprehensive investigations of ritual murder in the modern world. Drawing on newly discovered archival papers, Professor Avrutin reconstructs the social universe of a multiethnic border town in the Russian Empire, exploring along the way neighborly encounters, law and daily life, and the complex motivations resulting in the ritual murder charge.

Among the central goals of his book-length project is to offer a satisfactory explanation for why almost the entire Christian population in Velizh asserted that Jews were capable of committing ritual murder. Was this some sort of conspiracy? Did the townspeople harbor resentment that was brought out in the open at the time of the investigation? Or were other forces at work?

In Russia, ritual murder allegations never materialized in a full-blown panic along the lines of the early modern witch-hunts in France or Germany. But their appearance and reappearance in the small towns along the western borderlands, where Jews constituted a highly visible part of the population, suggests that a well-established oral culture—fueled by the circulation of stories, rumors, and gossip—helped legitimize the narrative. While scholars usually attribute the ritual murder charge to antisemitism and economic rivalries, Professor Avrutin offers an alternative explanation. By recreating the day-to-day world of Velizh, Professor Avrutin argues that tales of blood sacrifice proved remarkably contagious in the towns and villages of Eastern Europe because of their role in popular belief systems of the time and their ability to express the fears and preoccupations of a population that left no other written records.