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Part 4 of 8
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 He repealed the severest of his father's decrees (including the Cantonists system) and gave a different interpretation to the classification system by granting various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.

Population Growth

One of the factors which influenced the position of the Jews was their high natural increase, due to the high birthrate and the relatively low mortality among children—the result of the devoted care of Jewish mothers as well as of medical progress. The number of Jews in Russia which in 1850 had been estimated at 2,350,000 rose to over 5,000,000 at the close of the 19th century, notwithstanding a considerable emigration abroad. Governmental commissions appointed to deal with the "Jewish Problem" received instructions to seek methods for the reduction of the number of Jews in the country.

Economic Position

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.

Haskalah in Russia

From the middle of the 19th century Haskalah became influential among Russian Jewry. Its first manifestations, combined with signs of assimilation, appeared in the large commercial cities (Warsaw, Odessa, Riga). Among the Russian adherents of Haskalah there was a trend to preserve Judaism and its values; hence they tended to seek changes based mainly on a thread of continuity. Although there were also circles which stood for complete assimilation and absorption in Eastern Europe (the "Poles of the Mosaic Faith" of Poland, nihilist and socialist circles in Russia), the majority of the maskilim sought a path which would preserve the national or nationalreligious identity of the Jews, while some of them even developed an indubitable nationalist ideology (Perez Smolenskin). The herald of the Haskalah in Russia was the author Isaac Dov (Baer) Levinsohn. In his Te'udah be-Yisrael (Vilna, 1828), he formulated an educational and productivization program. The most distinguished pioneers of Haskalah in Russia were the author Abraham Mapu, the father of the Hebrew novel, and the poet Judah Leib Gordon. Even though the maskilim were at first opposed to Yiddish, which they sought to replace by the language of the country, some of them later created a secular Yiddish literature (I. M. Dick; Mendele Mokher Seforim; and others). At the initiative of the maskilim there also emerged a Jewish press in Hebrew (Ha-Maggid, founded in 1856; Ha-Meliz); in Yiddish (Kol Mevasser); and in Russian (Razsvet, founded in 1860; Den). The Hevrat Mefizei Haskalah ("Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia"), founded in 1863 by a group of wealthy Jews and intellectuals of St. Petersburg, was an important factor in spreading Haskalah and the Russian language among Jews.

These books and newspapers infiltrated into the batteimidrash and the yeshivot, influencing students to leave them. Severe ideological disputes broke out in many communities, often between father and son, rabbi and disciples. The government assisted the spread of Haskalah as long as its adherents supported loyalty to the czarist regime (as expressed by J. L. Gordon—"to your king a serf") and cooperated in promoting educational and productivization programs as well as in its opposition to the traditional leadership. By the 1870s the activity of the maskilim began to bear fruit. The mass of Jewish youth streamed to the Russian-Jewish and general Russian schools. The general conscription law of 1874 encouraged this process, and thus began the estrangement of the intellectual youth from its people and Jewish affairs—to the despair of the nationalist wing of the Haskalah which resigned itself to this situation. However the rise of the anti-Semitic movement within Russian society during the late 1870s (see above) resulted in a nationalist awakening among this youth. This was expressed in the development of a Jewish-Russian press and literature dealing with the problems of the Jews and Judaism (Razsvet; Russki Yevrey; Voskhod).

Within the Russian Empire: Second Phase (1881–1917)

