Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Russia Gathers Her Jews: The Origins of the "Jewish Question" in Russia, 1772-1825 by John Doyle Klier

This book proves to be an excellent source for understanding what happened after the partition of Poland when a large Jewish population was taken into Russia. Before the partition practically all Jews were thrown out of Russia for a variety of reasons and the Russian government had to start anew vis-a-vis its policies toward such a large population of Jews. The result was when Russia first inherited the Jews of Poland they did not exactly know what to do with them and kept the institutions that the Poles/Jews had created previously. With an influx of Poles into Russia Polish anti-Semitism seemed to influence Russian and what would eventually become Ukrainian anti-Semitism. Ukrainian anti-Semitism stemmed from the fact that Polish landlords went through Jews, as middle men, to lease/rent property to Ukrainians before the partition. But this wasn't so much anti-Semitism as we have come to know it today as simply antagonistic feelings toward Jews since they were such a visible enemy in regards to economic conditions Ukrainians were being forced into.

As Jewish merchants spread through the Russian empire complaints by merchants against Jewish merchants began. Many of the accusations made against Jews had to do with the innovative - and today we'd call them capitalistic - ideas that the Jews were using, such as underselling their competition, selling with whole sale prices, fixing prices, cornering the market, driving up prices, etc. For the most part Jews were not allowed to work in agriculture or own land, when a time came when they were given the legal right to work in agriculture they were still not allowed to own land. In regards to taxes, Jews in Russia had to pay a double tax, or if they wanted to emigrate out of Russia they would have to pay a 3 year equivalent of it. Anti-Judaism began to pick up economic connotations which would eventually be evident in future anti-Semitic ideas about the Jews. Jewish distillers and tavern-keepers were accused of keeping the peasantry in perpetual debt, etc.

It is interesting to note that the future `Pales of Settlement' was based - out of context - on an idea and submission of a Jew who thought that the Black Sea area would offer large economic opportunities for Jews. In reality Jews were uprooted and moved to the Black Sea to become farmers and factory workers and help populate this area. Some saw a reasoning behind the complaints against Jews. That they might cheat at trade was due to the double tax burden placed on them. That they were mainly money-lenders was the result of the fact that professions considered `honest' were closed off to them, etc. Throughout the entire reform process the interests of the Christian population were always taken ahead of that of the Jews. In the end some Jews choose to follow the reformist ideas, picking up their lives in Belorussia and moving to the future `Pale of Settlement.' Yet when they arrived, much of what they were promised was not given to them. That is tax exemption, loans, and other government help. To those interested in any of these ideas I would highly recommend purchasing this book, it is very informative and well written as well.

No comments: