(No. 6/2004 - February 2004)
Editor: Fran Bock

This review was first published in East European Jewish Affairs 1999, Vol. 29 #1-2, pp151-158.

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The Pale of Settlement: An Inseparable Part of Byelorussian History

by Leonid Smilovitsky, Ph. D.,

Diaspora Research Center Lester and Sally Entin Faculty of the Humanities

Tel Aviv University

Review of: Evgeny Anishchenko, Cherta osedlosti: Byelorusskaya sinagoga v tsarstvovanii Ekateriny (The Pale of Settlement: The Byelorussian Synagogue During the Reign of Catherine II) (Minsk: Arti-Fex, 1998), 16Opp.

Jewish topics continue to attract the attention of professional Byelorussian historians (1). A recent testament to this fact is the reviewed monograph by Dr Evgeny Anishchenko, who is a researcher at the History Institute of the Byelorussian National Academy of Sciences and an expert on the history of Byelorussia in the sixteenth-eighteenth centuries. The present work is the first serious attempt made in Byelorussia to examine the complex economic and political processes which took place in the north-western region of the Russian empire in the late eighteenth century. No studies of this kind have yet been undertaken in Ukraine or Russia, a large part of the areas of which were also included in the Pale of Settlement (2).

Anishchenko, a native Byelorussian, provides vivid insight into the history of the Pale's establishment and development, revealing the unique features of its economic growth and introducing the reader to little known facts of Jewish life in Vilna, Grodno, Polotsk, Mogilev and Minsk provinces.

The Pale of Settlement was the most painful example of discrimination against Jews as compared to Russia's other nations. In the eighteenth- twentieth centuries the government adopted a series of laws which restricted the civil and national rights of Russia's Jews. Under the Provisional Laws of 1882. Jews were forbidden to settle outside cities and small towns. Restrictions were placed on Jewish enrolment in colleges and universities. The number of Jewish children within the Pale of Settlement was not permitted to exceed 10 per cent of the total number of students; this quota was reduced to 5 per cent outside the Pale and to 3 per cent in Moscow and St. Petersburg. From the late 1870s onwards, Jews were barred from state jobs and could neither serve as justices of the peace and local judges nor be elected city mayors. The number of Jews on municipal councils was not allowed to exceed one-third of all members. Jews were prohibited from voting in local government elections or holding office in local government. In the army, Jews could not hold officers' rank or serve as clerks, medical orderlies, quartermasters or border guards. The honour of annulling the Pale of Settlement, on 20 March (2 April) 1917, belongs to the Provisional Government.

The author's decision to take up the Jewish theme is in many ways justified. While engaged in research for a doctoral dissertation devoted to the General Land Survey in eighteenth-century Byelorussia, he revealed the active role played by Jews in every major area of the region's economy (3). For a long time evidence of this fact was consistently ignored by Soviet historians, who were subjected to rigid ideological constraints. Only since 1991, with the break-up of the Soviet Union and the establishment of Byelorussia's independence has it been possible to cast an objective light on the past. The first attempts to do so were made by Dr Anishchenko in a series of articles published in scholarly journals, popular magazines and periodicals (4).

This monograph is based on an impressive array of sources. These are mainly previously unknown records gleaned by the author from the Byelorussian National History Archives, as well as the archives of the Russian Federation, Lithuania and Poland. By using these sources in combination with well known studies by Yuly Gessen, Simon Dubnov, L. Levanda. I. Orshansky, K. Korobkov, P. Marek and other scholars, the author highlights the role of Byelorussian Jews within the context of the history of East European Jewry. At the same time, Dr Anishchenko has a rather limited circle of references to contemporary studies on the su bject conducted outside Byelorussia and the former Soviet Union. This is not his fault but his misfortune: like most Byelorussian historians, he is compelled to be out of touch with the latest Jewish studies by his colleagues in Europe, the USA and Israel . Relevant examples may be found in the studies by Shmuel Ettinger (5), Shaul Shtampfer (6) and Heinz-Dietrich Lowe (7).

