Antisemitism in the Russian Empire

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Antisemitism in the Russian Empire included numerous pogroms and the designation of the Pale of Settlement, from which Jews were forbidden to migrate into the interior of Russia, unless they converted to the Russian Orthodox state religion.


Russia remained unaffected by the liberalising tendencies of this era with respect to the status of Jews. Before the 18th century Russia maintained an exclusionary policy towards Jews, in accordance with the anti-Jewish precepts of the Russian Orthodox Church.[1] When asked about admitting Jews into the Empire, Peter the Great stated "I prefer to see in our midst nations professing Mohammedanism and paganism rather than Jews. They are rogues and cheats. It is my endeavor to eradicate evil, not to multiply it."[2]

Pale of Settlement[edit]

More active discriminatory policies began when the partition of Poland in the 18th century which resulted, for the first time in Russian history, in the possession of land with a large population of Jews.[3] This land was designated as the Pale of Settlement from which Jews were forbidden to migrate into the interior of Russia.[3] In 1772, Catherine II forced the Jews of the Pale of Settlement to stay in their shtetls and forbade them from returning to the towns that they occupied before the partition of Poland.[4] The Pale of Settlement was officialized in 1791 with the purpose of ridding Moscow of Jews.[5] It's borders were finalized in 1821 with the annexation of Bessarabia.[5]

Forced conscription[edit]

Tsar Nicholas I aimed to destroy Jewish life, and his reign is remembered as one of the most painful episodes for European Jewry.[6] In 1825, Tsar Nicholas ordered the conscription of all Jewish males into the Russian imperial military beginning at age 12.[6] In Jewish diasporal communities hailing from the Russian Empire, the 19th century is often recalled as a time where Jews were forced to the front lines of the army and used as "cannon fodder".[7] Jews were forbidden from becoming officers.[6] Many of the boys forced into the military were captured by "snatchers" (khapers).[6] Jewish agricultural communities in more Southern areas were often exempt as the Russian government liked to encourage agriculturalism among Jews, while other communities that were exempted were often expelled from their towns and villages.[6]

The Crimean War led to an increased kidnapping of Jewish male children and young men to fight on the front.[6]

In 1912, a law was passed forbidding even those who were the grandchildren of Jews from being officers, despite the large numbers of Jews and those of Jewish descent in the military.[8]

Assimilation attempts[edit]

In the 1840s, the Russian imperial government imposed a special tax on the Jews, and used the money to build a network of "Jewish schools", with the goal of assimilating them into Russian culture. It was decreed that teachers in these schools had to be Christian, and 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."[6]

In 1844, Polish-style communities were forcibly disbanded, and replaced with new settlement structures. Growing pe'ot was officially forbidden, and Tsar Nicholas officially classified all Jews into two categories, "useful" and "non-useful", with merchants being considered "useful" and others being considered "non-useful".[6]

The reign of Tsar Alexander II saw the removal of some anti-Semitic legal persecution, but the intensification of measures aimed to dissolve Jewish culture into the national Russian culture. As a result of these measures, many Jews achieved commercial success; however, the increased presence of Jews was opposed by various sectors of Russian society.[8]


A series of genocidal persecutions, or pogroms, against Jews took place in Russia. These arose from a variety of motivations, not all of them related to Christian antisemitism. They have been attributed in part to religiously motivated antisemitism arising from the canard that Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.[9][10] The primary trigger of the pogroms, however, is considered to have been the assassination of Tsar Alexander II.[11]

The first pogrom is often considered to be the 1821 anti-Jewish riots in Odessa (modern Ukraine) after the death of the Greek Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople, in which 14 Jews were killed.[12] The virtual Jewish encyclopedia claims that initiators of 1821 pogroms were the local Greeks that used to have a substantial diaspora in the port cities of what was known as Novorossiya.[13]

Long-standing repressive policies and attitudes towards the Jews were intensified after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II on 13 March 1881. This event was wrongly[8] blamed on the Jews and sparked widespread Anti-Jewish pogroms in the Russian Empire, which lasted for three years, from 27 April 1881 to 1884.[14] A hardening of official attitudes under Tsar Alexander III and his ministers, resulted in the May Laws of 1882 which officially blamed Jews for the Tsar's death and severely restricted the civil rights of Jews within the Russian Empire, leading to harsh restrictions on Jewish landownership, prohibitions of Jews living in villages, and limits on the number of Jews accepted into educational institutions.[8] The Russian imperial police strictly applied the anti-Semitic discriminatory laws, while the Russian media engaged in unrestrained anti-Semitic propaganda.[8] In 1891, all Jews were systematically expelled from Moscow.[8] These repressions embittered many Jews against Russian society, convincing many that Russia could no longer be their home.

