During the Reign of Alexander 1st
At the end of 1804, the Committee in charge of the Organisation of the Jews concluded its work by drafting a “Regulation on Jews” (known as the “Regulation of 1804”), the first collection of laws in Russia concerning Jews. The Committee explained that its aim was to improve the condition of the Jews, to direct them towards a useful activity “by opening this path exclusively for their own good… and by discarding anything that might divert them from it, without calling for coercive measures.”1 The Regulation established the principle of equal civil rights for Jews (Article 42): “All Jews who live in Russia, who have recently settled there, or who have come from foreign countries for their commercial affairs, are free and are under the strict protection of the laws in the same way other Russian subjects are.” (In the eyes of Professor Gradovsky, “We can not but see in this article the desire to assimilate this people to the whole population of Russia.”2)
The Regulation gave the Jews greater opportunities than Derzhavin’s original proposals; thus, in order to create textile or leather factories, or to move to agricultural economy on virgin lands, it proposed that a government subsidy be directly paid. Jews were given the right to acquire land without serfs, but with the possibility of hiring Christian workers. Jews who owned factories, merchants, and craftsmen had the right to leave the Pale of Settlement “for a time, for business purposes,” thus easing the borders of this newly established area. (All that was promised for the current of the coming year was the abrogation of double royalties*, but it soon disappeared.) All the rights of the Jews were reaffirmed: the inviolability of their property, individual liberty, the profession of their religion, their community organisation – in other words, the Kehalim system was left without significant changes (which, in fact, undermined the idea of a fusion of the Jewish world within the Russian state): the Kehalim retained their old right to collect royalties, which conferred on them a great authority, but without the ability of increasing them; Religious punishments and anathemas (Herem) were forbidden, which assured liberty to the Hassidim. In accordance with the wishes of the Kehalim, the project of establishing Jewish schools of general education was abandoned, but “all Jewish children are allowed to study with other children without discrimination in all schools, colleges, and all Russian universities,” and in these establishments no child “shall be under any pretext deviated from his religion or forced to study what might be contrary or opposed to him.” Jews “who, through their abilities, will attain a meritorious level in universities in medicine, surgery, physics, mathematics, and other disciplines, will be recognised as such and promoted to university degrees.” It was considered essential that the Jews learn the language of their region, change their external appearance and adopt family names. In conclusion, the Committee pointed out that in other countries “nowhere were used means so liberal, so measured, and so appropriate to the needs of the Jews.” J. Hessen agrees that the Regulation of 1804 imposed fewer restrictions on Jews than the Prussian Regulations of 1797. Especially since the Jews possessed and retained their individual liberty, which a mass of several million Russian peasants subjected to serfdom did not enjoy.3 “The Regulation of 1804 belongs to the number of acts imbued with the spirit of tolerance.”4
The Messenger of Europe, one of the most read journals of the times wrote: “Alexander knows that the vices we attribute to the Jewish nation are the inevitable consequences of oppression that has burdened it for many centuries. The goal of the new law is to give the State useful citizens, and to Jews a homeland.”5
However, the Regulation did not resolve the most acute problem in accordance with the wishes of all Jews, namely the Jewish population, the Kehalim deputies, and the Jewish collaborators of the Committee. The Regulation stipulated that: “No one among the Jews… in any village or town, can own any form of stewardship of inns or cabarets, under their name nor under the name of a third party, nor are they allowed to sell alcohol or live in such places”6 and proposed that the entire Jewish population leave the countryside within three years, by the beginning of 1808. (We recall that such a measure had already been advocated under Paul in 1797, even before the Derzhavin project appeared: not that all Jews without exception were to be distanced from the villages, but in order that “by its mass, the Jewish population in the villages would not exceed the economic possibilities of the peasants as a productive class, it is proposed to reduce the number of them in the agglomerations of the districts.”7 This time it was proposed to direct the majority of the Jews to agricultural labour in the virgin lands of the Pale of Settlement, New Russia, but also the provinces of Astrakhan and the Caucasus, exonerating them for ten years of the royalties they up to then had to pay, “with the right to receive a loan from the Treasury for their enterprises” to be reimbursed progressively after ten years of franchise; to the most fortunate, it was proposed to acquire land in personal and hereditary ownership with the possibility of having them exploited by agricultural workers.”8
In its refusal to allow distillation, the Committee explained: “As long as this profession remains accessible to them… which, in the end, exposes them to the recriminations, contempt, and even hatred of inhabitants, the general outcry towards them will not cease.”9 Moreover, “Can we consider this measure [of removing the Jews from villages] as repressive when they are offered so many other means not only to live in ease, but also to enrich themselves in agriculture, industry, crafts; and that they are also given the possibility of possessing land in full ownership? How could this people be regarded as oppressed by the abolition of a single branch of activity in a State in which they are offered a thousand other activities in fertile, uninhabited areas suitable for the cultivation of cereals and other agricultural production…?”10
These are compelling arguments. However, Hessen finds that the text of the Committee testifies to “a naive look… on the nature of the economic life of a people [consisting in] believing that economic phenomena can be changed in a purely mechanical way, by decree.”11 From the Jewish side, the projected relocation of the Jews from villages and the ban imposed on them on making alcohol, the “secular occupation” of the Jews12, was perceived as a terribly cruel decision. (And it was in these terms that it was condemned by Jewish historiography fifty and even a hundred years later.)
Given the liberal opinions of Alexander I, his benevolence towards the Jews, his perturbed character, his weak will (without a doubt forever broken by his accession to the throne at the cost of his father’s violent death), it is unlikely that the announced deportation of the Jews would have been energetically conducted; even if the reign had followed a peaceful course, it would have undoubtedly been spread out over time.
