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Jewish Communities in Russia in the 19th Century Essay (Critical Writing)


As a people, the Jews have experienced some of the worst forms of violence in human history. In 19th century Russia, the community underwent terrible experiences as an ethno-political minority. In early 1800s, Germans constituted a major part of the Russian population. According to Rowland, the empire, like its successor the USSR, was one of the largest multinational states in history (207). Jews made up a significant part of the minority groups in the nation. By the turn of the century, their number had risen to about five million (Rowland 207). The figure represented four percent of the total population of the empire. At this time, the Russian Tsarist government had begun imposing various forms of restrictions on this group. Consequently, a number of Jews fled Russia and settled in the United States of America (Treewater-Lipes 650).

In this paper, the author will analyze Jews as a minority group in Russia before 1861. The various forms of discrimination that the community was subjected to, as well as the reasons for these mistreatments, will be analyzed. In addition, the place of Jews in today’s Russian will be reviewed.

Discrimination against Jews Minority Groups in 19th Century Russia

Segregation was one of the forms of treatments that Jews were subjected to. The Pale settlement was established for this purpose. The scheme was introduced in late 18th century by Catherine the Great (Vucinich 135). It followed the acquisition of the vast Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth territory by the Russian Empire (Vucinich 135). Jews had been living in this region from as early as the 14th century.

The macro-scale segregation was orchestrated by Catherine as she sought to keep the Jews away from Orthodox Russia (Rowland 208). The Pale of Settlement restricted this group to selected Western provinces in the Russian Empire. In addition, they were forced to reside only in the predetermined urban territories. The restriction was also enforced arbitrarily. The Pale of Settlement regulated how the Jews lived. For instance, they were only allowed legal status of petty-bourgeois and merchants (Bartal 85). What this meant was that the Jews could only travel and reside in rural areas with prior special permissions.

According to Bartal, the Jews were significantly discriminated against even in the Pale of Settlement (12). For instance, they were subjected to double taxation. In addition, access to education and some public goods was limited. The Jews who wanted to leave the settlement and settle in Russia were required to embrace Christianity. Most of them abhorred this precondition.

Owing to the apparent restrictions imposed on the Jews in 19th century Russia, their residents were mainly located in relatively high urbanized areas. Consequently, almost half of the occupants of the Pale of Settlement resided officially in urban centers. Their stay in these areas was facilitated by their steady removal from the villages. As such, Jews were forced to live in urban areas that lacked the economic base to support a large population. As a result, poverty and overcrowding were common attributes among the Jews living in the Russian Empire (Rowland 230).

Another form of persecution that Jews went through in the Russian Empire involved forceful conscription into the army. As early as 1825, Czar Nicholas I had put in place plans to destroy the lives of Russian Jews during his reign. In 1825, he ordered all youth belonging to this community to join the armed forces. The decree affected children that were as young as 12 years (Stanislawski 62). Many of these youngsters were kidnapped and taken in to the army barracks. As a result, the morale of the Russian Jewish community was considerably lowered. The Jews who did not join the army were often expelled from their villages and towns as a punishment (Wengeroff 79).

By 1844, authorities in the Russian Empire had done very little to improve the welfare of Jews in their territory. At the time, the Pale of Settlement policy had been discarded. However, new and equally oppressive community structures were put in place. For instance, laws prohibiting the Jews from growing sidelocks were passed (Wengeroff 80). In addition, the individuals were not allowed to wear traditional attires.

In 19th century Russia, Jews were categorized as either ‘useful’ or ‘not useful’. The merchants, especially those who supported commerce, belonged to the first category (Wengeroff 81). Most members of the Jewish community were opposed to this form of classification. The resistance was witnessed in Russia, Western Europe, and in other parts of the world. However, little changed under the rule of Czar Nicholas I.

From time to time, Russian Jews were subjected to varying levels of discrimination and persecution. For instance, 1843 saw their expulsion from Kiev, a city they had called home for many centuries (Rowland 210). Most of the expelled persons lost their property and livelihoods. At times, they were chained and deported to the Pale of Settlement.

Pogroms were another form of persecution that the Jews faced in the early 18th century. The treatment became common following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 (Stanislawski 65). They involved riots from members of the public. The acts of violence were directed at the Jews. They targeted individual persons, groups, commercial establishments, and homes. The Russian government either sympathized with the pogromists or openly supported them (Stanislawski 65).

