The Ukrainian Jews By Angela Semakova
Kiev, Ukraine
Received by e-mail attachment: December 16, 2002

At the end of 18th century the population of Jews on the Right bank of Ukraine was more than 110,000 people, which represented 3.5% of the total population. According to the Special Act of Ekaterina II (Catherine the Great, 1764) the majority of Jews were shifted to Novorussia on the right for foreign colonists. [1] The biggest resettlement was after the annexation of Belorussia Gubernia after the division of Poland in 1772 and 1795. In 1857, Jews comprised 3.8% of the total amount of the local population.

As to Rich Pospolita, which was annexed by Russia according to the division of Poland, there were 482,000 Jews in 1795 and 1,194,000 Jews living there by 1815. From the end of 18th century, the date of the collection of the Jewish population census records, the data was also obtained in the other European countries, such as, Holland, France, and Germany.

Starting with Peter I [2] the first permanently recorded decrees were issued, which limited the settling of the Russian territory by Jews. This involved the entire Russian Empire, but Ukraine in particular. From 1721 until 1742, several legal acts [3] were adopted, which stipulated the prohibition for Jews to live on the Left bank of Ukraine. In 1796, discriminative “settled borders” were implemented, outside of which the “representatives of the Jewish nationality” didn’t have the right to live. That territory included the Right bank of Ukraine, Belorussia, Lithuania, Katerinaslav, Kherson,Tavriyska, Besarabska gubernias [4] . Besarabska gubernia, Poltava, and the Chernigov region located on the territory of the Left bank of Ukraine, were later included as a part of Russian Empire.

The establishment the so-called ”settled borders” resulted in a majority the Jews settling mainly in the towns and provincial villages. We have to mention that even outside those legal measures, Jews weren’t allowed to live where they wanted. However in other periods of time, Jews were permitted to established communities within or near Christian towns. For example, in 1827-1861 Jews weren’t allowed to settle in Kiev. In the next decades, they weren’t allowed to settle in the central regions of the city, except for some prosperous merchants. Also Jews were prohibited from certain kinds of activities, such as lending or exporting money. Jews were not permitted to permanently settle in the Russian cities, but instead they could enter the cities as merchants to sell their goods at the commercial fairs.

In 1734 representatives of Slobidska, Ukraine, wrote a petition to the government in St. Petersburg and asked them to authorize the rights to the Jewish merchants to sell goods not only in large quantities but also sale goods directly to the consumers. That petition for the rights of Jewish merchants happened because there weren’t any merchants in Slobodskaya, Ukraine. According to that history, businesses weren’t successful and there was a severe competition between the Jewish merchants and Christian merchants. As a result, the prices of goods were lowered and became more competitive. Commercial trade was developed in those regions and prospered.

Anna Ioanovna, the Russian queen, [5] signed the petition, which permitted such trade for the Jewish merchants within the entire territory of Ukraine. Some members of the royal family used the services of Jews. By so doing, the Russian nobility insured excellent business relations with the trade-houses all over the Europe. That resulted in establishing the export and import trading of Russian goods in Europe.

Ekaterina II tried to proclaim her reign as that of an enlightened monarchy. She corresponded with Didro and on his question about Jews, she answered that they were recognised as merchants and had the right to live in Novorussia. Also, she mentioned that three of four Jews had lived in St. Petersburg some years. After the first division of Poland in 1772 and when the largest community of Jews were thereby incorporated under the Russian monarchy, a special “Kahal” [6] was created by Chernishov. Jews had to pay taxes and after eleven years they were allowed to register with the local noble. They had the same rights as provided for Christian merchants. The rights of Jewish communities were governed by the “Kahal”

There was a Christian movement against the establishment of Jews as local self-governors. Katherine the second wrote a special letter to general-gubernator, Daser and demanded to restore the rights of Jews. According to the Ukase act of 1885, the resettlement from the Uyezd was abolished. If Jews wanted to live in “settled border,” they had to get a permit signed by the local police of governor. Such permission was given only for trade purposes, court or trade and heritage cases. They could live only for 6 months, but then the time for living there could be prolonged for 2 months. The right to live outside those restrictive measures were reserved for the persons with high education, merchants of the first rank the private teachers, craftsmen, technicians, and some others. For example, the merchants of the first rank had to have those titles for five years.

In Ukraine the majority of Jewish people lived in the 18th century. The activity of the Jewish community began to grow in cities and towns of Ukraine. Jews began to live in Zhitomir in the beginning of this century and at the end of this century they compiled one-third of the total population. Their occupations were trade and crafts.

According to the Act signed by the Kiev Voevoda and Hetman Ivan Potockiy, signed in 1742, the taxes weren’t taken from the house of Rabin Sinagogue, cemetery in Ternopil.

