On May 15, 1882, the Russian Council of Ministers – with the approval of the czar, Alexander III – enacted a series of laws intended to restrict the freedom of Jews living in the Pale of Settlement.
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Accompanied by pogroms and followed by a number of additional restrictions in the years that followed, the May Laws, as they were called, played a large role in pushing some two million Jews to leave the Russian Empire in the period between 1881 and 1914.
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On March 13, 1881, Czar Alexander II was assassinated by Russian revolutionaries. He was succeeded by his son, who became Alexander III. The son reversed many of the reformist policies of his father, including measures that had canceled or eased some of the restrictions on the empire’s Jews.
At the same time, pogroms – violent disturbances directed at Jewish communities – broke out throughout southern Russia, apparently with the consent of the government. Even socialist and anarchist revolutionaries were supportive of the pogroms, as they hoped they would bring a general uprising closer.
A commission appointed by Alexander III to investigate the causes of the violence against the Jews concluded they had brought it upon themselves through their “exploitation” of Russian society. The proper response was to put the Jews back in their place.
Under Alexander II, the categories of Jews that had been permitted to reside outside the Pale of Settlement were expanded, their right to buy land and hold official positions within the Pale was affirmed, and entry to the universities and professions was eased, resulting in greater integration of Jews into society at large. The May Laws were intended to end all that.
The laws of May 15 stated that Jews could live only within the “towns and townlets” (as opposed to villages or the countryside) of the Pale, which had been established 90 years earlier in the western part of the empire.
All Jews living in villages had to resettle in towns. They also could not receive mortgages, hold leases or manage any land outside of the towns. And they were restricted from operating any businesses on Sundays or Christian holidays.
The May Laws were written as temporary measures, but in fact, they remained in effect until the Russian Revolution in 1917. Not only that, but in the years that followed 1882, a number of additional laws in the spirit of the May Laws were implemented.
They imposed increasingly strict quotas on the numbers of Jews that could study in high schools and universities. So harsh did the quotas become that there were many towns within the Pale where classrooms stood half-empty. No more Jews were permitted to be admitted, but there were no non-Jewish candidates to take their place.
Limits were placed on the numbers of Jews who could work as doctors and lawyers, and Jews were expelled from government jobs.
Although it is not known if Konstantin Pobedonostsev, the reactionary top government official overseeing the Russian Orthodox Church, actually made the remark in 1884 often attributed to him, the goal of seeing “one-third of the Jews convert, one-third die, and one-third flee the country” certainly reflected the attitude of the czar’s government.