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The first instinct of the Russians taking charge of the new territories seems to have been to want to change as little possible. John Klier writes: 'A decree issued to the inhabitants of the newly established Russian province of Belorussia, over the name of Z.G.Chernushev, governor general of the new province, singled out the Jews, promising them freedom of religion, the confirmation of their existing property rights, and the continuation of their own courts and tribunals.'

But he continues:

'Significantly the kahal itself was not even mentioned. The Russian government seems to have had very little understanding of exactly what it was confirming and guaranteeing. On future occasions, and as late as 1799, the central government, in the person of the Senate, would admit that it did not know the legal basis upon which Jews were still exercising important prerogatives such as the administration of internal justice and civil litigation, in various parts of the empire.' (7)

(7) John Klier: 'The Ambiguous legal status of Russian Jewry in the reign of Catherine II', Slavic Review, vol. 35, No 3 (Sept 1976), p.506. 

The assumption then was that the Polish principle that the Jews were to be treated as a single, self-governing legal entity administering its on affairs through the kahals, would continue. In 1781, however, as part of a general policy of encouraging the development of a commercial middle class, Jews were first allowed and then required to enrol in the official urban classes concerned with such matters as foreign trade, banking, artisan activities. Klier comments:

'Increasingly, however, the government began to impose a new unitary concept by viewing all Jews as urban dwellers, enrolled in the appropriate urban class. But the majority of Russian Jews could not be placed within these classes. They failed to meet the necessary residency requirements, which assumed residence in the municipality. While all Jews were indeed enrolled on the census books of the nearest urban centre, they frequently lived in the countryside on the estates of noble landlords, engaged in leaseholding, stewarding and middleman activities connected with the estates and with the attached peasant villages. Specifically, they leased out the numerous prerogatives that accrued to a noble estate - for example, the monopolies on the sale of products such as salt, the control of vital resources such as grain mills or fish ponds, and the right to collect tolls on roads. Many Jews leased the important right of distilling alcohol, and often served as village tavernkeepers. (It should be noted, however, that despite Russian literary stereotypes, not all Jews were tavern-keepers, nor were all tavern-keepers Jews.) To this occupation was joined the ancillary function of village moneylender. None of these pursuits was associated with the customary activities of the Russian kupechestvo or meshchanstvo.' (p.509 - Klier explains that meshchanstvo 'comprised those city residents who had a yearly income of less than 500 rubles and who were engaged in trade or handicrafts in the broadest meaning of these terms.' The kupechestvo or 'merchants' had an income of more that 500 rubles and were further divided on the basis of income in three 'guilds' with differently defined rights).

Finally (with regard to the policy of Catherine II, 'the Great') in the 1790s special arrangements, favourable and unfavourable were made for the Jews. Although still officially designated as towndwellers, a passporting system was introduced to allow them to continue their activities in the countryside. As members of the official urban classes, their right to take part in urban administrative structures was confirmed, but unlike other members of the urban classes, they were not allowed to move outside Byelorussia without a special imperial permission. The 1906 Jewish Encyclopaedia, frequently used as a source by Solzhenitsyn, sees this as the beginning of the 'Pale of Settlement' which was to become a major source of grievance throughout the nineteenth century:

'The Pale was first established in 1791, when the White-Russian Jews, who had passed under Russian rule (1772) at the first partition of Poland, were forbidden to join merchant or artisan gilds in governments other than those of White Russia ... With the successive partitions of Poland the Pale was enlarged by the addition of governments wherein Jews lived in great numbers. In 1794 it included those of Minsk, Izyaslav, Bratzlav, Polotzk, Moghilef, Kiev, Chernigov, Novgorod-Syeversk, and Yekaterinoslav, and the territory of Taurida. To these were soon added the Lithuanian governments of Wilna and Grodno; and in 1799 the Pale was further augmented by the addition of Courland.' (8)

(8) The 1906 Jewish Enclycopaedia is available online at 

Rather than being a new principle, however, this looks to me like a simple continuation of the old principle of restricting the Jewish presence in the Russian heartland. 

The 1790s policy of distinct legislation concerning the Jews was continued when in 1794 they were required to pay double whatever the normal tax rate was for their particular estate. They were also required to pay a separate tax in lieu of military service. This latter is ambiguous. Klier says 'the motivation of the law did not reflect favourably upon the Jews. Rather, it probably derived from the assumption, common at that time in Western Europe as well, that the Jews could not be trusted to serve with loyalty or efficiency in the armed services.' (p.516). But in another article, he says 'During the same period (the 1790s - PB) the Jews were granted special privileges such as exemption from personal performance of military service.' (9) When later (in 1827) conscription was imposed it was a very hard burden given the importance of being part of a community bound together by a very demanding religious discipline.

(9)  Review of Raphael Mahler's History of Modern Jewry, in The Review of Politics, Vol.36, No 4 (Oct 1974), p.614. Derzhavin argued that Jews shouldn't be allowed in the armed services because they couldn't be relied on to fight on the Sabbath.

Solzhenitsyn, always anxious to sweeten the pill, points out that the double tax was also imposed on Christian 'Old Believers' and, also as usual with his accounts of legislation unfavourable to Jews, that it wasn't very rigorously applied, a view confirmed by the account on the Orthodox Jewish website, 'Fortunately these measures were not always put into strict practise.' (10) As we shall see, it was lifted in 1804.

(10) Nissan Mindel: Senator Derzhavin and the Jews,