1881 was a fateful year in the history of the Jewish people. On March 13, Czar Alexander II was murdered in Saint Petersburg. Within weeks, a series of pogroms targeting Jews began, mainly in southern Russia. Representatives of the authorities and the church fanned the flames of violence, which took a bloody toll in some 200 Jewish communities.
Life was never easy for the five million Jews scattered throughout the Russian empire in the nineteenth century. At the time, they accounted for more than half of the Jewish people. For hundreds of years, Jews had been barred from entering Russian territory. However, when the empire expanded southward, and later, when Russia gained control of a large swathe of dismembered Poland, hundreds of thousands of Jews came under its rule.
The Jews of Eastern European were a nation unto their own, united by a shared, distinctive religion, language, and culture. Most were poor, downtrodden, and resided in small, isolated villages (shtetls) scattered throughout Poland and the Ukraine. The Jews of each shtetl functioned as an independent community isolated from its surroundings. Life was lived in accordance with Halacha (Jewish religious law) and dominated by the wealthy and the rabbis.
For the Russians the Jews were a foreign element, the murderers of Christ, adherents of a subversive religion, and followers of a faith that endangered the regime. Nicholas I resolved to further enfeeble the communities of this foreign nation through oppression, harassment, and legislation designed to reduce their numbers and encourage conversion. Throughout his reign, from 1825 to 1855, more than 600 anti-Semitic laws were passed, from the expulsion of Jews from villages they had lived in for generations to heavy censorship of Yiddish and Hebrew books, to forced conscription of children into his army for 25 years.
The inauguration of Alexander II in 1855 gave his Jewish subjects hope that change was imminent. The new czar introduced agrarian reforms, emancipated 50 million peasants, and tried to open the doors of his huge kingdom to the winds of liberalization blowing in the west. He reduced military service to five years, granted Jews freedom of movement and occupation, and even gave a small number of Jews the opportunity to study at universities.
Jews who supported the Haskalah (enlightenment) movement saw the new czar as a harbinger of the days of redemption when millions of Jews would be able to become part of the Russian nation.
“Russia is our motherland,” wrote Osip Rabinovich the editor of the first Jewish newspaper published in Russian.