Menachem Beilis 'Blood Libel' Case Gets a New Hearing

Revisits Notorious Tale of Prejudice in Ukraine

An Ancient Libel: The case of Menachem Beilis brings to mind a history of anti-Semitic myths and slurs.
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An Ancient Libel: The case of Menachem Beilis brings to mind a history of anti-Semitic myths and slurs.

By Sarah Weinman

Published February 17, 2014, issue of February 21, 2014.
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Attention focused on Vera Cheberyak, whose criminal control of gangs and outlandish personality seems to belong more in a noir novel than in real life. Plenty of evidence arose that she ordered Yuchinsky’s death, or at least had a hand in it, and she was even arrested for the murder. But after her release, improbably, she ended up in cahoots with the prosecution, whispering of conspiracy and ritual murder and Menachem Mendel Beilis in their willing ears.

The Yuchinsky murder also attracted the attention of Nikolai Krasovsky, once the acting chief of Kiev’s criminal investigation division and, based on Levin’s description, prime material for a book of his own. Krasovsky was once “celebrated as the Sherlock Holmes who solved Kiev’s most sensational crime” of the multiple stabbings of a middle-aged couple and three acquaintances, who had “fair mastery of forensic science” “great powers of observation” and was a “master of interrogation.” But deductive reasoning would provide little balm for Krasovsky, who went with government-ordered reluctance to work on the Yuchinsky case, only to be undone by his own blind spots. Still, as Levin demonstrates, the level of reputation ruination heaped upon Krasovsky, whose insistence on independent, if wrong-headed, investigation caused angry higher-ups to trump up corruption charges again him, is another example of shocking overkill and incompetence.

There are so many appalling moments in “A Child of Christian Blood” that it’s difficult to list just a few: the slow-on-the-uptake American Jewish response; the cynicism of government officials like Ivan Shcheglovitov, the minister of justice, peddling ritual murder for political gain; and the structure of Russian trials, where witnesses can accuse each other on the stand, which led to dramatic fireworks involving Cheberyak undone by her constant lying.

The only balm to the persisting outrage of the Beilis case is the number of advocates he had, even though, during his years-long wait for a trial in jail, Beilis himself was never fully aware his supporters. From Nikolai Karabchevsky, drafted by the defense team to display the Clarence Darrow-esque prowess that made him famous in Russia, to Vladimir D. Nabokov (the author’s father), whose pro-Beilis column at the beginning of the trial helped sway public opinion, to writers like Arthur Conan Doyle and H.G. Wells willing to speak out on the international stage, Beilis was not completely alone, even if, post-trial, he could never really adjust to life in Palestine first, and then in America.

Just when one might be overcome with the many turns of the story, Levin recapitulates an intriguing theory, based on a paper published in the 1990s, explaining who might have been responsible for Yuchinsky’s death. The plausibility and simplicity of this theory makes further mockery of the horrible pageantry of the Beilis case, underscoring the sense of doom that everyone got it wrong.

The Beilis story, were it fiction, would be accused of having too much plot and less than believable characters. But because it is true, Levin’s main task is to keep up with the intrigue and present it in such a way that the reader never loses sight of the overall impact. He does so splendidly, albeit with a hole missing at the center of the story: why the Czarist regime needed Beilis as a scapegoat.

While it may not be possible to have a Grand Unified Theory of the Beilis case, perhaps the rising fears of the fin de siècle — which would come to pass with the 1917 Revolution and the Romanov family’s execution the following year — more than suffice as motive. If so, then Levin has also shown us our dark future, how latter-day belief cultures that value fear over reason, intuition over deduction, and virality over skepticism could produce yet more outrageous outcomes for innocent people.

Sarah Weinman is the editor of “Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense.”

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