By: Herman Rosenthal
Empress of Russia; born in Stettin May 2, 1729; died in St. Petersburg Nov. 17, 1796. She was the wife and successor of Peter III., and usurped the throne July 9, 1762.Edict Excluding Jews.
Within a week of her accession, Catherine was called upon to ratify a decree of the Senate giving the Jews free admission to the interior of Russia. She was liberally inclined; but, having been raised to the throne through the extreme Orthodox party, found herself unable to carry out the suggestion of the Senate, and, in her perplexity, was relieved by having her attention drawn, by Prince Odojevski, to a side-note of Elizabeth Petrovna concerning a similar request: "I will not derive any profit from the enemies of Christ," whereupon Catherine postponed her decision ("Russki Archiv," 1865, p. 492). During the whole reign of Elizabeth Petrovna (1741-1762) the persecution of the Jews had been carried on. Catherine, in her zeal to maintain the traditions of Old Russia, and to flatter its prejudices, could not, with all her liberalism, openly favor the Jews; therefore they were not included in the edict issued Dec. 15, 1762, permitting foreigners to enter and to settle in Russia ("Complete Russian Code," xvi., No. 11,720). Her liberal attitude toward the Jews was, however, manifested in her letter, dated May 11, 1764, to Governor-General Browne of Riga, concerning certain foreign merchants of the New Russian provinces, who came under the tutelage of a bureau, instituted in 1763, for the protection of foreigners. These foreign merchants were to be permitted to live in Riga and to carry on business on the same legal conditions as merchants of other Russian provinces. Furthermore, if any clerks, agents, and workmen should be ordered by these merchants to settle in New Russia, they were to be provided with passports and with an adequate escort, irrespective of their religion. Finally, if three or four persons should arrive from Mitau, on their way to St. Petersburg, with claims upon the government, they were to be provided with passports, simply stating their names, without mentioning their nationality or religion. To prove their identity such persons were to present a letter from the merchant Lewin Wulff of St. Petersburg. To this letter the following postscript is added in German, in the hand of the empress: "Wenn Sie mir nicht verstehen, so wird es meine Schuld nicht seyn; dieser Brief hat der President von der Protection-Canzley selber geschrieben. Halten Sie dieses alles geheim." The "foreign merchants" mentioned in the letter were: the rabbi Israel Ḥayyim, and his assistant, Nathan Abraham of Birsen (Birzhi), and the merchants David Levi (Bamberg), Moses Aaron, Behr Benjamin, and Israel Lazer, the "mohel" Lasar Israel, and the laborer Jacob Marcus of Mitau. They were escorted to St. Petersburg. Some of them soon returned to Riga and settled there withtheir families and servants (Buchholtz, "Gesch. der Juden in Riga," p. 57).Liberal Atttitude Toward the Jews.
In this diplomatic manner avoiding the name "Jew," the empress deemed it advisable to usher in the settlement of the Jews into Russia. In another letter to Governor-General Browne she speaks of her great intentions concerning the Jews, and of his knowledge of these intentions (ib. p. 61). In answer to a complaint of Benjamin Baehr, "factor of the Polish, Lithuanian, and Courland Jews," against the municipal authorities of Riga, Catherine wrote to Browne, Oct. 15, 1765, directing him to inquire whether the council (Rath) in spite of its privileges had the right to oppress such people, who had begun to develop trade in Riga to the benefit of the country, and enjoining that the complainants be protected and their petitions granted (ib. p. 65). The "foreign merchants" did not go to South Russia; most of them settled in Riga, and some of them in St. Petersburg. In 1769 Catherine permitted Jews to settle in the New Russian provinces on an equal footing with all foreigners, these being invited to people the deserted South Russian steppes.
With the first division of Poland in 1772, a great number of the Jews of White Russia became Russian subjects. In a manifesto issued by Count Chernishov, the new governor-general of White Russia, in the name of the empress, promised equal rights, without distinction of religion or nationality, to the inhabitants of the newly acquired territories. The phrase, "without distinction of religion or nationality" is used in most of the ukases of the empress. The Russian historian Gradovski emphasizes the fact that Catherine II., having declared, on ascending the throne, her profession de foi to rule in the Russian Orthodox spirit, never saw any danger to the Orthodox Church from the Jews and Judaism, as had her predecessors. While she often warned the governors against the Roman Catholic orders, and especially against the "plotting" Jesuits, she did not hesitate (in 1772) to grant religious rights to the Jews ("Otnosheniya k Yevreyam," etc., p. 478, note).
But notwithstanding the magnanimous intentions of Catherine, the Jews were restricted to a Pale of Settlement, almost immediately after the rights of equality had been officially granted them. This was certainly not the wish of the empress, but was due to the local authorities and the Senate, which at that time possessed great power in the administration of the empire. While the law recognized the Jews as Russian subjects, granting them equal rights with the other inhabitants throughout the empire ("Complete Russian Code," xix., No. 13,850), administrative decrees were issued, keeping them out of the great Russian provinces. By a ukase of 1776 the rule of the "ḳahal" was reestablished, and the old poll-tax reintroduced. In 1786 the Senate, in answer to an application of the Jews of White Russia to the empress, issued a decree curtailing the judicial, commercial, and industrial rights of the Jews. That the empress was opposed to the narrow-minded policy of the Senate may be seen from this remarkable decree: "Since the above-mentioned [White Russian] inhabitants, holding the Jewish faith, have, in virtue of the ukases issued, already entered into a position equal to that of other inhabitants, it is necessary in all cases to observe the rule that every one according to his rank and standing shall be enabled to enjoy his rights and benefits without distinction of faith or nationality" ("Voskhod," Jan., Feb., 1889, p. 45; Gradovski, "Otnosheniya," etc., i. 12). For the inhuman cruelties practised upon the Jews of Uman and other places in South Russia in 1782, Catherine was not responsible.Restrictions upon the Jews.
At the end of Catherine's reign two ukases were issued which bear the signature of the empress, but are utterly opposed to her previous tendencies. The first, dated Jan. 3, 1792, under the pretext of giving the Jews of Yekaterinoslav and Taurida the same privileges as those given to the Jews of White Russia, prescribes that Jews can not be admitted into the gild of merchants of Smolensk and Moscow ("Complete Russian Code," xxiii., No. 1706). The second, issued July 4, 1794 (No. 17,224), determines the localities where Jews are permitted to carry on business and trade, thus in an indirect way depriving them of the right to carry on business in the great Russian provinces; it also compels the Jewish merchants to pay a tax for their business and trade licenses in the provinces open to them the double of that paid by Christian merchants. Only the Karaite Jews were, in 1795, exempt from the double tax, and from that time the Karaites enjoyed special privileges.
Thus the reforms introduced by the "Semiramis of the North" affecting the Jews did not, like many other of her well-meant reforms, accomplish the expected results; but through the fault of the narrow-minded officials they rather resulted in establishing the Pale of Settlement in which the Russian Jews are still shut up at the beginning of the twentieth century.
- Russki Archiv, 1865, p. 492;
- Buchholtz, Gesch. der Juden in Riga, Riga, 1899;
- Levanda, Polny Chronologicheski Shornik Zakonov i Polozheni, St. Petersburg, 1874;
- Voskhod, 1889, Jan., Feb., p. 45;
- Gradovski, Otnosheniya k Yevreyam, etc., i. 478, note, St. Petersburg, 1891.