The monograph consists of seven sections (chapters), an introduction and a conclusion; it has a geographical index and a name index. The author undertook the far from simple task of making this work not only the property of the strictly scholarly community, but also accessible to the widest possible public of those interested in history. With this goal in mind, he made an effort to present his material in as popular a form as possible; in this he was helped by an exceptional sense of humor. The introduction is accompanied by two additional sections, which Anishchenko terms the "interlude" ("Infidel pariahs in the garden of indulgent Eden") and the "prelude" ("Border trading with the flogging of the innocent"). These sections, set apart from the main text, describe the Jews' penetration into Byelorussia, of which some areas were part of the Polish Kingdom, the Great Lithuanian Principality and the Russian empire in the sixteenth-eighteenth centuries. The work evaluates the role of the Jews and their treatment by Ivan the Terrible, the Polish King Augustus II, Elizabeth I and Catherine the Great. It is known that Russia's Jewish policy was dictated by its rulers' hostility towards the Jews and Judaism, despite the lack of a Jewish population. On the eve of Poland's partition and Russia's annexation of Byelorussia, the Jews still bore the stigma of alien undesirables. It was up to the government authorities to determine their special status as Russia's newly acquired subjects.

Dr Anishchenko undertakes to illustrate the nature of the relations between Jews, Byelorussians, Poles and Russians. With the first partition of the Polish Kingdom in 1772, the Russian empire took over the eastern part of Byelorussia (92,000 sq. kms.) with a population of 1,300,000, including some 100,000 Jews scattered throughout cities and small towns, but residing mainly in Mogilev, Gomel, Vitebsk and Polotsk. The Jews engaged in various trades: they were tailors, cobblers, furriers, carpenters, stonemasons, tanners, blacksmiths, and jewelers. Empress Catherine II issued orders to conduct a census of the Jews and to establish the kahals (8). In September 1772 she declared that all new subjects were to retain their former social rights and freedom of religion. The Jews were first given equality of rights in the payment of poll taxes together with the rest of the population. The pledge of religious tolerance and protection of the property rights of various population groups were meant to prevent any social unrest resulting from the occupation and to ensure the government's stability.

This provoked an ambivalent reaction on the part of the local authorities. Mogilev governor M. Kokhovsky, speaking on behalf of the landowners, blamed the Jews for food shortages and high prices. He branded the Jews "parasites and useless members of society", who profited through deception, exploitation of peasant labor and usury. His claims were rebutted by B. Shpeer, a Mogilev merchant who, in a 1773 report to the empress, objected to the assertions that the Jews were "base, pushy, sly and slovenly". He pointed out that Byelorussian Jews differed in no way from other believers in Europe and Asia and attributed Jewish alienation to "recalcitrance, superstition and licentiousness". Shpeer proposal to introduce a reform of the kahal system and a more rational taxation policy. The new government was expected to abolish compulsory military conscription, to grant the Jews the rights of the Russian middle class and to settle the debts between Jews and Christians.

But this never happened. After numerous amendments and adjustment, the government consolidated the supreme authority of provincial kahals. Anishchenko concludes that the Byelorussian kahal oligarchy retained its hold over the Jewish community, becoming a faithful ally of the ruling regime and a conscientious tax payer. The Byelorussian synagogue itself was divided by a schism known as the conflict between Hasids and misnagdim (9).

