Russian Jews

At the end of the 19th century there was an estimated 5,500,000 Jews living in Russia. Under a law introduced by Alexander III, all Russian Jews were forced to live in what became known as the Pale of Jewish Settlement. Exceptions were made for rich business people, students and for certain professions. The Pale comprised the ten Polish and fifteen neighbouring Russian provinces, stretching from Riga to Odessa, from Silesia to Vilna and Kiev.

After the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 there was a wave of pogroms in Russia against the Jewish community. This led to a large increase in Jews leaving Russia. Of these, more than 90 per cent settled in the United States.

A significant number of Jews played leading roles in the October Revolution. This included Leon Trotsky, Gregory Zinoviev, Lev Kamenev, Dimitri Bogrov, Karl Radek, Yakov Sverdlov, Maxim Litvinov, Adolf Joffe, and Moisei Uritsky.

On 10th July, 1918, the Soviet government passed a law that abolished all discrimination between Jews and non-Jews. This resulted in a considerable amount of Jewish migration within the Soviet Union.

Primary Sources

(1) Mary Antin, The Promised Land (1912)

The Gentiles used to wonder at us because we cared so much about religious things about food and Sabbath and teaching the children Hebrew. They were angry with us for our obstinacy, as they called it, and mocked us and ridiculed the most sacred things. There were wise Gentiles who understood. These were educated people, like Fedora Pavlovna, who made friends with their Jewish neighbors. They were always respectful and openly admired some of our ways. But most of the Gentiles were ignorant. There was one thing, however, the Gentiles always understood, and that was money. They would take any kind of bribe, at any time. They expected it. Peace cost so much a year, in Polotzk. If you did not keep on good terms with your Gentile neighbors, they had a hundred ways of molesting you. If you chased their pigs when they came rooting up your garden, or objected to their children maltreating your children, they might complain against you to the police, stuffing their case with false accusations and false witnesses. If you had not made friends with the police, the case might go to court; and there you lost before the trial was called unless the judge had reason to befriend you.

The Tsar was always sending us commands - you shall not do this and you shall not do that - till there was very little left that we might do, except pay tribute and die. One positive command he gave us: You shall love and honor your emperor. In every congregation a prayer must be said for the Tsar's health, or the chief of police would close the synagogue. On a royal birthday every house must fly a flag, or the owner would be dragged to a police station and be fined twenty-five rubles. A decrepit old woman, who lived all alone in a tumble-down shanty, supported by the charity of the neighborhood, crossed her paralyzed hands one day when flags were ordered up, and waited for her doom, because she had no flag. The vigilant policeman kicked the door open with his great boot, took the last pillow from the bed, sold it, and hoisted a flag above the rotten roof.

The Tsar always got his dues, no matter if it ruined a family. There was a poor locksmith who owed the Tsar three hundred rubles, because his brother had escaped from Russia before serving his time in the army. There was no such fine for Gentiles, only for Jews; and the whole family was liable. Now the locksmith never could have so much money, and he had no valuables to pawn. The police came and attached his household goods, everything he had, including his bride's trousseau; and the sale of the goods brought thirty-five rubles. After a year's time the police came again, looking for the balance of the Tsar's dues. They put their seal on everything they found.

There was one public school for boys, and one for girls, but Jewish children were admitted in limited numbers - only ten to a hundred; and even the lucky ones had their troubles. First, you had to have a tutor at home, who prepared you and talked all the time about the examination you would have to pass, till you were scared. You heard on all sides that the brightest Jewish children were turned down if the examining officers did not like the turn of their noses. You went up to be examined with the other Jewish children, your heart heavy about that matter of your nose. There was a special examination for the Jewish candidates, of course: a nine-year-old Jewish child had to answer questions that a thirteen-year-old Gentile was hardly expected to answer. But that did not matter so much; you had been prepared for the thirteen-year-old test. You found the questions quite easy. You wrote your answers triumphantly - and you received a low rating, and there was no appeal.

I used to stand in the doorway of my father's store munching an apple that did not taste good any more, and watch the pupils going home from school in twos and threes; the girls in neat brown dresses and black aprons and little stiff hats, the boys in trim uniforms with many buttons. They had ever so many books in the satchels on their backs. They would take them out at home, and read and write, and learn all sorts of interesting things. They looked to me like beings from another world than mine. But those whom I envied had their troubles, as I often heard. Their school life was one struggle against injustice from instructors, spiteful treatment from fellow students, and insults from everybody. They were rejected at the universities, where they were admitted in the ratio of three Jews to a hundred Gentiles, under the same debarring entrance conditions as at the high school: especially rigorous examinations, dishonest marking, or arbitrary rulings without disguise. No, the Tsar did not want us in the schools.

(2) Leopold Trepper was brought up in Novy-Targ, a small town in Galicia that at the time was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Jewish community in Novy-Targ, which was about three thousand strong when I was a child, had been in existence since the founding of the town in the Middle Ages. The district was inhabited by very poor peasants, who had to struggle to extract a meager subsistence from unproductive land. In the villages the people only ate bread once a week. The daily fare was potato pancakes and cabbage.

On Sunday, the peasants came to Novy-Targ by the hundreds to attend mass; they carried their shoes on their shoulders and did not put them on until they were just about to enter the church. The Jews who tilled the land were no better off- for them, too, a pair of shoes had to last a lifetime.

The number of people who left for the United states and Canada increased with every year. Hoping to find the new Eden, they prepared joyously for the long voyage. I can still see them, the collars of their shirts wide open over what passed for suits. They carried little wooden suitcases, and they looked proud in their magnificent bowler hats.

(3) Bernard Pares, a British academic, was a regular visitor to Russia during the reign of Nicholas II.

At this time the favourite object of persecution was the Jewry of Russia, which was in 1914 nearly one half of the whole Jewish population of the world. And here Nicholas was as bad as Alexander. It was not just a question of what rights the Jews did not possess, but whether they had the right to exist at all. But for special exemptions, the Jewish population was confined to the so-called Jewish Pale of Settlement, where they lived under Polish rule before the partitions of Poland.

(4) In her book Promised Land, Mary Antin described what it was like to be Jewish in Russia during the 1880s.

I remember a time when I thought a pogrom had broken out in our street, and I wonder that I did not die of fear. It was some Christian holiday, and we had been warned by the police to keep indoors. Gates were locked; shutters were barred. Fearful and yet curious, we looked through the cracks in the shutters. We saw a procession of peasants and townspeople, led by priests, carrying crosses and banners and images. We lived in fear till the end of the day, knowing that the least disturbance might start a riot, and a riot led to a pogrom.

(5) Joseph Stalin, article in Brdzola newspaper (December, 1901)

Groaning are the oppressed nationalities and religions in Russia, among them the Poles and Finns. Groaning are the unceasingly persecuted and humiliated Jews, deprived even those miserable rights that other Russian subjects enjoy the right to live where they choose, the right to go to school, etc. Groaning are the Georgians, the Armenians and other nations who can neither have their own schools nor be employed by the state and are compelled to submit to the shameful and oppressive policies of Russification.

(6) Felix Yusupov was in Petrograd during the October Revolution.

The day after I arrived, the Provisional Government collapsed and the Bolshevik party, with Lenin and Trotsky at its head, assumed power. All government posts were instantly occupied by Jewish commissaries, more or less camouflaged under Russian names. Indescribable confusion reigned in the capital; bands of soldiers and sailors broke into people's houses, pillaging and murdering. The town was in the hands of a frenzied, bloodthirsty populace, eager for destruction.

(7) Decree passed by the Soviet Government (10th July, 1918)

The RSFSR recognizing the equality of all citizens, irrespective of race or nationality, declare it contrary to the fundamental laws of the Republic to institute or tolerate privileges or to repress national minorities, or in any way to limit their rights.

(8) Julius Streicher, Der Stuermer (May, 1939)

There must be a punitive expedition against the Jews in Russia, a punitive expedition which will expect: death sentence and execution. Then the world will see the end of the Jews is also the end of Bolshevism.