On December 23, 1791, Empress Catherine II (Catherine the Great) signed the order restricting Jews of the Russian empire to living in what was called the Pale of Settlement. Although the borders of the Pale (the word comes from Old English, and refers to a “pole” or “stake” used to define an enclosed area) changed with time, as did the specific regulations that limited the movements of Jews, the restricted area remained in existence until April 1917 when the provisional government of Russia abolished it.
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Until 1772, the number of Jews living under Russian rule had been relatively small. In that year, the first of three “partitions” that dismantled the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and divided it between Russia and Prussia (the other two were in 1793 and 1795) brought vast numbers of Jews into the empire. Catherine was under pressure from members of the merchant class to protect them from competition from the Jews.She placated them by restricting Jews to residing in the regions to the west of Russia – roughly to parts of what are today Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and Crimea. There were further restrictions, including a ban on living in most of the large cities even within the Pale, and limitations on how much time Jews could spend outside the area.
Matters became even worse after the issuance of the May Laws, in 1882, which restricted the right of Jews to move their homes even within the Pale and limited their ability to acquire real estate. These laws were enacted in response to a series of anti-Jewish pogroms, which the interior minister depicted as a response by Christians to “Jewish exploitation.”
Economically, Jewish life in the Pale was difficult, but this was in part due to the huge growth in the Jewish population of Russia, which, aided by the improvement in medical care, expanded by 500 percent during the 19th century. Initially, most Jews lived in shtetls (small towns), but restrictions on residence in agricultural communities and even towns with populations under 10,000 pushed them into larger urban areas. There were also restrictions on the trades and professions they could enter.
After 1827, Jews were subject to conscription in the czar’s army, and in the latter part of the 1800s, they encountered quotas on their acceptance to institutions of higher learning. At the same time, to confront the hardships they faced, they developed many of the self-help institutions that characterize life today in ultra-Orthodox communities, namely a wide variety of organizations that provided food, clothing, education and medical care to those who couldn’t provide for themselves. It is estimated that one-third of the Jews living in the Pale depended on such welfare assistance by the end of the 19th century.
By World War I, many of the restrictions had begun to break down as Jews fled from the German army into the Russian interior. The Pale was officially canceled by the provisional government that ruled Russia between the abdication of the czar and the takeover by the Bolsheviks in October 1917.