David Marshak's Facebook profile 1772To1881
Jews in Russia 1772 To 1881

The Jews who lived in the regions annexed by Russia (the "Western Region" and the "Vistula Region" in the terms of the Russian administration) formed a distinct social class. In continuation of their economic functions in Poland-Lithuania, they essentially formed the middle class between the aristocracy and the landowners on the one hand, and the masses of enslaved peasants on the other. Many of them earned their livelihood from the lease of villages, flour mills, forests, inns, and taverns. Others were merchants, shopkeepers, or hawkers. The remainder were craftsmen who worked for both landowner and peasant. Some of them lived in townlets which had mostly been founded on the initiative of the landowners and served as centers for the merchants and the craftsmen, while others lived in villages or at junctions of routes.

The economic position of the Jews steadily deteriorated with their confinement to the Pale of Settlement, their rapid growth in numbers, and consequent gradual proletarianization and increasing pauperization. The autonomy of the Jewish community was at first recognized. The Jews maintained their traditional educational network.

When they came under Russian rule, many of the communities had become heavily in debt. Economic difficulties, the burden of taxes—in particular the meat tax —and social tensions drove many Jews to abandon the townlets and settle in villages or on the estates of noblemen. During the period of their transfer to Russian domination, the Jews of the "Western Region" were involved in a grave conflict between the Hasidim and the Mitnaggedim. Once the Russian government gained control of this region, it became involved in this conflict. Complaints and slander even resulted in the arrest of Shneur Zalman of Lyady in 1798 and his transfer to St. Petersburg for interrogation. The various hasidic "courts" (the most important of which were those of Lubavichi-Lyady, Stolin, Talnoye, Gora-Kalwaria, Aleksandrow), as well as the yeshivot of the Mitnaggedic-type in Lithuania (the most important in the townlets of Volozhin, founded in 1803, Mir, Telz (Telsiai), Eishishki (Eisiskes), and Slobodka; combined to form a flourishing and variegated Jewish culture.

Russian Policy Towards the Jews

From the beginning of its annexation of the Polish territories the Russian government adopted the attitude of viewing the Jews there as the "Jewish Problem," to be solved ultimately by their assimilation or expulsion. During the first 50 years after incorporation within the borders of the empire, the general tendency of the government was to maintain the status of the Jews as it had been under Polish rule, while adapting it to the Russian requirements. A decree of 1791 confirmed the right of residence of the Jews in the territories annexed from Poland and permitted their settlement in the uninhabited steppes of the Black Sea shore, conquered from Turkey at the close of the 18th century, and in the provinces to the east of the R. Dnieper (Chernigov and Poltava) only. Thus crystallized the Pale of Settlement, which took its final form with the annexation of Bessarabia in 1812, and the "Kingdom of Poland" in 1815, extending from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and including 25 provinces with an area of nearly 1,000,000 sq. km. (286,000 sq. mi.). The Jews formed one ninth of the total population of the area. Jewish residence was also authorized in Courland and, at a later date, in the Caucasus and Russian Central Asia to Jews who had lived in these regions before the Russian conquest.

In the regions annexed from Poland, the Jews were caught up in the dilemma facing czarist rule there. The regime, whose power rested on the nobility, refrained from throwing the responsibility for the miserable plight of the mainly Orthodox peasants onto the Christian landowners, mainly of the Polish Catholic nobility, preferring to blame the Jews in the villages; it accepted the claim of the local nobility and officials allied to it that the Jews were causing the exploitation of the peasants. The Jewish autonomy and independent culture added to this antagonism, as being alien to the Russian centralist regime and Christian-feudal culture.

These concerns animated the first "Jewish Statute" promulgated in 1804. Its first article authorized the admission of the Jews to all the elementary, secondary, and higher schools in Russia. Jews were also authorized to establish their own schools, provided that the language of instruction was Russian, Polish, or German. The most important of the economic articles of the statute was the prohibition of the residence of Jews in the villages, of all leasing activity in the villages, and of the sale of alcoholic beverages to the peasants. This struck at the source of livelihood of thousands of Jewish families. The legislation therefore declared that Jews would be allowed to settle as peasants on their lands or on the lands which would be allocated to them by the government. Government support was also promised to factories which would employ Jewish workers and to craftsmen.

In 1817 Alexander I outlawed the blood libel which had caused terror and suffering to the Jewish communities in the 18th century.

A short while after the publication of the "Jewish Statute," the expulsion of the Jews from the villages began, as did their settlement in southern Russia. It was however soon evident that agricultural settlement could not rapidly absorb the thousands of Jewish families who had been removed from their livelihoods. The expulsion order was therefore delayed, this being also due to the political and military situation in Russia during the war against Napoleon. Only in 1822 was the systematic expulsion of the Jews from the villages, especially in the provinces of Belorussia, resumed. An unsuccessful attempt was also made to induce the Jews to convert to Christianity by promises of emancipation and government support for their settlement on the land.

