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Jews and the Imperial Social Hierarchy
At the dawn of the twentieth century, when Jewish emancipation had swept from west to east across nearly the entire European continent, Russia alone among the major European states maintained a regime of legal disabilities specifically aimed at its Jewish population. Why was this so?
The first historians to investigate the issue systematically were Russian Jews in the decades before 1917 who were themselves victims of official discrimination. Their works emphasized the distinctiveness of tsarist policy toward the Jews as compared to the treatment of the empire's other ethnic and religious groups, citing specifically anti-Jewish motives among ruling elites as the prime cause. A century later, in our own time, historians have modified this position by demonstrating that Russian policy toward the Jews, at least until the end of the nineteenth century, was remarkably consistent with the aims and methods of tsarist domestic policy as a whole. Without denying the presence in the tsarist government of strongly negative attitudes toward Jews, recent studies treat the absence of civil and political rights for Jews within the context of a general absence of legal rights in Russia, and argue that Jewish emancipation as enacted in Europe across the long nineteenth century would have made little sense in a society lacking the principle of equality before the law.
For all its advantages, the revisionist position, like its predecessor, still focuses on what the tsarist autocracy did not (or would not) do, rather than on what it did. Russia was not simply a lawless society, but a corporative society with different laws for different social estates. More important, this corporative structure did not merely hinder a European-style emancipation but actually shaped a specifically Russian approach to the problem of dismantling Jewish separatism and integrating the empire's Jews into the surrounding society. Elsewhere in Europe, Jewish emancipation depended on the prior dissolution of hereditary social estates, whether by revolution, as in France, or by reform, as in Prussia and other German states. In Russia, the issue of Jewish emancipation arose chronologically later (during the second half of the nineteenth century) but at an earlier stage of social evolution, when a hierarchy of culturally and juridically distinct estates was still developing, with frequent prodding by an activist regime. Both aspects of the timing were important. By the 1850s, Jewish emancipation in Europe was an unmistakable point on the horizon of the tsarist regime as well as of Russia's Jews. Russia's relative backwardness, however, together with the profound social and sectarian divisions within Russian Jewry, dramatically transformed the reception of the European example. The result was a selective integration designed to disperse certain "useful" groups of Jews into Russia's hierarchy of social estates. For a significant portion of the Jewish population, and for Russian society as a whole, selective integration produced dramatic effects that closely paralleled those of emancipation in Europe. As in Europe, moreover, those effects inspired unforeseen and highly diverse reactions.
RUSSIA COMES TO THE JEWS
Before we investigate whether and in what manner Jews could become citizens of the Russian Empire, it would be well to recall how they became its subjects. During Europe's late medieval and early modern eras, migration—much of it involuntary—was a nearly constant fact of Jewish life. Expulsions, invitations to settle, and new expulsions endlessly shuffled the Jews among the cities and states of Western and Central Europe. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the majority of Jews had moved eastward, to the economically more backward part of Europe, where rulers were interested in using them to stimulate urban and commercial life. Above all, they came to Poland and the Ottoman Empire—but not, strikingly, to Russia, from which Jews were repeatedly banned. Instead, Russia suddenly and inadvertently came to the Jews at the end of the eighteenth century, as it expanded westward, annexing large portions of Poland between 1772 and 1795.
Under Polish rule, the Jews had achieved a degree of political and social autonomy unsurpassed in the European diaspora. More than in any other country, the Jews of Poland were able to engage in the full range of practices that made Judaism a distinct social order. Not only their ritual observance but their rabbinic courts of law and system of taxation were recognized and protected by the state. In each community, a governing body known as the kahal gathered and apportioned Jewish taxes, policed the local Jewish population, and controlled residence and membership in the community. Moreover, a country-wide institution known as the Council of the Four Lands (referring to the four major regions of the Polish commonwealth) coordinated practices among the hundreds of Jewish communities and represented them vis-à-vis Polish rulers. Though not formally part of the hierarchy of estates that composed Polish society, in practice the Jews functioned as one of the many corporate elements in this characteristically segmented "old regime" society.
The empire that annexed eastern Poland—and with it some half a million Jews—was not such a society. The status of social estates (soslovie, plural sosloviia) in Russia was particularly complex, not least because beginning with Peter the Great, official estate categories were more prescriptive than descriptive, reflecting the state's desire to fashion from the top down a European-style social order. Only at the end of the eighteenth century, roughly simultaneous with the partitions of Poland, did noble and urban estates begin to emerge in Russia as corporate bodies with certain hereditary privileges and obligations. Even these estates were relatively porous and constantly subject to intervention by the autocratic government. By the 1820s, usage of the term soslovie had expanded considerably, and it was applied to social groups throughout the population, while simultaneously taking on connotations of cultural as well as legal distinctiveness.