The Jews of this town had the right to free trade, the craftsmen had to register in the local guild.

Paid as bourgeoisie, Jews could settled all over the town.

The first Jews settlers in Odessa were Jews from Volynia, Podolia, and Lithuania. At the end of 18th century, the “Kahal” and “Talmud-Torah” appeared and a synagogue was built on the Jewish street. Later on this synagogue became centrally located. In 1799 Meer was elected as a member of a local magistrate. Tevel Lazarevich was elected as the main speaker of the town government.

Berdichiv’s kahal was established at the beginning of the 19th century and the owner of this town, Prince Radzivil, proclaimed the right that the Jews of the town elected judges and one clerk themselves. They had to be elected for three years. He gave them the exclusive right to sell tissue in the town. The owner of Rovno selected the rabbis himself. Also he allowed to be built a wooden synagogue without any decoration and allowed to be created a Jewish cemetery in 1786. 60 Jewish families lived in 47 villages, which formed a local “Kahal”. The Jews of Kamenec-Podolsk always broke the Act (Laws) of Polish King Arthur August II in Kamenets-Podosky. He prohibited Jewish settling there.

In 1757 there was a dispute between Rovenists [7] and Frankists. [8] The last one rejected the Talmud and thought that the God formed from three parts. The bishop thought that Frankists won the discussion and ordered them to burn all of the copies of the Talmud.

The majority of Ukrainian Jews lived in so-called “mistechko” (people called them so because it was partly a town partly a village). The majority of the population was Jewish. Their occupations were trade and handicrafts. As a rule, those mistechko were included in the nearest town or regional administration.

In this name, mistechko, Jews meant a specific kind of life, the religious isolation, and cultural autonomy of the community. This meaning can be applied to the small towns of 20,000 to 30,000 people, the majority of which were Jews. Thos mistechko Jews lived in town called “ shtetls.” Shtetls appeared in the 15th – 16th century, when Polish nobles invited them to settle in the their own villages and towns on very suitable conditions. The communities were governed by big kagaly (Kahal), but later they became more and more independent. The ignorance of Jews by other nations formed a special style of life of eastern European Jews. The life of Jews included only their house, market, and synagogue.

Under the house, we mean a family with its patriarchal organization, was the main part of the social style of this mistechko. The family traditions, such as such as birth, cutting [circumcision], marriage, and death, were events for the whole community. The control of this was the one of the main features of the self governing and supporting the Kahal’s’ rules. Later this control became suppression of the personality. The budget of the community was formed by the boxing taxes, which included the tax on candles and (kashrut – kosher) slaughtering of birds (fowl).

In the market, the meetings with Christians as a rule weren’t successful for Jews. In most cases the conflicts began from the market square. The majority of Jews writers criticized for their style of life, and poverty of lower classes in this mistechki. The adjective - mistechki became the symbol of provinciality. Despite all of the hardships, the majority of artists and political leaders came from mistechki. The description of the style of life took a prominent place in literature and art. The well-known “Tevel – the milkmaid” written by S. Aleihenm [9] was the best example of that life. Also some changes in the life were brought by Klezmery (tramp musicians). [10] They performed at different fairs, marriages, and holidays. There were a lot of talented improvizators. The main features of the early Jewish music were asymmetric forms of the single sound. There was a big variety of melodies in them but all music was sad. Iosel Druker, Aaron Moishe Hlodenko from Berdichev. Israel Moisha Rabinovich from Fastov, Avraam Isaak Beresovski from Smela, and many others were the famous tramp musicians in Ukraine.

After 1812, the tsar Alexander I ordered to give Jews their surnames according to the place were they lived or by the kind of their activities. According to this Act, [11] Jews elected three representatives, which had to live permanently in San-Petersburg in order to take part in the discussions about the questions according to their Jewish nation.

By the Act adopted in 1720, the tsar prohibited the Jews to take Christian servants, and after four years he prohibited Jews who came from other counties to settle in the territory of the Russian Empire. The special group of merchants, plant owners, [12] and craftsmen were allowed to settle outside the borders of the Pale of Settlement. They could buy land without slaves with the right to use hired workers. Those hired workers could be either Jews or Christians. The hiring of Christians had been prohibited. From that time the Jewish landowner appeared in the territory of Ukraine.

The Tsar abolished the right of ravines (rabbis) and kahal’s right to appoint public punishment. The kahal’s activity was limited by the collection of different taxes and regulation of community life. The main positions [13] in the towns could be taken by Jews, who knew one of three languages, Russian, Polish, or German. Jews continued to pay double taxes and didn’t have right to rent pubs, which could be used for their own business. Later the conditions for collecting taxes were the same as for all other parts of population.