The Tsar's minister Konstantin Petrovich Pobedonostsev stated the aim of the government with regard to the Jews was that "One third will die out, one third will leave the country and one third will be completely dissolved in the surrounding population".[14] In the event, the pogroms and the repressive legislation did indeed result in the mass emigration of Jews to western Europe and America. Between 1881 and the outbreak of the First World War, an estimated 2.5 million Jews left Russia - one of the largest group migrations in recorded history.[15]

After the Pesach pogrom of 1903, pogroms became the official policy of the Russian Empire, and the anti-Semitic terror reached its peak in October 1905.[8]

Forgery of the Protocols of Zion[edit]

In 1903, Russian individuals forged the Protocols of Zion, a significant anti-Semitic document that played a decisive role in the global spread of Anti-Semitism throughout the 20th century.[8]

Jewish response[edit]

In the second half of the 19th century, in response to the widespread and systematic persecution of Jews, many Jews fled the Russian Empire, but with the spread of literacy, many of those who stayed were drawn into radical and reformist ideologies, attracted by the prospect of liberation of Jewish communities from the conditions imposed on them, as well as disgust at the political system of the Russian Empire. The Social Democrats (Socialists) included many Jews including Martov and Trotsky in its leadership, as did the Social Revolutionary Party of Russia.[8] The same period saw the Bundist and Zionist movements emerge and rapidly grow, with their promises to end the persecution of Jews, but their growth led to a polarization of Jewish communities due to their diverging political goals. While the Bundists proclaimed the superiority of the Yiddish language, the Zionists promoted Hebrew as a lingua franca for Jews of varying geographic origins.[8] The Zionist movement in Russia was officially started with the Hibbat Zion movement in 1881-1883, in response to the growing pogroms against Jews.[8] While the Bundists saw the home for Russian Jewry in Russia, the Zionists aimed to establish a Jewish state free of rule by foreignors.[8] Although the Zionist movement was first organized in Western Europe, the majority of its adherents came from Eastern Europe, the Russian Empire in particular.[8] Russian Jews were the founders of Labor Zionism.[8] Despite, or perhaps because of, its popularity, all Zionist organizations were outlawed in Russia.[8] The Bundists, on the other hand, proclaimed Yiddish as a national language for Jews and argued for a separate set of Jewish-run schools.[8]

Zionism stressed self-respect and self-defense for Jewish communities, and by the 1900s, despite ideological differences, Bundists, Labor Zionists and other Zionists banded together to form self-defense organizations against Russian pogroms.[8]

Beilis trial[edit]

Menahem Mendel Beilis was a Russian Jew accused of ritual murder in Kiev in the Russian Empire in a notorious 1913 trial, known as the "Beilis trial" or "Beilis affair". The process sparked international criticism of the antisemitic policies of the Russian Empire. The Beilis trial took place in Kiev from September 25 through October 28, 1913. The Beilis case was compared with the Leo Frank case in which an American Jew was convicted of raping and murdering 13-year-old Mary Phagan. After his acquittal, Beilis became an enormous hero and celebrity.

World War I[edit]

In World War I, many Jews felt they could improve their position in society if they contributed to defending Russia. Over 400,000 were mobilized and 80,000 served on the front lines.[8] Despite this, when the Russian army faced defeat, anti-Semitic commanders blamed Jewish populations. Jews were accused of treason and spying for the Germans, with some Jews being kidnapped and tried for espionage.[8] After their trials, mass expulsions of Jews living near the front lines were organized, with Jews being expelled from Courland and northern Lithuania in 1915.[8] One month later, the printing of Hebrew characters was forbidden.[8]

February Revolution[edit]

When the provisional government was put into place on 16 March 1917, all anti-Semitic measures were abolished, and Jews served in important government positions.[8] As a result, the Russian Revolution saw enthusiastic support from Jews, and Jews served important roles for various political parties.[8] Zionist youth groups were formed across the country, Zionists held celebratory rallies in response to the Balfour declaration, and Zionists formed Jewish self-defense battallions.[8] However, only a few months after its foundation, the provisional government collapsed, and in the ensuing anarchy, violent anti-Semitism returned to Russia, with sporadic pogroms. Denikin's White Army was a bastion of anti-Semitism, using "Strike at the Jews and save Russia!" as it's motto.[8] The Bolshevik Red Army, although individual soldiers committed anti-Semitic abuses, had a policy of opposing anti-Semitism, and as a result it won the support of much of the Jewish population.[8]

Involvement of the Russian Orthodox Church[edit]

