Tsarist Russia’s ‘Pale of Settlement’

Our robust nation benefited from discriminatory practices elsewhere

Britain had been invaded countless times by the Romans, Saxons, Jutes and Danes, but it was not until the year 1066 that a Norman force from the European mainland achieved more than a limited occupation. While earlier invasions had created small footholds in Britain, the 1066 invasion culminated in an England dominated by the Normans.

By the 12th century, the Normans had consolidated their control of most of Britain, and Ireland now occupied the expansionist visions of the Anglo-Normans.

In 1169, they invaded Ireland, though only the eastern counties (Meath, Louth, Dublin and Kildare) were thoroughly conquered by the Anglo-Normans, who established Drogheda as their administrative center. Most of Ireland, however, remained under the domination of autonomous Gaelic lords.

To protect their foothold in Ireland, the Anglo-Normans constructed a continuous ditch at the western perimeter of the occupied land. The Latin word palus, meaning upright stake or fence, (or, in English, “pale”) defined the protecting rampart; later, the word pale gave a name to the entire enclosure. Thus, the Anglo-Norman gentry, referred to the lands outside the barrier, still governed by the unconquered Irish, as “beyond the pale.”

In 1366, the Statute of Kilkenny forbade intermarriage with the ethnic Irish and established other discriminatory regulations. Among them was a prohibition barring Irish individuals from moving into the Anglo-Norman pale.

Four centuries later, and more than 1,000 miles to the east, imperial Russia greatly expanded its territories under the Tsarina Catherine the Great (1729-1796). In wars with the Ottoman Empire, Russia conquered the Crimea and neighboring provinces and, to the west, the lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. These territorial annexations vastly increased Russia’s Jewish population.

Catherine was the first Russian ruler to proclaim empire-wide repressive legislation against the Jews. In 1791 (during George Washington’s first term as president), she ordered the creation of a defined territory in western Russia, populated largely by Catholics and Jews, to be called The Pale of Settlement.

The new name was a conscious homage to the Irish pale of the 14th century. This designated territory consisted of much of Belarus, Lithuania, eastern Poland, Moldova, Bessarabia and western Ukraine.

Prior to the intensified migration of eastern European Jews to the west after 1880 (principally to the United States) an estimated 5 million Jews lived under Russian jurisdiction – about 40 percent of the world’s Jewry.

Within the Pale itself, Jews were forbidden to live in certain major cities like Kiev, Yalta and Sevastopol or in the numberless farming communities. Instead, they were largely confined to small urban conclaves called shtetlakh. Jews in the Pale’s 25 provinces (called guberniyas in Russian) never exceeded 20 percent of the population.

According to the Tsarist Russian census of 1897, the percentage of Jews in the guberniyas varied from 18.2 percent in Warsaw to a low of 3.9 percent in Poltava.

Life in 19th century shtetls was grim, confining, bereft of economic opportunities and vulnerable to periodic pogroms – just as life in Ireland was beset by widespread poverty, recurrent pandemics and discriminatory laws imposed by British rulers.

Thus, both of these oppressed peoples sought relief by migrating westward to the United States; and this nation of immigrants was immensely enriched by those who came here seeking to escape gross discrimination.

Stanley M. Aronson, M.D. (smamd@cox@net) lives in Providence.