But soon after the adoption of the 1804 Regulations, the threat of war in Europe was outlined, followed by the application of measures favouring the Jews by Napoleon, who united a Sanhedrin of Jewish deputies in Paris. “The whole Jewish problem then took an unexpected turn. Bonaparte organised in Paris a meeting of the Jews whose main aim was to offer the Jewish nation various advantages and to create a link between the Jews scattered throughout Europe. Thus, in 1806, Alexander I ordered a new committee to be convened to “examine whether special steps should be taken, and postpone the relocation of the Jews.”13
As announced in 1804, the Jews were supposed to abandon the villages by 1808. But practical difficulties arose, and as early as 1807 Alexander I received several reports highlighting the necessity of postponing the relocation. An imperial decree was then made public, “requiring all Jewish societies… to elect deputies and to propose through them the means which they consider most suitable for successfully putting into practice the measures contained in the Regulation of December 9th, 1804.” The election of these Jewish deputies took place in the western provinces, and their views were transmitted to St. Petersburg. “Of course, these deputies expressed the opinion that the departure of the Jews residing in the villages had to be postponed to a much later time. (One of the reasons given was that, in the villages, the innkeepers had free housing, whereas in towns and cities, they would have to pay for them). The Minister of Internal Affairs wrote in his report that “the relocation of Jews currently residing in villages to land belonging to the State will take several decades, given their overwhelming number.”14 Towards the end of 1808, the Emperor gave orders to suspend the article prohibiting the Jews from renting and producing alcohol, and to leave the Jews where they lived, “until a subsequent ruling.”15 Immediately afterwards (1809) a new committee, said “of the Senator Popov”, was instituted for the study of all problems and the examination of the petitions formulated by the Jewish deputies. This Committee “considered it indispensable” to put an “energetic” end to the relocation of the Jews and to retain the right to the production and trade of vodka.16 The Committee worked for three years and presented its report to the Emperor in 1812. Alexander I did not endorse this report: he did not wish to undermine the importance of the previous decision and had in no way lost his desire to act in favour of the peasants: “He was ready to soften the measure of expulsion, but not to renounce it.”17 Thereupon the Great War broke out with Napoleon, followed by the European war, and Alexander’s concerns changed purpose. Since then, displacement out of the villages never was initiated as a comprehensive measure in the entire Pale of Settlement, but at most in the form of specific decisions in certain places.18
During the war, according to a certain source, the Jews were the only inhabitants not to flee before the French army, neither in the forests nor inland; in the neighbourhood of Vilnius, they refused to obey Napoleon’s order to join his army, but supplied him forage and provisions without a murmur; nevertheless, in certain places it was necessary to resort to requisitions.19 Another source reports that “the Jewish population suffered greatly from the abuses committed by Napoleon’s soldiers,” and that “many synagogues were set on fire,” but goes even further by stating that “Russian troops were greatly helped by what was called the “Jewish post,” set up by Jewish merchants, which transmitted the information with a celerity unknown at the time (inns serving as ‘relay’)”; they even “used Jews as couriers for the connections between the various detachments of the Russian army.” When the Russian army reassumed possession of the land, “the Jews welcomed the Russian troops with admiration, bringing bread and alcohol to the soldiers.” The future Nicholas I, Grand Duke at that time, noted in his diary: “It is astonishing that they [Jews] remained surprisingly faithful to us in 1812 and even helped us where they could, at the risk of their lives.”20 At the most critical point of the retreat of the French at the passage of Berezina, the local Jews communicated to the Russian command the presumed crossing point; this episode is well known. But it was in fact a successful ruse of General Laurançay: he was persuaded that the Jews would communicate this information to the Russians, and the French, of course, chose another crossing point.21
After 1814, the reunification of central Poland brought together more than 400,000 Jews. The Jewish problem was then presented to the Russian government with more acuteness and complexity. In 1816, the Government Council of the Kingdom of Poland, which in many areas enjoyed a separate state existence, ordered the Jews to be expelled from their villages—they could also remain there, but only to work the land, and this without the help of Christian workers. But at the request of the Kahal of Warsaw, as soon as it was transmitted to the Emperor, Alexander gave orders to leave the Jews in place by allowing them to engage in the trade of vodka, on the sole condition that they should not sell it on credit.22
It is true that in the Regulations published by the Senate in 1818, the following provisions are again found: “To put an end to the coercive measures of proprietors, which are ruinous for the peasants, for non-repayment of their debts to the Jews, which forces them to sell their last possessions… Regarding the Jews who run inns, it is necessary to forbid them to lend money at interest, to serve vodka on credit, to then deprive the peasants of their livestock or any other things that are indispensable to them.”23 Characteristic trait of the entirety of Alexander’s reign: no spirit of continuation in the measures taken; the regulations were promulgated but there was no effective control to monitor their implementation. Same goes with the statute of 1817 with regard to the tax on alcohol: in the provinces of Great Russia, distillation was prohibited to the Jews; however, as early as 1819, this prohibition was lifted “until Russian artisans have sufficiently perfected themselves in this trade.”24
Of course, Polish owners who were too concerned by their profits opposed the eradication of Jewish distilleries in the rural areas of the western provinces; and, at that time, the Russian Government did not dare act against them. However, in the Chernigov province where their establishment was still recent, the successful removal of the distilleries in the hands of owners and Jews was undertaken in 1821, after the governor reported following a bad harvest that “the Jews hold in hard bondage the peasants of the Crown and Cossacks.”25 A similar measure was taken in 1822 in the province of Poltava; in 1823 it was partially extended to the provinces of Mogilev and Vitebsk. But its expansion was halted by the pressing efforts of the Kehalim.
Thus, the struggle led over the twenty-five year reign of Alexander against the production of alcohol by the transplantation of the Jews out of villages gave little results.
But distilling was not the only type of production in the Pale of Settlement. Owners leased out various assets in different sectors of the economy, here a mill, there fishing, elsewhere bridges, sometimes a whole property, and in this way not only peasant serfs were leased (such cases multiplied from the end of the eighteenth century onwards26), but also the “serfs” churches, that is to say orthodox churches, as several authors point out: N. I. Kostomarov, M. N. Katkov, V. V. Choulguine. These churches, being an integral part of an estate, were considered as belonging to the Catholic proprietor, and in their capacity as operators, the Jews considered themselves entitled to levy money on those who frequented these churches and on those who celebrated private offices. For baptism, marriage, or funeral, it was necessary to receive the authorisation of “a Jew for a fee”; “the epic songs of Little Russia bursts with bitter complaints against the ‘Jewish farmers’ who oppress the inhabitants.”27
The Russian governments had long perceived this danger: the rights of the farmers were likely to extend to the peasant himself and directly to his work, and “the Jews should not dispose of the personal labour of the peasants, and by means of a lease, although not being Christians, become owners of peasant serfs”—which was prohibited on several occasions both by the decree of 1784 and by the ordinances of the Senate of 1801 and 1813: “the Jews cannot possess villages or peasants, nor dispose of them under any name whatsoever.”28
However, the ingenuity of the Jews and the owners managed to circumvent what was forbidden. In 1816, the Senate discovered that “the Jews had found a means of exercising the rights of owners under the name of krestentsia, that is to say, after agreement with the owners, they harvest the wheat and barley sown by the peasants, these same peasants must first thresh and then deliver to the distilleries leased to these same Jews; they must also watch over the oxen that are brought to graze in their fields, provide the Jews with workers and wagons… Thus the Jews dispose of all these areas… while the landlords, receiving from them substantial rent referred to as krestentsia, sell to the Jews all the harvest to come that are sown on their lands: one can conclude from this that they condemn their peasants to famine.”29
It is not the peasants who are, so to speak, claimed as such, but only the krestentsia, which does not prevent the result from being the same.
Despite all the prohibitions, the practice of the krestentsia continued its crooked ways. Its extreme intricacy resulted from the fact that many landowners fell into debt with their Jewish farmers, receiving money from them on their estate, which enabled the Jews to dispose of the estate and the labour of the serfs. But when, in 1816, the Senate decreed that it was appropriate “to take the domains back from the Jews,” he charged them to recover on their own the sums they had lent. The deputies of the Kehalim immediately sent a humble petition to his Majesty, asking him to annul this decree: the general administrator in charge of foreign faith affairs, the Prince N.N. Golitsyn, convinced the Emperor that “inflicting punishment on only one category of offenders with the exception” of owners and officials. The landlords “could still gain if they refuse to return the capital received for the krestentsia and furthermore keep the krestentsia for their profit”; if they have abandoned their lands to the Jews in spite of the law, they must now return the money to them.30
The future Decembrist P. I. Pestel, at that time an officer in the western provinces, was by no means a defender of the autocracy, but an ardent republican; he recorded some of his observations on the Jews of this region, which were partially included in the preamble to his government programme (“Recommendations for the Provisional Supreme Government”): “Awaiting the Messiah, the Jews consider themselves temporary inhabitants of the country in which they find themselves, and so they never, on any account, want to take care of agriculture, they tend to despise even the craftsmen, and only practice commerce.” “The spiritual leaders of the Jews, who are called rabbis, keep the people in an incredible dependence by forbidding them, in the name of faith, any reading other than that of the Talmud… A people that does not seek to educate itself will always remain a prisoner of prejudice”; “the dependence of the Jews in relation to the rabbis goes so far that any order given by the latter is executed piously, without a murmur.” “The close ties between the Jews give them the means to raise large sums of money… for their common needs, in particular to incite different authorities to concession and to all sorts of embezzlements which are useful to them, the Jews.” That they readily accede to the condition of possessors, “one can see it ostensibly in the provinces where they have elected domicile. All commerce is in their hands, and few peasants are not, by means of debts, in their power; this is why they terribly ruin the regions where they reside.” “The previous government [that of Catherine] has given them outstanding rights and privileges which accentuate the evil they are doing,” for example the right not to provide recruits, the right not to announce deaths, the right to distinct judicial proceedings subject to the decisions of the rabbis, and “they also enjoy all the other rights accorded to other Christian ethnic groups”; “Thus, it can be clearly seen that the Jews form within the State, a separate State, and enjoy more extensive rights than Christians themselves.” “Such a situation cannot be perpetuated further, for it has led the Jews to show a hostile attitude towards Christians and has placed them in a situation contrary to the public order that must prevail in the State31.”
