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The Ambiguous Legal Status of Russian Jewry in the Reign of Catherine II

  • John D. Klier

A Russian proverb knowingly reminds us that “the law is like a wagon-tongue —whichever way you point it, there it goes.” It is useful to remember this observation when examining the position of the Jews in the nineteenth-century Russian Empire. The legal basis for that position, which was characterized by exclusion and discrimination, has commonly been traced to the period from 1772 to 1796, when Russia's Jews first entered the empire in large numbers. This study will describe the creation of the legal “wagon-tongue” during the late eighteenth century, and will suggest that the legal precedents cannot be understood by only considering the directions in which the law was later to be pointed. Emphasis will be placed on the initial evolution of an ad hoc body of law, confused, contradictory, and ambiguous, capable of subsequent interpretation and elaboration with either sympathy or hostility.

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1. For one example, see Becker, Christopher, “ Rasnochintsy: The Development of the Word and of the Concept,” American Slavic and East European Review , 18, no. 1 (1959): 6374.

2. The principal source for this study is the Polnoe sobranie zakonov Rossiiskoi imperii: Sobranie pervoe, 46 vols. (St. Petersburg, 1830-43). (Hereafter cited as PSZ.)

3. Russian legislators at first used the term zhid (in Polish zid), which was already acquiring a pejorative connotation in Russian, although not in Polish. After 1780 it was replaced in legislative enactments by the more polite evrei.

4. This is not to deny the real and potent existence of anti-Semitic feeling in Russian history, nor the possibility of anti-Semitic prejudice among some Russian officials. See, for example, the recent survey of Halperin, Charles J., “Judaizers and the Image of the Jew in Medieval Russia: A Polemic Revisited and a Question Posed,” Canadian-American Slavic Studies, 9 (Summer 1975): 141–55. In my opinion, however, surveys of the period under review have often relied too heavily upon the orientation provided by such classic studies as Dubnow, Simon, History of the Jews in Russia and Poland, 3 vols. (Philadelphia, 1916-20). Dubnow himself recognized the difficulties created for local administrators by official ignorance and inconsistency (ibid., 1: 308). At the same time Dubnow emphasized a long tradition of Russian religious anti-Semitism in order to explain any enactment which appeared to him to burden or discriminate against Jews. The result is often a simplistic view of a complex situation. See, for example, ibid., 1: 310, 315, 320, 334, for the period under review. Likewise, Halperin concludes his interesting study of religious and polemical attitudes toward the Jews by observing that “It goes without saying that the roots of the Imperial Russian treatment of the Jews acquired in the Polish partitions lie in the medieval period.” Such an unqualified statement is misleading when applied to the entire eighteenth century in Russia. While there is ample evidence of anti-Semitism in partitioned Poland, it was usually encountered on the local level and was thus not really “Russian” in origin at all. Moreover, it was directed against the laws and policies of the Russian government. In my opinion, there is no evidence for characterizing Catherine or her government as motivated primarily by anti-Semitism in the official response to problems created by Jewish settlement in Russia.

5. All Jews who refused to be converted to Orthodoxy were expelled from Russia by Empress Elizabeth in 1742 (PSZ, vol. 11, no. 8, 673, December 2, 1742). The Jews thus expelled were almost entirely residents of Ukrainian border areas. An ukas of 1769 permitted Jews to settle in Novorossiia ﹛PSZ, vol. 8, no. 13, 383, November 16, 1769). Such settlement was never significant, however, and the settlers originally would have come under those statutes which regulated foreign settlements, such as those of the Volga Germans.

6. An extensive survey of Jewish life in Poland from 1100 to 1800 is found in Weinryb, Bernard D., The Jews of Poland (Philadelphia, 1973). For a fuller picture of Jewish communal autonomy in Poland, see Teimanas, David B., L'autonomie des communautes Juives en Pologne mix XVIe et XVHe sifcles (Paris, 1933). For an excellent account of communal life after the partitions, see Levitats, Isaac, The Jewish Community in Russia, 1772-1844 (New York, 1943).

7. PSZ, vol. 19, no. 13, 850 (August 16, 1772).

8. PSZ, vol. 21, no. 15, 436 (June 16, 1782); vol. 25, no. 18, 889 (March 14, 1799).

9. PSZ, vol. 19, no. 13, 865: no. 1 (September 13, 1772); vol. 20, no. 14, 892 (July 3, 1779).

10. PSZ, vol. 20, no. 14, 522 (October 17, 1776).

11. Mahler, Raphael in A History of Modern Jewry, 1780-1815 (New York, 1971), emphasizes the decline of the kahal and the extent to which it had become a tool of the privileged classes. He argues that communal exploitation was a factor in the rise of the mystical, and socially disruptive, movement of Hasidism (pp. 435-39). Levitats, on the other hand, rejects the common assumption that the rise of Hasidism contributed to the decline of the kahal system (Jewish Community in Russia, p. 163).

12. During the reign of Paul, the central government became convinced that “Jewish exploitation” was the chief cause of the widespread poverty of the Belorussian peasantry, an assumption fostered by the local nobility and by reports of bureaucratic investigators. See S. A. Bershadskii, “Polozhenie o evreiakh 1804 goda,” Voskhod, 15 (January 1895): 82-104; (March 1895): 69-96; (June 1895): 33-63.

