Catherine II and the Socio-Economic Origins of the Jewish Question in Russia

15 December 2019

Alessandro Sette

In late-eighteenth century, the three-stage partition (1772, 1793, and 1795) of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth between Russia, Prussia and Austria not only gave the Tsarist Empire control over a great portion of Eastern Europe, it also transformed the largest Jewish community in the world into subjects of the Romanovs. Consequently, the Empress, Catherine II, found herself compelled to solve an unexpected problem, namely, how best to integrate hundreds of thousands of Jews in a nation, Russia, wherefrom the Jews had been expelled just some decades earlier. Taking as a point of departure works by leading historians, such as Simon Dubnow, John D. Klier, Richard Pipes, Michael Aronson, Benjamin Nathans and Hans Rogger, this paper hereby aims at analysing the Jewish policy put into practice by the Russian Government during the reign of Catherine II. More specifically, this work tries to shed new light on how and why the Jewish presence into the Tsarist Empire became a “question” for Russian policymakers. First of all, it explores the religious and social reasons that led Russians to perceive the Jews as an alien element, as well as Catherine II’s personal views on this issue. Further, the paper investigates the differences between Russian and Jewish economic cultures and how the latter affected Catherine II’s early Jewish policy. Thus, the essay concludes in an examination of the logic beyond the foundation of the Pale of Settlement, namely the area in which Jews were forced to reside and work.

Catherine II, Polish partitions, Jewish question in Russia, economic anti-Semitism, Pale of Settlement.

1. The merging of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania under the same sovereign began in 1386 with the Act of Krewo, namely the document that ratified the arranged marriage between Lithuania’s Grand Duke Jogaila (the later Władysław Jagiełło) to Jadvyga of Anjou, the heiress to the throne of Poland. The personal union became a full union in 1568, when the two nations were formally merged in a single, yet federated state with the Act of Lublin.

2. On the three partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth see Jerzy Lukowski, ThePartitions of Poland1772, 1793, 1795 (London & New York: Longman, 1999).

3. As few source materials exist, it is quite difficult to accurately estimate the Jewish population in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the eighteenth century. The most reliable figure appears to be that based on Mahler’s analysis of the 1764-1765 Polish-Lithuanian government’s fiscal census. Mahler concludes that at that time, there were approximately 750,000 Jews within the borders of the Commonwealth. See Rafael Mahler Yidn in Amoylikn Poilin in Likht fon Zifern (Warsaw, 1958), 32-42. According to Hundert, by the end of the eighteenth century, Polish-Jews numbered about one million people, representing approximately 80% of the world’s Jewry. See Gershon D. Hundert, Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century: A Genealogy of Modernity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 22.

4. Israel Bartal, The Jews of Eastern Europe, 1772-1881 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 34.

5. The Russo-Polish War, also known as the “Thirteen Years’ War”, ended in 1667 with the Armistice of Andrusovo. It secured Russia’s possession of Kiev and Smolensk alongside all the Ukrainian territories on the Left bank of the Dnieper river, the latter of which was home to a quite large Jewish population.

6. Catherine I’s full edict is quoted in Simon Dubnow, History of the Jews in Russia and Poland, from the Earliest Times Until the Present Day (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1916), 3 vols., I, 250.

7. John Klier, Russia Gathers Her Jews: The Origins of the “Jewish Question” in Russia, 1772-1825 (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1986), 28.

8. The full text of Elizabeth’s ukase can be found in Dubnow, History of the Jews in Russia and Poland, 255.

9., 257.

10. In many respects, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth represented an exception among the states of Europe. It was a constitutional monarchy with a sovereign elected by the local aristocracy. The latter was represented in a parliament (in Polish, Sejm), which had the primary task of preventing the king from exercising absolute power. It was also the most tolerant state within Europe more generally, to the point that it was given the Latin name of Asylum Haereticorum in the Middle Ages.

11. Israel Friedlander, The Jews of Russia and Poland: a bird's-eye view of their history and culture (New York & London: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1915), 43.