In the final years of Alexander I’s reign, economic and other type of prohibitions against Jewish activities were reinforced. In 1818, a Senate decree now forbade that “never may Christians be placed in the service of Jews for debts.” 32 In 1819, another decree called for an end to “the works and services that peasants and servants perform on behalf of Jews.”33 Golitsyn, always him, told the Council of Ministers “those who dwell in the houses of the Jews not only forget and no longer fulfil the obligations of the Christian faith, but adopt Jewish customs and rites.”34 It was then decided that “Jews should no longer employ Christians for their domestic service.”35 It was believed that “this would also benefit the needy Jews who could very well replace Christian servants.”36 But this decision was not applied. (This is not surprising: among the urban Jewish masses there was poverty and misery, “for the most part, they were wretched people who could scarcely feed themselves,”37 but the opposite phenomenon has never been observed: the Jews would hardly work in the service of Christians. Undoubtedly some factors opposed it, but they also apparently had means of subsistence coming from communities between which solidarity reigned.)
However, as early as 1823, Jewish farmers were allowed to hire Christians. In fact, “the strict observance of the decision prohibiting” Christians from working on Jewish lands “was too difficult to put into practice.”38
During these same years, to respond to the rapid development of the sect of the soubbotniki* in the provinces of Voronezh, Samara, Tula, and others, measures were taken for the Pale of Settlement to be more severely respected. Thus, “in 1821, Jews accused of ‘heavily exploiting’ the peasants and Cossacks were expelled from the rural areas of the Chernigov province and in 1822 from the villages of Poltava province.”39
In 1824, during his journey in the Ural Mountains, Alexander I noticed that a large number of Jews in factories, “by clandestinely buying quantities of precious metals, bribed the inhabitants to the detriment of the Treasury and the manufacturers”, and ordered “that the Jews be no longer tolerated in the private or public factories of the mining industry.”40
The Treasury also suffered from smuggling all along the western frontier of Russia, goods and commodities being transported and sold in both capitals without passing through customs. The governors reported that smuggling was mainly practised by Jews, particularly numerous in the border area. In 1816, the order was given to expel all the Jews from a strip sixty kilometres wide from the frontier and that it be done in the space of three weeks. The expulsion lasted five years, was only partial and, as early as 1821, the new government authorised the Jews to return to their former place of residence. In 1825 a more comprehensive but much more moderate decision was taken: The only Jews liable to deportation were those not attached to the local Kehalim or who did not have property in the border area.41 In other words, it was proposed to expel only intruders. Moreover, this measure was not systematically applied.
The Regulation of 1804 and its article stipulating the expulsion of the Jews from the villages of the western provinces naturally posed a serious problem to the government: where were they to be transferred? Towns and villages were densely populated, and this density was accentuated by the competition prevailing in small businesses, given the very low development of productive labour. However, in southern Ukraine stretched New Russia, vast, fertile, and sparsely populated.
Obviously, the interest of the state was to incite the mass of non-productive Jews expelled from the villages to go work the land in New Russia. Ten years earlier, Catherine had tried to ensure the success of this incentive by striking the Jews with a double royalty, while totally exempting those who would accept to be grafted to New Russia. But this double taxation (Jewish historians mention it often) was not real, as the Jewish population was not censused, and only the Kahal knew the manpower, while concealing the numbers to the authorities in a proportion that possibly reached a good half. (As early as 1808, the royalty ceased to be demanded, and the exemption granted by Catherine no longer encouraged any Jews to migrate).
This time, and for Jews alone, more than 30,000 hectares of hereditary (but non-private) land was allocated in New Russia, with 40 hectares of State land per family (in Russia the average lot of the peasants was a few hectares, rarely more than ten), cash loans for the transfer and settlement (purchase of livestock, equipment, etc, which had to be repaid after a period of six years, within the following ten years); the prior construction of an izba log house was offered to the settlers (in this region, not only the peasants but even some owners lived in mud houses), to exempt them of royalties for ten years with maintenance of individual freedom (in these times of serfdom) and the protection of the authorities.42 (The 1804 Regulations having exempted Jews from military service, the cash compensation was included in the royalty fee.)
The enlightened Jews, few at the time (Notkine, Levinson), supported the governmental initiative—“but this result must be achieved through incentives, in no way coercive”—and understood very well the need for their people to move on to productive work.
The eighty years of the difficult saga of Jewish agriculture in Russia are described in the voluminous and meticulous work of the Jew V. N. Nikitin (as a child, he had been entrusted to the cantonists, where he had received his name), who devoted many years to the study of the archives of the enormous unpublished official correspondence between St. Petersburg and New Russia. An abundant presentation interspersed with documents and statistical tables, with tireless repetitions, possible contradictions in the reports made at sometimes very distant times by inspectors of divergent opinions, all accompanied by detailed and yet incomplete tables—none of this has been put in order, and it offers, for our brief exposition, much too dense material. Let us try, however, by condensing the citations, to draw a panorama that is simultaneously broad and clear.
The government’s objective, Nikitin admits, in addition to the colonisation programme of unoccupied lands, was to give the Jews more space than they had, to accustom them to productive physical labour, to help guard them from “harmful occupations” by which, “whether they liked it or not, many of them made the life of the peasant serfs even more difficult than it already was.” “The government… bearing in mind the improvement of their living conditions, proposed to them to turn to agriculture…; The government… did not seek to attract Jews by promises; on the contrary, it endeavoured that there should be no more than three hundred families transferred each year”43; it deferred the transfer so long as the houses were not built on the spot, and invited the Jews, meanwhile, to send some of their men as scouts. Initially, the idea was not bad, but it had not sufficiently taken into account the mentality of the Jewish settlers nor the weak capacities of the Russian administration. The project was doomed in advance by the fact that the work of the earth is an art that demands generations to learn: one cannot attach successfully to the earth people who do not wish it or who are indifferent to it.
The 30,000 hectares allocated to Jews in New Russia remained inalienable for decades. A posteriori, the journalist I.G. Orchansky considered that Jewish agriculture could have been a success, but only if Jews had been transferred to the nearby Crown lands of Belarus where the peasant way of life was under their control, before their eyes.44 Unfortunately, there was scarcely any land there (for example, in the province of Grodno there were only 200 hectares, marginal and infertile lands “where the entire population suffered from poor harvests.”45 At first there were only three dozen families willing to emigrate. The Jews hoped that the expulsion measures from the western provinces would be reported; it had been foreseen in 1804 that its application would extend on three years, but it was slow to begin. The fateful deadline of January 1st, 1808 approaching, they began to leave the villages under escort; from 1806 onwards, there was also a movement in favour of emigration among the Jews, the more so as the rumour indicated the advantages which were connected with it. The demands for emigration then flooded en masse: “They rushed there… as it were the Promised Land… ; like their ancestors who left Chaldea in Canaan, entire groups left surreptitiously, without authorisation, and some even without a passport. Some resold the passport they had obtained from other departing groups, and then demanded that they be replaced under the pretext that they had lost it. The candidates for departure “were day by day more numerous,” and all “insistently demanded land, housing and subsistence.”46
The influx exceeded the possibilities of reception of the Support Office of the Jews created in the province of Kherson: time was lacking to build houses, dig wells, and the organisation suffered from the great distances in this region of the steppes, the lack of craftsmen, doctors, and veterinarians. The government was indiscriminate of the money, the good provisions, and sympathy towards the migrants, but the Governor Richelieu demanded in 1807 that the entrances be limited to 200, 300 families per year, while receiving without limitation those who wished to settle on their own account. “In case of a bad harvest, all these people will have to be fed for several years in a row.” (The poorest settlers were paid daily allowances.) However, the governors of the provinces allowed those over-quota who wished to leave—without knowing the exact number of those who were leaving; hence many vicissitudes along the way, due to misery, sickness, death.47 Some quite simply disappeared during the trip.