13. Any attempt to define these terms provides another demonstration of the ambiguity of Russian legal terminology throughout the eighteenth century. In Catherine's reign, “city society” was divided roughly into these two imprecise categories. The meshchanstvo comprised those city residents who had a yearly income of less than 500 rubles and who were engaged in trade or handicrafts in the broadest meaning of these terms. The meshchane paid a set head tax and were liable for personal military service. The kupechestvo, or “merchants,” were defined by an income of more than 500 rubles and, less precisely, by economic activity. This group was further subdivided into three guilds on the basis of income. The kuptsy paid a tax of one percent on declared income, as well as a special levy which freed them from a personal military obligation. See Ditiatin, I., Ustroistvo i upravlenie gorodov Rossii, 2 vols. (St. Petersburg, 1875-77), 1: 398–99.

14. PSZ, vol. 20, no. 14, 522 (October 17, 1776).

15. Ibid., no. 14, 962 (January 7, 1780).

16. PSZ, vol. 21, no. 15, 130: no. 1 (March 10, 1781).

17. For a description of Jewish economic activity see Wischnitzer, Mark, A History of leivish Crafts and Guilds (New York, 1965), especially pp. 223-24. Wischnitzer estimates that one third of Poland's Jews were engaged in some form of leaseholding on the eve of the partitions.

18. Hessen, Iulii [Gessen, ], Istoriia evreiskogo naroda v Rossii , 2 vols. (Leningrad, 1925-27), 1: 57.

19. Ibid., pp. 58-59.

20. PSZ, vol. 22, no. 16, 188 (April 21, 1785).

21. Kizevetter, Aleksandr A. [Kiesewetter, ], Gorodovoe polozhenie Ekateriny II, 1785 g . (Moscow, 1909). See, for example, the confusion surrounding the terms meshchanin and meshchanstvo, pp. 35-38, 87. Kizevetter notes that in a number of cases the Charter was so ambiguous and unclear that further legislation was necessary in order to interpret it (p. 321).

22. PSZ, vol. 22, no. 16, 391 (May 7, 1786).

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. Arkhiv gosudarstvennago soveta, vol. 1, part 2 (St. Petersburg, 1869), pp. 365-

68. The desire of the Moscow kupechestvo to preserve economic monopolies might be considered at least partially motivated by anti-Semitism (that is, against the Jews as an economic group) if it had been directed only against the Jews. Kupechestvo leaders of any urban center, however, customarily opposed the settlement of any competitive outsiders, whether Jews, foreigners, or Russian inogorodnie.

26. See, for example, PSZ, vol. 23, no. 17, 006 (December 23, 1791), and no. 17, 224 (June 23, 1794).

27. PSZ, vol. 22, no. 16, 188 (April 21, 1785

28. PSZ, vol. 22, no. 16, 146 (February 4, 1785).

29. S. A. Bershadskii, “Polozhenie o evreiakh,” Voskhod, 15 (June 1895): 45-55. Hessen notes that, in the reign of Nicholas I, Jews were sometimes forced by local officials to vote with the curiae of foreigners in municipal elections. Far from resulting in the equalization of Jewish representation, however, such decisions were aimed at the reduction of the representation of Jews in urban government (Istoriia, 2: 50, n. 37).

30. Double taxation had been employed previously in Russian history, most notably by Peter the Great, who imposed such a system on the Old Believers as a revenue producing measure. The origin and motivation of this double tax for Jews remains obscure, and there has- been considerable debate surrounding, but not resolving, the question. Dubnow viewed the tax as nothing more than another manifestation of traditional Russian anti-Semitism. A less sympathetic Russian historian, Golitsyn, N. N., in Istoriia russkago sakonodatel'stva o evreiakh (St. Petersburg, 1886), argued that Catherine was punishing the Jews for their frequent infringement of the laws regarding settlement and financial life (pp. 139-40). The only contemporary testimony suggests that the tax was levied as a device to encourage Russian Jews to resettle and colonize the distant reaches of Novorossiia, where they would be granted an exemption from this (and other) taxes (Hessen, Istoriia, 1: 83-86). In my opinion, all of these interpretations are, to some extent, inadequate.

31. PSZ, vol. 23, no. 17, 249 (September 7, 1794).

32. Ibid., no. 17, 432 (January 21, 1796).

33. Since the completion of this study an article by Professor Richard Pipes, entitled “Catherine II and the Jews: The Origins of the Pale of Settlement,” has appeared in Soviet Jewish Affairs, 5, no. 2 (1975): 3-20. Surveying much the same material as my article, Professor Pipes also argues for the existence of a benevolent attitude on the part of Catherine's government in the treatment of the Jews. He characterizes Catherine's policy as “ahead of anything done on behalf of Jews in Western Europe at this time.” Professor Pipes's article emphasizes the role played by popular resistance—rather than legal confusion—in the undermining of the intent of Catherine's policies.

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Slavic Review
  • ISSN: 0037-6779
  • EISSN: 2325-7784
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