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Within The Pale

March 2023
1min read

In 1762, Catherine the Great proclaimed that all foreigners were freely welcome to Russia — kromye Zhydov (“except the Jews”). Yet before she died, in 1796, she had willy-nilly taken in a million Jewish citizens as a result of the partitions of Poland. Her solution was to circumscribe them tightly inside “the Pale,” primarily the area that had formerly been Polish territory. Here, jammed into shtetls that more and more grew into slums as their population rate soared, the Jews squeezed out their subsistence. (Above, at right, and opposite: typical Jewish settlements in Russia.) Nearly all of them made their living as petty tradesmen or artisans, their chances of material success severely dampened by heavy taxation and special government restrictions. It was a rigid parochial existence, relieved only by a few simple amusements (like their traditional music) and by the consolations of their ancient faith. Czarist attempts to convert Jews to the Orthodox Church by coercion or persuasion were conspicuous failures, and in most shtetls life changed very little between generations.

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