One factor which invariably affected the everyday life and overall status of the Byelorussian Jewish community was the problem of wine distillation. This is the subject of an entire chapter, "In the millstones of distillation". Wine distillation- along with trade, usury, mediation services and craft manufacture- was for a long time one of the community's main sources of income. This was used to give an additional basis to the traditional charge that the Jews were turning Christians into alcoholics. The author has succeeded in refuting this myth. Following the partition of the Polish Kingdom, the production and sale of alcohol remained the 'franchise' of residents of the Byelorussian region. After paying an agreed fee to the state, the franchise holders were at liberty to transfer their rights to private individuals for a sum of money. In rural districts, wine-making was the province of the landowners. The Russian nobility played a ruinous role in this undertaking: up to 30 per cent of wheat harvests went into making wine. Jews were used by the landowners as bailiffs (contractors), whose duties included property confiscation. Food shortages and failed harvests, military requisitions, bad management practices and feudal exploitation were all blamed on Jewish intrigues. The Jewish inns drew the nobles' displeasure as a source of unwanted competition. They were branded as dangerous and harmful, with the Jews accused of accepting bread, hemp, cotton, flax and cattle from the peasants in lieu of money. At the same time, the tsarist government made attempts to turn wine-making into a state monopoly, provoking the anger of the local nobility. Since the government had no desire to quarrel with the landowners, these conflicts were inevitably turned against the Jews, with both sides blaming them for their troubles.

The book contains interesting material on the introduction and development of urban reforms. In Byelorussia, only the gentry and the Jews enjoyed freedom of movement . The Jews were primarily engaged in business transactions and mediation, occupations which were repugnant to the nobles' sense of dignity and honor. Therefore the permission to join the middle and merchant classes effectively opened the city gates to the Jews, who lost no time in seizing this opportunity. In the Mogilev province in 1784, 10 per cent of the 15,593 tax-paying Jews belonged to the merchant class, compared to 5.5 per cent of the 7,522 Christians. In Polotsk province the percentage of Jewish merchants lagged behind the Christians, with 6.5 per cent and 7.5 per cent respectively. In 1787 there were 126 Christian merchants and 159 Jewish merchants, as well as 518 Christian and 996 Jewish members of the middle class in Vitebsk and the surrounding area. In Minsk and the surrounding area in 1802, the merchant class consisted of 41 Jews and 55 Christians, and the middle class consisted of 1,176 Christians and 2,675 Jews. However, the cities' Christian power-holders refused to tolerate the "contemptible Yids" in their merchant guilds and administrative offices. This gave rise to an insoluble conflict. The Jews were allowed to participate in municipal elections and offices under an official quota and property census, by means of an exception. At the same time, access to the merchant and middle classes led to a schism among the Jews themselves. The Provincial Decree of 1775 divided city residents into merchants and the middle class. Those registered as merchants were charged a tax of 1 per cent of their declared capital and were exempt from military service. In 1782 the merchants and the middle class were forbidden to reside in rural areas and instructed to move immediately to cities. In 1783 all Jews not registered as merchants were grouped with the middle class. A conflict arose between the Jewish community, responsible for paying taxes and the conduct of community members, and Jewish integration in the general social fabric. The majority of Jews were destitute, their middle class status a mere formality: they were thus easily pushed back to the rural areas. As a result, the newly acquired rights were enjoyed by a handful of well-to-do Jewish merchants; thus the government-approved urban settlement policy became yet another means of persecution.

The Jews of Byelorussia represented an isolated social group, in respect to which the autocratic government did not dare introduce any radical reform. In St. Petersburg the authorities, though in favor of speedy and complete Jewish assimilation, were forced to concede to the demands of landowners, noblemen and city residents opposed to the policy of granting equal rights to Jews. Hence the government's inconsistent and contradictory attitude to the Jewish issue. Anishchenko believes that the government lacked a definite Jewish policy, with a decisive role played by personal connections and the empress's favor. In our view, the alleged "humanity" of Catherine II was not so much a product of "enlightened despotism" as the fear of antagonizing Moscow's anti-Semites by granting equal rights to the Jews.

The nobility, clergy and Christian residents of the annexed part of Byelorussia were true to the age-old Polish anti-Jewish tradition. Their relations with Jews in the areas of the economy and everyday life were a tangle of conflicts, rivalry and co-operation. Both the central government and the local authorities were anxious to make the maximum use of the Jewish economic enterprise, which played a key role in the area's development. In addition, other factors were involved in the issue, such as the influence of the liberal Prussian and Austrian laws concerning Jews or the projects for "civic rehabilitation" of the Jews discussed in Poland during the "four-year Sejm" (1788-92).

