By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for 5tjt.com
Many of the readers of these pages can trace their great-great grandparents and their family histories to Tsarist Russia. It is a history, however, that has been almost forgotten. How many of us were able to sit down with such an ancestor and ask how life was like under Imperial Russia? My father z”l was zoche to do that, and related to us some fascinating and yet disturbing vignettes.
DEBATE AMONG SECULAR HISTORIANS
There is a debate among secular historians as to how to view the Tsars and the Jews. Simon Dubnow, an irreligious maskil, pretty much followed and expressed the view that the primary motivation behind the Tsars and their governmental legislation was fueled by intense anti-Semitisim, prejudice and hate. This hate culminated in all of pogroms against the Jews which were orchestrated by the Russian government.
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Starting about fifty years ago, however, a new group of revisionist historians, began suggesting that anti-Semitism was not the fuel nor the prime motivation of the very challenging legislations initiated by the Tsars, and that the pogroms were also not orchestrated by the Tsarist governments. Rather, the policies were merely part of how they should go about implementing their overall nationalities policy. As proof, these historians claim that other groups were dealt with in even a harsher manner and that the pogroms were neither planned nor approved by the state. [My father z”l’s interviews, as related to me, reflect the first view- not the latter.]
Of course, we are not discussing the early Tsars. The discussion will be limited to only the seven Tsars that ruled over the Jews after they had taken over vast areas of Jewish communities – the lands of Poland, Lithuania, and other areas. As someone who likes to provides schemas, or Leggo-board frameworks of knowledge in which we can fit in new information, let’s refer to the collective seven as “CPA NAAN” – the seven Tsars that ruled over the “Pale of Settlement” from which most of our great-grandparents originally lived before immigrating to America. The seven are:
- Catherine (1762-1796),
- Paul I (1796-1801),
- Alexander I (1801-1825),
- Nicholai I (1825-1855),
- Alexander II (1855-1881),
- Alexander III (1881-1892), and
- Nicholai II (1892-1917).
In the very first week that Catherine the Great took over Russia, the senate had passed a decree giving the Jews free pass and admission into the interior of Russia. All that was needed was to ratify it. She didn’t. She was shown a note by Prince Odojevski written by her immediate predecessor, Elizabeth Petrovna Empress of Russia (who reigned between 1741 and 1762), which stated, “I will not derive any profit from the enemies of Christ..” She chose not to ratify the Senate decree. Later, she passed some pretty restrictive laws against the Jews, proscribing Jews from entering certain gilds (“Complete Russian Code,” xxiii., No. 1706) and another (17,224) depriving Jews of the right to conduct business in the great Russian provinces, and forcing Jews to pay a tax for business and trade licenses in the provinces open to them double that paid by Christians.
Paul I, had a pareve relationship with his Jewish constituents. He was the Tsar who released the first Lubavitcher Rebbe from prison and also rejected all blood libel accusations against the Jews. However, he also gave in to the requests of the aristocracy and thus created new restrictions upon the Jews. Paul I was murdered in 1801 before he had time to examine the proposals of Senator Derzhavin’s report, containing 88 slanders against the Jews, but they were taken up by his successor, Czar *Alexander I, who made them the foundation of his Jewish legislation.
Alexander I and Nicholai I were brothers, despite their being nineteen years apart. Alexander I initiated a policy of offering Jews free land to work as farmers. But there was one condition. They first had to convert and become Russian Orthodox Christians. His tactic, boruch Hashem, did not effectively work.
He also took up a report of 88 slanderous comments against Jews from Senator Derzhavin and made them the center of his Jewish laws.
HOW DID OUR GEDOLIM VIEW THE ISSUE?
The purpose of this article is to see how our Gedolei Torah viewed the underlying issues in the aforementioned debate. We first recount a fascinating tradition repeated by Rav Yechiel Michel Feinstein zt”l (1906-2003). Rav Yechiel Michel was the nephew of Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l, a student of Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer zt”l, Rav Yeruchem Levovitz zt”l, son-in-law of Rav Velvel Soloveitchik zt”l, and Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Beis Yehudah.
RAV CHAIM VOLOZHIN’S SON
Sometime in the early 1800’s, the Tsar was visited by Rav Yitzchok Volozhin (1780-1849), the son of Rav Chaim Volozhin and father-in-law of the Netziv.
Rav Yitzchok Volozhin (his last name was actually Itzkovitz) went to the Kremlin, the seat of the Tsars, with a group of others. While waiting for an audience with the Tsar, a 4 or 5 year-old young prince, the child of the Tsar (?), entered the room. The child prince began to vilify and denigrate the group of Jews that came for an audience. After leaving the Kremlin, Rav Yitzchok Volozhin told those with him that he had a tradition from his father, in the name of the Vilna Gaon, as to how to identify whether a particular gentile is from the seed of Amalek. He then told them that all of the signs were present in that boy. That child grew up to become Nicolai the First – the Tsar who enacted the cruel Cantonist decrees in 1827 and relentlessly tried to convert the Jews of Russia to Russian Orthodoxy.
I would like to humbly suggest an adjustment to Rav Yechiel Michel’s version of the incident. It is highly likely that the child prince was not the son of the Tsar, but rather the younger brother of the Tsar. And the Tsar at the time this incident took place would likely have been Alexander the First and not Paul the First. If it was Paul the first, then the incident would have had to have happened in 1800 or 1801. Since Paul the First was assassinated in 1801, Rav Yitzchok would have only been twenty or twenty one years old, and the Volozhin Yeshiva was not yet established.
