|Vol. V, No. 9
Kislev 5608, December 1847
Sketches of Jewish Life in Russia
By the Chief Rabbi Dr. Lilienthal
A General Survey of the Condition of the Jews in Russia
Soon after his return from Southern Europe, Alexander decreed, that he would permit the Jews, in order to testify the sense of gratitude which the whole nation owed them, to send three deputies to St. Petersburg, who should reside there constantly, and represent all Jewish affairs. Although there lurked here also, in the background, views for proselytizing the Jews, we must still confess, that it was a noble and high-minded act of the <<442>>Emperor, and that our people were wrong to let an opportunity pass unimproved, which neglect now exhibits so many terrible consequences. If there had been men who could have placed a proper value upon the momentous affairs entrusted to them, and could have grasped the favourable opportunity to benefit their people, and endowed with a proper degree of education to make good use of the liberal permission of the Emperor, to meet as a committee of consultation on Jewish affairs; if there had been men acquainted with the Russian language, with knowledge of the world, men of high character, dignity and standing among their fellow Israelites, who could have demonstrated to the government by the clear light of the truth, and nothing but the truth, that its own interest would be best promoted in seeking to promote the welfare of its Jewish subjects: who knows what the condition of the Jews would be at this time? although we acknowledge, that in view of the energy and steadiness with which the Russian government carries out its plans, every thought of success in amelioration of our prospects can be only problematical.—But the Jews held a meeting of their Rabbis and Parnassim at Wilna, after the appearance of the imperial decree; and after a tedious discussion, they sent three men to St. Petersburg, who were soon banished from the capital on account of their misdemeanour, and who brought disgrace and contempt on the nation, which, to represent properly, they had been chosen. “If these are their best men, what shall I think of the others!” was the Emperor’s remark, and thus the misfortune of the Israelites was sealed, and their mournful lot yet farther aggravated. But the deputies under question were not the best men among the Jews; they had been elected because they could speak the Russian language, and had served as contractors in the Russian army during the French wars, and were therefore known to a portion of the nobility; the more learned, and the better men among the Jews, were unacquainted with the Russian language, and strangers to all ideas which lay beyond their Jewish circles, and they had therefore not the courage to undertake a mission which was both so important and so difficult. Alas! that the punishment for this ignorance should prove so severe.
Soon afterwards a monstrosity made its appearance, nothing less than a Russo-proselytical state policy; under the superinten<<443>>dence of Prince Galitzin, the Minister of Education. Papow projected a plan, the object of which was to bring all the Jews to the baptismal font, and in order to make it palatable to them, the coverts were to be called “Israelitish Christians.” It shows a total ignorance of the character of the Jews, to suppose that they could be caught by such a device; and it was, therefore, natural enough, that the whole plan miscarried, and it was accordingly abandoned.—A few years afterwards the government resorted to severer measures, by decreeing that the Jews should give up the distilleries which they kept throughout the country, and to remove into the towns. Although a cabinet order of Alexander appeared a few days later, delaying the execution of this measure, still, Chavansky, the governor-general of Witebsk and. Mohilev, one of the bitterest enemies of the Jews, had already executed the first order in his provinces. I do not wish to say a word in defence of the trade in ardent spirits; yet I must inveigh against the manner it was suppressed among the Jews; since hundreds of families who gained before an honourable living in the country, were thus driven into the towns without the means of earning there a livelihood; and in this way was laid the foundation of the terrible poverty which rests now like an incubus on the Israelites of both the above provinces. Soon after, a second ukase was published, which ordered the removal of all Jews who kept liquor shops in a space of fifty miles of the western border of the empire. This imperial decree augmented yet more the poverty of many Jewish families of the western provinces, and they were removed from the country to the towns where they knew of no means to earn a living. Jewish affairs remained in the same state till the death of Alexander, which took place at Taganrog.
Nicholas, on ascending the throne, decreed that all the Jews who had till then resided in considerable numbers at St. Petersburg and Moscow, should quit those cities immediately. Already in the reign of Alexander the police had placed many difficulties in the way of the Jews; but the then governor-general, Mileradowitch, always took their part with his usual energy of character. When the chief of the police on a certain occasion refused permission to several Jews to sojourn in the capital, Mileradowitch asked him: “To whom, do you think, General, am I indebted <<444>>for these stars which decorate my breast? To none but the Jews, who rendered the most signal service to my brigade during the French wars; and such a people you desire to persecute! Let them stay so long as their business requires it.” He permitted them also to have three small Synagogues at St. Petersburg, and to erect their tabernacles on the feast of Succoth. But Mileradowitch fell in the tumult which broke out at the accession of Nicholas to the throne, and in him the Israelites lost their best friend. Jewish women and children shed tears when they saw his corpse laid out in state.