Distances across the steppe (between one hundred and three hundred kilometres between a colony and the Office), the inability of the administration to keep an accurate count and establish a fair distribution, meant that some of the migrants were more helped than others; some complained that they did not receive any compensation or loans. The colony inspectors, too few in numbers, did not have time to take a closer look (they received a miserable wage, had no horses, and walked on foot). After a period of two years of stay, some settlers still had no farm, no seeds, nor bread. The poorest were allowed to leave wherever they pleased, and “those who renounced their condition as farmers recovered their former status as bourgeois.” But only a fifth of them returned to their country of origin, and the others wandered (the loans granted to those who had been scratched off the list of settlers were to be considered definitively lost). Some reappeared for a time in the colonies, others disappeared “without looking back or leaving a trace,” the others pounded the pavement in the neighbouring towns “by trading, according to their old habit.”48
The many reports of the Office and inspectors provide insight into how the new settlers were operating. To train the settlers who did not know where to start or how to finish, the services of peasants of the Crown were requested; the first ploughing is done for the most part through hired Russians. The habit is taken of “correcting defects by a hired labour.” They sow only a negligible portion of the plot allocated to them, and use poor-quality seeds; one has received specific seeds but does not plough or sow; another, when sowing, loses a lot of seeds, and same goes during harvest. Due to lack of experience, they break tools, or simply resell them. They do not know how to keep the livestock. “They kill cattle for food, then complain that they no longer have any”; they sell cattle to buy cereals; they do not make provision for dried dung, so their izbas, insufficiently heated, become damp; they do not fix their houses, so they fall apart; they do not cultivate vegetable gardens; they heat the houses with straw stored to feed the cattle. Not knowing how to harvest, neither to mow nor to thresh, the colonists cannot be hired in the neighbouring hamlets: no one wants them. They do not maintain the good hygiene of their homes, which favours diseases. They “absolutely did not expect to be personally occupied with agricultural labour, doubtlessly they thought that the cultivation of the land would be assured by other hands; that once in possession of great herds, they would go and sell them at the fairs.” The settlers “hope to continue receiving public aid.” They complain “of being reduced to a pitiable condition,” and it is really so; of having “worn their clothes up to the rope,” and that is the case; but the inspection administration replies: “If they have no more clothes, it is out of idleness, for they do not raise sheep, and sow neither linen nor hemp,” and their wives “neither spin nor weave.” Of course, an inspector concluded in his report, if the Jews cannot handle their operations, it is “by habit of a relaxed life, because of their reluctance to engage in agricultural work and their inexperience,” but he thought it fair to add: “agriculture must be prepared from earliest youth, and the Jews, having lived indolently until 45 to 50 years, are not in a position of transforming themselves into farmers in such a short time.”49 The Treasury was obliged to spend two to three times more on the settlers than expected, and extensions kept on being demanded. Richelieu maintained that “the complaints come from the lazy Jews, not from the good farmers”; However, another report notes that “unluckily for them, since their arrival, they have never been comforted by an even remotely substantial harvest.”50
“In response to the many fragments communicated to St. Petersburg to signal how the Jews deliberately renounced all agricultural work,” the ministry responded in the following way: “The government has given them public aid in the hope that they will become farmers not only in name, but in fact. Many immigrants are at risk, if not incited to work, to remain debtors to the state for a long time.”51 The arrival of Jewish settlers in New Russia at the expense of the state, uncontrolled and ill-supported by an equipment programme, was suspended in 1810. In 1811 the Senate gave the Jews the right to lease the production of alcohol in the localities belonging to the Crown, but within the limits of the Pale of Settlement. As soon as the news was known in New Russia, the will to remain in agriculture was shaken for many settlers: although they were forbidden to leave the country, some left without any identity papers to become innkeepers in villages dependent on the Crown, as well as in those belonging to landowners. In 1812, it appeared that of the 848 families settled there were in fact only 538; 88 were considered to be on leave (parties earning their living in Kherson, Nikolayev, Odessa, or even Poland); as for the others, they had simply disappeared. This entire programme—“the authoritative installation of families on land”—was something unprecedented not only in Russia but in the whole of Europe.”52
The Government now considered that “in view of the Jews’ now proven disgust for the work of the land, seeing that they do not know how to go about it, given the negligence of the inspectors”, it appears that the migration has given rise to major disturbances; therefore “the Jews should be judged indulgently.” On the other hand, “how can we guarantee the repayment of public loans by those who will be allowed to leave their status as farmers, how to palliate, without injuring the Treasury, the inadequacies of those who will remain to cultivate the land, how to alleviate the fate of those people who endured so many misfortunes and are living on the edge?53 As for the inspectors, they suffered not only from understaffing, a lack of means, and various other shortcomings, but also from their negligence, absenteeism, and delays in the delivery of grain and funds; they saw with indifference the Jews selling their property; there were also abuses: in exchange of payment, they granted permits for long-term absences, including for the most reliable workers in a family, which could quickly lead to the ruin of the farm.
Even after 1810-1812, the situation of the Jewish colonies showed no sign of improvement: “tools lost, broken, or mortgaged by the Jews”; “Oxen, again, slaughtered, stolen, or resold”; “Fields sown too late while awaiting warmth”; use of “bad seeds” and in too close proximity to houses, always on the one and same plot; no groundwork, “sowing for five consecutive years on fields that had only been ploughed once,” without alternating the sowing of wheat and potatoes; insufficient harvest from one year to another, “yet again, without harvesting seeds.” (But the bad harvests also benefit the immigrants: they are then entitled to time off.) Livestock left uncared for, oxen given for hire or “assigned as carriages… they wore them down, did not nourish them, bartered or slaughtered them to feed themselves, only to say later that they had died of disease.” The authorities either provided them with others or let them leave in search of a livelihood. “They did not care to build safe pens to prevent livestock from being stolen during the night; they themselves spent their nights sound asleep; for shepherds, they took children or idlers who did not care for the integrity of the herds”; on feast days or on Saturdays, they left them out to graze without any supervision (moreover, on Saturday, it is forbidden to catch the thieves!). They resented their rare co-religionists, who, with the sweat of their brow, obtained remarkable harvests. The latter incurred the Old Testament curse, the Herem, “for if they show the authorities that the Jews are capable of working the land, they will eventually force them to do so.” “Few were assiduous in working the land… they had the intent, while pretending to work, to prove to the authorities, by their continual needs, their overall incapacity.” They wanted “first and foremost to return to the trade of alcohol, which was re-authorised to their co-religionists.” Livestock, instruments, seeds, were supplied to them several times, and new loans for their subsistence were relentlessly granted to them. “Many, after receiving a loan to establish themselves, came to the colonies only at the time of the distribution of funds, only to leave again… with this money to neighbouring towns and localities, in search for other work”; “they resold the plot that had been allocated to them, roamed, lived several months in Russian agglomerations at the most intense moments of agricultural labour, and earned their living… by deceiving the peasants.” The inspectors’ tables show that half of the families were absent with or without authorisation, and that some had disappeared forever. (An example was the disorder prevailing in the village of Izrae-levka in the province of Kherson, where “the inhabitants, who had come to their own account, considered themselves entitled to practice other trades: they were there only to take advantage of the privileges; only 13 of the 32 families were permanent residents, and again they only sowed to make it seem legitimate, while the others worked as tavern-keepers in neighbouring districts.”54
The numerous reports of the inspectors note in particular and on several occasions that “the disgust of Jewish women for agriculture… was a major impediment to the success of the settlers.” The Jewish women who seemed to have put themselves to work in the fields subsequently diverted from it. “At the occasion of marriages, the parents of Jewish women agreed with their future sons-in-law for them not to compel their wives to carry out difficult agricultural labour, but rather hire workers”; “They agreed to prepare ornaments, fox and hare furs, bracelets, head-dresses, and even pearls, for days of celebrations.” These conditions led young men to satisfy the whims of their wives “to the point of ruining their farming”; they go so far as “to indulge in possessing luxurious effects, silks, objects of silver or gold,” while other immigrants do not even have clothing for the wintertime. Excessively early marriages make “the Jews multiply significantly faster than the other inhabitants.” Then, by the exodus of the young, the families become too little provided for and are incapable of ensuring the work. The overcrowding of several families in houses too scarce generates uncleanliness and favours scurvy. (Some women take bourgeois husbands and then leave colonies forever.55)
Judging from the reports of the Control Office, the Jews of the various colonies continually complained about the land of the steppes, “so hard it must be ploughed with four pairs of oxen.” Complaints included bad harvests, water scarcity, lack of fuel, bad weather, disease generation, hail, grasshoppers. They also complained about the inspectors, but unduly, seeing that upon examination the complaints were deemed unfounded. Immigrants “complain shamelessly of their slightest annoyances,” They “ceaselessly increase their demands”—“when it is justified, they are provided for via the Office.” On the other hand, they had little reason to complain about limitations to the exercise of their piety or of the number of schools open in the agglomerations (in 1829, for eight colonies, there were forty teachers56).
