Following the partitions of Poland (1772–1795), the Russian Empire inherited one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe. Catherine II extended religious tolerance to her new subjects, a decision that exploited existing confessional structures to maintain the status quo and impose a semblance of order in the borderlands. At the same time, eager to integrate her new subjects, Catherine II required Jews to register in the social estate system, which defined juridical identities. The dual impulse to integrate while exploiting separation was one of the key characteristics of tsarist policies toward the Jews throughout the imperial period. The Jews became subject to an increasingly invasive complex of legislation including conscription, compulsory education, and other reforms intended to break down Jewish insularity. At the same time, they confronted legal discrimination, especially the notorious Pale of Settlement, which enforced Jewish segregation. During the Great Reforms, the regime began to liberalize policy, allowing “useful” categories of Jews to settle beyond the Pale, creating unprecedented opportunities for social and geographic mobility and professional advancement. The state also unintentionally unleashed dangerous expectations and ambitions for more radical change, planting the seeds of revolution and violence. By the mid-1880s, the regime began to reverse its concessions, promulgating the infamous May Laws (1882) with educational quotas and other legal restrictions and failing to act decisively against the pogroms. In response to violence, discrimination, poverty, and the tumultuous events of the Revolution of 1905 and World War I, Jews opted to emigrate, revitalize Jewish life in Russia through civic and cultural initiatives, or participate in revolutionary political movements. The Jewish population in the Russian Empire was astonishingly diverse in terms of its religious traditions and subcultures. The rapid spread of Hasidim during the 19th century spurred opposition and reinvigorated institutions of Torah study among the mitnagdim and ethical studies among the adherents of the Musar movement. The Jewish Enlightenment movement, though it boasted only a small number of adherents, was influential in shaping new sensibilities and cultural codes. It gave birth to a modern Jewish literature in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Russian and a secular culture. Though Jewish enlightened thinkers embraced modernization, some feared radical assimilation and searched for national solutions, especially following the failure of reformism and the rise of anti-Semitism and nationalism. Movements such as Zionism, Bundism, and autonomism provided a secular framework for expressing Jewish identity and political aspirations.
The earliest general histories of the Jews of Russia and Poland, Gessen 1993 and Dubnow 1975, focused on the discriminatory policies of the tsarist state, which the latter blamed on religious antipathy and the former on the state’s mistaken belief in the Jews’ economic harmfulness. Critical of this “lachrymose” concept of Russian-Jewish history, Baron 1976 sought to contextualize the Jewish experience within a broader Russian context, though it did not fully succeed in its quest. Löwe 1993 followed this impulse to examine how conservative bureaucrats equated modernization with Jews. More recently, Bartal 2005 has sharpened the analysis by examining the role of the centralizing state and economic factors in the transformation of Jewish society in Russia. Polonsky (Polonsky 2010a, Polonsky 2010b) provides the most up-to-date synthesis of secondary scholarship, including studies that have employed declassified archival materials from countries of the former Soviet Union. Israel Bartal is presently editing a series on the history of the Jews of Russia, of which Kulik 2010 on the history of the Jews in medieval and early modern Russia is the first volume.
Baron, Salo W. The Russian Jew under Tsars and Soviets. 2d ed. New York: Macmillan, 1976.
Critical of the “lachrymose [view] of Jewish history” (p. 153), which emphasized suffering and persecution, the author seeks to place Jewish history into a broader Russian context. Though he is not entirely successful in his goal, the author goes beyond a description of tsarist discriminatory legislation to examine the economic, demographic, social, and cultural forces that shaped the Russian-Jewish experience.
Bartal, Israel. The Jews of Eastern Europe, 1772–1881. Translated by Chaya Naor. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005.
Challenges the centrality of the Haskalah as the primary engine of change and modernity. Emphasizes instead the role of the centralizing state, the decline of Jewish autonomy, and the impact of socioeconomic transformations such as the rise of capitalism, the decline of a feudal economy, and urbanization. These changes in turn transformed the political aims and methods of the elites, giving rise to modern Jewish politics.
Dubnow, S. M. The History of Jews in Russia and Poland from the Earliest Times until the Present Day. 3 vols. Translated by I. Friedlaender. New York: Ktav, 1975.
A reprint of the classic (1916–1920), this work departs from the exclusively legal-political approach of predecessors. Influenced by his preoccupation with Jewish statelessness, the tenacity of national identity, and the broader trajectory of Jewish history, Dubnow focuses on the internal life of Russian Jewry and its connection to the past. Employs Jewish communal records (pinkasim) to valorize the institutions of self-government. Views Russia’s tradition of religious antipathy toward the Jews as the motive for oppression.
Gessen, Iulii. Istoriia evreiskogo naroda v Rossii. 2 vols. Moscow: Evreiskii Universitet, 1993.
Reprint of original (1914). Influenced by the legal-political method pioneered by jurist Il’ia Orshansky, Gessen employs the narrative of discriminatory tsarist legislation that stifled Jewish life in Russia. First to utilize extensive archival materials to expose the complex workings of the state and the underlying tensions between the center and periphery. The key motive for the state’s discriminatory policies was the mistaken belief in the Jews’ economic harmfulness.
Kulik, Alexander, ed. Toldot yehude Rusyah mi-yeme kedem ’ad ha-’et ha-hadashah ha-mukedemet. Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center, 2010.
Focuses on the ancient to early modern period of Jewish history in Russia. Includes a historiographic essay about Jewish historical writing. Divided into four segments: the history of Jews in southern Russia, central Asia, the Caucasus, Georgia, and Armenia; the history of the Khazars; Jews in Old Rus, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and Muscovite Russia; and cultural contacts between Jews and surrounding cultures. First volume of the series Toldot Yehude Rusyah, edited by Israel Bartal.
Löwe, Heinz-Dietrich. The Tsars and the Jews: Reform, Reaction, and Anti-Semitism in Imperial Russia, 1772–1917. Chur, Switzerland: Harwood Academic, 1993.
An expansion and reworking of an earlier book, Antisemitismus und Reaktionäre Utopie: Russicher Konservatismus in Kampf gegen den Wandel von Staat und Gesellschaft, 1890–1917. By the late 19th century, conservative bureaucrats feared that modernization was inevitable and that “it would undermine . . . their power” (p. 3). Jews came to represent the gauge by which to measure social and political change.
Polonsky, Antony. The Jews in Poland and Russia. Vol. 1, 1350 to 1881. Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2010a.
The most up-to-date synthesis of numerous specialized studies that have emerged in recent years. The first volume of this trilogy focuses on the Jewish life in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth prior to the partitions of Poland and the diverse experience of Jews under different absolutist monarchies of Prussia, Austria-Hungary, and tsarist Russia.
Polonsky, Antony. The Jews in Poland and Russia. Vol. 2, 1881 to 1914. Oxford: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2010b.
The second volume of the synthetic history of the Jews in Poland and Russia, which covers the period from the assassination of Alexander until the Revolution of 1917. Chapters also devoted to specific themes such as Jewish spaces in shtetlekh and towns, modern Jewish literature, religious life, women, and the rise of Jewish mass culture.
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