The anti-Jewish policies by the Russian state were supported by the Ecclesiastical Collegium under Peter the Great and, later by the Holy Synod. These institutions of the Church served essentially as government departments.[16] Russian Orthodox population generally "maintained a more or less neutral attitude" towards Jews during periods of calm, with a "mixture of fear and hatred of Jews characteristic of medieval Christian consciousness" smouldering below the surface. However, social, economic, religious or political changes occasionally brought this undercurrent of antisemitism to the surface, changing the Christian populace into "a fanatical crowd capable of murder and pillage."[16] All "anti-Jewish decisions were conducted by state administrative organs, acting on the authority of emperors, state committees and ministries.",[16] but "unlike the Western church, the Russian Orthodox Church took no steps to protect the Jews."[16] Moreover, despite the lack of an official church position on the Jewish question, many clerics and priests of the Russian Orthodox Church were prone to antisemitic attitudes. The first Kishinev pogrom of 1903 was led by Eastern Orthodox priests.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Steven Beller (2007) Antisemitism: A Very Short Introduction: 14
  2. ^ Levitats, Isaac (1943). The Jewish Community in Russia, 1772-1844. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 20–21. 
  3. ^ a b Steven Beller (2007) Antisemitism: A Very Short Introduction: 28
  4. ^ Weiner, Rebecca. "The Virtual Jewish History Tour". 
  5. ^ a b "Russia Virtual Jewish History Tour". Retrieved 21 April 2018. A 1791 decree confirmed the right of Russian Jews to live in the territory annexed from Poland and permitted Jews to settle there. Subsequent conquests and annexations helped ferment the area known of as “The Pale of Settlement,” created in 1791 to rid Moscow of Jews. Its borders were finalized in 1812 with the annexation of Bessarabia. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h "Russia Virtual Jewish History Tour". Retrieved 21 April 2018. Czar Nicholas I (reign: 1825-1855) sought to destroy all Jewish life in Russia and his reign constitutes a painful part of European Jewish history. In 1825, he ordered the conscription of Jewish youth into the Russian military beginning at age 12. Many of the youngsters were kidnapped by “snatchers” (“khapers”) in order to get them to spend their formative years in the Russian military. This had a significant effect in lowering the morale of the Russian Jewish community. The Jews that were not forced to spend decades in the military were often expelled from their towns and villages. Some Jews escaped this persecution, however, as the government encouraged agricultural settlement among Jews. These Jews were exempt from forced conscription. Many Jewish agricultural settlements were established in southern Russia and the rest of the Pale of Settlement. In the 1840's, a network of special schools was created for the Jews, although since 1804 the Jews had permission to study in regular schools. These Jewish schools were paid for by a special tax imposed on the Jews. In 1844, a decree was established that the teachers would be both Christians and Jews. The Jewish community viewed the government’s attempt to set up these schools as a way of secularizing and assimilating the younger generation. Their fears were not unfounded, as the decree to require Christian teachers was accompanied by the declaration 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." In 1844, the Polish-style communities were disbanded but they were replaced by a new communal organizational structure. A law was instituted prohibiting Jews from growing pe’ot (“sidelocks”) and wearing traditional clothes. Nicholas I than divided Jews into two groups – “useful” and “not useful.” The wealthy merchants and those essential for commerce were deemed “useful,” all others “non-useful.” The order was met with opposition from the Jewish communities of Western Europe and worldwide, but was instituted in 1851. The Crimean War delayed implementation of the order, but the war only led to increased kidnappings of children and young adults into military service; often never to be seen again. 
  7. ^ [‘the-immigrant’-from-czarist-russia-to-small-town-texas/ "Lone Stars of David: 'The Immigrant': from czarist Russia to small-town Texas"] Check |url= value (help). Texas Jewish Post. 14 August 2008. Retrieved 21 April 2018. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z "". Retrieved 21 April 2018. 
  9. ^ Volf, Miroslav (2008). "Christianity and Violence". In Hess, Richard S.; Martens, E.A. War in the Bible and terrorism in the twenty-first century. Eisenbrauns. p. 13. ISBN 978-1-57506-803-9. Retrieved June 1, 2010. 
  10. ^ Lambroza, Shlomo (1992). Klier, John D.; Lambroza, Shlomo, eds. Pogroms: Anti-Jewish Violence in Modern Russian History. Cambridge University Press. p. 205. ISBN 0-521-40532-7. 
  11. ^ Jewish Chronicle, May 6, 1881, cited in Benjamin Blech, Eyewitness to Jewish History
  12. ^ Odessa pogroms Archived 2007-01-21 at the Wayback Machine. at the Center of Jewish Self-Education "Moria".
  13. ^ Pogrom (Virtual Jewish Encyclopedia) (in Russian)
  14. ^ a b Richard Rubenstein and John Roth (1887) Approaches to Auschwitz. London, SCM Press: 96
  15. ^ Ronnie S. Landau (1992) The Nazi Holocaust. IB Tauris, London and New York: 57
  16. ^ a b c d Tabak, Yuri. "Relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and Judaism: Past and Present". 
  17. ^ "Jewish Massacre Denounced", New York Times, April 28, 1903, p 6.