However, as pointed out by Nikitin, in the same steppe, during the same period, in the same virgin lands, threatened by the same locusts, cultivations by German colonists, Mennonites, and Bulgarians had been established. They also suffered from the same bad harvests, the same diseases, but however, most of them always had enough bread and livestock, and they lived in beautiful houses with outbuildings, their vegetable gardens were abundant, and their dwellings surrounded by greenery. (The difference was obvious, especially when the German settlers, at the request of the authorities, came to live in the Jewish settlements to convey their experience and set an example: even from a distance, their properties could be distinguished.)
In the Russian colonies the houses were also better than those of the Jews. (However, Russians had managed to get into debt with some Jews who were richer than them and paid their debts while working in their fields.) The Russian peasants, Nikitin explains, “under the oppression of serfdom, were accustomed to everything… and stoically endured all misfortunes.” That is how the Jewish settlers who had suffered losses following various indignities were assisted “by the vast spaces of the steppe that attracted fugitives serfs from all regions… Chased by sedentary settlers, the latter replied by the looting, the theft of cattle, the burning of houses; well received, however, they offered their work and know-how. As reflective and practical men, and by instinct of self-preservation, the Jewish cultivators preferred receiving these fugitives with kindness and eagerness; in return, the latter willingly helped them in ploughing, sowing, and harvesting”; Some of them, to hide better, embraced the Jewish religion. “These cases came to light,” in 1820 the government forbade Jews to use Christian labour.57
Meanwhile, in 1817, the ten years during which the Jewish settlers were exempt from royalties had passed, and they were now to pay, like the peasants of the Crown. Collective petitions emanating not only from the colonists, but also from public officials, demanded that the privilege should be extended for a further fifteen years.
A personal friend of Alexander I, Prince Golitsyn, Minister of Education and Religious Affairs, also responsible for all problems concerning the Jews, took the decision to exempt them from paying royalties for another five years and to postpone the full repayment of loans up to thirty years. “It is important to note, on the honour of the authorities of St. Petersburg, that no request of the Jews, before and now, has ever been ignored.”58
Among the demands of the Jewish settlers, Nikitin found one which seemed to him to be particularly characteristic: “Experience has proven, in as much as agriculture is indispensable to humanity, it is considered the most basic of occupations, which demands more physical exertion than ingenuity and intelligence; and, all over the world, those affected to this occupation are those incapable of more serious professions, such as industrialists and merchants; it is the latter category, inasmuch as it demands more talent and education, which contributes more than all others the prosperity of nations, and in all periods it has been accorded far more esteem and respect than that of agricultors. The slanderous representations of the Jews to the government resulted in depriving the Jews of the freedom to exercise their favourite trade—that of commerce—and to force them to change their status by becoming farmers, the so-called plebs. Between 1807 and 1809, more than 120,000 people were driven out of villages [where most lived on the alcohol trade], and were forced to settle in uninhabited places.” Hence their claim to: “return to them the status of bourgeois with the right, attested in the passport, to be able to leave without hindrances, according to the wishes of each individual.”59 These are well-weighed and unambiguous formulas. From 1814 to 1823, the farming of Jews did not prosper. The statistical tables show that each registered individual cultivated less than two-thirds of a hectare. As “they tried to cut off the harshest work” (in the eyes of the inspectors), they found compensation in commerce and other miscellaneous trades.60
Half a century later, the Jewish journalist I.G. Orchansky proposed the following interpretation: “What could be more natural for the Jews transplanted here to devote themselves to agriculture to have seen a vast field of virgin economic activity, and to have precipitated themselves there with their customary and favourite occupations, which promised in the towns a harvest more abundant than that which they could expect as farmers. Why, then, demand of them that they should necessarily occupy themselves with agricultural labour, which undoubtedly, would not turn out well for them,” considering “the bubbling activity that attracts the Jews in the cities in formation.”61
The Russian authorities at that time saw things differently: in time, the Jews “could become useful cultivators,” if they resumed “their status as bourgeois, they would only increase the number of parasites in the cities.”62 On record: 300,000 rubles spent on nine Jewish settlements, a colossal sum considering the value of the currency at the time.
In 1822 the additional five years of royalty exemption had elapsed, but the condition of the Jewish farms still required new franchises and new subsidies: “the state of extreme poverty of the settlers” was noted, linked “to their inveterate laziness, disease, mortality, crop failures, and ignorance of agricultural work.”63
Nevertheless, the young Jewish generation was gradually gaining experience in agriculture. Recognising that good regular harvests were not in the realm of the impossible, the settlers invited their compatriots from Belarus and Lithuania to join them, all the more since there had been bad harvests there; the Jewish families flocked en masse, with or without authorisation, as in 1824, they feared the threat of general expulsion in the western part of the country; In 1821, as we have already mentioned, measures had been taken to put an end to the Jewish distilleries in the province of Chernigov, followed by two or three other regions. The governors of the western provinces let all the volunteers go without much inquiry as to how much land was left in New Russia for the Jews.
From there, it was announced that the possibilities of reception did not exceed 200 families per year, but 1,800 families had already started the journey (some strayed in nature, others settled along the way). From then on, the colonists were refused all state aid (but with ten years exemption of royalties); however, the Kehalim were interested in getting the poorest to leave in order to have less royalties to pay, and to a certain extent, they provided those who left with funds from the community. (They encouraged the departure of the elderly, the sick, and large families with few able-bodied adults useful to agriculture; and when the authorities demanded a written agreement from the leavers, they were provided with a list of signatures devoid of any meaning.64 Of the 453 families who arrived in the neighbourhood of Ekaterinoslav in 1823, only two were able to settle at their own expense. What had pushed them there was the mad hope of receiving public aid, which might have dispensed the newcomers from work. In 1822, 1,016 families flocked to New Russia from Belarus: the colonies were rapidly filled with immigrants to whom provisional hospitality was offered; confinement and uncleanliness engendered diseases.65
Also, in 1825, Alexander I prohibited the relocation of the Jews. In 1824 and 1825, following further bad harvests, the Jews were supported by loans (but, in order not to give them too much hope, their origin was concealed: they supposedly came from the personal decision of an inspector, or as a reward for some work). Passports were again issued so that the Jews could settle in towns. As for paying royalties, even for those settled there for eighteen years, it was no longer discussed.66
At the same time, in 1823, “a decree of His Majesty orders… that in the provinces of Byelorussia the Jews shall cease all their distillery activities in 1824, abandon farmhouses and relay stations” and settle permanently “in the towns and agglomerations.” The transfer was implemented. By January 1824, some 20,000 people had already been displaced. The Emperor demanded to see to it that the Jews were “provided with activities and subsistence” during this displacement, “so that, without home base, they would not suffer, under these conditions, of more pressing needs such as that of food.”67 The creation of a committee composed of four ministers (the fourth “ministerial cabinet” created for Jewish affairs) produced no tangible results either in terms of funding, nor in administrative capacities, nor in the social structure of the Jewish community, which was impossible to rebuild from the outside.
