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Between restrictions, reforms and pogroms

Between restrictions, reforms and pogroms
Let’s now move from France to the Russian Empire, where the majority of Jews were living at the time. Stretching across an estimated sixth of the world’s land mass by the end of the 19th century, the empire became one of the major world forces at the time, ruling at its peak over more than 100 ethnic minorities. Governed by Tsars, the Russian Empire during this period had to confront similar changes and ideologies to those evolving in Western and Central Europe. Enlightenment, industrialization, territorial expansion, nationalism, and so forth, were all present in the Russian Empire. However, many of the processes taking place at a relatively swift pace in Western and Central Europe, developed more slowly and gradually in Russia.
This was a result of the unique character of the empire, its vastness and its economic, religious, and cultural heritage. The empire’s rigid social structure was a great obstacle to progress. Landowning nobles dominated society and rejected any change that would threaten their privileges. Up until the mid-19th century the majority of Russians were serfs, or laborers bound to the land and to masters who controlled their fates. Throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries some attempts at liberal reform were made by Tsars who were affected by the ideas of the Enlightenment. However, the Napoleonic Wars and the spread of revolutionary ideas also led to opposite policies, and to stricter and anti-liberal reactionary lines.
The fluctuating governmental policies had a direct effect on the way the Jews of the empire were treated and perceived. The Tsars of the time developed a conflicting policy of integration on one hand and segregation on the other; both led at times to the worsening situation of the Jews. By the late 19th century a harsh antisemitism had developed in Russia, present in both the elite and grassroots levels. Let’s now turn to examine the antisemitism which emerged in the Russian Empire at the time.
When we speak of antisemitism in Tsarist Russia, we have to consider first of all the fact that Russian Jewry was actually Polish Jewry, which was annexed together with the eastern part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to Russia during the three partitions of Poland in the end of the 18th century. In Russia itself, before the partitions, presence of Jews was very obscure because Jews were prohibited even entering Russia, not only living in Russia, already from the times of Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century. Nevertheless, anti-Jewish literature flourished in Russia.
So when these territories with their Jews were annexed to Russia in the end of the 18th century, this theoretical, traditional Russian antisemitism met with realistic antisemitism of these territories very much inhabited by great numbers of Jews. Russian antisemitism and Russian anti-Jewish legislation, and Russian anti-Jewish ideologies were a combination between these two sorts of antisemitism.
A clear example of the various anti-Jewish policies that emerged in Russia in the late 18th century were the restrictions imposed on Jewish residency in the empire. Following the partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Russian government decided to allow Jews to reside in the empire but limited them to the regions where they had lived prior to the annexations of these areas. Beyond these territories, Jewish permanent residency was mostly forbidden. The area where Jews were permitted to live was known as the Pale of Settlement. It was first created by the Empress Catherine the Great in 1791, and it existed until the Russian Revolution of 1917, its borders changing over the years.
The decision to create the Pale stemmed out of the traditional anti-Jewish Russian policies of limiting Jewish residency, as well as being a result of the perceived economic and national threat that the entry of large numbers of Jews posed to different elements in Russian society. This anti-Jewish legislation that started in 1791 and continued during the first decades of the 19th century, not only prohibited Jews to leave the Pale of Settlement but also prohibited Jews from participating in local self-administration, from taking posts in the government - government posts. Also last but not least and very important was the prohibition for Jews to settle in rural areas.
Now when came the big reforms of the 1860s, they brought with them great hope that these restrictions will be abolished eventually, that Jews will get emancipated in Russia. But all these great hopes were finished in great disappointment and disillusionment after the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, which was followed by the wave of very terrible pogroms. And not only the pogroms themselves were so painful - of course they were - but even more painful and stressing for the Jews was the fact that these pogroms were actually justified but most of the Russian public opinion, seeing the Jews to be
blamed for these pogroms because they have said: “Well, they exploit the rural population, the rural Christian population. Of course this is the natural reaction.”

Dr. Judith Kalik

Following the partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the late 18th century, the Russian Empire gradually included the largest Jewish population in the world. Living restrictions meant that these Jews were mainly concentrated in the Lithuanian, Belorussian, and Ukrainian provinces of the Russian Empire, and in the Kingdom of Poland.

How were Jews treated and perceived in the Russian Empire by both the ruling class and the masses?

For additional visual materials as well as relevant quotations please see “downloads” below.


  • Klier, John D., and Shlomo Lambroza, eds., Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

  • Klier, John D., Imperial Russia’s Jewish Question, 1885-1881 (Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1995).

  • Lederhendler, Eli, Road to Modern Jewish Politics: Political Tradition and Political Reconstruction in the Jewish Community of Tsarist Russia (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).

  • Stanislawski, Michael, Tsar Nicholas I and the Jews: The Transformation of Jewish Society in Russia, 1825-1855 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America).

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Antisemitism: From Its Origins to the Present

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