It is more likely to have happened during the reign of Alexander I, between the years of 1801-1825 when Alexander the First suddenly died of typhus. The Yeshiva was first established in 1803. Since the young prince was described as a child, it is more likely that happened between 1804-1808.
The picture below is how Nicolai the first appeared in 1808 – still possibly appearing as a child.
Rav Yitzchok Volozhin further explained that in Parshas Balak (BaMidbar 24:20) where it states “reishis goyim amalek.” He stated that the earlier commentaries have stated that their kings – are from zera amalek.
THE CANTONIST DECREE
The Cantonist Decree for Jewish children was made on August 26th, 1827 (Sept.7, 1827 according to the Gregorian Calendar) and was signed by Tsar Nicholas I of Russia twenty months after he became Tsar. It was officially called the “Statute on Conscription Duty.” Essentially, it required that Jews also perform military service, but at a higher recruitment rate than the gentile population and from a younger age. Jewish boys from the ages of 12 to 25 (but sometimes as young as 8) were taken at the rate of 4 recruits per 1000 Jewish residents. In total, about 84,000 Jews were taken.
It was the responsibility of the leaders of the Kehillah to deliver the recruits and some adopted some very vile means of doing so. There were people called, “Chappers” who literally kidnapped children to place the in the hands of the Tsarist army.
RAV YISROEL SALANTER AND HIS MEETINGS
Rav Yisroel Salanter zt”l could not stand this government sanctioned kidnapping and near-forced conversion to Christianity and made every effort to put a stop to it at the highest level of government. He created a special committee to attempt to repeal this most vile of Decrees.
A secret meeting was held in the summer of 1851 during the market of Zelwa (held each year from July 25th for 4 weeks – it lasted until the end of the 19th century). Money was raised secretly to fund a mission of deputized shtadlanim. Eliyahu Levinson of Kratinga, a wealthy student of Rav Salanter, donated 1100 rubles of his own funds toward this effort. Counting inflation this would have a modern approximate value of $22,000. The attendees of the meeting sent Rabbi Elchanan Cohen to St. Petersburg to work toward this goal and to act on the groups behalf. Rav Yisroel Salanter was the main force behind it and worked with Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector on it as well. One of the Rebbes of Lubavitch had also made efforts to negate the decree.
In 1852, the group which Reb Yisroel’s student led had the Gomel petition presented which asked the Tsar to repeal the yet higher draft rate. The group met again that year in Bobruisk and chose two wealthy shtadlanim to go to St. Petersburg with large sums of money for purposes of helping convince government officials to try to influence the Tsar and with letters from attorneys. These two individuals were Meshulem Feivel Friedland of Dvinsk and Nissen Katzenelson of Bobruisk.
Try as they could, however, those behind all of these efforts did not see fruit with Nicholas I. He died in February of 1855. Nicholas I’s son, Alexander II, took over as Tsar.
TSAR ALEXANDER II REMOVES IT
On August 26, 1856, after Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War, Tsar Alexander II, in response to appeals by the Jewish community, removed the horrifying clauses of the Cantonist Decree. It took three years to fully implement. When Rav Yisroel heard that the conditions were abrogated, he declared a Yom Tov.
Although Alexander II was viewed by many as the Good Tsar, there was no general emancipation of the Jews that was hoped to be part of the Great Reforms. Alexander II slowed down his reforms in general toward the end of his reign as well.
Under Alexander III, there were numerous pogroms particularly in the Ukraine (1881-1882). In 1882, his government issued laws reducing the Jewish presence throughout the villages of the Pale of Settlement. He, effectively, turned Russia into a more repressive police state than any time previously.
Under Nicholas II’s rule, restrictions against Jews were not only retained, but they increased. In Kishinev (Modern Moldovia), during Pesach of 1903, there was a terribly devastating Pogrom against the Jews.
Under the reign of Nicholas II, the horrific forgery known as the “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” were printed in Russia in abbreviated form in 1903 in the newspaper Znamia (“Banner”). Later, a more expansive version was aded as an addendum to a religious tract by Serge Nilus, a Tsarist civil servant. They were soon translated into German, French, English, and other European languages and became a classic of anti-Semitic literature. In the United States Henry Ford’s private newspaper, Dearborn Independent, often cited them as evidence of a Jewish threat.
The manner of how exactly it was forged was revealed in 1921 by Philip Graves of the London Times (London), who showed that they were based upon a satire on Napoleon III by the French lawyer Maurice Joly, which published in 1864. It was titled, “Dialogue aux enfers entre Machiavel et Montesquieu – “Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu.” Further insight was revealed by Vladimir Burtsev, a Russian historian who showed that the Protocols were forgeries compounded by officials of the Russian secret police out of at least 3 sources: 1] The Joly work, 2] a novel (Biarritz) by Hermann Goedsche (1868), and 3] Other sources.
In Kiev from 1911 to 1913 the Mendel Beilis trial took place – of allegations that occurred in Slabodka. Nicholas II’s government strongly pushed for a conviction.
The aforementioned mesorah told over by Rav Yechiel Michel Feinstein zt”l, and applied to Nicholai I, reflects the view that it was certainly anti-Semitism which motivated the Romanov Tsars and not just policies as to how to deal with various nationalities. The behaviors of the subsequent Tsars do nothing to change our views.
The author can be reached at [email protected]
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