In this, as before in many other domains, the emperor Alexander I appears to us to be weak-willed in his impulses, inconstant and inconsistent with his resolves (as we can see him passive in the face of strengthening secret societies which were preparing to overthrow the throne). But in no case should his decisions be attributed to a lack of respect for the Jews. On the contrary, he was listening to their needs and, even during the war of 1812-14, he had kept at Headquarters the Jewish delegates Zindel Sonnenberg and Leisen Dillon who “defended the interests of the Jews.” (Dillon, it is true, was soon to be judged for having appropriated 250,000 rubles of public money and for having extorted funds from landowners.) Sonnenberg, on the other hand, remained for a long time one of Alexander’s close friends. On the orders of the Tsar, (1814) a permanent Jewish deputation functioned for a number of years in St. Petersburg, for which the Jews had themselves raised funds, “for there were plans for major secret expenditures within government departments.” These deputies demanded that “throughout Russia, the Jews should have the right to engage in the trade, farming, and distillation of spirits”, that they be granted “privileges in matters of taxation,” that “the backlogs be handed over,” that “the number of Jews admitted to be members of the magistrate no longer be limited.” The Emperor benevolently listened to them, made promises, but no concrete measures were taken.68
In 1817 the English Missionary Society sent the lawyer Louis Weil, an equal rights activist for the Jews, to Russia for the specific purpose of acquainting himself with the situation of the Jews of Russia: he had an interview with Alexander I to whom he handed a note. “Deeply convinced that the Jews represented a sovereign nation, Weil affirmed that all Christian peoples, since they had received salvation of the Jews, were to render to them the highest homage and to show them their gratitude by benefits.” In this last period of his life, marked by mystical dispositions, Alexander had to be sensitive to such arguments. Both he and his government were afraid of “touching with an imprudent hand the religious rules” of the Jews. Alexander had great respect for the venerable people of the Old Covenant and was sympathetic to their present situation. Hence his utopian quest to make this people access the New Testament. To this end, in 1817, with the help of the Emperor, the Society of Christians of Israel was created, meaning Jews who converted to Christianity (not necessarily orthodoxy), and because of this enjoyed considerable privileges: they had the right, everywhere in Russia, “to trade and to carry on various trades without belonging to guilds or workshops,” and they were “freed, they and their descendants, forever, of any civil and military service.” Nevertheless, this society experienced no influx of converted Jews and soon ceased to exist.69
The good dispositions of Alexander I in regards to the Jews made him express his conviction to put an end to the accusations of ritual murders which arose against them. (These accusations were unknown in Russia until the division of Poland, from where they came. In Poland they appeared in the sixteenth century, transmitted from Europe where they were born in England in 1144 before resurfacing in the twelfth-thirteenth century in Spain, France, Germany, and Great Britain. Popes and Monarchs fought off these accusations without them disappearing in the fourteenth nor fifteenth century. The first trial in Russia took place in Senno, near Vitebsk, in 1816, was not only stopped “by Her Majesty’s decision”, but incited the Minister of Religious Affairs, Golitsyn, to send the authorities of all provinces the following injunction: henceforth, not to accuse the Jews “of having put to death Christian children, solely supported by prejudices and without proof.”70 In 1822-1823 another affair of this kind broke out in Velije, also in the province of Vitebsk. However, the court decreed in 1824: “The Jews accused in many uncertain Christian testimonies of having killed this boy, supposedly to collect his blood, must be exonerated of all suspicion.”71
Nevertheless, in the twenty-five years of his reign, Alexander I did not sufficiently study the question to conceive and put into practice a methodical solution satisfactory to all, regarding the Jewish problem as it was in Russia at the time.
How to act, what to do with this separated people who has not yet grafted onto Russia, and which continues to grow in number, is also the question to which the Decembrist Pestel who opposed the Emperor, sought an answer for the Russia of the future, which he proposed to direct. In The Truth of Russia he proposed two solutions. Either make the Jews merge for good in the Christian population of Russia: “Above all, it is necessary to deflect the effect, harmful to Christians, of the close link that unites the Jews amongst themselves or which is directed against Christians, which completely isolates the Jews from all other citizens… Convene the most knowledgeable rabbis and Jewish personalities, listen to their proposals and then take action… If Russia does not expel the Jews, all the more they shouldn’t adopt unfriendly attitudes towards Christians.” The second solution “would consist in helping the Jews create a separate state in one of the regions of Asia Minor. To this end, it is necessary to establish a gathering point for the Jewish people and to send several armies to support it” (we are not very far from the future Zionist idea). The Russian and Polish Jews together will form a people of more than two million souls. “Such a mass of men in search of a country will have no difficulty in overcoming obstacles such as the opposition of the Turks. Crossing Turkey from Europe, they will pass into Asiatic Turkey and occupy there enough place and land to create a specifically Jewish state. However, Pestel acknowledges that “such an enormous undertaking requires special circumstances and an entrepreneurial spirit of genius.”72
Nikita Muravyov, another Decembrist, stipulated in his proposed Constitution that “Jews can enjoy civil rights in the places where they live, but that the freedom to settle in other places will depend on the particular decisions of the People’s Supreme Assembly.”73
Nevertheless, the instances proper to the Jewish population, the Kehalim, opposed with all their might the interference of state power and all external influence. On this subject, opinions differ. From the religious point of view, as many Jewish writers explain, living in the diaspora is a historical punishment that weighs on Israel for its former sins. Scattering must be assumed to merit God’s forgiveness and the return to Palestine. For this it is necessary to live without failing according to the Law and not to mingle with the surrounding peoples: that is the ordeal. But for a liberal Jewish historian of the early twentieth century, “the dominant class, incapable of any creative work, deaf to the influences of its time, devoted all its energies to preserving from the attacks of time, both external and internal, a petrified national and religious life.” The Kahal drastically stifled the protests of the weakest. “The cultural and educational reform of 1804 confined itself to illusorily blurring the distinctive and foreign character of the Jews, without having recourse to coercion,” or even “taking mercy on prejudices”; “these decisions sowed a great disturbance within the Kahal… in that they harboured a threat to the power it exercised over the population”; in the Regulation, the most sensitive point for the Kahal “was the prohibition of delivering the unruly to the Herem,” or, even more severe, the observation that “to keep the population in servile submission to a social order, as it had been for centuries, it was forbidden to change garb.”74 But it can not be denied that the Kehalim also had reasonable regulative requirements for the life of the Jews, such as the Khasaki rule allowing or forbidding the members of the community from taking on a particular type of farming or occupation, which put an end to excessive competition between Jews.75 “Thou shalt not move the bounds of thy neighbour” (Deuteronomy, XIX, 14).
In 1808, an unidentified Jew transmitted an anonymous note (fearing reprisals from the Kahal) to the Minister of Internal Affairs, entitled “Some remarks concerning the management of the life of the Jews.” He wrote: “Many do not regard as sacred the innumerable rites and rules… which divert attention from all that is useful, enslave the people to prejudices, take by their multiplication an enormous amount of time, and deprive the Jews of ‘the advantage of being good citizens’.” He noted that “the rabbis, pursuing only their interest, have enclosed life in an intertwining of rules”, have concentrated in their hands all the police, legal, and spiritual authority; “more precisely, the study of the Talmud and the observance of rites as a unique means of distinguishing oneself and acquiring affluence have become ‘the first dream and aspiration of the Jews’”; And although the governmental Regulation “limits the prerogatives of the rabbis and Kelahim, “the spirit of the people remained the same.” The author of this note considered “the rabbis and the Kahal as the main culprits of the ignorance and misery of the people.”76
Another Jewish public man, Guiller Markevich, a native of Prussia, wrote that the members of the Vilnius Kahal, with the help of the local administration, exerted a severe repression against all those who denounced their illegal acts; now deprived of the right to the Herem, they kept their accusers for long years in prison, and if one of them succeeded in getting a message from his cell to the higher authorities, “they sent him without any other form of trials to the next world.” When this kind of crime was revealed, “the Kahal spent large sums to stifle the affair.”77 Other Jewish historians give examples of assassinations directly commissioned by the Jewish Kahal.