Under Nicholas I

The reign of Nicholas I (1825–55) forms a somber chapter in the history of Russian Jewry. This czar, notorious in Russian history for his cruelty, sought to solve the "Jewish Problem" by suppression and coercion. In 1827 he ordered the conscription of Jewish youths into the army under the iniquitous Cantonists system which conscripted youths aged from 12 to 25 years into military service; those aged under 18 were sent to special military schools also attended by the children of soldiers. This law caused profound demoralization within the communities of Lithuania and the Ukraine (it did not apply to the Jews of the "Polish" provinces). Nobody wished to serve in the army in the prevailing inhuman conditions and the "trustees" responsible on behalf of the communities for filling the quotas of conscripts were compelled to employ "snatchers" ("khapers") to seize the youngsters. The military obligations of the Jews in Russia brought no alleviation of their condition in other spheres, and the expulsions of Jews from the villages continued with regularity. The Jews were also expelled from Kiev, and any new settlement of Jews in the towns and townlets within a distance of 50 versts of the country's borders was prohibited in 1843. On the other hand, the government encouraged agricultural settlement among Jews. The settlers were exempted from military service. Many Jewish settlements were established on government and privately owned lands in southern Russia and other regions of the Pale of Settlement.

During the 1840s the government began to concern itself with the education of the Jews. Since the Jews had not made use of the opportunity which had been given to them in 1804 to study in the general schools, the government decided to establish a network of special schools for them. The maintenance of these schools would be provided for by a special tax (the "candle tax") which would be imposed on them. In order to pave the way for this activity, the government sent Max Lilienthal, a German Jew employed as teacher in the school established in Riga by the local maskilim, on a reconnaissance trip through the Pale of Settlement. During 1841–42 Lilienthal visited the large communities of the Pale of Settlement—Vilna, Minsk, Berdichev, Odessa, and Kiev. He was received with suspicion by the Jewish masses, who regarded the project to establish government schools for Jews as a medium for the estrangement of their children from their religion. In 1844 a decree ordering the establishment of these schools, whose teachers would be both Christians and Jews, was issued. In secret instructions which accompanied the decree it was declared that "the purpose of the education of the Jews is to bring them nearer to the Christians and to uproot their harmful beliefs which are influenced by the Talmud." Lilienthal became aware of the government's intentions and fled from Russia. The government established this network of schools which depended for instruction upon a handful of maskilim and at the head of which were the seminaries for rabbis and teachers of Vilna and Zhitomir. These institutions, to which the Jewish masses shrank from sending their children, served as the cradle for a class of Russian-speaking maskilim which was to play an important role in the lives of the Jews during the following generations.

In 1844 the government abolished the Polish-style communities but was nevertheless compelled to recognize a limited communal organization whose function it was to watch over the conscription into the army and the collection of the special taxes—the korobka and "candle tax." The community was also responsible for the election of the kazyonny ravvin ("government-appointed rabbi"), whose function it was to register births, marriages, and deaths and to deliver sermons on official holidays extolling the government. A law was also issued prohibiting Jews from growing pe'ot ("sidelocks") and wearing their traditional clothes.

The next stage of the program of Nicholas I was the division of the Jews of his country into two groups: "useful" and "non-useful." Among the "useful" ranked the wealthy merchants, craftsmen, and agriculturalists. All the other Jews, the small tradesmen and the poorer classes, constituted the "non-useful" and were threatened with general conscription into the army, where they would be trained in crafts or agriculture. This project encountered the opposition of Russian statesmen and aroused the intervention of the Jews of Western Europe on behalf of their coreligionists. In 1846 Sir Moses Montefiore traveled from England to Russia for this purpose. The order to classify the Jews according to these categories was nevertheless issued in 1851. The Crimean War delayed its application but amplified the tragedy of military conscription. The quota was increased threefold and the "snatchers" were given a free hand to seize children, and travelers who did not possess documents, and hand them over to the army. The reign of Nicholas I came to an end with the memory of those days of intensified kidnapping.

Under Alexander II

The reign of Alexander II (1855–81) is connected with great reforms in the Russian regime, the most important of which was the emancipation of the peasants in 1861 from their servitude to the landowners. Toward the Jews, Alexander II adopted a milder policy with the same objective as that of his predecessor of achieving the assimilation of the Jews to Russian society. He repealed the severest of his father's decrees (including the Cantonists system) and gave a different interpretation to the classification system by granting various rights—in the first place the right of residence throughout Russia—to selected groups of "useful" Jews, which included wealthy merchants (1859), university graduates (1861), certified craftsmen (1865), as well as medical staff of every category (medical orderlies and midwives). The Jewish communities outside the Pale of Settlement rapidly expanded, especially those of St. Petersburg and Moscow whose influence on the way of life of Russian Jewry became important.

In 1874 general draft to the army was introduced in Russia. Thousands of young Jews were now called upon to serve in the army of the czar for four years. Important alleviations were granted to those having a Russian secondary-school education. This encouraged the stream of Jews toward the Russian schools. At the same time Jews were not admitted to officers' rank.

