After the three partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793, and 1795, there were many more Jews in the Russian empire. The Pale of Settlement was a region in imperial Russia where the Jews were given permanent dwelling. The leaders of Russia were called Czars and they had complete power over the entire empire. This essay will discuss three Russian Czars, Nicholas I, Alexander II, and Alexander III and the impact they had on the Jews. The different levels of tolerance of these Czars to the Jews greatly influenced the quality of Jewish life at the time.
Czar Nicholas I ruled Russia from 1825 to 1855, he came power after his predecessor Czar Alexander I died childless (“Nicholas I”). Although the Jews were in Russia willingly, Czar Nicholas I made the lives of the Jews awful in the time he ruled (Spiro). One of the first things Nicholas I did was issue the Cantonist Decrees. This forced every Jewish boy age 12 to 18 join the Russian army for 25 years. During their time in the army, these Jewish boys experienced many attempts to be converted to Christianity (Zollman). The conditions these boys were forced to serve in were terrible and many of them often did not survive. Some parents who did not want their sons to be drafted took extreme measures by cutting off their index fingers. Without index fingers the young men were unable to fire guns and they were exempted from military service. Nicholas I required a certain number of boys for the army from each community and caused further turmoil to the Jewish community by making the community leaders choose which boys had to go (Spiro). Nicholas I used a policy called Russification to assimilate non-Russians by spreading Russian language and culture. This impacted Jews by forcing Russian culture onto the Jews and it replaced Yiddish with Russian as the language spoken by the Jews at the time. In the 1840’s Nicholas I created a system of schools for Jewish youth paid for by a special Jew tax. The Jewish community feared these schools were an attempt by the Russian government to secularize and assimilate the Jewish youth. These fears were confirmed when Christian teachers were hired in an attempt to try to make the Jews Christian. In 1944 Nicolas I began issuing many anti-Semitic laws that forbid Jews from wearing traditional Jewish clothes and growing out their peyot. ("Russia (Former USSR): Virtual Jewish History Tour."). Following the anti- Semitic laws Czar Nicholas I began classifying Jews between useful and non-useful. As Stanislawski states, the useful Jews would consist of “all guild merchants, licensed artisans, farmers … All other Jews would be deemed non-useful and given five years to join one of the other estates and to leave their rural homes; those who failed to meet the deadline would be subjected to severe punishment.” (156). Czar Nicholas I punished the non-useful Jews who were too poor to learn a new trade. This shows how he made Jewish life in Russia terrible for the Jews.
Czar Alexander II reined from 1855 to 1881 after his father Nicholas I’s death. Alexander II was the most benevolent Czar to the Jews and he brought an end to their draconic treatment. He was often referred to as the “Czar liberator” because of his liberal policies ("Russification. Fights for Independence."). He started by repealing the Cantonist Decrees of his father and eventually allowed Jews to participate in intellectual and cultural life ("Beyond the Pale: Alexander II - A Brief Spring."). He also allowed some Jews to move out of the Pale of Settlement and granted them the right to live throughout Russia. Although he did not treat the Jews harshly like his father and the Russification lessened, there were still attempts to assimilate the Jews. Starting in 1874 Alexander II initiated a general draft of all young men to the Russian army, including the Jews. As Spunberg states, this caused “thousands of young Jews [to be] called upon to serve in the army of the czar for four years. Important alleviations were granted to those having a Russian secondary-school education. This encouraged the stream of Jews toward the Russian schools.” (Spunberg). Many young Jewish boys who did not want to join the army chose to go to Russian secondary schools instead. At these schools the Jewish boys experienced Russian culture, which caused them to become assimilated. Unlike his father, Alexander II did not force Russian culture on to the Jews instead he gave them the opportunity to choose it for themselves. The Jews who joined the army however, were still not treated as equals and were not allowed to receive the rank of officer. ("Russia (Former USSR): Virtual Jewish History Tour."). However over time and due to the Czar’s liberal attitude, Jews were able to begin to participate in economic, political, and cultural aspects of Russian life. Although some Jews were becoming assimilated it was not a period of oppression and Jewish life was not threatened. Czar Alexander III came into power in 1881 after his father Alexander II was assassinated and reined until 1894. Alexander III was a huge supporter of Russian nationalism and he reversed many of the liberal approaches started by his father. Alexander III treated the Jews very differently that his father did and more like his grandfather Nicholas I. He encouraged the persecution of non-Russians and was particularly hard on the Jews. Russians at the time were extremely hostile towards the Jews because they were suspected of killed the previous Czar, Alexander II ("ALEXANDER III.ALEXANDROVICH, Emperor of Russia:."). In May 1882 Alexander III’s administration created the May Laws, which restricted the rights of the Jews in Russia. Jews were no longer allowed to live outside of their shtetls, they lost all their property outside of the shtetls, and were no longer allowed to do business on Shabbat (Friedman). This put the Jews in much harsher conditions than they were under Czar Alexander II because it cancelled all the things he had done for them ("Ece/ alexander-III."). During his years as the ruler of Russian Alexander III organized many pogroms against the Jews. Konstantin Pobyedonostsyev was an adviser to the Czar and he was appointed to deal with the Jew problem. As a solution, according to "Pogroms under Czar Alexander III.", “Pobyedonostsyev introduced wide-spread pogroms as a solution. His plan was to absorb one-third of the Jews into the Russian Orthodox Church, force one-third to emigrate and massacre the remaining one-third.” Although this plan was not achieved, it was still a very difficult time for the Jews and there were many pogroms in the 13 years Alexander III ruled. Jewish life at this time was particularly bad because Czar Alexander III hated the Jews. Attacks against the Jews would not have happened during the time of Alexander II’s more tolerant rule. This demonstrates how the level of tolerance of the leaders drastically influences the way the Jews are treated.
The quality of the life of the Jews in Russia was significantly impacted by the attitude of the Czar at the time. Jewish life under Nicholas I was terrible, he was extremely intolerant and issued many anti-Semitic decrees against the Jews. Under his son Czar Alexander II Jewish life was much better and he did not oppress them. When Alexander III was Czar he brought back the anti-Semitism of his grandfather Czar Nicholas I. The levels of acceptance of the Czars impacted the lives of the Jews significantly. The Jews were extremely oppressed under Alexander III and Nicholas I, but they received some equality liberty under Alexander II. The Jews of Russia had the most difficult time under Czar Alexander III because he had the most extreme anti-Semitism and the most serene time under Czar Alexander II.
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