In the principality of Moscow, the nucleus of the future Russian Empire, Jews were not tolerated. This negative attitude toward Jews was connected with the negative attitude to foreigners in general, who were considered heretics and agents of the enemies of the state. During the 15th century Jews arrived within the borders of the principality of Moscow in the wake of their trade from both the Tatar kingdom of Crimea and Poland-Lithuania. During the 1470s the religious sect known in Russian history as the "Judaizers" (Zhidovstvuyushchiye) was discovered in the large commercial city of Novgorod and at the court in Moscow. The Jews were accused of having influenced and initiated the establishment of the sect. When Czar Ivan IV Vasilievich ("the Terrible"; 1530–84) temporarily annexed the town of Pskov to his territory, he ordered that all Jews who refused to convert to Christianity should be drowned in the river. During the following two centuries Jews entered Russia either illegally or with authorization from Poland and Lithuania on trade, and they occasionally settled in border towns. Repeated decrees issued by the Russian rulers prohibiting the entry of Jewish merchants within their territories, and explicit articles included in the treaties between Poland and Russia emphasizing these prohibitions, testify that this penetration was a regular occurrence. Small Jewish communities existed during the early 19th century in the region of Smolensk. In 1738 the Jew, Baruch b. Leib, was arrested and accused of having converted the officer Alexander Voznitsyn to Judaism. Both were burned at the stake in St. Petersburg. In 1742 Czarina Elizabeth Petrovna ordered the expulsion of the few Jews living in her kingdom. When the senate attempted to obtain cancelation of the expulsion order by pointing out the economic loss which would be suffered by the Russian merchants and the state, the czarina retorted: "I do not want any benefit from the enemies of Christ."
At the beginning of the reign of Catherine II the question of authorizing the entry of Jews for trading purposes again arose. The czarina, who was inclined toward authorizing their admission, was compelled to reverse her decision in the face of hostile public opinion. Some Jews nevertheless penetrated into Russia during this period, while the authorities did not disturb those living in the territories conquered from Turkey in 1768 (Crimea and the Black Sea shore) and even unofficially encouraged the settlement of additional Jews in these territories. The question of the presence of Jews within the borders of the empire was however decided by historical circumstances, when at the close of the 18th century hundreds of thousands of Jews were placed under the dominion of the czars as a result of the three partitions of Poland (1772; 1793; 1795).