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Eugene Schuyler's 1872 letter on the Legal Position of the Hebrews in Russia

[Editor's Note: The following is correspondence from Eugene Schuyler, Charge d'Affaires of the Legation of the United States in St. Petersburg, Russia, to his superior, U.S. Secretary of State Hamilton Fish. The letter is dated September 29, 1872. The letter is part of a submission of President Chester Arthur to Congress in response to a Resolution of the House May 2, 1882. The word usage, spelling, punctuation, use of italics, quotes, etc. are as in the original. Only unimportant footnotes were removed. Source: House of Representatives Executive Document No. 192, 47th Congress, 1st Session, Serial Set 2030. ].


Up to the year 1835, the Hebrews in Russia and Poland were subjected to many and onerous disabilities, both civil and religious. From that time, the imperial government has pursued the constant policy of alleviating their condition, but though much has been done, much still remains to be done before the Hebrews will be on an equality with the other subjects of the empire.
The disabilities and exceptional position of the Israelites in Russia are based, not on grounds of religious intolerance, but on the idea that the Hebrew race "has a natural tendency to exploiter the population in the midst of which it is settled," and that the Hebrews are therefore, harmful to the state. The restrictions, therefore, which surround the Hebrews are rather of a civil than a religious nature, though these latter are not without their importance.
The present position of the Hebrews in Russia, so far as it is regulated or affected by the laws, is substantially this: The Hebrews are an alien race, living in Russia and owing allegiance to the imperial government, subject to all the burdens and endowed with few of the privileges of Russian subjects. On the assumed theory of their being hurtful to the population at large, they are under the special supervision of the government, and are restricted, in their place of abode, their occupations, acquisition of property, mode of life, dress, education, and manner of worship.
The special legislation with regard to the Hebrews may roughly be divided into two heads, as concerns their civil and their religious rights.


Hebrews are allowed to live only in the Kingdom of Poland and the governments of Wilna, Grodno, Kovno, Minsk, Tchernigof, Podolia, Volhynia, Poltava, Ekaterinoslav, Cherson, Bessarabia, Kief (except the city of Kief), Taurid (except Sevastopol), Vitebsk, and Mohilef (in the last two without the right of living in villages). In the governments of Courland, Livonia, Stavropol, and the Trans-Caucasus those Hebrews who lived there before the prohibitions of 1835, 1837, and 1841 are suffered to remain, but no others may settle there.
Hebrews are forbidden to reside in the whole of the rest of Russia, and especially in the northeastern and Caucasian ports of the Black Sea, with some few exceptions. Siberia is absolutely and forever closed to them. Exceptions to these prohibitions with regard to residence are made in favor of education, riches, and the mechanical arts.
By the laws of 1866 and 1868 Hebrews who have received the degree of doctor of medicine or surgery, or any university degree, can live where they please, and occupy themselves with commerce, manufactures, or their professions. The same privilege has been this year extended to the graduates of the St. Petersburg Technological Institute. For the purpose of attendance at the universities and the higher educational establishments, Hebrews are allowed to leave their settled abodes and reside in the towns where these establishments exist, but children of Hebrew parents are allowed to receive a general or middle education only in those places where they are permitted a settled abode.
By becoming merchants of the first guild, i.e. practically by paying a yearly tax of about a thousand rubles, Hebrews are allowed to live in any city of the empire, and take with them their families, domestics and clerks.
A still greater exception is made by a law of 1868, which permits Hebrew artisans to join trades-unions and guilds outside of the districts fixed for their settled habitation, and Hebrew mechanicians, distillers, brewers, and, in general, all artisans to live in any part of the empire. Hebrews are also allowed to go freely into any part of the empire for the purpose of learning or perfecting themselves in a trade.
One other restriction remains to be noticed, based on the idea that the Hebrews are smugglers, which forbids them to live within fifty versts of the western frontier. An attempt to carry out this regulation some three years ago led to many complaints.
