Following the partitions of Poland in the last quarter of the 18th century, the largest Jewish community in the world found themselves under the rule of the Romanov dynasty in the Russian Empire. Each Czar formulated a distinct policy in regards to the Jewish population, and many of these policies, along with the Jewish community’s reaction, often has ramifications until this very day.
Catherine the Great was czarina during the years of the partition itself, and she commenced her Jewish policy influenced by the ideas of enlightened absolutism. Jews were granted partial emancipation but the beginnings of their confinement to what would become known as the Pale of Settlement began as well. At the turn of the 18th-19th centuries, Alexander I assumed power, and he initially was viewed as a somewhat enlightened ruler, primarily due to the opportunities afforded through his ‘Jew constitution’ promulgated in 1804.
He was succeeded by Czar Nicholas I, who went down in history as a sworn enemy of the Jews and an evil ruler. It was under his watch that the infamous cantonist decrees took place. He also attempted to meddle with internal Jewish affairs by reforming the educational institutions and by the annulment of the kahal communal structure.
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