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The Pale of Settlement


In 1791, Catherine (II) the Great established the ghetto called the Pale of Settlement where 95% of the Jewish population was forced to live, in order to restrict commerce between Jews and Russia’s general population and ward off the ‘evil’ influence of Jews on the masses.  The Pale covered approximately 386,000 to 472,000 square miles, as the borders were constantly being redefined.  Contained within its borders were 25 provinces including Ukraine, Lithuania, Belorussia, Crimea, Latvia and parts of Poland.  The area virtually extended from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea.  Coming into the twentieth century, there were approximately five million Jews, 40% of the world’s Jewish population, residing there.

Initially, certain classes of Jews had permission to reside in any part of Russia, but such permissions were capriciously rescinded at various times either by changing laws or the arbitrary decisions of the police.  But even with such permission, such ‘privileged’ Jews had to maintain passports permitting them to dwell outside the Pale, and show vocational certificates proving their trade.  While reforms were limited and many residents couldn’t settle outside the Pale of Settlement or acquire lands beyond their homes, Alexander II made many changes.  He permitted Jews to serve in local and state government and instituted the right to admittance to all schools of the empire.

Then came the May Laws of 1882, under Tsar Alexander III, forbidding Jews to: settle anew outside of towns and boroughs; have deeds, mortgages, leases or powers of attorney in their names; or venture outside the Pale, especially for female private teachers.  If the law did not specifically state that Jews had a certain right, then it was assumed that they didn’t.  Therefore, since the law did not specifically mention female certified teachers, they were deprived of the right to free domicile. Jewish prostitutes were the only class of women who could reside anywhere. This drove many to prostitution simply so they could continue to secretly teach or study.  Those who were discovered engaging in academics rather than prostitution were banished to the Pale.  Even Jewish theater was not permitted.

Jews were denied secondary and university educations, as the government charged they were ‘monopolizing’ education.  They were not permitted to become lawyers or engineers. Nor were they to be doctors in any official capacity.  Any Jews who had been working in the telegraph, railroad or as government clerks were fired.  From the time of the May Laws, which remained in effect until the revolution in 1917, Jews were generally not permitted to own or lease land, even within the Pale, although they could be employed as agricultural laborers.  Any property owned or leased by Jews before the May Laws was simply confiscated afterward.  A Jew could lose his privilege of residence if he sold his wares outside of his own town, or changed to another craft.  The son of a privileged artisan had to go to the Pale as soon as he came of age, and daughters married to non-privileged husbands could not even visit.  The death of an artisan caused his wife and children to be banished to the Pale, as well.  If a non-privileged relative left the Pale to visit a privileged family member, the latter would be heavily fined on the first offense and ordered back to the Pale on the second.  If a privileged artisan fell sick, it was the police who decided if he was really ill, too old, frail, or incapable of working and, if he could no longer practice his trade, he was sent to the Pale although he may have lived outside it for decades.

Even within the Pale, there was little freedom. Not only did the May Laws prohibit new Jewish settlements, but from 1887, Jews were not allowed to migrate from one village to another. If a Jew went to a synagogue in another town, he was prevented from returning to his own village. Once he left the village, even within the Pale, he forfeited his right to live there.  Jews in the military were prohibited from spending their furloughs outside the Pale.

The new, stricter laws pertaining to Jews contributed to their poverty and demoralization, as well as prompting a wave of emigration from Tsarist Russia. In 1910 alone, there were expulsions from over 30 different cities, districts, provinces and villages, including some inside the Pale.  Many of these families had been living in these places their entire lives and were given a one-month or sometimes only a three-day notice to leave.  When no other reason existed, the reason for driving them away was either “lack of morals” or “political unreliability”, although no proof substantiated the charges. In addition, once they were driven from their homes, they were not even permitted to stay in hotels.

It’s estimated that Russian Jewry, both inside and outside the Pale, paid 20 to 25 million rubles per year to ward off pogroms and stay in their homes.  The Pale was finally abolished and the Jews were given equal rights by the Provisional government, after the revolution, in March, 1917.


One Comment
  1. Any property owned or leased by Jews before the May Laws was simply confiscated afterward. A Jew could lose his privilege of residence if he sold his wares outside of his own town, or changed to another craft.

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