That these restrictions as to residence are not strictly enforced may be seen from the fact that there are Hebrews in every government of Russia except Orenburg and the land of the Don Cossacks. Even in Siberia, there are 7,000 and in the Caucasus 16,000. (In St. Petersburg there are now about 7,000 Hebrews, who have a synagogue, and in Moscow a number almost as large). Still, the result is to keep the main body of them in Poland and the western provinces, where they form a large proportion of the population. In Finland, there are none at all. The whole number of Hebrews in the Russian Empire is 2,348,000, or 3.06 per cent. of the population. In Poland the Hebrews constitute 13 per cent. of the population, and in the government of Agustovo 16 per cent.; in the western province from 9 to 13 per cent.; in New Russia from 2 to 9 per cent.; and in Courland nearly 6 per cent.
The natural effect of this crowding together of the Hebrew population, combined with the restrictions on their acquisition of landed property, is to keep them in a comparitively low condition, and to afford them little chance for improvement. The supporters of Jewish emancipation say, with reason, that if the Hebrews are so dangerous to the welfare of the country and population, why protect certain governments from them at the expense of others? Why not diminish the evil by distributing them throughout the empire, particularly among the pure great Russian population, which is as richly endowed with the commercial spirit as are the Hebrews themselves? Why make exceptions in favor of the rich, who must on this reasoning be vastly more dangerous to the rest of the population than the poor? If the Hebrews are not dangerous, then the present restriction should not be kept in force. On any theory they are wrong.
The restrictions on commerce, trade, and the acquisition of property, except so far as they result from the restrictions on residence, are gradually disappearing. Hebrew manufacturers are allowed to go to certain fairs to sell or buy goods. Merchants of the first guild are permitted to carry on an export and import trade on certain conditions, and to visit the capitals and other cities for the purchase of goods twice a year; but their stay must not be more than six months in all. Merchants of the second guild can go to other cities once a year, for not more than two months. Hebrews are also allowed to go to other places to receive inheritances, or carry on law-suits. But all such absences must be with the special permission of the police, and, in certain cases, of the government of the province, or of the imperial government.
In general Hebrews may acquire real estate wherever they are allowed to live, but they are not allowed to become owners of any estate where the relations between the late serfs and their masters are not entirely settled. This is to prevent their having any power over Christians. There are also some further restrictions. In the government of Vitebsk and Mohilef, Hebrews cannot purchase or hire real estate within three versts of any village, or any private or crown estate. In the government of Tchernigof and Poltava, since 1855, they cannot obtain real estate for the purpose of settling on it, and, in general, in the western provinces persons of Hebrew origin cannot become purchasers of the estates of the Polish nobles sold at forced sale by the government.
Hebrews are forbidden to employ Christians as constant domestic servants, but may employ them on temporary occasions, as masons, carpenters, &c., or as workmen in factories, or as clerks in shops and counting-houses. Christian females who are employed to cook and wash for Christian employers, or as hands in factories, must live in separate houses from the Hebrews. This is in consequence of the supposed antipathy of the lower classes of the two races - an antipathy which will speedily disappear of itself as soon as the distinctions kept up by the laws are broken down.
From 1835 on, the Russian government was very anxious to induce the Hebrews to become agriculturalists, and consequently granted many privileges to those who adopted this mode of life. These privileges consisted inter alia in free allotments of land for village and homestead; in aid in money for removing from one place to another, and for the first settlements; in the construction of houses for the colonists; in grain for seed, and means of temporary subsistence at first; in freedom from money taxes for ten years, and from recruitment for twenty-five years; and finally, in honorary and money rewards for success in agriculture. "But all such favors and privileges," to quote the words of an official document emanating from the ministry of the interior, "did not bring about the desired results, and the establishment of Hebrew agriculturists presents only a long series of facts showing the systematic and constant misuse of these favors. In view of these facts and of the general disposition of the Hebrews for petty trade rather than settled labor, the government being confirmed in the impossibility of making profitable agriculturalists of the Hebrews, repealed the law giving money assistance to Hebrews becoming agriculturalists as well as generally [illegible] special regulations concerning the Hebrew agriculturalists then in force." These regulations were repealed, by an imperial order, in 1866. It is, perhaps, not entirely owing to the indisposition of the Hebrews to agriculture that these efforts of the government were unsucessful. It was as difficult to leave the agricultural class as it was easy to enter it. Therefore, none but the poorest Hebrews accepted the offers of colonization, and many of them died on the road to the distant colonies, and the rest reached them utterly ignorant of how to cultivate the land, and without instructors. Besides, they were forbidden to employ Christians as laborers, and were not allowed to live near enough the villagers of other faiths to have any competition. The assistance offered by the government was insufficient to carry them over a single year of bad harvest, and these, together with an unaccustomed toil, were enough to ruin the colonies. Some few, however, succeeded in tiding over the first bad years, and those are said to be now in a flourishing state. With regard to the service of the state, no person who is a Hebrew by race or religion can become an officer of the army, the rights of Hebrews, in this respect, being far inferior to those of Mohammedans. Recruiting, on the contrary, has often been pressed with more severity against the Hebrews than against the rest of the population, and this was especially the case during the Crimean war. But as a law is now under consideration, making military service equable and compulsory on all classes of the population, it is probable that these distinctions will be done away with.