The order to quit the imperial towns fell upon the Jews like a thunderbolt from a clear and unclouded sky, so unprepared were they for the fatal blow; many obeyed and left; but many, too many, alas! became apostates, in order to remain; and thus was the first step in the proselytising policy taken. And Benkendorf, the minister of secret police, and the intimate friend of the Emperor, expressed himself to this effect, that the Jews were expelled solely on account of their uncleanly habits; but the common Russians are a hundred times worse, and nobody in St. Petersburg seems to care the least about it. It is a peculiarity rather of the Russian state policy to assign a plausible reason for every act that is done by government, in order to stand justified in the estimation of Europe, whilst they by, so to say, throwing dust in the eyes of the public, conceal their true purpose.
Not long afterwards, a committee was appointed to devise a plan of laws for the separate and especial government of the Jews; but the work assigned to this body was only finished in 1835. During this time, the section of the imperial council entrusted with the making of the general laws for the empire, progressed with the task assigned them, and the code thus produced, appeared for the first time in a collected form, under Nicholas; and at the conclusion of every law are the words, “Krom Ebreew,” which mean “with the exception of the Hebrews.” Thus accumulated from day to day the laws unfavourable to the Jews, and they were loaded with the not formerly unusual denunciations, that the Jews are injurious to the empire, that they are idle vagabonds, who are unwilling to work, that they are strangers to all mental culture, and that it is the duty of the government to transform them into useful citizens. These accusations so gene<<445>>rally believed in, compel us to examine the argument by which they are supported. According to the laws in force at that time, the Jews were permitted to be merchants and pedlars, to exercise mechanical trades, to keep taverns and post-offices, and to furnish all articles to be delivered under contract with the crown for army supplies, &c. Even now the Jews have among them a far greater proportionate number of patented merchants than all the other subjects of the empire. I say patented: because the merchants in Russia are divided in three classes or guilds, where every one has its own proper privileges; the lowest class pays sixty; the second three hundred, and the third eight hundred silver rubels, (per annum.) Nevertheless, the Jews, who thus pay a very considerable sum annually to the government, and are taxed as all other merchants, are only allowed to trade in seventeen provinces, where they are permitted to reside, whilst they are excluded from the remainder of the fifty-two provinces of the empire. But where they are permitted to reside they are not engaged merely in the retail business; but they have also rendered themselves meritorious by prosecuting the export trade of Russian products. Riga, which as a seaport, has the exporting business to Holland and Great Britain, is annually visited by a great many Jewish merchants from White Russia, for the purpose of making their contracts for the delivery of produce; and when the ice has disappeared from the Dwina, a fleet of Jewish vessels appears loaded with flax, hemp, flaxseed, wheat, and the products of the forest trees, to be again reshipped to foreign countries. From the Lithuanian provinces Jewish merchants send their agents with the country products to Dantzig, on the Baltic Sea, where they do a considerable business. In the south is Berditshev, in Volhynia, the Moscow of Russian commerce, where the Jews buy up the products of Volhynia, Podolia, and Kiev, which provinces are so greatly blessed as a grain-growing country, in order to carry them to Odessa, on the Black Sea, whence they are again transhipped to all the ports on the Mediterranean Sea. Another very considerable branch of business of the Russian Jews is the furnishing of all the articles wanted for government purposes. The government does not directly build and keep in repair the Public highways and the public buildings; neither does it supply directly the food and clothing for its armies; but it publishes pro<<446>>posals, and assigns them to one of the bidders, (Patradshiki.) The government, knowing the cupidity and greediness of the officers, declines to provide the supplies itself; and it therefore entrusts this branch of its administration to the hands of men, who have to satisfy the thirst for money on the part of the officers from their own purses; and they must therefore always lose by their contracts, if they do not calculate all these expenses beforehand. The Jews are only permitted to send in bids in the provinces where they reside; and as the expenses are necessarily considerable, the wealthy only can participate in this branch of business, and the number of those who can do this is easily counted; as among the hundred and fifty thousand Jews in Russia* (proper,) there are hardly twenty whose property amounts to one hundred thousand dollars, and not a hundred who are worth fifty thousand. And yet they do more in this government contract business than any one would imagine, and there are families who have been noticed by government for their spirit of enterprise, and been rewarded by the distinguished title of “honorary citizens.”