The ambiguous existence of the Byelorussian Jewish community in the late eighteenth century evidently suited both sides. The Jews retained their kahal autonomy, group independence and right to preserve their national traditions. The government gained an extra safety valve, whereby in case of failed reforms the ire of the masses could be channeled against the "Yids". The stereotypical image of Jews as the enemy was shaped by the nobles, the city powers-that-be, and the state itself. The tsarist regime was concerned with preserving the class system, with the Jews assigned such roles as outcast, counterfeiter and the cause of all social evils.

The author provides instances of the "preventive measures" aimed at keeping Jews out of Russia's interior. On 23 December 1791 Catherine signed an edict restricting the rights of "citizenship and middle class status" to Jews residing in Byelorussia's provinces, the Yekaterinoslav region and the Tavrichesky district. The Jews recognized the discriminatory nature of this decree, referring to themselves as criminals who had committed no crime. This marked the origins of the Pale of Jewish Settlement. The author concludes convincingly that, on the one hand, the reason behind the tsarist government's restrictive laws was the desire to monopolize agricultural production and processing in the hands of the nobility; on the other hand, social equality was impossible to attain in a society where even the omnipotent monarch could not guarantee basic human rights.

To sum up, several points must be clarified. The subtitle of Anishchenko's monograph is 'The Byelorussian Synagogue During the Reign of Catherine II'. The reference is to the Byelorussian synagogue as the totality of all Jewish communities headed by kahals throughout Byelorussia, which existed in Poland and the Great Lithuanian Principality during the sixteenth-eighteenth centuries, and in the Russian empire in 1772-1844. Unfortunately, in the introduction the author fails to give a review of the sources, to specify the extent of his subject's development, or to list the archives in which he conducted his research, as accepted in the West. True, this is common for many Byelorussian historians, who thereby attempt to stake an exclusive claim on a given subject and to keep away competing scholars, a practice which certainly lowers the scholarly standards of their research.

Naturally, the subject in question is impossible to cover in a single monograph. However, in his introduction the author does not specify the issues he was forced to omit or chose to focus on, or the reasons for doing so. The book contains little information on the status of synagogues, the life of religious Jews, blood libels, the living standards and demographic analysis of the Jewish population, their everyday existence, their relations with peasants. At the same time, some of the book's chapters are over- loaded with factual material - literally overflowing with facts, examples, quotations, comparisons, while sadly lacking in conclusions and the author's assessments. However, the monograph' s concluding section stands in sharp contrast to the main text: its distinctive premises and conclusions are laid out in a concise, intelligible, almost survey-like form.

Nevertheless, all of the abovementioned does not lessen the importance of Anishchenko's work. His book is the first serious monograph study of Jewish life in the eighteenth century conducted in the past sixty-seventy years in Byelorussia. The author's profound insight into Jewish history, his meticulous research and vigorous analysis are a rare phenomenon among Byelorussian historians (10). Equally, his sympathetic attitude towards the plight of the Jews as a persecuted minority and his genuine attempt to trace the underlying causes of their conflict with the authorities command respect. It is to be hoped that Anishchenko's example will be duly appreciated, and followed, by his colleagues both inside and outside Byelorussia.


The publication of the reviewed book and the English translation of this review were made possible by a generous contribution of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

1. See Leonid Smilovitsky, 'Revival of the historiography of Byelorussiaian Jews, 1992-1995', Shvut, no.3 (19), 1996, 209-19.

2. The Pale of Settlement (1791-1917) was a demarcated area in Russia beyond which Jewish settlement and permanent residence were forbidden. The only exceptions were merchants of the first guild, doctors, lawyers, members of the free professions and several other Jewish groups of insignificant size. The Pale encompassed fifteen provinces in the Polish Kingdom, Lithuania, Byelorussia, Bessarabia, Kurland and most of Ukraine.