Reasons that Led to the Persecution of Jews in the Russian Empire

Religion was one of the factors behind the discrimination against Jews. Before 1800 CE, the persecution in Russia was motivated by religious reasons. The Jews were predominantly Judaists. They had inherited the faith from their ancestors in Israel. As such, anti-Jewish policies and movements were often regarded as anti-Judaism (Heinz-Dietrich 53).

In most instances, the Jews were compelled to convert into Christianity as a form of redemption. For instance, Catherine the Great offered them the chance to reside outside the segregated Pale of Settlement if they adopted the new faith (Heinz-Dietrich 53). One of her major aims was to keep this community outside the Orthodox Christian Russia. However, most of the Jews could never imagine themselves as Christians. As a result, they opted for the miserable lives.

According to Heinz-Dietrich, early Christian churches taught that all the Jews were responsible for the death of Christ Jesus (53). Consequently, they were destined to atone for their sins through persecution and oppression. They could only escape the pain and suffering by turning to Christianity. The popular belief was that some of the Jews should be left to live. The reason is that the Christian Bible determined they had a role to play during the end of times (Heinz-Dietrich 54).

Ethnic background also informed the form of treatment that the Jews received from the Russian authorities. Most of the anti-Judaism policies perpetuated by the Russian government in the early 18th century were based on racial discrimination. According to Rowland, the Jews were regarded as a different race of people (211). The Russian Empire was predominantly made up of Caucasians. On their parts, the Jews were regarded as Semites since they originated from Semitic speaking region of the world, the Middle East (Rowland 211). In light of this, their persecution came to be referred to as anti-Semitism.

The other factor that led to the violence against the Jewish community in the Russian Empire was fear of competition, jealous, and envy. The Jews were primarily engaged in commerce during the early 18th century (Heinz-Dietrich 69). Most of them focused on trade and rarely ventured into other businesses. Consequently, some Russian merchants felt threatened by the Jewish traders. They encouraged the formulation of policies to curb their economic prowess. For instance, Rowland argues that one of the reasons why Catherine the Great established the Pale of Settlement was to check economic competition posed by the Jews in mainland Russia (231).

Present Day Jews in Russia

In spite of their grim past, contemporary Jews in Russia have become part of the mainstream society. Regardless of the difficulties they faced in the 18th century, Russia still has one of the largest Jewish communities in the world. The country hosts fourth largest group of Jews in the global arena. Other countries in this category include the United States, Israel, and France (Bartal 26). Most of the Jews in today’s Russia are found in urban areas, including St. Petersburg and Moscow. Others reside in the Pale of Settlement, which is made up of present day Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, and Moldova (Bartal 26).


The Russian history is characterized by a number of ethno-political minority groups. Most of them were subjected to violence due to their status. However, the contemporary Russian society is considerably tolerant in relation to people from other parts of the world, especially following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Jews remain part of Russia in spite of the violence meted against them in the past.

Works Cited

Bartal, Israel. The Jews of Eastern Europe, 1772-1881, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. Print.

Heinz-Dietrich, Lowe. “Poles, Jews, and Tartars: Religion, Ethnicity, and Social Structure in Tsarist Nationality Policies.” Jewish Social Studies 6.3 (2000): 52-96. Print.

Rowland, Richard. “Geographical Patterns of the Jewish Population in the Pale of Settlement of Late Nineteenth Century Russia.” Jewish Social Studies 48.3/4 (1986): 207-234. Print.

Stanislawski, Michael. Tsar Nicholas I and the Jews: The Transformation of Jewish Society in Russia, 1825-1855, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1983. Print.

Treewater-Lipes, Regan. “The Jewish Dark Continent: Life and Death in the Russian Pale of Settlement.” Nationalities Papers 40.4 (2012): 650-651. Print.

Vucinich, Wayne. The Peasant in Nineteenth-Century Russia, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1968. Print.

Wengeroff, Pauline. Memoirs of a Grandmother: Scenes from the Cultural History of the Jews of Russia in the Nineteenth Century, Volume One, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010. Print.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Jewish Communities in Russia in the 19th Century." May 18, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/jewish-communities-in-russia-in-the-19th-century/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'Jewish Communities in Russia in the 19th Century'. 18 May.

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