12. On the relationship between Jews and magnates in Poland-Lithuania see Murray J. Rosman, The Lords’ Jews: Magnate-Jewish Relations in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the 18th Century (Cambridge: Center for Jewish Studies and the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, Harvard University Press, 1990).

13. See La Vie du Cardinal Jean Françoise Commendon écrite en latine par Antoine Maria Gratiani, Evesque d’Amelia. Et traduite en François par monsieur Fléchier, Abbé de S. Severin (Paris, 1680), 270.

14. On the shtetl see Ben-Cion Pinchuk, “The Shtetl: An Ethnic Town in the Russian Empire”, in Cahiers du monde russe 41 (2000): 495-504; John Klier, “What exactly was a Shtetl?”, in Gennady Estraikh and Mikhail Krutikov, eds., The Shtetl: Image and Reality (Oxford: Legenda, published by The European Humanities Research Centre, 2000), 23-35; Israel Bartal, “Imagined Geography. The Shtetl, Myth and Reality”, in Steven Katz, ed., The Shtetl: New Evaluations (New York & London: New York University Press, 2007), 179-193.

15. Hundert, Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century, 15.

16. Hans Rogger, “Government, Jews, peasants, and land in post-emancipation Russia [The pre-emancipation background; stirrings and limits of reform]”, in Cahiers du monde russe et soviétique 17, 1 (1976): 7. On the matter see also Hundert, Jews in Poland-Lithuania in the Eighteenth Century, 34.

17. In 1573, complete freedom of religion was guaranteed to the Jews by the Warsaw Confederation Act. Further to this, legal status, freedom of movement, autonomy in trade and exemption from slavery and serfdom were secured for the Jewish community by general and local privileges. For further information on this matter, see Jacob Goldberg, “The Privileges granted to Jewish Communities of the Polish Commonwealth as a Stabilizing Factor in Jewish Support”, in Chimen Abramsky, Maciej Jachimczyk and Antony Polonsky, eds., The Jews in Poland (London: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 31-54. For a collection of such privileges see Jewish Privileges in the Polish Commonwealth: Charters of Rights Granted to Jewish Communities in Poland-Lithuania in the Sixteenth to Eighteenth Centuries, Jacob Goldberg, ed., 3 vols. (Jerusalem: 1985).

18. John Klier, “The Ambiguous Legal Status of Russian Jewry in the Reign of Catherine II”, in Slavic Review, 3 (1976): 506.

19. On Polish-Lithuanian Jews’ structure of self-government see Friedlander, The Jews of Russia and Poland, 161-170; Dubnow, History of the Jews in Russia and Poland, 103-113; Jacob Goldberg, “The Jewish Sejm: Its Origins and Functions”, in Anthony Polonsky, Jakub Batista and Andrej Link-Lenczowski, eds., The Jews in Old Poland 1000-1795 (London: I.B. Tauris and Co., 1993), 147-165.

20. Alexei Miller, The Romanov Empire and Nationalism: Essays in the Methodology of Historical Research (Budapest & New York: CEU Press, 2008), 95.

21. Catherine II’s proclamation is quoted in Bartal, The Jews of Eastern Europe, 1772-1881, 58.

22. On the 1776 edict see Dubnow, History of the Jews in Russia and Poland, 309.

23. Iwo Cyprian Pogonowsky, Jews in Poland. A Documentary History (New York: Hippocrene, 1998), 71.

24. Yiddish was the language of the Ashkenazim, namely the Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. It was a German-based vernacular mixed with Hebrew and Aramaic idioms.

25. For exhaustive accounts on Medieval myths and beliefs regarding the Jews and their connection with Judaeophobia see Joshua Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews: The Medieval Conception of the Jew and its Relation to Modern Antisemitism (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1943); Robert Chazan, Medieval Stereotypes and Modern Anti-Semitism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

26. See Anthony Polonsky, The Jews in Poland and Russia (Portland: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2010), 328.

27. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica, between 1772 and 1881 about 60% of Jewish population worked in moneylending, trade, brokerage and inn-keeping, 15% in craft and only 1% in agriculture. See Encyclopedia Judaica, 1971 ed., “Russia”.

28. A governorate (in Russian, guberniya) was the principal administrative division of the Russian Empire and corresponded, in the Western system, to a province.

29. On the Jews’ involvement in alcohol production and distribution (in Russian, Propinacja) see Hillel Levine, “Between Polish Autarky and Russian Autocracy: the Jews, the Propinacja, and the Rhetoric of Reform”, in International Review of Social History, 27, I (1982): 66-84.

30. Richard Pipes, “Catherine II and the Jews: The Origins of the Pale of Settlement”, in Soviet Jewish Affairs 5 (1975): 5.

31. Judith Kalik, Movable Inn: The Rural Jewish Population of Minsk Guberniya in 1793-1914 (Warsaw: De Gruyter, 2018), 36.

32. Klier, “The Ambiguous Legal Status of Russian Jewry in the Reign of Catherine II”, 509.

33. See Benjamin Nathans, Beyond the Pale: the Jewish Encounter with Late Imperial Russia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 26.

34. To justify his actions, Passek claimed that since all Jews had been instructed to register themselves on the census book of the nearest municipality in 1776, they should be regarded as city-dwellers.

35. The provinces of Yekaterinoslav, Kherson and Taurida, all situated on the northern shores of the Black Sea, had become part of the Tsarist Empire after the Russo-Turkish wars of 1787 and 1792.

36. Pipes, “Catherine II and the Jews: The Origins of the Pale of Settlement”, 5.

37. Bartal, The Jews of Eastern Europe, 1772-1881, 59.

38. See for example Dubnow, History of the Jews in Russia and Poland, 316.

39. The great majority of Russians proper lacked the right to free circulation and residence, alongside freedom in their occupational activities, except in their own towns or villages. As Rogger points out, the exclusion from certain regions, as well as from certain corporations, “was unusual neither in the Russian nor the European context. […]. Russian law did not recognize a right of free movement until 1785, and then only for nobles. The enrolment of any merchant or townsman in the corresponding corporation or guild of another city required administrative approval and usually the agreement of the guilds. Their opposition and that of local officials could prevail over the laws […].” Hans Rogger,Jewish Policies and Right Wing Politics in Imperial Russia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986), 7. Limitations concerning residential and occupational freedoms were adopted for economic reasons also within Jewish communities. Indeed, as Weinryb affirms, “the Jews in most of Europe […] had an elaborate system of trade protection […] called the herem hayshuv […] a prohibition against strangers taking up residence in an established community without formal permission […].” Bernard Dov Weinryb, The Jews of Poland; A Social and Economic History of the Jewish Community in Poland from 1100 to 1800 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1973), 157 et seq.

40. In that same period, restrictions on Jews’ rights to residence, professional practice and the ownership or leasing of land also existed, for example, in Prussia and Austria-Hungary.

List of illustrations

Fig. 1. The Partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Encyclopædia Britannica, 466910/ 396, accessed 01/10/2019).

Fig. 2. The Pale of Jewish Settlement. Map from Raymond P. Scheindlin, A Short History of the Jewish People: From Legendary Times to Modern Statehood (New York: Macmillan, 1998), 177.

Fig. 3. Market day at a shtetl in Poland. Chaya Mindel Way, What is a Shtetl? The Jewish Town, jewish/What-Is-a-Shtetl -The-Jewish-Town.htm, accessed 02/02/2019.

Fig. 4. A shtetl market. “The shtetl was a Jewish Atlantis,” says Johanan Petrovsky-Shtern,, accessed 02/02/2019.

Fig. 5. Council of the four lands. Adam Teller, Councils. YIVO - Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, Councils, accessed 02/02/2019.

Fig. 6. Jan Feliks Piwarski (1794-1859), Jewish merchants in XIX century Warsaw, _in_XIX_century_Warsaw.PNG&oldid=288098137, accessed 30/10/2019.