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In transcribing the following passages I have relied on the Hathi Trust’s online version and its invaluable OCR text. The complete article includes more details of Jewish life in Russia, explanations of Jewish customs, family life, and charity to the poor, as discussions of violence against Jews. Please notify the webmaster if you encounter typographical errors. — George P. Landow

The Russian Government’s Policy against Foreign Observers and Reporters

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othing is more remarkable about Russia than the general ignorance in Europe concerning the social condition and internal affairs of that country. This ignorance is due to a variety of circumstances — geographical, historical, and others. The Russian population who still in habit the centre only of what is now the Russian Empire in Europe, were, until comparatively recent times, completely cut off from all contact with the European nations who were steadily advancing in that civilisation the light of which failed to reach the secluded Muscovite. . . .

Every possible means is now taken to conceal the truth about Russia, to keep out the foreigner, and to baffle his hateful curiosity. No native journal is allowed to give any real picture of the inter nal condition of the country. No foreign journalist may send uncensored telegrams to his editor, and no suspected author of unpleasant communications can hope to be allowed to remain in Russia. No foreign missionary may settle, or even travel in the country, for fear he should discover disagreeable truths, and report unfavourably on Holy Russia. The intelligent foreigner who arrives armed with recommendations from high personages abroad is promptly and easily blindfolded. He is received with fulsome compliments; the officials everywhere are at his service to take him wherever he chooses and show him everything. Their bonhomie and frankness of manner is truly charming, but they never leave their visitor to see any thing by himself. . . .

A country long geographically isolated, historically backward, with little literature to give views of its inner life, with a great gulf and complete want of sympathy between the limited upper class and the masses, with officials distinguished by combined ignorance and chauvinistic sensitiveness, and with an autocrat who declines to hear, or to allow others to hear, unpleasant truths about his empire and people, — such is the combina tion of conditions and circum stances which keeps Russia a mystery to Europe. . . .

Persecution of All Religions Other than the Russian Orthodox Church

In no other country in Europe would it be possible for the Government to steadily organise and prosecute a widespread system of religious intolerance and persecution, without the fullest details reaching and rousing the indignation of the co-religionists of the persecuted in other lands. Yet, although vague stories of trouble occasionally cross the Russian frontier, it is but little realised abroad that Protestant, Roman Catholic, Jew, and Armenian all suffer disabilities, and too often persecution, on account of their faith.

It is not long since the Protestants of the Russian Baltic provinces made an ineffectual attempt to attract the attention of Europe, and to stay the hand of their persecutors, by an appeal to the sympathies of their brethren in the West. Now it is the turn of the Russian Jews who seek to make their voices heard, and cry aloud for some influence to incline their tormentors to mercy. In Turkey it is impossible for the Sultan to conceal for a week any detail concerning a single outrage by a Kurdish brigand on an Armenian peasant. Missionaries, journalists, travellers, and consuls hasten to spread the news. Blue-books are published, Armenian committees organise meetings in London to protest, and high Armenian officials are hastily summoned in council to the imperial palace in Constantinople, to deliberate on the best measures for pro tecting and satisfying their co-religionists. In Russia, Protestants, Armenians, Roman Catholics, or Jews may suffer en masse, and but a few dismal wails will penetrate the barriers carefully erected and maintained to stifle the voice of truth from Russia. We have, however, travelled unaccompanied by official guides in those Russian provinces which are inhabited by the Jews, and we have had opportunities of seeing and hearing behind the barriers. We know that the complaints of the Jews respecting present woes and antici pated miseries are but too well founded; and it shall be our en deavour, in describing what we have seen and know, to convey some idea of their position under the existing penal laws, and of the danger which continually threatens both their personsal property from the jealousy and violence of an ignorant and barbarous peasantry.

The Legal Status of Jews in Russia

In Russia the present legal status of the Jew is that of an alien. The spirit of the laws which regulate his position may be briefly summed up as follows The Jew is assumed to be an individual against whose treacherous wiles the authorities must always be on their guard. He has no rights or privileges, except such as have been specially granted to him by imperial statute, and his enjoyment of even these is precarious. His conduct and occupations must be regulated by special legislation, and he must on no account be allowed, so long as he remains true to his faith, to acquire the position of a permanent inhabitant of the country.

Perhaps the most important of the restrictions on the liberties of the Russian Jew is that which confines his right of residence to certain specially named districts and governments. In the provinces comprised in what is still known as the kingdom of Poland, and in Volhynia, Bessarabia, and Podolia, the Jews are exceedingly numerous, and are said to form from 13 to 18 per cent of the population. In these provinces, and in the government immediately adjoining them to the east, the Jews have full liberty to reside where they like, but it is only under exceptional circumstances that they are permitted to enter the other provinces of the empire. In Courland and Livonia the descendants of the Jewish families who were already estab lished in these provinces when they were incorporated into the Russian empire, are allowed to remain undisturbed, but no Jews from other districts are permitted to settle. Any Jew who has paid the heavy dues of a first guild merchant in one of these provincial towns where the free right of residence is admitted, is subsequently permitted to move to, and to reside in, any other city of the empire, on condition of enrolling himself as a first guild merchant of the town he selects, and continuing to pay the annual dues prescribed for that privilege. Persons of the Jewish faith who have completed the university course, and obtained the necessary certificates, as also those who follow certain special trades and professions, particularly that of medicine, are nominally permitted to dwell where it suits them; but the authorities interpret the regulations differently, at different times, and in different places, and constant misunderstandings arise. The pressure which, under the strict interpretation of the laws, the Jews experience in the provinces in which they are crowded, compels them constantly to endeavour to evade its provisions. At times the authorities appear to regard with indifference the in fraction of many of the anti-Jewish laws; and then, under the sudden influence of the complaints of jealous and competing Christian traders, or as the result of the caprice of some zealous official, the prohibitory regulations are called to mind, and in notable stances, hundreds of families have been suddenly expelled from some town or district in which they have been long and quietly established.

