Phase 4 (Part 1): Life in the Russian Empire (1772—1881)

by | Apr 27, 2020 | Israel

From the Partitioning of Poland in 1772 to the Pogroms of 1881

Central Europe became a precarious location for the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth beginning in the middle of the 17th century. Conflicts with Sweden, Russia and the Ottoman Empire in addition to internal uprisings, greatly weakened the country once known as the Paradise of the Jews. As Russia continually grew stronger and increased in territory, and Poland continued to deteriorate, a fatal blow was imminent.

In 1772, the Russian queen, Catherine the Great, secretly enticed the Austrian and Prussian monarchs to join her in a simultaneous invasion of Poland; each would be rewarded with an annexed portion of Poland. The plan was executed successfully and came to be known as the first partition of Poland. Similar partition plans and invasions took place in 1792 and 1795. As a result of these three partitions of Poland (and the Congress of Vienna later in 1815), 82% of the former territory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth became a part of the Russian Empire and Poland ceased to exist as a nation for 123 years.

Many of the political events that took place in the Russian Empire between 1772 and 1881 became stepping stones towards the formation of the State of Israel in 1948, a fulfillment of Biblical prophecies. As a result of the majority of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth being annexed by Russia, somewhere between 50% and 70% of world Jewry had been gathered in one political entity (the Russian Empire). The Jews had not known such a situation for almost 2,000 years.

Map showing the percentage of Jews in the Pale of Settlement and Congress Poland, The Jewish Encyclopedia (1905)

Now a part of the Russian Empire, the Jews that had once prospered in Poland began to move to the new economic centers (St. Petersburg and Moscow). The ensuing competition with existing local businesses created friction. As a result, the Russian government issued a decree in 1791 that expelled the Jews from the larger cities of the Russian Empire and confined them to the former Polish-Lithuanian portion of the Russian Empire. This territory was coined as the Pale of Settlement and was composed primarily of villages and farmland. Prosperity was gradually replaced by poverty for many of the Jews in the Russian Empire. They were now once again in an anti-Semitic environment.

The 1881 pogroms (uncontrolled attacks on Jewish settlements) throughout the Pale of Settlement triggered a massive Jewish exodus in 1882. Although North America was the primary destination, many Jews also fled to western Europe, Australia, South Africa and most importantly, Palestine.