|Vol. V, No. 7
Tishry 5608, October 1847
Sketches of Jewish Life in Russia.
By the Chief Rabbi Dr. Lilienthal
A General Survey of the Condition of the Jews in Russia
Already in the time of Catharine II. the Jews felt not at ease under the Russian government. Although the Empress was too much occupied with her warriors to trouble herself about the Hebrews, wherefore their condition remained in status quo; and although she threw under the table in scorn the decree of her ministers, to compel the Jews to render military duty, and forbade her being troubled any more with such orders: yet the Israelites, with their accustomed caution and sagacity, saw the lowering clouds which prognosticated the approaching storm. It was as though a sorrowful foreboding had opened their eyes to see the future, הוא לא ראה מזליה ראה. It was as though they had acquired a deep insight into the intentions of Peter the Great, which Russian diplomacy and the policy of internal regulations now carry out in every point; and our people long ago dreaded to decipher from this state of things the terrible destruction of their religion and nationality; and only from this uneasy feeling, which is so justifiable under the reign of Nicholas, can we explain the distrust with which they regard every measure emanating from the government. Paul was the reverse of Catherine in his principles of government, And was therefore favourable to the Jews; but his reign was too short, and too much hated by the nobility, under whose blows he fell, to exercise a permanent or valuable influence; and only with Alexander there appeared a period when a beneficial alteration in the condition of the Israelites could have been hoped for. In 1804, he called on all Jews to establish schools, in which the children might be able to obtain a sound elementary instruction. It is well known that Alexander did a great deal for the education of his people; he was the first <<360>>among all European sovereigns who founded a ministry of education, and through this means he promoted the elementary instruction of the Russian people. And he uttered on one occasion these remarkable words: “If I only could succeed to bring out one Mendelssohn from all my Jews, then would all my exertions be richly rewarded;” many a Jewish heart therefore hailed with thankfulness the Emperor’s ukase, which gave schools to the Jews. But the mass of our people kept fast days, recited prayers and innumerable psalms day and night in their Synagogues; till the Emperor heard of this, and the repeal of the ukase was the consequence; since his attention was attracted to the west by the victorious peals of the artillery of the French Republic. A similar fate befell a second ukase, in which the Emperor assigned to the Jews land in the crown domains near St. Petersburg and Moscow, with the condition that they should learn agriculture. But they refused this also, under the pretext, that the government only desired to withdraw them from the study of their own literature, in order to warp their understanding, and thus to draw them by degrees into the bosom of the Greek church; and this opposition was a step which is yet deeply deplored by many an Israelite at the present day.
In the wars which Europe waged against Napoleon, Russia took so large a share, that the Emperor had not the leisure to direct enough of his attention to the internal affairs of his own country. The Jews distinguished themselves during Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, by the interception of a courier, who carried with him all the plans of operation of the French army; and Alexander declared publicly in a despatch, that the Jews had opened the eyes of the Russian Czar; and that the government felt itself therefore bound by eternal gratitude. Matters remained in the same condition till Alexander returned from Paris, and the congress of European sovereigns, when he declared that it was now his duty to turn his whole attention to the internal affairs of his empire; and it is the general opinion, that all the projects which Nicholas now carries into execution were already planned under Alexander; with this difference only, that Alexander who was of the first diplomatists of his age, and was of a more kindly temperament, would have chosen milder means, whereas Nicholas carries his intentions through, let the cost be what it may.