Thus Russia began to fashion a European-style society of estates even as its neighbors in Europe were busy dismantling theirs, whether by enlightened absolutist reform from above or by revolution from below. The fact that social estates in Russia appeared relatively late, were substantially the result of state initiative, and therefore were strikingly weak vis-à-vis the monarchy was to have a decisive impact on the Russian-Jewish encounter. For it was the absence of a tradition of corporate autonomy that allowed the tsarist regime to conceive of the various social estates not as obstacles to the integration of the empire's Jews but as conduits for it.
This pattern emerged soon after the first Polish Jews became subjects of the Romanov dynasty, under Catherine the Great, whose reign (1762-96) encompassed the three successive annexations of Poland. Eager to promote the growth of towns and cities, Catherine ordered in 1786 that her newly acquired Jewish subjects be registered as urban residents, with all the privileges and obligations of the urban estates—the meshchanstvo (artisans and petty traders) and kupechestvo (merchantry). This sweeping inclusion of the Jews in the existing hierarchy of social estates was unprecedented in contemporary Europe. For the time being, however, it had little practical effect. The tsarist government found the kahal far too convenient for fiscal and administrative purposes to consider abolishing it, and therefore autonomous communal structures remained a dominant fact of Jewish life. Moreover, substantial numbers of Jews, employed as managers of noble lands or in other rural occupations, did not live in urban centers at all. To be sure, certain Jewish merchants and petty traders made use of their new status as Russian subjects to gain access to previously forbidden Russian markets. Protests by their Christian competitors, however, combined with Catherine's general turn away from social reform in the wake of the French Revolution, led the government to scale back the estate privileges granted to the Jews, and in particular to restrict their residence to the western and southern borderlands, away from the Russian interior.
A similar pattern of liberal reform in theory followed by little net change in practice characterized the reign of Alexander I (1801-25). Indeed, under Alexander numerous non-Russian peoples such as Poles and Finns were granted unusually wide-ranging forms of communal autonomy, at least on paper. Four successive (and short-lived) "Jewish Committees" were convened by Alexander in an attempt to formulate a coherent policy toward the Empire's Jewish population. Although committee members included prominent figures such as the poet and senator G. R. Derzhavin and Prince A. A. Czartoryski, their recommendations—inspired more by the emerging debates in Western Europe on the "civic improvement" of the Jews than by Russian realities—had almost no impact. Whatever the aspirations of the tsarist state, for Jews as for most other subjects the relevant juridical categories were not (yet) those of the estates, but rather the more rudimentary poll tax registry, which governed liability to corporal punishment, military service, restrictions on travel, and the institution of "collective responsibility" (krugovaia poruka) within a larger group. For Jews of all occupations that group remained, after the Polish partitions as before, the individual Jewish community, as represented by the kahal. Thus, during the first decades of Russian imperial rule, life for the Jews changed little—as one historian put it, "a perfect illustration of the Russian proverb 'God is in heaven, and the tsar is far away.'" For Russia's ruling elites, as for Russians generally, the Jews appeared similarly remote: a small, exotic tribe at the western periphery of the empire, perpetual villains in the sacred drama of Christian theology rather than subjects of a burning social problem later known as the "Jewish Question."