In their opposition to governmental measures, the Kehalim relied essentially on the religious sense of their action; thus “the union of the Kahal and the rabbis, desirous of maintaining their power over the masses, made the government believe that every act of a Jew was subject to such and such a religious prescription; the role of religion was thereby increased. As a result, the people of the administration saw in the Jews not members of different social groups, but a single entity closely knit together; the vices and infractions of the Jews were explained not by individual motives, but by ‘the alleged land amorality of the Jewish religion’.”78
“The union of Kehalim and rabbis did not want to see or hear anything. It extended its leaden cover over the masses. The power of the Kahal only increased while the rights of the elders and rabbis were limited by the Regulation of 1804. “This loss is offset by the fact that the Kahal acquired—it is true, only in a certain measure—the role of a representative administration which it had enjoyed in Poland. The Kahal owed this strengthening of its authority to the institution of deputies.” This deputation of the Jewish communities established in the western provinces, in charge of debating at leisure with the government the problems of Jewish life, was elected in 1807 and sat intermittently for eighteen years. These deputies endeavoured, above all, to restore to the rabbis the right to the Herem; They declared that to deprive the rabbis of the right to chastise the disobedient is contrary to the religious respect which the Jews are obliged by law to have for the rabbis.” These deputies succeeded in persuading the members of the Committee (of Senator Popov, 1809) that the authority of the rabbis was a support for the Russian governmental power. “The members of the Committee did not resist in front of the threat that the Jews would escape the authority of the rabbis to delve into depravity”; the Committee was “prepared to maintain in its integrity all this archaic structure to avoid the terrible consequences evoked by the deputies… Its members did not seek to know who the deputies considered to be ‘violators of the spiritual law’; they did not suspect that they were those who aspired to education”; the deputies “exerted all their efforts to strengthen the authority of the Kahal and to dry at the source the movement towards culture.”79 They succeeded in deferring the limitations previously taken to the wearing of traditional Jewish garb, which dated back to the Middle Ages and so blatantly separated the Jews from the surrounding world. Even in Riga, “the law that ordered the Jews to wear another garment was not applied anywhere”, and it was reported by the Emperor himself—while awaiting new legislation80…
All requests of the deputies were not satisfied, far from it. They needed money and “to get it, the deputies frightened their communities by ominously announcing the intentions of the government and by amplifying the rumours of the capital.” In 1820, Markevitch accused the deputies “of intentionally spreading false news… to force the population to pay to the Kahal the sums demanded.”81
In 1825, the institution of the Jewish deputies was suppressed.
One of the sources of tension between the authorities and Kehalim resided in the fact that the latter, the only ones authorised to levy the capitation on the Jewish population, “hid the ‘souls’ during the censuses” and concealed a large quantity of them. “The government thought that it knew the exact numbers of the Jewish population in order to demand the corresponding amount of the capitation,” but it was very difficult to establish it.82 For example, in Berdichev, “the unrecorded Jewish population… regularly accounted for nearly half the actual number of Jewish inhabitants.”83 (According to the official data that the Government had succeeded in establishing for 1818, the Jews were 677,000, an already important number, for example, by comparison with the data of 1812, the number of male individuals had suddenly doubled…—but it was still an undervalued figure, for there were about 40,000 Jews from the kingdom of Poland to add.) Even with reduced figures of the Kehalim, there were unrecovered taxes every year; and not only were they not recuperated but they augmented from year to year. Alexander I personally told the Jewish representatives of his discontent at seeing so many concealments and arrears (not to mention the smuggling industry). In 1817 the remission of all fines and surcharges, penalties, and arrears was decreed, and a pardon was granted to all those who had been punished for not correctly recording ‘souls’, but on the condition that the Kehalim provide honest data from then on.”84 But “no improvement ensued. In 1820, the Minister of Finance announced that all measures aimed at improving the economic situation of the Jews were unsuccessful… Many Jews were wandering without identity papers; a new census reported a number of souls two to three times greater (if not more) than those previously provided by Jewish societies.”85
However, the Jewish population was constantly increasing. Most researchers see one of the main reasons for this growth as being the custom of early marriages prevalent at that time among the Jews: as early as 13 years old for boys, and from 12 years old onwards for girls. In the anonymous note of 1808 quoted above, the unknown Jewish author writes that this custom of early unions “is at the root of innumerable evils” and prevents the Jews from getting rid “of inveterate customs and activities that draw upon them the general public’s indignation, and harms them as well as others.” Tradition among the Jews is that “those who are not married at a young age are held in contempt and even the most destitute draw on their last resources to marry their children as soon as possible, even though these newlyweds incur the vicissitudes of a miserable existence. Early marriages were introduced by the rabbis who took advantage of them. And one will be better able to contract a profitable marriage by devoting himself to the study of the Talmud and the strict observance of the rites. Those who married early were indeed only occupied with studying the Talmud, and when finally came the time to lead an autonomous existence, these fathers, ill-prepared for labour, ignorant of the working life, turn to the manufacture of alcohol and petty trading.” The same goes for crafts: “By marrying, the fifteen-year-old apprentice no longer learns his trade, but becomes his own boss and only ruins the work.”86 In the mid-1920s, “in the provinces of Grodno and Vilnius, there was a rumour that it would be forbidden to enter into marriage before reaching the age of majority”, which is why “there was a hasty conclusion of marriages between children who were little more than 9 years old.”87
These early marriages debilitated the life of the Jews. How could such a swarming, such a densification of the population, such competition in similar occupations, lead to any thing else than misery? The policy of the Kehalim contributed to “the worsening of the material conditions of the Jews.”88
Menashe Ilier, a distinguished Talmudist but also a supporter of the rationalism of the age of Enlightenment, published in 1807 a book, which he sent to the rabbis (it was quickly withdrawn from circulation by the rabbinate, and his second book was to be destined to a massive book burning). He addressed “the dark aspects of Jewish life.” He stated: “Misery is inhumanly great, but can it be otherwise when the Jews have more mouths to feed than hands to work? It is important to make the masses understand that it is necessary to earn a living by the sweat of their brow… Young people, who have no income, contract marriage by counting on the mercy of God and on the purse of their father, and when this support is lacking, laden with family, they throw themselves on the first occupation come, even if it is dishonest. In droves they devote themselves to commerce, but as the latter cannot feed them all, they are obliged to resort to deceit. This is why it is desirable that the Jews turn to agriculture. An army of idlers, under the appearance of ‘educated people’, live by charity and at the expense of the community. No one cures the people: the rich only think of enriching themselves, the rabbis think only of the disputes between Hassidim and Minagdes (Jewish Orthodox), and the only concern of the Jewish activists is to short-circuit ‘the misfortune presented in the form of governmental decrees, even if they contribute to the good of the people’.”89
Thus “the great majority of the Jews in Russia lived on small trade, crafts, and small industries, or served as intermediaries”; “they have inundated the cities of factories and retail shops.”90 How could the economic life of the Jewish people be healthy under these conditions?