3. General Land Survey-the measurement, description and mapping of arable land, taking into account the administrative division, composition of populated areas and the number of tax-payers. The survey was conducted in an especially intense manner in 1765-1859 and covered thirty-five of the empire's provinces with a total area of 300 million desyatnas (land measure equivalent to 2.7 acres). See Evgeny Anishchenko, Generalnoe mezhevanie na Byelorussia; (General Land Survey in Byelorussia) (Minsk: Byelorussiakaya navuka 1996).

4. Evgeny Anishchenko, 'The Jews of eastern Byelorussia in the late eighteenth century', Vest; Akademia Nauk Byelorussia; Humanities Series no.4 (Minsk 1993); 'The establishment of kahals in Byelorussia during the first partition of the Polish Kingdom', Byelorusski gistarychny chasopis (Minsk), no.3, 1995; 'The Shklov counterfeiters', Byelorusskaya minuushchyna, no.2, 1995; 'The financial review of Grodno province kahals in the early nineteenth century and its results', Vests; Academia Navuk Byelorussia, no.1, 1995; 'Interdenominational conflicts in Byelorussia on the eve of the first partition of the Polish Kingdom', ibid., no.3, 1995; 'Relations between clergy and believers in Byelorussia in 1760- 70'. ibid. no.2. 1996; and others.

5. 'The formation of basic principles and trends in the Russian government's policy towards Jews following the partitions of Poland' in Shmuel Ettinger, Jews and Russia. Collected Works Jerusalem 1993), 86-154.

6. Shaul Shtampfer, 'The 1764 census of Polish Jewry' in Annul of Bar-Ilan University Studies in Judaic and Humanities, XXIV-XXV (Ramat Gan 1989), pp. 41-59; 'The 1764 census of Lithuanian Jewry and what it can teach us' in Papers in Jewish Demography 1993. Selected Proceedings of the Demographic Sessions held at the 11th World Congress of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, June 1993, The Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem Jerusalem, 1997), pp. 91-121; 'The Lithuanian Yeshiva', Volozhin, Slobodka, Telz, Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History Jerusalem 1995).

7. Heinz-Dietrich Lowe, The Tsars and the Jews: Reforms, Reaction, and Anti-Semitism in Imperial Russia, 1772-1917 (Chur, 1993).

8. In 1793 Russia and Prussia subjected the Polish Kingdom to a second partition, with Russia annexing the central part of Byelorussia along the Braslav-Mir-Pinsk line, encompassing the towns of Borisov, Minsk, Slutsk, Nesvizh and Turov, which soon formed a part of the Minsk province. During the third partition of Poland in 1795, Russia annexed virtually the entire western Byelorussia with the towns of Grodno, Brest-Litovsk and Novogrudok, as well as most of Lithuania and Kurland. The strip of Byelorussian land to the west of Grodno and Volkovysk was taken over by Prussia.

9. I. Lurie and A. Zeltser, 'Moses Berlin and Lubavich Hasidism: A landmark in the conflict between Haskalah and Hasidism', Shvut, no.5 (21), 1997, pp. 32-64.

10. Of the dozens of studies on Jewish topics which emerged in Byelorussia in the 1990s, only four are worthy of scholarly interest: Emanuel Yoffe, Stranitsy istorii evreev Byelorussii (Pages from the History of Byelorussian Jewry (Minsk: Arti-Fex); E. Savitsky (comp.), Bund v Byelorussi, 1897-1921 (The Bund in Byelorussia, 1897-1921) (Minsk 1997); R. Chernoglazova (ed.), Tragediya evreev Byelorussii v gody nemetskoi okkupatsii, 1941-1944 (The Tragedy of Byelorussian Jews under German Occupation, 1941-1944) (Minsk 1997); E. Rozenblat and I. Yelenskaya, Pinskie evrei, 1939-1944 (The Jews of Pinsk, 1939-1944) (Brest 1997).

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