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The Velizh Affair

Blood Libel in a Russian Town

Eugene M. Avrutin

Publication Date - April 2022

ISBN: 9780197645338

248 pages
6 1/8 x 9 1/4 inches

In Stock


On April 22, 1823, a three-year-old boy named Fedor finished his lunch and went to play outside. Fedor never returned home from his walk. Several days later, a neighbor found his mutilated body drained of blood and repeatedly pierced. In small market towns, where houses were clustered together, residents knew each other on intimate terms, and people gossiped in taverns, courtyards, and streets, even the most trivial bits of news spread like wildfire. It did not take long before rumors began to emerge that Jews murdered the little boy.

The Velizh Affair reconstructs the lives of Jews and their Christian neighbors caught up in the aftermath of this chilling criminal act. The investigation into Fedor's death resulted in the charging of forty-three Jews with ritual murder, theft and desecration of church property, and the forcible conversion of three town residents. Drawing on an astonishing number of newly discovered trial records, historian Eugene M. Avrutin explores the multiple factors that not only caused fear and conflict in everyday life, but also the social and cultural worlds of a multiethnic population that had coexisted for hundreds of years.

This beautifully crafted book provides an intimate glimpse into small-town life in eastern Europe. The case unfolded in a town like any other town in the Russian Empire where lives were closely interwoven, where rivalries and confrontations were part of day-to-day existence, and where the blood libel was part of a well-established belief system.


  • The first account of the longest ritual murder investigation in the modern world
  • A new explanation of ritual murder accusations, emphasizing the power of a shared belief in magic and the supernatural in the dissemination of the tale
  • Exploration of one of the most fundamental contradictions of Jewish life in the Russian Empire: that, no matter how widespread ritual murder beliefs may have been, the largest Jewish community in the world continued to feel rooted and secure in its place of residence
  • A well-crafted microhistory of small-town lives that draws on discovered trial records

About the Author(s)

Eugene M. Avrutin is the Tobor Family Endowed Professor of Modern European Jewish History at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. His books include Jews and the Imperial State: Identification Politics in Tsarist Russia and Racism in Modern Russia: From the Romanovs to Putin. He is also the co-editor of Pogroms: A Documentary History.


"The Velizh case undoubtedly deserves this rich and detailed analysis. Avrutin inte-grates this Russian instance of a blood libel in the long trajectory of such accusations and defines its specific character with great expertise. The reader will gratefully acknowledge the outstanding amount of research that went into this volume. It will be of interest to an academic audience interested in Russian, legal, and administrative history and to those members of the general public with a keen interest in Jewish history in eastern Europe, and in the history of anti-Jewish prejudice." -- François Guesnet, Journal of Modern History

"The Velizh Affair is a noteworthy example of microhistory that sheds light onto broader issues of the history of Nicholaevan Russia and its Jewish past, paradoxically both reinforcing and challenging common stereotypes about this expansive state, its bureaucracy, and its culture." -- Magda Teter, Fordham University, Slavic Review's

"Avrutin carefully and systematically relates Russian criminal investigations to those practiced in contemporary Europe, specifically, on the centrality of interrogations, including 'enhanced interrogations,' confrontations between those accused and their accusers and ultimately the particulars of incarceration while the inquiry was in process. He makes excellent use of a wide-range of recent scholarly publications on each of these points as he delineates the official boundaries placed upon the prosecutor and those accused in a system in which there were neither lawyers nor juries....Avrutin opens a window not only into the practice of Russian justice under Nicholas I, he also documents the regime's approach to what it saw as deviant religious practices as it affirmed the widely held popular belief in the reality of Jewish ritual murder. Avrutin is to be commended for his careful, insightful, and truly impressive work."--Alexander Orbach, The Russian Review

"[A] devastating and evocative tale of magic and everyday life in small town Russia....To conjure up this belief system and the power it exerted as vividly and persuasively as Eugene Avrutin does is no mean feat of historical imagination."--Abigail Green, Times Literary Supplement

"[A] scholarly work that reads as a riveting novel"--Southern Jewish Life

"Meticulously researched, fluently written, and thoughtfully argued. The Velizh Affair explores one of Imperial Russia's most fascinating, troubling, indeed infuriating legal cases: an accusation of Jewish 'ritual murder' that seemed to have been adjudicated in a year but, instead, dragged on for another eleven, during which time more than forty Jews were imprisoned and the deep fissures in the Russian-Jewish relationship laid bare."--Hillel J. Kieval, Washington University in St. Louis

"A refreshingly original work of scholarship that draws on previously inaccessible Russian archival material in the telling of a gripping, gruesome story. Avrutin shows himself to be among the finest modern Jewish social historians of his generation."--Steven J. Zipperstein, Stanford University

"During the reign of Tsar Nicholas I, just a decade after Napoleon's ill-starred march on Moscow, the grisly murder of a boy in the Russian town of Velizh brought forth portentous accusations that the Jews had committed blood libel. Based on a remarkably rich, long-ignored source, Eugene Avrutin reconstructs the murder case with great sensitivity, erudition, and a feel for the temper of the time. Piecing together the everyday life of the town, the belief systems that fueled the accusations, and the dynamic between local rivalries and outside politics that made the Velizh Affair history's longest running blood libel accusation, Avrutin offers a compelling explanation, rendered in clear, elegant prose, for how such allegations--otherwise so similar to witchcraft accusations--survived and even flourished in the modern world."--Helmut Walser Smith, author of The Butcher's Tale: Murder and Anti-Semitism in a German Town

Table of Contents



    Chapter 1: Fedor Goes for a Walk
    Chapter 2: Small-Town Life
    Chapter 3: Tsar Alexander Pays a Visit
    Chapter 4: The Confrontations
    Chapter 5: Grievances
    Chapter 6: The Investigation Widens
    Chapter 7: Boundaries of the Law

    Appendix: Jewish prisoners held in the town of Velizh