On December 23, 1791, Catherine II (“the Great”), the empress of Russia, authorized the creation of the Pale of Settlement, an area in the western part of the empire in which Jewish subjects would be required to reside. The borders of the Pale, which was abolished formally only in 1917, changed with time, as did the rules regarding Jews who were exempted from the requirement to live there, but at its peak, the Pale was home to approximately five million Jews, estimated to be 40 percent of the world’s Jewish population at the time.
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Beginning in 1772, the first of three “partitions” of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth brought the eastern half of Poland under the control of the Russian Empire. Prior to then, only small numbers of Jews lived in Russia, but with the incorporation into the domains of Russia of parts of the lands of modern-day Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Poland, Jews became a sizable minority overnight.
The influx of skilled Jewish merchants and artisans into the empire intimidated those same classes of Moscow society, whose members complained to municipal and royal authorities of the “well-known fraud and lies” of the Jews, which supposedly gave them an advantage in commerce. The empress responded by banning the Jews from Moscow, and reiterating an existing rule that said Jews were entitled only to those privileges explicitly allocated to them. They also were not permitted to live within 50 kilometers of the western border of the Pale, supposedly to keep them from engaging in smuggling.
Under the rules of the Pale, Jews could move freely about the territory, which at its peak covered an area of some 1.2 million square kilometers, but they could not, at some periods, live in some of its largest cities – Kiev, Sevastopol and Nikolaev. Nor could they establish new settlements within rural villages, and there were restrictions regarding their right to engage in agriculture.
Different rules for the skilled and talented
Certain classes of Jews, however, were not subject to these limitations, including master artisans and craftsmen, soldiers and holders of certain academic degrees. There were large numbers of Jews in each of these groups and they could leave the Pale as needed. As for other Jews, though, the empire had inspectors who would travel around looking for violators, sometimes bringing them back to their home provinces in chains.
Along with the skilled and talented, there were even larger numbers who were deeply impoverished. Historian Martin Gilbert has assembled statistics regarding the percentages who lived in deep poverty in the different districts of the Pale, and concluded that some 22 percent of the Jews in parts of Lithuania and Ukraine survived only thanks to the support they received from other Jews. And indeed, the well-ordered Jewish kehillot (organized communities) developed extensive networks of self-help groups, which provided food, clothing, loans, medical care, even dowries to destitute brides so they could get married.
After the assassination of Czar Alexander II, in 1881, for which Jews were wrongly blamed by many, Russia suffered a wave of pogroms, which were often encouraged by the authorities. In a model case of punishing the victim, the official response was to institute new regulations, called the May Laws, which placed greater restrictions on the Jews of the Pale. Quotas on the number who could receive higher education, or work in certain professions, as well as additional residence restrictions, were imposed on Jews.
The pogroms and May Laws also marked the beginning of the great wave of Jewish emigration from the empire, which continued until the start of World War I, in 1914. Among those Jews who remained, the Russian military insisted that they be moved out of war zones, near the borders, so they were often forced to pick up and move to the Russian interior. Others fled to the interior, out of fear of the invading Germans.
The Pale of Settlement was official abolished on April 2, 1917, although by that time it had largely ceased to exist in practice.