Jews in Russia: Paled in Comparison to Other Ethnic Groups

Screen shot 2013-09-01 at 9.45.39 PM
Group of Jewish Children with a Teacher

Russia is and always was a place of great ethnic diversity.  Being so large geographically, how could it not be?  Not all ethnic groups were treated equally.  The Jews living in Imperial Russia suffered legal discrimination and were blamed for many problems in the empire.

The photo taken here by Prokudin-Gorskii shows a group of young children learning with a Jewish teacher.  All seems well in this photograph, but what this picture does not portray is the persecution that they likely suffered by living in Imperial Russia as Jews.

The Pale of Settlement was a region of czarist Russia where Jewish settlement was allowed and beyond which Jewish movement was restricted.  The Pale covered the area between the Baltic and the Black Sea.  This territory was acquired during the late 1700’s-early 1800’s in military conquests.  Many Jews already lived in this area and were for the most part required to stay there.

MapPaleofSettlement

First created by Catherine the Great for economic and nationalist purposes, the Pale of Settlement turned into a region closely associated with antisemitism.  There were large numbers of Jews living there in shtetls, or small towns with a large Jewish population.  The high concentration of people in these areas led to a poverty-stricken population.  On top of that, it made it easy for antisemitic mobs to riot and terrorize those people.

Many pogroms, a violent persecution, were aimed at Jews at this time.  They were not only forced to live in one place and restricted from another, but they were physically attacked by antisemitic mobs.  The pogroms of 1881-1884 were very notable.  The Jews were wrongly blamed for the assassination of  Tsar Alexander II.

An ethnic group, the Jews, being blamed for a problem and consequently being exiled, attacked, and even killed.  Sound familiar?

This type of religious and ethnic purging is characteristic of a regime beginning to shift.  Things always get out of hand when a big change is about to happen, which is definitely the case here.  Russia was on the verge of a major revolution and this is a tell-tale sign of that.

What do you think?  What does the Pale of Settlement mean to you in regards to leading up to the Soviet Union?

Read more about this topic at these links:
Prokudin Gorskii – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergey_Prokudin-Gorsky
The Pale of Settlement – http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/pale.html
Catherine the Great – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catherine_the_Great
The pogroms – http://grossmanproject.net/pogroms.htm

***After reading many comments, I feel that I should update this and post this link to the history of Bukharan Jews.  In the 1880’s, there was a mass exodus of Jews to Samarkand, where the above picture was taken by Prokudin-Gorskii.  The goal of this blog post was to shed light on the persecution of the Jews in imperial Russia, focusing on the Pale of Settlement.  Just as some minorities are discriminated against in certain parts of our own country and not in others, the same concept applies to imperial Russia.  There are always exceptions.  This photo just led me to discover what life was like for the Jewish community in the Pale, even though the setting and the conditions of the photograph were not exactly the same.  It was simply the beginning to a route that I took to learn something new about a people and and an area that I have a limited knowledge of.

12 Comments

September 2, 2013 · 2:06 AM

12 Responses to Jews in Russia: Paled in Comparison to Other Ethnic Groups

  1. Ben Wolfenstein

    I really liked this picture since part of my family comes from Russia and being Jewish was a main reason why they decided to leave. Like you said the picture shows the color, character, and community involvement of Jewish life in the shtetls but does not show the darker side of being Jewish in Czarist Russia. Pogroms destroyed villages and lives and they were endorsed by government officials. If anything went wrong, Russians blamed the Jews which was often followed by a pogrom.

    Post-Holocaust we tend to forget the pogrom era and that being Jewish in most of Europe was a danger to ones life. But nowhere was it more critical than Russia. Most European countries had moved past the Medeival violent persecution of Jewish populations but Russia did not, a sign of how behind the times they really were. I would agree that the persecution of Russian Jews in the Pale of Settlement was an indicator of a coming revolution, not because things were getting out of hand but because the country was so far behind the rest of the Continent, especially the West, signaled by their continuing violent anti-Semitism.