However, a much later Jewish author of the mid-twentieth century was able to write, recalling this time: “It is true that the Jewish mass lived cheaply and poorly. But the Jewish community as a whole was not miserable.”91
There is no lack of interest in the rather unexpected testimonies of the life of the Jews in the western provinces, seen by the participants in the Napoleonic expedition of 1812 who passed through this region. On the outskirts of Dochitsa, the Jews “are rich and wealthy, they trade intensively with Russian Poland and even go to the Leipzig fair.” At Gloubokie, “the Jews had the right to distil alcohol and make vodka and mead,” they “established or owned cabarets, inns, and relays located on highways.” The Jews of Mogilev are well-off, undertake large-scale trading (although “a terrible misery reigns around that area”). “Almost all the Jews in those places had a license to sell spirits. Financial transactions were largely developed there.” Here again is the testimony of an impartial observer: “In Kiev, the Jews are no longer counted. The general characteristic of Jewish life is ease, although it is not the lot of all.”92
On the level of psychology and everyday life, the Russian Jews have the following ‘specific traits’: “a constant concern about… their fate, their identity… how to fight, defend themselves…” “cohesion stems from established customs: the existence of an authoritarian and powerful social structure charged with preserving… the uniqueness of the way of life”; “adaptation to new conditions is to a very large extent collective” and not individual.93
We must do justice to this organic unity of land, which in the first half of the nineteenth century “gave the Jewish people of Russia its original aspect. This world was compact, organic, subject to vexations, not spared of suffering and deprivation, but it was a world in itself. Man was not stifled within it. In this world, one could experience joie de vivre, one could find one’s food… one could build one’s life to one’s taste and in one’s own way, both materially and spiritually… Central fact: the spiritual dimension of the community was linked to traditional knowledge and the Hebrew language.”94
But in the same book devoted to the Russian Jewish world, another writer notes that “the lack of rights, material misery, and social humiliation hardly allowed self-respect to develop among the people.”95
The picture we have presented of these years is complex, as is almost any problem related to the Jewish world. Henceforth, throughout our development, we must not lose sight of this complexity, but must constantly bear it in mind, without being disturbed by the apparent contradictions between various authors.
“Long ago, before being expelled from Spain, the Jews [of Eastern Europe] marched at the head of other nations; today [in the first half of the seventeenth century], their cultural impoverishment is total. Deprived of rights, cut off from the surrounding world, they retreated into themselves. The Renaissance passed by without concern for them, as did the intellectual movement of the eighteenth century in Europe. But this Jewish world was strong in itself. Hindered by countless religious commandments and prohibitions, the Jew not only did not suffer from them, but rather saw in them the source of infinite joys. In them, the intellect found satisfaction in the subtle dialectic of the Talmud, the feeling in the mysticism of the Kabbalah. Even the study of the Bible was sidelined, and knowledge of grammar was considered almost a crime.”96
The strong attraction of the Jews to the Enlightenment began in Prussia during the second half of the eighteenth century and received the name of Haskala (Age of Enlightenment). This intellectual awakening translated their desire to initiate themselves in European culture, to enhance the prestige of Judaism, which had been humiliated by other peoples. In parallel with the critical study of the Jewish past, Haskala militants (the Maskilim; the “enlightened”, “educated”) wanted to harmoniously unite Jewish culture with European knowledge.97 At first, “they intended to remain faithful to traditional Judaism, but in their tracks they began to sacrifice the Jewish tradition and take the side of assimilation by showing increasing contempt… for the language of their people”98 (Yiddish, that is). In Prussia this movement lasted the time of a generation, but it quickly reached the Slavic provinces of the empire, Bohemia, and Galicia. In Galicia, supporters of Haskala, who were even more inclined to assimilation, were already ready to introduce the Enlightenment by force, and even “often enough had recourse to it”99 with the help of authorities. The border between Galicia and the western provinces of Russia was permeable to individuals as well as to influences. With a delay of a century, the movement eventually penetrated into Russia.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century in Russia, the government “endeavoured precisely to overcome Jewish ‘particularism’ outside of religion and worship”, as a Jewish author euphemistically specifies100, confirming that this government did not interfere with the religion or religious life of the Jews. We have already seen that the Regulation of 1804 opened the doors of primary schools, secondary schools, and universities to all Jewish children, without any limitations or reservations. However,—“the aim of all the efforts of the Jewish ruling class was to nip in the bud this educational and cultural reform”101; “The Kahal endeavoured to extinguish the slightest light of the Enlightenment.”102 To “preserve in its integrity the established religious and social order… the rabbinate and Hasidism were endeavouring to eradicate the seedlings of secular education.”103
Thus, “the great masses of the Pale of Settlement felt horror and suspicion for Russian schooling and did not want to hear about it.”104 In 1817, and again in 1821, in various provinces, there were cases where the Kehalim prevented Jewish children from learning the Russian language in any school, whichever it was. The Jewish deputies in St. Petersburg repeated insistently that “they did not consider it necessary to open Jewish schools” where languages other than Hebrew would be taught.105 They recognised only the Heder (elementary school of Jewish language) and the Yeshiva (graduate school intended to deepen the knowledge of the Talmud); “almost every important community” had its Yeshiva.106
The Jewish body in Russia was thus hindered and could not free itself on its own.
But the first cultural protagonists also emerged from it, unable to move things without the help of Russian authorities. In the first place Isaac-Ber Levinson, a scholar who had lived in Galicia, where he had been in contact with the militants of Haskala, regarded not only the rabbinate but also the Hasidim as responsible for many popular misfortunes. Basing himself on the Talmud itself and on rabbinical literature, he demonstrated in his book Instructions to Israel that Jews were not forbidden to know foreign languages, especially not the official language of the country where they lived, if necessary in private as well as in public life; that knowledge of the secular sciences does not pose a threat to national and religious sentiment; finally, that the predominance of commercial occupations is in contradiction with the Torah as with reason, and that it is important to develop productive work. But to publish his book, Levinson had to use a subsidy from the Ministry of Education; he himself was convinced that cultural reform within Judaism could only be achieved with the support of the higher authorities.107
Later, it was Guesanovsky, a teacher in Warsaw, who, in a note to the authorities, without relying on the Talmud, but on the contrary, by opposing it, imputed to the Kahal and the rabbinate “the spiritual stagnation which had petrified the people”; he stated that solely the weakening of their power would make it possible to introduce secular schooling; that it was necessary to control the Melamed (primary school teachers) and to admit as teachers only those deemed pedagogically and morally suitable; that the Kahal had to be dismissed from the financial administration; and that the age of nuptial contracts had to be raised. Long before them, in his note to the Minister of Finance, Guiller Markevitch, already quoted, wrote that in order to save the Jewish people from spiritual and economic decline, it was necessary to abolish the Kehalim, to teach the Jews languages, to organise work for them in factories, but also to allow them to freely engage in commerce throughout the country and use the services of Christians.
Later, in the 1930s, Litman Feiguine, a Chernigov merchant and a major supplier, took up most of these arguments with even greater insistence, and through Benkendorff * his note ended up in the hands of Nicolas I (Feiguine benefited from the support of bureaucratic circles). He defended the Talmud but reproached the Melamed for being “the lowest of the incompetents”… who taught a theology “founded on fanaticism”, inculcated in children “the contempt of other disciplines as well as the hatred of the Heterodox.” He also considered it essential to suppress the Kehalim. (Hessen, the sworn enemy of the Kahal system, affirms that the latter, “by its despotism”, aroused among the Jews “an obscure resentment.”)108
Long, very long, was the path that enabled secular education to penetrate into Jewish circles. Meanwhile, the only exceptions were in Vilnius, where, under the influence of relations with Germany, the Maksilim intellectual group had gained strength, and in Odessa, the new capital of New Russia, home to many Jews from Galicia (due to the permeability of frontiers), populated by various nationalities and in the throes of intense commercial activity,—hence the Kahal did not feel itself powerful there. The intelligentsia, on the contrary, had the feeling of its independence and blended culturally (by the way of dressing, by all external aspects) in the surrounding population.109 Even though “the majority of the Odessite Jews were opposed to the establishment of a general educational establishment”110 principally due to the efforts of the local administration, in the 30s, in Odessa as in Kishinev were created secular schools of the private type which were successful.”111
Then, in the course of the nineteenth century, this breakthrough of the Russian Jews towards education irresistibly intensified and would have historical consequences for Russia as for all mankind during the twentieth century. Thanks to a great effort of will, Russian Judaism managed to free itself from the state of threatening stagnation in which it found itself and to fully accede to a rich and diversified life. By the middle of the nineteenth century, there was a clear discernment of the signs of a revival and development in Russian Judaism, a movement of high historical significance, which no one had yet foreseen.