Part 2 of 8
From the 14th Century

From the beginning of the 14th century the Lithuanians gained control over western Russia. Under Lithuania the first extensive privileges were granted to Jewish communities in the region at the end of the 14th century. Under Poland-Lithuania the wave of Jewish emigration and large-scale settlement from Poland to the Ukraine, Volhynia, and Podolia from the middle of the 16th century laid the foundations at the close of this century for most of the Jewish communities of the Ukraine and Belorussia, and their Polish-Jewish culture and autonomy. In 1648–49 the Chmielnicki massacres devastated the Jews of the Ukraine, and some years later the Muscovite armies annihilated the Jews in the cities of Belorussia and Lithuania that they had captured. During the 18th century the Jews suffered severely during the revolts of the Haidamacks. With the partitions of Poland at the end of the 18th century most of the Jews of Lithuania and the Ukraine, and at the beginning of the 19th century also those of Poland, found themselves under Russian rule. During the 19th and 20th centuries Russian Jewry was, however, essentially an organic continuity of the Jewry of Poland and Lithuania in the ethnic as well as cultural respects.

Principality of Moscow

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).

Within the Russian Empire: First Phase (1772–1881)

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 (see below), 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.

Crystallation of 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.