  2. joeconnorwilly

    An interesting post and a great a picture to choose. There is such a deep history in Eastern European and Russian Jews, and the hardships they suffered from anti-Semitism. It’s not very surprising that the Jews were persecuted in a “backward” country like Russia. I would be interested to find out what conditions were like for Jews in Russia post-Revolution and post-World War II. Did they spread out or did they remain in “The Pale?”

  3. rlaj360

    It is sad to see that many people do not realize the tragedy of how Jews (and many other ethnic groups) were treated in Russia. When people think of mass murder they think of the Holocaust, and rightly so. But too often they don’t even realize that they were persecuted in Russia long before that. The czars in Russia were not exactly kind to Jews, but Stalin later was worse than anyone realized for sometime due to the Iron Curtain.

    Although it was a musical, “Fiddler On The Roof” provides an excellent visual context for what was happening in Russia around this time. Though it is not necessarily the center plot of the movie the characters constantly live in fear of harassment or worse by their non-Jewish neighbors. The film does not show any of the very violent pogroms, but it does show some of the mistreatment and even exile when the village is forced to relocate at the end of the movie.

  4. This post raises some really important issues about ethnicity and prejudice. It also gives us some good background on the experience of the “Ostjuden” and the Pale of Settlement. Interestingly, this photograph was taken in Samarkand, and indicates how important Jews were to the economy and society beyond the Pale. Looking forward, we’ll see that anti-Semitism becomes even more virulent at the outset of the twentieth century, and that Russian Jews were drawn to the emerging Zionist movement as well as to marxism and the revolutionary movement. Perhaps you’d like to explore this topic for a future post?

  5. Casey

    First off, I really like the title of your blog “Just Putin It Out There!” But overall I think you did a great job explaining some of the struggles Russia has faced with its diverse population and ethnicities. I liked how you picked up on some of the issues Jews were facing against other Russians at the time. Initially looking at the picture I assumed it was a pleasant moment caught in time of children learning. I think it was really helpful seeing how the Pale of Settlement region restricted Jewish movement, and likely in this picture things were not as ideal as they seemed.

  6. jackscher

    This was an interesting direction to take this post in, given the picture seems to depict a kind environment for the Jewish children. The point that things get out of hand during times of regime change is insightful, and definitely true.

  7. cmitch15

    This is a great picture because it helps give an example of the censorship of the Russian government at the time. Looking at the picture it seems that all is well in their lifestyle but as you wrote, their conditions were very poor–even so poor that their treatment could be compared to the Nazi holocaust.

    Of course the Russian government at the time would not let those conditions be photographed because similar to the POW picture, they did not want the world to see the cruel conditions which those people were under. Very neat photo.

  8. carlin

    I was surprised at the path you took using this picture. It is not uncommon to hear about inequality among different ethnic groups in Russia, but I, having limited knowledge of the region, found your discussion on the Pale of Settlement very informative. Cmitch15 also made a good point at recognizing the censorship in Russia (Prokudin-Gorskii was the photographer for the tsar after all!).

  9. Time to check the map! The Jews in this photograph are in Samarkand, NOT the Pale. Look at how they are dressed and read the description of the photograph on the LOC website.

  10. carastombock

    ***After reading many comments, I feel that I should update this and post this link to the history of Bukharan Jews. In the 1880’s, there was a mass exodus of Jews to Samarkand, where the above picture was taken by Prokudin-Gorskii. The goal of this blog post was to shed light on the persecution of the Jews in imperial Russia, focusing on the Pale of Settlement. Just as some minorities are discriminated against in certain parts of our own country and not in others, the same concept applies to imperial Russia. There are always exceptions. This photo just led me to discover what life was like for the Jewish community in the Pale, even though the setting and the conditions of the photograph were not exactly the same. It was simply the beginning to a route that I took to learn something new about a people and and an area that I have a limited knowledge of.

    http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/Bukharan_Jews.html

  11. Thanks, Cara! This post has generated more comment than any other — good job!

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