Trading and Money Lending One of Few Businesses Permitted to Jews

It is chiefly as a trader that the Jew excites the jealousy of his neighbours. Trade is his general occupation, and in it he is undoubtedly a powerful rival to the Russians with whom he competes, and whom he will always try to undersell. His general principles in business are to seek, by a large turn-over, compensation for the small ness of the profits with which he contents himself on individual transactions, and he is willing to take risks, on his own account, for such small percentages of profit, as old-established Christian merchants would demand as commission, on business where they em ployed the capital of others. The Jew, in fact, forces himself into the position of a commission agent to the merchants who grant him credit. His industry, skill, and personal economy will often make a business succeed where the or dinary Christian would certainly fail, and his success assists that general development of trade which is so important in a back ward country. In large matters of business he understands that honesty is the best policy, and he will take the greatest care to maintain a good reputation, particularly where he looks forward to a continued and profitable connection. A fairly established Jew trader is comparatively rarely guilty of petty cheating or chicanery, and he has the great merit of understanding in whom he can himself place confidence. The Russian merchant, on the contrary, suspects everybody, and as he is himself generally and reasonally suspected, business relations with him often become most difficult.

The keenness of the Jews in competing with one another for business has a most marked effect in reducing both the prices of commodities and the rate of in terest in the districts which are inhabited by them, and from this circumstance their Christian neighbours undoubtedly reap considerable benefit. Official statements have proved that the rate of in terest paid by the peasant to the Jewish usurer in the western provinces is far lower than the rates charged by the Russian koulak in the provinces from which the Jews are excluded. The koulak, too, enforces his claim with rigour; whereas the Jew, unsupported by the authorities, has frequently to compromise, or even to accept a total loss. . . .

The Jews as Tavern Keepers [in Poland]

It has often been made a matter of complaint against the Jews that they encourage the peasants in drunkenness, but this assertion does not bear the test of serious inquiry. Considering that there is no retail trade in Russia of equal importance with that in intoxicating liquors, and that the trade of those provinces which are inhabited by the Jews is almost exclusively in their hands, it is not remarkable that they should be found as tavern-keepers, and pushing that business with their customary energy. As already mentioned, the Jews are particularly numerous in Poland, and yet, as compared with the Russian peasant, the sobriety of the Pole is remarkable. Katkoff, who was no friend to aliens, whether Jews or Germans, made the important acknowledgment in the 'Moskovosky Viedomost' that there is less drunkenness in the south-western provinces of the empire than in the central districts from which the Jews are absolutely excluded; and to his remarks on this subject he added the noteworthy statement, that although there was undoubtedly great poverty in the west and south-west of Russia, inquiry showed that the poorest classes belonged to the Jewish faith, and not to the orthodox peasantry. . . .

Jewish Money Lenders Only Source of Loans to Peasant Farmers

Although the Russian Jew seldom adopts usury as his sole occupation, he is nevertheless the only person from whom the small proprietor or the peasant can obtain the loans which furnish the capital so often necessary for the success of his agricultural operations. The rate of interest undoubtedly ap pears high; but when considered in relation to the risks incurred in making advances, it is probably not generally excessive. The security is often of the most uncertain nature, and consists, for instance, in the value of the yield of crops, for the sowing and tilling of which the lender is providing the capital. The Government has acknowledged the necessity of loans to the peas antry to enable them to carry on their business; and one of the most strongly urged of the recommendations of the Committees of Inquiry into Agricultural Affairs was the establishment by the State of the Provincial Peasants Banks, which now make advances to the peasantry and small land proprietors. It is, however, difficult to regulate the conduct of State establishments on the same sound commercial principles as ordinarily guide the action of individuals in their private affairs,.and it is at least doubtful whether the interference of tchinovniks, in what should be purely commercial transactions, will in the long-run prove really beneficial to the peasantry. With regard to the higher classes of landed proprietors, whose improvidence sometimes places them completely at the mercy of the Jews, from whom they have borrowed the last possible farthing, it is a whether it is an unmitigated evil that they should be dispossessed of the estates which they have not the capital or ability to work with profit. . . .

Related Material


“The Tsar and the Jews.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. 148 (October 1890): 441-55. Hathi Trust Digital Library online version of a copy in the University of Iowa Library. Web. 15 September 2020.

Last modified 15 September 2020