Term “pale settlement” (Rus. cherta [postaoyannoy yewreskoy] osedlosti) appeared for the first time in the Russian law in the Decree on Jews issued in 1835. In general, the term referred to the European part of Russia (approx. 20% of its area) spreading from the Baltic to the Black Sea and further East in its southern part, in which the Jews were allowed to live and trade from the end of 18th century to the beginning of 20. century. Though few cities were excluded from it, f.e. Kiev, Yalta and Sevastopol.
The settlement zone has its origins in the decree issued by Catherine II on January 3rd 1792. Most of Western historians (mainly Anglo-Saxon) but also Polish ones refer to December 23rd 1791 as its issue date. However, in Russian historiography two dates are given: December 23rd 1791 being January 3rd 1792 according to Gregorian calendar, and only the latter should be considered as its true date of issue.
Genesis of the decree was complex. Usually historians mention its economic and ethnic (nationalist) backdrop. The latter, however, should be discarded on the grounds of the level of development and class character of the Russian society in 18th century. Grand Duchy of Moscow and its successor the Russian State had never made an act of acceptance of Jews to its territory. Moreover, it tried to get rid of those few Jews who happened to find themselves within its borders (f.e. as a result of annexation of the lands of the Kingdom of Poland since 17th century), unless they converted to be Orthodox Christians. It was common mostly during the rule of empress Elizabeth of Russia (1741–1762). The situation got even more complex with the 1st partition of Poland in 1772 and next partitions (1793 and 1795) resulting in significant number of Polish Jews happening to find themselves within the borders of the Russian Empire. It should be stressed here that most of the inhabitants of contemporary Russia didn’t have the right to move freely around the country what made it underprivileged in comparison to the Jews. This caused protests of the Moscow merchants addressed to municipal authorities and Calka Faibishovitch, merchant from Vitebsk. Their authors complained about not being able to compete with Jewish merchants from annexed Belarussian territories. Quite contrary motives were behind forming of the pale settlement in so called New Russia, thus called “new pale settlement” indicating lands gained in result of wars with Ottoman Empire and conquest of the Crimean Khanate. These provinces were poorly urbanized and required extensive investments. Including them in the pale settlement was aimed at supporting their development thanks to enterprise and “merchant talents” of the Jews.
Important role was also played by often omitted cultural and religious factor. Russia, as a heiress of Byzantium, with its idea of pure Russia, ever threatened by aggression by the outer world, finally with its specific form of ruling based on domination of secular power and sort of deification of sovereigns, was reluctant towards all religions except for Eastern Orthodoxy. Strict monotheism of the Jews and hierarchical submission of the Catholics to the Pope, stood in stark opposition to understanding unity of the state by the Russians. This is why the culture of the state was marked by the hostility towards “others”, the Jews and the Catholics (mostly Polish) in particular. When along with consecutive annexations of 18th century large number of Jews found itself within the Russian borders the idea was to “protect” central part of the country from them. At the same time House of Romanov was fighting hard to conquer Caucasus. Between 1804–1835 the northern part of this region was within the pale settlement zone, but after this period Russian authorities expelled the Jews from the area. However small group of Jews had lived there prior to Russian invasion and thus was finely excluded from the expulsion and granted the right to stay where they had lived. They were called Mountain Jews or Caucasus Jews.
In 1815 central part of Poland — The Kingdom of Poland (informally known as Congress Poland) fell under authority of Russia. Sometimes it erroneously included in the zone. However, since the moment of its formation until the January Uprising enjoyed limited autonomy, and legal status of the Jews was immeasurably different than in the Empire. Formally, just like in the Congress Poland until 1862 Jews were not considered as a separate class. However, in the areas annexed by the Empire they were subjected to various forms of oppression and russification unknown in “Poland” (they could migrate to the Congress Poland only with special permit issued by the Russian administration; migration in the opposite direction was unsrestrained). Prerogatives of the Jewish communities within the pale settlement zone were continuously limited and uder the rule of Nicholas I by his decree issued in 1835 they were transformed into tax and military entities which starting from 1827 were required to deliver recruits. Institution of so called “cantonists” was introduced. They were males in the age of 12 to 25 years-old, who prior to doing their military service were subjected to brutal russification (in Orthodox Christian families or special facilities). Boys who didn’t get married in time were in danger of being abducted, even from home during Shabbat supper. “Official Rabbis”, often lacking any competence, could be imposed on Jewish communities.
