Anti-Semitism has been a part of Russian history since the Imperialist era. The Jewish population had been settling throughout the Russian Empire for centuries. By the 18th century, many small communities had become established along the Western edge of the Russian empire. By this time in Russian history, the Jews were primarily living on land that had been annexed from Poland and additional land which had been deemed undesirable. This area, referred to as “The Pale of Settlement”, was comprised of 386,100 sq. miles and is just north of the Black Sea. The Pale was officially created by Catherine the Great in 1791 and was comprised of about 95% of the total Jewish population. (100 years later, 4.
8 million lived there). By creating the Pale of Settlement, Catherine cut off the movement of the Jewish communities into Russia. When Nicholas I came to power in 1825, his reign of tyranny and persecution against the Jews began.
On August 26th, 1827 Nicholas enacted a special statute of military service, specific to the Jews. The statute required that every male Jewish minor from the ages of 12-25 would be conscripted into the Russian military and serve the compulsory 25 years. The ukase, or edict, stated that this was to fulfill the government’s desire “to equalize military duty for all estates” (Dubnow 18). The ukase also included 95 clauses. Now Jewish minors from the age of 12 were being taken to military training establishments.
As if this were not enough, the compulsory 25 years were only counted after the child had turned 18. The only exceptions to these requirements were those who were diseased or disabled. They were tortured and abused, kidnapped and taken away from their families, and forced to disown their Jewish culture. The younger children were beaten senseless and forced to convert to Christianity, while the older “recruits” would sometimes commit suicide to avoid it. Over the course of his reign, Nicholas I would terrorize and attempt to destroy the Jewish community.
While special schools were created within the pale, they were paid for by taxation of the Jews and Christian teacher were brought in to co-teach in an attempt to bring about assimilation. In 1844, a law came into being, which prohibited the growing of sidelocks and the use or wear of traditional clothing.In the year 1855, Alexander II came into power and ushered in a new era of sorts for the Jews. While some of the harsher policies from Nicholas I were abolished, the attempts at assimilation grew stronger. The Crimean War (1853-1856) came to an end and Alexander II began reforms of the empire, trying to, in a way, liberalize it in a style of the time. With the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, one may have hoped for similar for the millions of Jewish serfs.
But Jewish reforms came on a different scale. One such reform came in the way of the abolition of conscription of Jewish minors in 1856. While many child soldiers were to be returned to their parents, Jewish minors who had “embraced Christianity” were not to be allowed to return home, as they might return to their old religion and they could not be promoted to a rank above sergeant (Dubnow 156). Another reform under Alexander II was the idea of desegregation between the Jews and Russians, though this could be seen as another form of assimilation, along with the sorting a Jews into groups of “useful” and “useless” to determine their rights in society. By May of 1855, Tsar Alexander II began to allow limited movement of Jews outside the Pale of Settlement, gradually increasing through 1861, until reaching 1879 when anyone with a higher-level education was given the “right of universal residence” (Dubnow 167).
Towards the end of Tsar Alexander II reign, the reforms for Jews decreased, perhaps a foreshadowing of what was to come. Conscription of varying Jewish classes began, with the required age being 21, lessening the burden of the “burgher” class which had previously been the only required to do so. Following the Russo-Turkish War of 1877, anti-Semitism was on the rise once again leading to yet another ritual murder trial. Ritual murder trials had happened in the past, usually based on the unexplained murder of a child, which coincidentally occurred near or during Jewish Passover, was blamed upon a Jew or Jews. The long-standing myth was the superstition perpetuated the idea that Jews need Christian blood to make matzah, the unleavened bread that is made during Passover to commemorate the Israelites flight from Egypt.
While these trials often ended in acquittals due to lack of evidence, they left a deep mark on the communities. Tsar Alexander II was assassinated on Marth 1st, 1881, in Saint Petersburg. Due to one member of the assassination group being Jewish, many were willing to use it as a means of justification for anti-Semitism.
During this time, Tsar Alexander II’s son, Alexander III, ascended to the throne. He brought with him many of those same biases and would bring about continued dark times for the Jewish people. One of Alexander III’s tutors believed “that enlightenment and political freedom were harmful to Russia, that the people must be held in a state of patriarchal submission…” (Dubnow 245).
Almost immediately after the assassination of Alexander II, proposals of attacks against the Jews began. Within a month and a half, the first wave of pogroms began, starting in the city of Yelizavetgrad, which had a Jewish population of around 15,000. The pogrom occurred during Greek-Orthodox Passover, although for the first three days police were there keeping order and calm. Although, rumors had started to circulate. Then, on the fourth day, April 15th, the police were removed and then it began.
A drunk was sent into a tavern owned by a Jew to stir up trouble and when he was kicked out, people began yelling about how the Jews were “beating their people”. Soon Jews were being attacked and beaten in the streets, Jewish stores sabotaged and destroyed. The pogrom continued the next day even stronger than before, and with very little activity or intervention by the police. On the third day, the attacks ceased, and order was restored. However, during the month of April more attacks occurred in neighboring towns within the region. In a town called Ananyev, people were told by a fellow resident that the government had given orders to “massacre the Jews because they had murdered the Tsar” (Dubnow 251). The movement propelling the pogroms continued to gain momentum and succeeded in making it to Kiev, a city with a Jewish past.
This pogrom was organized and the presented under the guise that the Tsar had ordered the pogrom to avenge his father and those who did not comply would be punished. The date set for this pogrom was April 26th, however, fights began on the 23rd. What differentiated this pogrom from prior was that on the day before the attacks, the police had advised the local Jews not to leave their homes the next day. Though many did not understand the warning, the advice was heeded. The synagogue was destroyed and the Torah scrolls, ruined.
Stores were looted, windows shattered, and people terrorized. It went on for hours, despite some attempts to disperse the crowd. Throughout the suburbs of Kiev, violence was rampant. Houses were burning, Jews were beaten to death or burned, and women were raped. On April 27th, the police stepped in with more force and ended the pogrom.
Had they put more effort in earlier, many people could have been spared a great deal of suffering. Unfortunately, Southern Russia continued to be plagued with violent outbursts. In the spring, Odessa became the next victim, leading to many Jews fleeing to more peaceful areas or even leaving Russia. Beginning in May, Nicholas Ignatyev was appointed Minister of the Interior, and his views helped influence a dark change in Russian policy.
The official attitude towards the Jews involved the theory of Jewish “exploitation”. This was used as justification for the pogroms and other repressive measures. Any sympathy which may have been harbored within the government for the Jewish people was gone.
Police began their own pogroms and started expelling Jews from the cities, especially Kiev and Moscow. Even courts were no longer safe, as they sided with the anti-Semites.