November 01, 2018

Taking Stock

The end of the year is a time for account taking and anticipation, a time for recollections of the passing year and hopes for the future. Winter is cold, snow, and darkness, but as the days gradually lengthen, dreams of spring take hold, prompting the thought that maybe, just maybe, the new year will fulfill long nurtured hopes.

Jews, who often suffered more than their fair share of hardships, relied on this sense of hope in the future. In the late eighteenth century, the Russian authorities were preparing to resettle all Jews living in villages to cities and shtetls. The partitions of Poland, by which the Russian Empire (along with Prussia and the Habsburgs) claimed ever greater swaths of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth as their own, had resulted in a large increase in Russia’s Jewish population, and the state could not come up with a consistent policy in regard to its new subjects. The powers that be tended to feel that Jews had no business living in villages and “plying the Russian people with drink.” Indeed, Jews, having no land of their own, had few ways to make a living. Keeping a tavern was one of them, and Jews therefore played a major part in the vodka trade. Basically, Jews were blamed for the fact that Russian villagers liked to get drunk, so expelling them from villages would solve the problem, while also increasing the urban population.

In December of 1804, Alexander I enacted an edict requiring all “village Jews” (of which there were approximately 60,000) to move to cities within two or three years (depending on the province in which they resided). This was utterly unrealistic. Jews were a part of the fabric of rural life, and in many places removing them would strike a blow to local economies and leave villages deprived of key skillsets. Furthermore, what would the resettled Jews do in the cities? Many high-ranking officials protested the edict, and on December 29, 1808, it was rescinded.

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