All Hebrews who have taken the degree of doctor at any Russian university are permitted to enter the government service. Otherwise it is impossible for them, without a special permission of the Emperor. Christians, on the other hand, may enter the government service without any literary qualifications, and, with only a degree of candidate, corresponding to our bachelor of arts, they have the right to a government place. In all the government and rabbinical Hebrew schools, the teachers may be either Hebrews or Christians, but only the Christians have the right to pensions and rewards accruing from service. The inspectors and various other officers must be Christians. In all institutions of self-government where the members are elected, such as trade corporations, municipal bodies, city governments, &c., the non-Christians can only constitute one-third, and no Hebrew can be chosen as mayor of a city, or temporarily fulfill his duties. Thus, in a town such as Berditchef or Zhitomar, where nine-tenths of the inhabitants are Hebrews, the majority has no voice, and the town is practically governed by the very small minority of Christians.
The Hebrews in every town form a distinct community, governed by a body called the kagal, which is unofficially recognized by the government, and made use of for the collection of taxes and recruits. In the province of Courland, the kagal is officially recognized by a special law. Under the supervision of the kagal, there are rabbinical courts, whose decisions are governed by the Talmudic law, both parties being obliged to bind themselves not to refer the case to a civil tribunal. These courts, which are generally unrecognized by the government, are, as well as the kagal, said to be sometimes made instruments of great tyranny and oppression toward the lower classes of Hebrews, the Hebrew community being so arranged that only the rich and aristocratic take part in the government.
In these Hebrew communities there has existed for ages a special tax, called the Korobotchnky tax, which is now recognized and regulated by law. This tax is devoted to the wants of the Hebrew community, to the deficiencies in the payment of their taxes and performance of their duties, to the payment of the communal debts, the foundation and support of Hebrew schools, and to other benevolent purposes. The tax is raised by imposts on the butchering of meat in the Hebrew form, on the sale of meat so killed, on Sabbatical candles, and by penalties for the non-fulfillment of all the tax regulations, by an impost on the income of landed property belonging to Hebrews, on Hebrew manufactures, and on the estates of deceased Hebrews, and by the money paid for wearing the Hebrew costume. The kagal is also allowed to impose a tax on all liquors sold in taverns and dram-shops kept by Hebrews in country villages. This tax falling, of course, on the consumers, is really paid by the Christians, for the peasants are the only customers of these dram-shops. Whatever harm is therefore done to the Russian peasantry in this particular arises from the Russian law itself.


The ruling principle in the Russian legislation is that of complete tolerance to all religions, including of course, the Jewish, Mohammedan, and heathen, the orthodox Eastern Church being the religion of the state. This tolerance does not, however, extend to proselytism, and any one converting a Russian subject from one religion to another, except the orthodox faith, even from one non-Christian religion to another, is liable to heavy punishment. The state church reserves to itself the monopoly of proselytism, but the laws strictly forbid any force, threats, or compulsion being used in such conversion. The state, however, takes an interest in conversions from Judaism, and gives every convert from 15 to 30 rubles in money, and freedom from taxes for three to five years, as an assistance to them in case their means of livelihood should be cut off by their former coreligionists. The law demands that every conversion shall be voluntary, and forbids the baptism of children under fourteen years of age without the written consent of their parents or guardians. On the conversion of the parents the children under seven years are also baptized; if only one of the parents is converted, the sons under seven follow the religion of the father, the daughters that of the mother. Children over seven cannot be baptized without their own consent, even at the wish of their parents. While conversions from Judaism are thus approved of, backsliding into the old faith is punished with the severest penalties.
