The First Jews in Russia
After many centuries of categorical prohibition to reside in Russia, Jews at last arrived legally in Russia. The last confirmation of such prohibition was made by the Empress Elizabeth. It was in the reign of Catherine II in 1764 that the first Jewish immigrants arrived in Russia to assume permanent residence.
Catherine II, shortly after ascending the throne, decided to open the door to colonists, especially in the southern provinces, and to revive trade, industry and agriculture. For this purpose by the nominal decree dated June 22, 1763, the "Conseliaria Opecunstva Inostrannykh" (Chancellery, for Guardianship of Foreigners) was created. At the head of this Chancellery the Empress placed the closest man to her, Gregory Orlov.
And, in defiance of all the existing prejudices, Catherine II decides to include in the number of these "foreigners" the Jews. However, knowing the backward culture that surrounded her, she was too apprehensive to state it openly. Owing to this, she officially permitted the Jews to settle in the newly created province of "Novorossiysk" — New Russia — only on November 1769 in the decree to the Governor General of Kiev, Voyeikov. Until this, the intention of the Empress to let Jews into Russia was expressed by her in a, so to say, conspiracy with persons in her attendance. This "conspiracy" was reflected in the correspondence with the Riga Governor, "General Braun. The correspondence in which the whole matter was treated secretly. In the letter, delivered to Braun by the Major Rtishchev, it was noted: ''When some foreign merchants of Novorossiysk province will be recommended by the Chancellory of Guardianship, permission shall be granted for them to live in Riga for the execution of trade, as is allowed by the law of Riga to merchants of other Russian provinces. If, furthermore, these merchants would their salesmen, representatives, and workers to settle in New Russia, proper passports must be issued to them, IRRESPECTIVE OF THEIR RELIGION and escorts provided for their safe conduct. If, lastly, there come from Mitava three or four men, who might wish to go to Petersburg with their requirements to the treasury, passports must be issued to them WITHOUT INDICATION OF THEIR NATIONALITY, AND WITHOUT INQUIRIES ABOUT THEIR RELIGION. Only their names must be stated in their passports. For the identification of themselves these people would resent A LETTER FROM THE PETERSBURG'S MERCHANT LEVIN WOOLF”.
In such a mysterious way the settlement of Jews in Russia was initiated. As is seen, the autocracy of Catherine II did not free her from the necessity to respect the opinions and tastes of persons surrounding her, as well as the great masses of Russian people for whom all "Jews" were "enemies of Christianity". This is why in this letter the word "Jew" is carefully avoided. However Braun, obviously, understood Catherine's wish, or perhaps Rtishchev explained it to him verbally. The latter was at once sent to Mitava to the Russian envoy at the Duke's court Fon Smolin with a secret message, and on the seventh of May 1764, came back from Smolin with seven Jews. The Jews, who settled in New Russia, were merchants from Mitava. The names of these merchants were David Levy, Moses Aron, Israel Lazar and the worker Jacob Marcus. The thoughtful Catherine did not fail to include also a rabbi, Israel Haym and his assistant Natan Abram from Birzen, and even a "moel" Lazar Israel, obviously with the intention of establishing the religious requirements of a future Jewish community.
On the ninth of May these Jews in company with Rtishchev were sent to Petersburg. The Governor-General had entrusted Rtishchev with the covering report, in which he stated that he "does not guarantee that in this matter it would be possible to keep this secret, because the Jews arrived in
Riga openly and their departure, as much as he knows this nation, also could hardly be kept secret".
If we recall, by the way, that at that time, and still much later, up to Forties of the Nineteenth Century, the German burghers of Riga, who were of European appearance, led a fight against the admission of Jewish settlers into Riga, and even against the permission for a Jewish temporary stay AT THE ONLY INN, THE MOSCOW FORSHTAT. Thus it is possible to appreciate how far Catherine II had outstripped her time in breadth of views and humanism.
And the Jews of that time understood and appreciated this. In the year 1780, when Catherine visited Shclov, they welcomed her with a specially inscribed ode in the Jewish language with attached translations in Russian and German. The concluding verse of this ode says: "You permitted us to live in your country in peace and safety, under the canopy of your goodwill, and under the protection of your scepter, in agreement with native people. Like them, we admire your grandeur, and like them, we are happy that we are your subjects".
With the same ode, Catherine was welcomed also by the Jews of Mogilev and Polotsk. Later, in her honor, they organized a magnificent manifestation.
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Now this event is forgotten, but, nevertheless, it deserves special attention, especially in our time, when, as the result of the prolonged and deliberate propaganda which created throughout the world an opinion that the Jews in Russia were always victimized, deprived of elementary civil rights and subjected to persecution.
Forgotten is the decree of Catherine II in the year 1791, equalizing the Jews in rights with merchants, artisans, and the lower middle class Russians of those towns and settlements in which they lived. At one time, when these towns and settlements were under the power of Poland or Lithuania, the
Ukrainian-Russian peasants had no rights whatsoever, unlike the Jews.
The decree of the Emperor Alexander I is also forgotten. In the year 1804, he allowed free access for the Jews to education, stating: "All Jews can be accepted and educated, without distinction from other children, in all the Russian schools, high schools and universities".
Student allowances given to the Jewish boys studying in the secular high schools are also not mentioned, while such allowances were not given to non-Jewish boys.
But never are we allowed forgetting the limitations, whatever there was, upon the Jews, and constantly we are reminded of them by the mass media, creating a picture of Russia as the country of lawlessness and persecution with respect to the Jews.
This will be discussed in detail at a later stage of this work. As with the measures taken by the Russian Government to equalize the Jews with the rest of population, so also the numerous limitations imposed will be discussed, with specific reference to the cause that provoked the imposition of such limitations.