The year 1881 was a turning point in the history of the Jews of Russia. In March 1881 revolutionaries assassinated Alexander II. Confusion reigned throughout the country. The revolutionaries called on the people to rebel. The regime was compelled to protect itself, and the Russian government found a scapegoat: the notion was encouraged that the Jews were responsible for the misfortunes of the nation. Anti-Jewish riots (pogroms) broke out in a number of towns and townlets of southern Russia including Yelizavetgrad (Kirovograd) and Kiev. These disorders consisted of looting, while there were few acts of murder or rape. Similar pogroms were repeated in 1882 (Balta, etc.); in 1883 (Yekaterinoslav, now Dnepropetrovsk, Krivoi Rog, Novo-Moskovsk, etc.); and in 1884 (Nizhni-Novgorod, now Gorki). The indifference to—and at times even sympathy for—the rioters on the part of the Russian intellectuals shocked many Jews, especially the maskilim among them. Revolutionary circles which hoped to transform these disorders into a revolt against the landowners and government also supported the rioters. The new czar, Alexander III (1881–94), and his cabinet underlined these trends in their policy toward the Jews. Provincial commissions were appointed in the wake of the pogroms to investigate their causes. In the main these commissions stated that "Jewish exploitation" had caused the pogroms. Based on this finding, the "Temporary Laws" were published in May 1882. These prohibited the Jews from living in villages and restricted the limits of their residence to the towns. In an attempt to halt the flood of Jews now seeking entry to secondary schools and universities, and their competition with the non-Jewish element, the number of Jewish students in the secondary and higher schools was limited by law in 1886 to 10% in the Pale of Settlement and to 3–5% outside it. This numerous classes did much to accomplish the radicalization of Jewish youth in Russia. Many went to study abroad; others were able to enter Russian schools only if showing outstanding ability. All became embittered and disillusioned with the existing Russian society. In 1891 the systematic expulsion of most of the Jews from Moscow began. The pogroms were indeed halted in 1884 but instead administrative harassment of Jews became worse. The police strictly applied the discriminatory laws, and the expulsion of Jews from towns and villages where they had lived peacefully during the reign of Alexander II was effected, either under the law or with the help of bribery, to become a daily occurrence. The press (which was subjected to severe censorship) conducted a campaign of unbridled anti-Semitic propaganda. K. Pobedonostsev, the head of the "Holy Synod" (the governing body of the Russian Orthodox Church), formulated the objectives of the government when he expressed the hope that "one-third of the Jews will convert, one-third will die, and one-third will flee the country."
This policy was also continued under Nicholas II (1894–1918). In reaction to the growth of the revolutionary movement, in which the radicalized Jewish youth took an increasing part, the government gave free rein to the anti-Semitic press and agitation. During Passover, in 1903, a pogrom broke out in Kishinev in which many Jews lost their lives. From then on pogroms became a part of government policy. They gained in violence in 1904 (in Zhitomir) and reached their climax in October 1905, immediately after the czar had been compelled to proclaim the granting of a constitution to his people. In these pogroms the police and the army openly supported the rioters and protected them against the Jewish self-defense. Pogroms accompanied by bloodshed in which the army actively participated occurred in Bialystok (June 1906) and Siedlce (September 1906). The establishment of the Imperial Duma brought no change to the situation of the Jews. There was indeed a limited Jewish representation in the Duma (12 delegates in the first Duma of 1906 and two to four delegates in the second, third, and fourth Dumas), but this representation was faced by a powerful Rightist party—the Union of the Russian People—and related parties, whose principal weapon in the political struggle against the liberal and radical elements was a savage anti-Semitism which overtly called for the elimination of the Jews from Russia.
It was these circles which produced the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" which served, and still serve, as fuel for anti-Semitism throughout the world. In this atmosphere a proposal for a debate in the Duma on the abolition of the Pale of Settlement was shelved, while a suggestion to exclude the Jews from military service was not accepted for the sole reason that the government could not dispense with the service of about 40,000 Jewish soldiers. Characteristic of this period was the law issued in 1912 which prohibited the appointment as officers not only of apostates from Judaism, but also of their children and grandchildren. In 1913 the government held a blood libel trial in Kiev involving Mendel Beilis: the anti-Semitic propaganda was intensified and the government mobilized its police and judicial cadres to obtain his conviction. A strong defense was mustered, including the Jews O. Grusenberg and Rabbi J. Mazeh, which succeeded in disproving the libel: the jury, consisting of 12 Russian peasants, acquitted the accused.
The pogroms, restrictive decrees, and administrative pressure caused a mass emigration of Jews from Russia, especially to the United States. During 1881 to 1914 about 2,000,000 Jews left Russia. This emigration did not result in a decrease in the Jewish population of the country as the high birthrate recompensed the losses through emigration. The economic situation improved however because the pressure on the sources of livelihood did not grow at its former pace and also because the emigrants rapidly began to send financial assistance to their relatives in Russia. Several attempts were made to organize and regulate this continual emigration, the most important by the Jewish philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch who reached an agreement in 1891 with the Russian government on the transfer of 3,000,000 Jews within 25 years to Argentina. For this purpose, the Jewish Colonization Association (ICA) was established. Even though the project was not realized, ICA was very active in promoting Jewish agricultural settlement both in the lands of emigration and in Russia itself.