Earlier Alexander I in his decree from 1804 aimed at Jews partially limited their right to living in villages located in certain parts of the pale settlement zone. In 1882 they were banned from settling in the village communes, and already existing clusters could be liquidated on request filed by their Christian neighbors. According to law outside of the pale settlement zone only authorized Jews and converts could live. The latter, after they gained the right to return to Judaism as a consequence of the Revolution of 1905 had to sign documents that in case of changing the faith they would have to move to the zone. Outside of the zone only merchants of Ist Guild with 10 years of activity, meaning they had to pay approx. 7,000 roubles, students of the academia (but known are cases of expelling their single mothers without the source of income); medical doctors, stomatologists (only if they were having their own practices), specialists and craftsmen working for the army or the government, could settle. During 1860s, in the liberal phase of Alexander II’s rule, Tsar’s administration tolerated Jews living illegally outside of the zone. After attempted assassination on the Tsar the policy towards the Jews changed and in 1881–1883 and 1903–1906 the pale settlement zone were plagued with the wave of pogroms. In 1882, during Alexander III’s rule temporary regulations concerning Jews came to life (so-called May Laws) followed by more restrictive law. In 1891 Jews were exiled from Moscow (approx.. 20,000 people) and other bigger towns outside of the zone. It was when the wave of immigrants disdainfully called Litvaks (because of them being subjected to such intensive russification) came to the Polish Kingdom. Their appearance led to tensions in the relations between the Poles and the Jews, although local Jews, especially those assimilated, didn’t give them a warm welcome, either.
In the beginning of the 20th century within the pale settlement zone lived about 5 million of Jews, what amounted to nearly 40% of total Jewish population worldwide. Outside the zone lived only about 200,000 Jews. It was justly stressed at the time that if they were allowed to spread within the whole Empire they would be such insignificant number of total population that tensions and conflict would have been lighter compared to those in small towns of the zone in which Jews often were the majority, and in many regions up to several percent of the population. It resulted in them having problem with making a living and made them recipients of social welfare.
In 1910-1911 one could still have hope that the pale settlement zone will be abolished. However, the rise of the general moods inspired by the Black Hundreds movement resulted in the fact that raising this question in the Duma (Russian assembly) was nothing more but a demonstration. The end to this order was brought by the outbreak of the WWI and Russian losses. As early as in August 1915 maintaining the zone proved to be utterly unrealistic in the face of evacuations and mass exodus of people desperately trying to avoid approaching front. This situation was accepted by the Ministers of Interior issuing appropriate decrees. Eventually, after the February Revolution Provisional Government abolished any religious and ethnic restrictions by its decree issued on 20th March / 2nd April 1917.
Evaluation of the role pale settlement zone played in the history of the Jewish people is a daunting task. Living conditions in the zone were without any doubt very tough, especially for the poor. However, it is difficult to omit that aggregation of Jews in towns within the zone made most of them keep their traditional culture and value hierarchy. It was mostly them, together with their brothers in the Kingdom of Poland and Galicia, who brought yidishkeyt (Jewishness) vastly contributing to the birth of modern Jewish culture. It was them who were to become protagonists of Sholem Aleichem and Mendele Mocher Sforim’s classical works. Of great importance for the future was also emigration of the Jews from the pale settlement zone and their participation in development of Jewish communities in the USA (2 million emigrants between 1881-1914).
However, it has to be said that for many Jews pale settlement zone became a trap. The project of getting rid of Jews and Poles goes back to Tsars’ Russia. According to this idea they were to be “silently” deported to the Polish Kingdom and Baltic States, which were supposed to be handed over to the Germans who would “handle” the problem and Russia would gain committed ally and carte blanche in her actions towards Turkey. During WWI German occupation of the lands included in pale settlement zone didn’t bring major suffering down on Jews, but after Hitler’s aggression on the Soviet Union the Jews who didn’t manage to escape with retreating Red Army, became the first mass victims of extermination euphemistically called “the final solution”, i.e. the Holocaust.