One very unjust regulation against the Hebrews, springing from their religion, is that "in districts where the Judaizing heresy (a heresy in the Eastern church which follows chiefly the Old Testament, keeps Saturday, &c.) prevails, all the Hebrews, without exception, must be expelled, and not one allowed to remain under any pretext." This is punishing the innocent for the guilty.
Marriage with non-Christians is forbidden to Russian subjects of the orthodox or of the Roman Catholic faith. Protestants are only forbidden to marry heathen. Persons of the Lutheran religion (for the Lutheran church is to a certain extent established in Russia) may marry Hebrews with the consent of the local consistory, but the marriage must be according to the Lutheran rite, and the Hebrew party must give a written promise to educate the children as Christians, and not to convert the spouse to Judaism. Catholics marrying Hebrews or Lutherans marrying them, without conforming to these regulations, are subjected to imprisonment for eighty days, but the marriages seem to be valid. In case of a mixed marriage, if the children are not brought up Christians, or if an attempt is made to convert the Christian spouse to Judaism, the marriage is dissolved, and the offending party punished.
In the case of conversion to Christianity of a Hebrew husband or wife, the marriage can be dissolved at the request of either party, and the converted person can marry a Christian. But the marriage may remain in force at the wish of the parties, provided the consort will endeavor to convert his spouse, and the Hebrew spouse will agree not to influence the children to remain Hebrews or abuse the other party on account of his or her conversion.
It is plain that any antipathy of the common people toward the Hebrew cannot be eradicated so long as the government itself marks them out as a peculiar people, with whom marriage is illegal.
Another mark of religious intolerance is the law which forbids everywhere the use by Hebrews of a special dress or costume, even though it is required by their religious belief. This law, after various vain endeavors to enforce it, especially in Poland two or three years ago, is so modified that, in the districts where Hebrews are allowed a settled residence, they may wear their distinctive costumes on payment of a fixed tax, which goes to the Hebrew benevolent institutions. Children under ten years of age, and old men over sixty are exempt from this tax. There is also a tax of five rubles for wearing the Jewish cap. Women are forbidden to shave their heads under a penalty of five rubles for each offense. When Hebrews pass the district of their settled residence, they must wear the usual costume of the country, and have about them no distinctive Hebrew marks.
These regulations bear only on Hebrews. Mohammedans and heathens are allowed to shave their heads, and to wear any costume they choose in any part of the empire.
In the districts set apart for their settled residence, the Hebrews enjoy the same freedom of worship as other religious communities in the empire, and the military force can even be called in to protect them. Hebrews under imprisonment are freed from labor on Saturday. Hebrew school-children are not obliged to attend the instructions in the Christian religion. Hebrews may make oath according to their own religious form. Saturday is given to them as a day of grace in the payment of promissory notes, &c. By permission of the authorities, a synagogue may be built for every eighty Hebrew houses, and a school of prayer for every thirty houses, but these buildings must not be nearer than 700 feet to any Christian church. The synagogues, like Christian churches, are exempt from taxes and the quartering of troops. The wine and liquor used in the Hebrew religious service pay no excise duty.
The religious officers, at the head of whom is the rabbi, are chosen by Hebrew community, under the regulations and with the confirmation of the government. The rabbi has no right to punish the Hebrews belonging to his congregation with pains, curses, or excommunication, nor to refuse any of them the rites of their faith. Any infraction of this regulation is severely punished by a fine and the removal of the rabbi from his office, but only on a complaint of the community. The sole complaint of the person who is punished is disregarded. The religious affairs of the Hebrews are under the general superintendence of a rabbinical commission of seven members, attached to the imperial ministry of the interior.
The official language of the rabbinical commission is Russia, but some other official documents may be in Hebrew. The registers of births, deaths, &c., must be kept in both Russian and Hebrew (either the old Hebrew or the jargon). Hebrew merchants must keep their books either in Russian, Polish, or German; or, if in Hebrew, must have a translation on the next page. This is the only restriction on the use of the Hebrew language. Wills written in Hebrew are admitted to probate, and oaths are administered to Hebrews not speaking Russian in their local dialect. In order to spread the knowledge of the Russian language among the Hebrews, it is required to be taught in all the Hebrew schools, and is now allowed to be used in the religious service.