Jewish Population at the Close of the 19th Century

The comprehensive population census of 1897 provides a general picture of the demographic and economic condition of Russian Jewry at the close of the 19th century. In the census 5,189,400 Jews were counted; they constituted 4.13% of the total Russian population and about one-half of world Jewry.
In certain provinces of the Pale of Settlement the percentage of Jews rose above their general proportion (18.12% in the province of Warsaw; 17.28% in the province of Grodno). The overwhelming majority of the Jews in the Pale lived in towns (48.84%) and townlets (33.05%). Only 18.11% lived in villages. The Jews of the villages nevertheless numbered about 890,000. A decisive factor in the social pattern of Russian Jewry was its concentration in the towns and townlets. The townlet (or shtetl)—a legacy of the social structure of ancient Poland—was a center of commerce and crafts for the neighboring villagers and its population was mostly Jewish. There Jewish tradition, cohesion, and folkways were well preserved, serving as the basis and starting point for both the conservative and innovative forces in Jewish culture. In the larger cities the majority of the Jews also resided in the same locality and led their own social life.There were also many medium-sized towns in which the majority of the population was Jewish.

Economic Structure

This concentration of the Jews, and their intensive and variegated cultural life, made them a clearly distinct nation living in the Pale of Settlement. Their occupations and professional structure also gave a specific character to their society. In 1897 the Jews of Russia could be divided according to their sources of livelihood as shown in.
In the Pale of Settlement Jews formed 72.8% of those engaged in commerce, 31.4% of those engaged in crafts and industry, and 20.9% of those engaged in transportation. At the close of the 19th century the Jewish proletariat increased and numbered some 600,000. Approximately half of them were apprentices and workers employed by craftsmen, about 100,000 were salesmen, about 70,000 were factory workers, and the remainder daily workers, porters, and domestics. The desire of this proletariat to improve its material and social status, and its contacts with the revolutionary Jewish intelligentsia during the generation which preceded the 1917 Revolution, became an important factor in the lives of the Jews of Russia.

Ideological Trends

The last 20 years of the czarist regime were a time of tension and renaissance for the Jews, especially within the younger circles. This awakening essentially stemmed from conscious resistance to, and rejection of, the oppressive regime, the degrading status of the Jew in the country, and the search for methods for change. One response to the oppressive policy of the czarist government was to join one of the trends of the Russian revolutionary movement. The radical Jewish youth joined clandestine organizations in the towns of Russia and abroad. Many Jews ranked among the leaders of the revolutionaries. The leaders of the Social-Democrats included J. Martov and L. Trotsky, while Ch. Zhitlowski and G. A. Gershuni figured among the founders of the Socialist Revolutionary Party of Russia. With the growth of national consciousness in revolutionary circles at the close of the 19th century, a Jewish workers' revolutionary movement was formed. Workers' unions which had been founded through the initiative of Jewish intellectuals united and established the Bund in 1897. The Bund played an important role in the Russian revolutionary movement in the Pale of Settlement. It regarded itself as part of the all-Russian Social-Democratic Party but gradually came to insist upon certain national demands such as the right to cultural autonomy for the Jewish masses, recognition of Yiddish as the national language of the Jews, the establishment of schools in this language, and the development of the press and literature. The Bund was particularly successful in Lithuania and Poland, where after a short time it raised the social status of the worker and the apprentice, and implanted in them the courage to stand up to their employers and the authorities.
Another response of the Jews to their oppression in Russia found expression in the Zionist movement. Zionism originated in the Hibbat Zion movement which came into being after the pogroms of 188183. A few of the hundreds of thousands of Jews who left for overseas turned toward Erez Israel and established the first settlements there. Hovevei Zion societies in Russia propagated the idea of this settlement and raised funds for its maintenance. The movement gained great impetus with the appearance of Theodor Herzl, the convention of the First Zionist Congress in Basle, and the founding of the World Zionist Organization (1897). Due to the political regime of Russia, the central institutions of the Zionist Organization were established in Western Europe, even though the mass of its members and influence came from Russian Jewry. Zionism won adherence among all Jewish groups: the Orthodox and maskilim, the middle class and proletariat, the youth and intelligentsia. It encouraged national thought and culture among the masses. The Zionist press (Haolam; Razsvet, etc.) and Zionist literature in three languages—Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian—gained wide popularity. The movement was illegal and the attitude of the government ranged from one of reserve, seeing that the movement could divert the Jewish youth from active participation in the revolutionary movement, to one of hostility. Zionist congresses and meetings were held openly (Minsk, 1902) and clandestinely. The failure of Herzl to obtain a charter from the Turkish sultan and the debate over the Uganda project resulted in a grave crisis within the Zionist movement in Russia. Herzl largely based his case for accepting the Uganda project on the urgent need for a "Nachtasyl" for the suffering Russian Jews, but it was the majority of the Russian Zionists, led by M. Ussishkin and J. Tschlenow, who on principle opposed the Uganda proposal. Some of the proposal's supporters later resigned from the Zionist movement and founded territorialist organizations, the most important of which was the Zionist Socialist Workers' Party (S.S.). Immigrants and pioneers from Russia formed the greater part of the Second Aliyah and it was from their ranks that the founders of the labor movement in Erez Israel emerged.
Within a relatively short period, the revolutionary movement and the Zionist movement brought a tremendous change among Jewish youth. The battei-midrash and yeshivot were abandoned, and dynamism of Jewish society now became concentrated within the new political trends.
When the new wave of pogroms broke out in Russia in 1903, Jewish youth reacted by a widespread organization of self-defense. Defense societies of the Bund, the Zionists, and the Zionist-Socialists were formed in every town and townlet. The attackers encountered armed resistance. The authorities, who secretly supported the pogroms, were compelled to appear openly as the protectors of the rioters. The principal motives for the self-defense movement were not only the will to protect life and property but also the desire to assert the honor of the Jewish nation.

