Jewish Emancipation in Russia

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

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In 1881, with the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, a revolution occurred in the lives of Russian Jewry. Rumors flew in the wake of the assassination. One connected the assassination to the Jews (technically, one Jew, Hesia Helfman, was present). Another claimed that the Tsar had issued a decree instructing the people to beat and plunder the Jews for having murdered his father and exploiting the people. In April 1881, a pogrom (anti-Jewish riot) erupted in Elisavetgrad; others followed through the year, beginning in cities and spreading to towns and villages. At first, Russian officials were terrified that the pogroms were part of a general revolutionary ferment, but then officials changed their tone and placed the responsibility for the pogroms squarely on the shoulders of the Jews.

Government officials set out to narrow the scope of so-called "Jewish exploitation" by passing a set of measures designed to resettle Jews from countryside to urban areas and passing restrictions on Jewish commerce and trade. These were the infamous "May Laws," dubbed by Historian Simon Dubnow "legislative pogroms." The May Laws forbade new Jewish settlement outside of towns, prohibited Jews from buying land in the countryside, and banned Jews from trading on Christian holidays and Sundays. Additional legislation sliced Jewish university quotas in half and effectively barred Jews from entering or practicing the professions.

The pogroms and the May Laws undermined the prevailing integrationist political ideology pushed by the Haskalah. The events of 1881-1882 shook the assumption that the steady acculturation of the Jew would naturally bring about equal rights and security. A range of new philosophies, including Zionism, socialism, and emigration, emerged in Russia. The adherents of these philosophies argued that Jews could not and should not integrate as individuals into the existing society, but that they should rather act to create their own destiny either within Russia or abroad.

Dr. Leo Pinsker, a medical doctor and former adherent of the Haskalah, articulated this new call to action in his 1882 pamphlet "Auto-Emancipation." This pamphlet reasoned that Jews could no longer wait for the kind of emancipation in which rights are granted from above. They needed to pursue collective self-liberation themselves--auto-emancipation.

There were still integrationists who hoped to achieve emancipation in the western sense. But, in addition, there were diaspora nationalists who wanted to establish an autonomous Jewish state in Russia, Zionists who wanted to build a Jewish state in Palestine, and Socialists who wanted a revolution to free all citizens from the oppressive grasp of the industrialized state.

With the formation of a quasi-constitutional monarchy after the revolution of 1905, Jews had their chance at legal emancipation in the western sense. Russian Jews were elected to the Duma, where the question of emancipation was debated but not resolved before the Duma was dissolved in 1906. Formal emancipation finally came to the Jews of Russia after the dissolution of the tsarist state in 1917. That same year, the Provisional Government passed a decree abolishing all religious and national restrictions, which, in effect, granted citizenship to Russia's Jews. While this decree made Jews citizens of Russia, it did not erase the realities of public anti-semitism. Pogroms continued to erupt as civil war engulfed Russia from 1918-1921. When the Bolsheviks emerged from civil war victorious, a new chapter in Russian Jewish history commenced--the subject of which was maintaining Judaism under communism.

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