Jewish Emancipation in Russia

Faced with state-endorsed anti-semitism, Russian Jews attempted to make their own emancipation.

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"Emancipation" in the western sense--that is, a contract between citizens and a modern nation state--is a term that does not apply to Russia until the twentieth century because Russia did not become a modern nation-state until the October Revolution of 1905. Before 1905, Russia was a feudal society wherein subjects contracted privileges from a sovereign. Within this feudal society, however, some Russian Jews attempted to expand their rights. The following article outlines the Jewish pursuit of self-styled emancipation in Russia from the late eighteenth century through 1917.

Until the Polish partitions of 1772, 1793, and 1795, when Poland, wrecked by invasions and wars, was annexed by her neighbors (Russia, Prussia, and Austria respectively) and no longer existed as an independent country, there were virtually no Jews in Russia, nor was there any formal recognition of Jewish residence. (Jews were not officially allowed to settle in "Holy Russia," however, prior to 1772, some traders resided there whom the government pretended not to notice.) With the acquisition of Belorussia, Lithuania, and the Ukraine from Poland, the Russian state inherited hundreds of thousands of Jews--making Russia home to the largest Jewish community in the world. After 1795, Russia's tsars struggled with the fundamental question of how to define the Jews legally, both as individuals and as a collective.

Tsarist policy toward the Jews alternated between acts of repression and liberation. The Russian Haskalah (or Jewish enlightenment), however, pursued a policy of integration for the Jews from the mid-1800s through 1881.

The Russian Haskalah struck a tenuous alliance with the Russian government in the name of the integration of Russia's Jews into Russian society. During the reign of Nicholas I, for example, members of the Haskalah worked with the Ministry of Education to develop a state-sponsored system of Jewish schools in Russia, the crown schools. These schools, which taught the Russian language and other secular subjects, were met with opposition from traditional Jews, the Hasidim in particular. They opposed secular education, especially the sort provided by the government, which usually came with an invitation to convert. As a result, few Jewish children attended these schools.  (It should be noted that all was not education and enlightenment under Nicholas I. His Jewish conscription policies were infamous for requiring the enlistment of Jewish boys ages 12-18 for a 25-year period during which they underwent a severe program of "Russification" aimed at conversion.)

During the political, social, and cultural thaw that accompanied the reign of Nicholas' successor, Alexander II, the Russian Haskalah attempted to Russify the Jewish masses. To this end, the maskilim (advocates of and participants in the Haskalah) urged practical reforms, inducing traditional Jews to depart from their "superstitious ways" of dress, diet, and demeanor and embrace a Russian lifestyle. Yehuda Leib Gordon, one of the Russian Haskalah's great poets, wrote during this period, "Be a man abroad and a Jew at home." Russian Jewry should, according the Haskalah, adopt the values, customs, and language of the greater society.

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Joellyn Wallen Zollman holds a PhD in Jewish History from Brandeis University. She was the History and Community editor of MyJewishLearning.com.