The position of Jews was very unstable. Resettlements took place many times, and then this process was stopped and later continued again. They had the rights to live in mestechki, but the settlement could have such definition only according to the decision of the local administration. Many settlements, which were mestechki, in fact, hadn’t such status if the local authority didn’t want that Jews live there. To live in border zones within about fifty kilometres was also prohibited. Jews, who lived in those zones, had to leave that territory or become a Christian.

Jewish widows were in a very constant position. If a husband was a merchant of the first rank less than ten years, the widow could live outside the settle borders only if they paid some taxes. Concerning other widows, practices were constantly changing. In many cases widows lost their husband’s rights.

The law of 1824 prohibited Jews to sell goods in the places of temporary location outside the borders of the settlement. They couldn’t sell agricultural products. The privileges of the Christian merchants were ensured by those measures. Jews at that time could register into five categories: merchants, land workers, bourgeoisie settled and unsettled.

Until the beginning of the reign of Nicholas I, the situation concerning Jewish rights remained very difficult. They lived in some provinces, without land, were discriminated by unjust laws, administrations and police. Jews in Ukraine turned into pitiful, hungry, backward people. The kahal had a great power among the Jews using the protection of the government.

Nicolas I signed the law about obligatory Christening of Jews if they worked as State servants and also about their living in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Having become Christians, Jews were free from taxes and obligations for three years. And Jews condemned for the crimes, received after Christening opportunities for great vocations. The creation of Jewish colonies was paid by the government only in Kherson gubernia.

In 1801 according to the privileges of 1619. the magistrate wrote a petition about the exile of Jews from the towns and cities, but it was not taken into account by the government. After some years the magistrate wrote a petition again, but it was rejected. But, in the second year of Nicole I reign, the magistrate got the right to exile the Jews from the towns. Under the last petition, Jews could return to the cities only during the reign of Alexander II.

***** Nicolas I prohibited the settlement of Jews, who were banished from Kiev, to settle near its borders. Also, Jews were not allowed to receive contracts for the work in the capitals. The tsar allowed Jews with scientific degrees to work for a position with the State only in the western gubernia. Jews were especially exiled the by general-gubernator, Bibikov of Kiev and Podolsk gubernies. But taking into account the interests of kazna (finance), he could get the rights for Jews for short-term living in Kiev in two special yards (areas). He also could get the rights for Jewish merchant of the first rank to buy pubs. And, in that time he prosecuted the Jews with fanaticism and separated them from Christianity. For so-called “war” targets, Jews were banished from Sevastopol and Nikolaev. According to the law of 1893 some categories of Jews were exiled from Yalta, where the Royal family used to rest [on vacations].

According to the Code (1857), Jews had passports given by the Duma, magistrate, and ratusha of those towns where they were registered. Passports were valid in those regions where Jews were allowed to live. Jewish merchants, and some state servants, who going to the central gubernias for the limited terms, were given special documents with a note that “if the owner of that document after the expiring of the term didn’t come he must be treated as homeless”. Young Jewish craftsmen from the ages of fifteen to twenty years old could get those documents for living in central gubernias, but without members of their family, for improvement of their skills. The pass was for no more than two years. The obligatory condition for obtaining such a document was the receiving of the witnesses of three Christian owners about the reliability of the Jew. The limitation of Jewish rights included the privacy right. They could get the some kind of immovable property only they were allowed to live. If a Jew got some kind of immovable property according to the will where he couldn’t live on his property, it must be sold during six months time. If the title was not sold, it was taken for public trading. Craftsmen, who lived outside the borders of the Pale of Settlement, were considered to be short term. That is why they couldn’t buy any kind of immovable property . In Kiev, if the merchant was included into the first rank less than for five years, they had the right to buy immovable property only in Plock and Lebedck part of the city.

An oath given in the courts by Jews was distinguished from the oath giving by Christians. The texts of this oath were found in a Kiev archive. According to the document that oath was to be given before the kahal and which he told that he swore to his master as to a live God and if he told a lie, he and his children could be punished until the death.

The process of taking the oath was prescribed by special rules dated by 1827 during the drafting of the first statute of obligations for recruits. The person taking the oath had to put on a white death shirt, without shoes and keep the Ten Commandments in his hands. Before the oath, the ravine (rabbi) had to read and sign a special certificate that he made the ceremony exactly according to Jewish law. There had to be witnesses from the directors and Jewish community. The ravine (rabbi) took the oath in the synagogue or prayer school in front of many people.

Jews were first recruited into the Russian army in 1827. Before that time they paid recruit’s tax like merchants and bourgeoisie. But, Jews were in the army during the War of 1812. After the implementation of the army obligation for the Jews they were obliged to obtain ten recruits from every thousand males. For the Christians its norm was less than three times. The age of recruits was twelve years.