After the accession to the throne of Nicholas I in 1825, however, the tsar suddenly came much closer. Like his predecessors, Nicholas sought to break down Jewish separatism and autonomy through state-sponsored "merging" (sliianie). Unlike them, however, he took as his medium for accomplishing this aim not the embryonic hierarchy of social estates but the army. In the first years of his reign, Nicholas extended compulsory military service to many of the groups inhabiting the formerly Polish territories, including, in 1827, the Jews. Until then, Jewish communities had enjoyed the collective privilege of paying extra taxes in lieu of sending recruits. After the decree of 1827, only Jewish merchants, who accounted for less than 10 percent of the Jewish population, were allowed to buy their sons' way out of military service—a privilege enjoyed by Gentile merchants as well. The rest of the Jewish population found itself, for the first time, swept up in a policy of forced integration via the Russian army. While per capita recruitment levels were no higher for Jews than for other groups, the age at which Jewish recruits were taken was often significantly lower. In some cases, boys as young as eight were taken off to begin their twenty-five years of service to the tsar. The 1827 decree had a traumatic impact not only on the thousands of young Jews who were drafted but on the Jewish communities they left behind. The fact that the macabre job of selecting recruits was placed in the hands of Jewish communities themselves deepened existing fault lines based on class, religious practice (Hasidim vs. mitnagdim), and kinship. Pressured by the government to deliver ever more and ever younger conscripts, communal authorities preyed upon poorer and more vulnerable Jews, while the wealthier and better connected, especially members of the merchant estate, were able to pay or bribe their way out of service. The result, as the historian Michael Stanislawski has shown, was a substantial erosion of intramural solidarity and of the authority of traditional Jewish elites. Self-mutilation was a well-known technique among Jews (and not only Jews) desperate to avoid military service. Parents of recent conscripts would light mourning candles, as for a deceased relative, on the assumption that they would never see their sons again, at any rate not as Jews. Contemporaries noted a substantial increase in the number of Jewish riots and attacks on kahal authorities. Equally telling, the Nikolaevskie soldaty became the subjects of numerous folk songs, tales, and legends.
Much of the Jewish trauma regarding the imposition of the draft stemmed from the fear that conscripts, especially younger ones, would be forced to submit to baptism. Indeed, in the first half of the nineteenth century, most Jews, like most tsarist officials, regarded conversion as the all but inevitable outcome of "merging." Once drafted, the fabled "cantonists" (under-age draftees), who accounted for some 50,000 of the total of approximately 70,000 Jewish recruits between 1827 and 1855, did in fact convert at significantly higher rates than the Jewish population as a whole. In the eyes of the government, however, conversion levels among Jewish soldiers were disappointingly low. Unlike Old Believers and other Russian sectarians, concluded one official memorandum in 1855, "Jews do not abandon their religion during army service, in spite of the benefits offered to them for doing so." If the goal of the military draft was to promote the merging of Jews into the surrounding population, the memorandum went on to say, its effect was precisely the opposite. Even among those who did convert, baptism was less a matter of professional ambition, let alone conviction, than of sheer survival under extraordinarily hostile conditions.
Thus while the military draft weakened internal Jewish authority, it did little to draw Jews into Russian imperial institutions, despite the coerced conversion of minors. Moreover, like their formal incorporation into the urban estates under Catherine, the formal integration of Jews into Nicholas I's army was quickly compromised by laws distinguishing Jewish from non-Jewish soldiers. Less than two years after the 1827 decree on conscription, Jews were restricted from certain army units, and beginning in 1832 they were subject to separate, more stringent and subjective criteria for promotion, which required that they "distinguish themselves in combat with the enemy." Even more important, by 1835 Nicholas had officially established the Pale of Permanent Jewish Settlement, thereby formalizing the restrictions on Jewish residence first enacted by his grandmother Catherine. Although Jewish soldiers often served in the Empire's interior, in areas otherwise off limits to Jews, upon completion of military service they were required to return immediately to the Pale.
The difficulty of fulfilling Jewish religious commandments during military service, the specter of baptism, the denial of the normal rewards for loyal service—all these ensured that Nicholas's vision of the army, as a kind of correctional institution designed to discipline and homogenize large portions of the empire's population, failed to draw the Jews into the main currents of Russian life. To be sure, the tens of thousands of cantonists who served up to twenty-five years in the imperial army became the first cohort of Russian Jews effectively, if involuntarily, to leave the Jewish fold. But we currently know little about the actual experience of Jewish soldiers, apart from a handful of individuals, or about those who survived as veterans. Their experience outside the Jewish world has been largely eclipsed by the legends they inspired within it.
KISELEV AND THE "JEWISH COMMITTEE"
In matters relating to the Jews, as in so many of his other projects, Nicholas's imagination began and ended in the army barracks. The same cannot be said, however, of a handful of his senior officials who, while carrying out the policy of military recruitment, began to construct another approach to ending Jewish autonomy and isolation, an approach that would be realized only after Nicholas's death, during the era of Great Reforms. Indeed, these officials were prominent members of that small cohort of "enlightened bureaucrats" who played an important role in the preparation of the Great Reforms themselves, including the most far-reaching reform, the abolition of serfdom in 1861. They were "enlightened" in the specific historical sense of using the power of the state to increase the productivity of the population by rationalizing, centralizing, and standardizing legal norms.
Excerpted from Beyond the Pale by Benjamin Nathans. Copyright © 2002 the Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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