As regards education, besides the rabbinical and private schools, and the government schools "for the education of Hebrew youths," Hebrew children of both sexes are admitted to all schools and educational institutions in the place where their parents reside without any distinction from other children. Hebrew books must be submitted to the censorship and a special tax is laid on them for the support of Hebrew schools.
Such is, in the main, the legal position of the Hebrews in Russia. Some minor regulations have not been noticed, and there are many varying local enactments in the different provinces and towns which could be taken into consideration only with great difficulty.
It is chiefly during the reign of the present Emperor that the laws directed against the Hebrews have been mitigated. Just after the emancipation of the serfs, there was a general movement of the Russian liberals for the emancipation of the Jews. Now, since the spread of slavonaphile and ultra-Russian ideas, it is not unusual to find strong liberals and democrats who are animated with the feelings of the Middle Ages toward the Hebrews, and even some of the prominent journals, such as the Golos, are constantly attacking them. On the other hand, the most truly liberal politicians and their organs, such as the Messenger of Europe and the St. Petersburg Gazette (of the Academy) are in favor of removing from the Hebrews all restrictions whatever, and thus aiding them to coalesce with the rest of the population. A strong movement is also going on among the Hebrews themselves for their elevation and enlightenment. Schools are founded, journals are established devoted to their interests, and pamphlets and books are published, not only to call the attention of Russians to the injustice they are doing to the Hebrews, but for their own profit and instruction. There are efforts at reform, too, to free the lower classes from the not infrequent tyranny of the kagal and the rabbinical councils.
There is need of all this and much more; for, in spite of the recent reforms, the condition of the Hebrews in Russia, massed together in the western provinces, without room for productive occupation or healthy competition, is growing worse and worse. Indeed, a recent Hebrew writer, Mr. Orshansky (The Hebrews in Russia, by T. G. Orshansky, St. Petersburg, 1872, Page 13), says that "the general economical progress of Russian life has proved injurious to the interests of the Hebrew population;" and goes on to show that the emancipation of the peasants, the organization of credit banks, the railways, the changes made in government contracts, brandy, farming, &c., the lowering of the tariff, and cessation of smuggling, the rural and municipal self-governments, have all been prejudicial to the Hebrews. Their former clients, the proprietors, are learning to do without them as factors and managers; the peasants get loans at the banks; the improvement in the communications have ruined the country taverns; there is less liquor drank; there are fewer uses for middlemen, and it is harder to live off of the weaknesses and follies of other people.
That the Hebrews were in such a position as to be ruined by the increase of the general prosperity is not their fault, but that of the laws which placed them in this position, and forced them to such means of livelihood. There is an historical reason for it. The old Polish laws forbade the peasants to engage in trade; the nobles thought it beneath their dignity. The Hebrews, who were cut off from agriculture and other pursuits and professions, naturally monopolized the trade of the country and fell into this position of being the factors, the go-betweens, and the agents of both the upper and lower classes, making, of course, their profit from each. With the changes in the laws that benefit both upper and lower classes, by making them more independent, the Hebrews are cut off from the means of livelihood which the oppression of centuries had condemned them to seek, and are reduced to their present, deplorable condition. To quote again the words of Mr. Orshansky, page 42: "In the life of the Hebrews of Western Russia are noticed all the symptoms of the social malady known under the name of proletarianism - a lack of settled residences, constant change of domicile and vagrancy, lamentable sanitary conditions, and, as their consequence a great mortality, a lowering of morality, a want of means, and an insignificant amount of profits and money saved."
This shows the absolute necessity of some change. The spirit of modern Russian legislation is to fuse together the different races that inhabit the empire and to make them all Russians. It is obvious that this object cannot be attained, so far as the Hebrews are concerned, while laws exist which render them a separate and distinct body, and, by casting a slur on them, cause them only to shut themselves still more, and to resist all attempts to draw them into normal relations with the rest of the body politic.