The general atmosphere the new laws engendered was of no less importance than the laws themselves. The administration relaxed its pressure on the Jews and there was a feeling among them that the government was slowly but surely proceeding toward the emancipation of the Jews. Jews began to take part in the intellectual and cultural life of Russia in journalism, literature, law, the theater, and the arts; the number of professionals was then very small in Russia, and Jews soon became prominent among their ranks in quantity and quality. Some Jews distinguished themselves, such as the composer Anton Rubinstein (baptized in childhood), the sculptor Mark Antokolski, and the painter Isaac Levitan.

This appearance of Jews in economic, political, and cultural life immediately aroused a sharp reaction in Russian society. The leading opponents of the Jews included several of the country's most prominent intellectuals, such as the authors Ivan Aksakov and Fyodor Dostoyevski. The attitude of the liberal and revolutionary elements in Russia toward the Jews was also lukewarm. The Jews were accused of maintaining "a state within a state" (the enemies of the Jews found support for this opinion in the work of the apostate J. Brafman, "The Book of the Kahal," published in 1869), and of "exploiting" the Russian masses; even the blood libel was renewed by agitators (as that of Kutais in 1878). However, the principal argument of the hatemongers was that the Jews were an alien element invading the areas of Russian life, gaining control of economic and cultural positions, and a most destructive influence. Many newspapers, led by the influential Novoye Vremya, engaged in anti-Jewish agitation. The anti-Jewish movement gained in strength especially after the Balkan War (1877–78), when a wave of Slavophile nationalism swept through Russian society.

Jewish Assimilation

The reign of Alexander II (1855-1881) resulted in an end to the harsh treatment of the Jews, but nevertheless new policies were implemented to ensure the assimilation of the Jews. As Jews began to move out of the Pale of Settlement, those having a Russian secondary-school education were granted greater rights, which increased Jewish enrollment in Russian schools. This led to increased assimilation. Assimilation was somewhat hindered as Jews in the military were prohibited from receiving the ranks of officers, which limited the contact between Jew and non-Jew. Emancipation of the Jews began slowly and assimilation skyrocketed. As assimilation led to increased visibility of the Jews, this led to anger among the non-Jewish community. The leading opponents to Jewish prominence included Russian luminaries such as Ivan Asakov and Fyodor Dostoyevski. The liberal and revolutionary elements were also opposed to the increased presence of the Jews.

However, between 1850 and the end of the 19th century, the Jewish population in Russia increased substantially due to a high birthrate and a low mortality rate. In 1850, the number of Jews in Russia stood at around 2,350,000 whereas it almost doubled to 5,000,000 by the late 19th century. Due to the high birthrates, competition in traditionally Jewish jobs also increased. The increased competition resulted in both the development of a Jewish proletariat and a small Jewish upper class. The increased competition led to economic diversification, such as Jews leasing alcoholic beverages (then a government monopoly) and engaging in construction and industrial development. Small groups of Jews became prominent in the banking industries and began to penetrate the intelligentsia (academia) and professional positions (lawyers, doctors, scientists, writers). The emancipation of the serfs led to a strong demand for land and therefore the government stopped encouraging Russian agricultural settlement. This land scarcity led to the Jewish communities migration throughout other parts of the Russian Empire. From: Jewish Virtual Library

Economic Position of the Jews

The natural growth resulted in increased competition in the traditionally Jewish occupations. The numbers of small shopkeepers, peddlers, and brokers rose steadily. Many joined the craftsmen's class, a step which in those days was considered a fall in social status. A Jewish proletariat began to develop; it included workshop and factory-workers, daily workers, male and female domestics, and porters. At the same time there also emerged a small but influential class of wealthy Jews who succeeded in adapting to the requirements of the Russian Empire and established contacts with government circles. The first members of this class were contractors engaged by the government in the building of roads and fortresses, or purveyors to army offices and units. During the reign of Nicholas I many Jews engaged in leasing the sale of alcoholic beverages which had become a government monopoly. From the 1860s Jews played an important role in the construction of railroads and the development of mines, industry (especially the foodstuff and textile industries), and export trade (timber; grain). They were among the leading founders of the banking network of Russia. This class of Jews was prominent in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Odessa, Kiev, and Warsaw. This upper bourgeoisie, headed by the Guenzburg and Poliakov families, considered themselves the leaders of Russian Jewry. They were closely connected with Jews who had acquired a higher education and had penetrated the Russian intelligentsia and the liberal professions (lawyers, physicians, architects, newspaper editors, scientists, and writers). The wealth and the status of this small class was however unable to alleviate the suffering of the destitute masses. After the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, the serious lack of land for the Russian peasants themselves became evident and the government ceased to encourage Jewish settlement on the land. Emigration became the only outlet. Until the 1870s the migration was mainly an internal one, from Lithuania and Belorussia in the direction of southern Russia. While in 1847 only 2.5% of Russian Jews lived in the southern provinces, the proportion had increased to 13.8% in 1897. Important new communities appeared in this region: Odessa (about 140,000 Jews), Yekaterinoslav (Dnepropetrovsk), Yelizavetgrad (Kirovograd), Kremenchug, etc. The famine in Lithuania at the end of the 1870s encouraged emigration toward Western Europe and the United States.