Teenagers entered kantonists school. Kantonists were quartered only into the house of Christians where they tried to convert the Jews to become Christian. Christianized Jews had the better clothes and meals. Many children died from such military service.

After nineteen years-old Jews were sworn to serve in the army “with a full obedience” such as they were obliged to serve for the defence of the commandments of Israel land. Different prohibitions intensified the suppression of the military service. There was a prohibition to appoint Jews to different kinds of service.

In 1832 Nicolas I allowed Jews to be awarded for the heroic deeds. One year later the old parents of Jewish sailors, who had served in Nikolaev and Sevastopol, were allowed to live there.

From 1841 the collection of Jews was increased five times. Jewish soldiers could marry, but their children automatically became canonists. Due to the poor conditions of life, and hard and monotonous work, there were special norms of military fitness. The minimal size of height was lower than for the recruits of other denominations.

The family of recruits, who didn’t come to the recruit’s quarter had to pay fees of three hundred rubles. The percentage of Jews in the army was higher than their proportion of the population of the country.

As the result of the highest norms of military recruiting, the eight-year old children were taken into the army as canonists. People without passports also were taken into the army. That fact was used by some people, who kidnapped and sold persons and gave them to the army. During the battle near Sevastopol, where Jews didn’t have right to live, five hundred Jewish soldiers were killed and a monument was built in their honour. This monument can be seen nowadays. Maybe that mass heroism influenced the government. 1857 canonists, who were younger than twenty years were returned to their parents, and even in three years all Jewish soldiers got the right to have unlimited vocations, if they served for fifteen years.

Later, Jews who left the army were given the rights to settle with the territory of the whole country. In 1860, Jews where allowed to serve in the guard, and in the next year they were given the rank of the unter-officer [14] with the same rights as Christians.

At that time Jews, who had doctors or masters degrees or were candidates, got the right to work outside the Pale of Settlement borders. They had the right to settle with members of their families, but to have Jewish servants and not more than two. In the late 1560s of the 16th century, Jews were allowed to serve in military medical service and later to such services in the Ministry of Education and Internal Affairs. At the end of 1570s, all the Jews with high education, got the right to settle everywhere, but without servants. That right included their families, instead of sons, who were older than twenty-five years and married daughters. Jewish craftsmen were in a more difficult situation. Even those, who lived outside settled borders, could be exiled if they didn’t work without any reasons for six months. During the building of the shore reinforcement, the head of the Black Sea shoreline got the right for Jews to live in the port cities of Anapa and Novorovisk. Passports were given to master craftsman and any person who helped them, by so-called cities uprava. It was necessary to get police notification that the Jewish handicraft was not taken to the court. In 1887 Ekaterin gubernia declare that Jewish handicrafts was terminated.

Only some Jewish craftsmen could get the right to live inside the settled boarders. Fishermen, photographers, plasterers, carpenters, brick-layers, and others weren’t given such allowance. Jewish craftsmen, who lived outside the settled border had to ask for allowance to stay after termination of their businesses due to the illness or old age. None of them could be elected as a head of the handicrafts guild. Jews could be elected as members of Ratusha, Magistrates, deputies of the flats commissions, and other posts. In the first part of the 19th century, the nomination of Jewish candidates and Christians were separated and in 1857 in Odessa they elected the town’s head together. After eleven years during consideration of the draft of law about Town’s self-government, the Minister of internal affairs, Tumashev, put into the resolution, “The part of Jews in public self-government had to make a third share”. The State Council agreed and prohibited Jews to be Town’s Head.


    End Notes:
  • ↑ [1] Catherine the Great under severe political pressure from the Christian merchants in Russia, created the Pale of Settlement, into which she forced the Jewish communities within her Empire. This was a result of the three annexations of Poland, 1792-1975, after which Russia had incorporated lands that were inhabited by more than three million Jews. Jews were evicted from the main towns of the Russian Empire and shifted the population into smaller villages where no Christian families dwelled. The evictions resulted in bankrupcies of Jewish merchants, loss of properties that had been gained after centuries of living within Lithuania-Poland, and forced settlements into very impoverished regions.
  • ↑ [2] Peter the Great.
  • ↑ [3] Imperial Ukases.
  • ↑ [4] Besarabia was formerly under Romanian administration.
  • ↑ [5] Czarina.
  • ↑ [6] Jewish communities were organized by regions or «Lands» and were self-administrated. They were called Kahals.
  • ↑ [7] Orhtodox Jewry.
  • ↑ [8] Messianic sect.
  • ↑ [9] Sholim Alekhim.
  • ↑ [10] Klezmerim.
  • ↑ [11] Ukase.
  • ↑ [12] Factories and plants for manufacturing.
  • ↑ [13] Public office.
  • ↑ [14] Under or junior officer.

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