Cultural Developments

The nationalist awakening was also expressed by an astonishing development of Jewish literature in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian. A continuation of the Haskalah literature, it reached its peak during the generation which preceded the 1917 Revolution. The most outstanding authors of that period were Ahad Ha-Am, M. J. Berdyczewski, M. Z. Feuerberg, the Hebrew poets H. N. Bialik, Saul Tchernichowsky, Z. Shneour, and others, as well as the Jewish Russian poet S. S. Frug, and the Yiddish writers Shalom Aleichem, I. L. Peretz, and Sholem Asch. There also arose a generation of researchers and historians, the most important of whom was S. Dubnow, who wrote his History of the Jews and based his historical and world view on Autonomism. Systematic research into Jewish folklore was started upon (S. An-Ski). A Jewish encyclopedia in Russian was published (Yevreyskaya Entsiklopediya; 1906–13). The existing and new societies—Hevrat Mefizei Haskalah, ORT, OZE, ICA—became frameworks for the activity of members of the Jewish intelligentsia who sought to extend the scope of these societies as far as possible. Jewish newspapers circulated in hundreds of thousands of copies. The mass of Jews read the daily press in Yiddish (Der Fraynd; Haynt; Der Moment; etc.); Hebrew readers turned to the Hebrew press (Ha-Zefirah; Ha-Zofeh; Ha-Zeman); others read the Russian-Jewish press. In St. Petersburg the foundations were laid for a Higher School of Jewish Studies by Baron D. Guenzburg, and in Grodno a teachers' seminary, which trained teachers for the Jewish national schools, was opened under the patronage of the Hevrat Mefizei Haskalah.
An important point at issue that developed between the Zionists and their opponents was the character of Jewish culture. The Bund and Autonomist circles considered that the future of the Jews lay as a nation among the other nations of Russia; they sought to liberate it from religious tradition and to develop a secular culture and national schools in the language of the masses—Yiddish. The Zionists and their supporters stressed the continuity and the unity of the Jewish nation throughout the world and regarded Hebrew as the national language of the Jewish people. They considered the deepening of Jewish national consciousness and attachment to the historical past and homeland—Erez Israel—to be the primary aim and mainstay of Jewish culture. This controversy grew acute after the Yiddishists had proclaimed Yiddish to be a national language of the Jewish people at the Czernowitz Yiddish Language Conference in 1908. The "language dispute" was fought with bitter animosity and caused a split within the Jewish intelligentsia of Eastern Europe.