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Returning to Judaism after the 1905 Law on Religious Freedom in Tsarist Russia

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 January 2017


As a consequence of the 17 April 1905 law on religious freedom, hundreds of baptized Jews petitioned to return to Judaism. While the law paralleled the liberalization of the attitudes and values regarding religious differences that occurred in European societies between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, the reform also helped destabilize traditional social boundaries and religious identities in the empire. On one level, this essay examines the conflicts and problems authorities faced in categorizing a Jewish population that continually resisted conventional assumptions. In the context of rapid population movements, political and religious reforms, and increased acculturation, what it meant to be “Jewish” was redefined, and administrators needed to establish an acceptable criterion by which (baptized) Jews could be classified. On another level, this essay draws on individual petitions and government correspondence to analyze the personal choices and social dilemmas that baptized Jews faced when they attempted to return to Judaism.

Copyright © Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Stuthes. 2006

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I would like to thank the friends and colleagues who read and critiqued various versions of this article: Heather Coleman, Robert H. Greene, Paul Josephson, Natan Meir, Paul Werth, and the two anonymous referees for Slavic Review. Research for this article was made possible by grants from the International Research and Exchanges Board, the University of Michigan, and the Social Science Research Council.

1 On strategies of conversion, see Stanislawski, Michael, “Jewish Apostasy in Russia: A Tentative Typology,” in Endelman, Todd M., ed., Jewish Apostasy in the Modern World (New York, 1987)Google Scholar; and Endelman, Todd M., “Jewish Converts in Nineteenth-Century Warsaw: A Quantitative Analysis,” Jewish Social Stuthes 4, no. 1 (1997): 2859 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 Rossiiskii gosudarstvennyi istoricheskii arkhiv (RGIA), f. 796, op. 186, d. 5897, 11. 2-2ob. (individual petition, 1905).

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6 Polnoe sobranie zakonov Rossiishoi imperii (PSZPJ), series 3, vol. 23, no. 22581 (26 February 1903).

7 PSZRI, series 3, vol. 24, no. 25495 (12 December 1904).

8 PSZRI, series 3, vol. 25, no. 26126 (17 April 1905); “Ob izmenenii zakonopolozhenii, kasaiushchikhsia perekhoda iz odnogo ispovedaniia v drugoe,” RG1A, f. 821, op. 150, d. 12,11. l-18ob.; and RGIA, f. 826, op. 3, d. 127,11. 70-86ob., published in Missionerskoe obozrenie, no. 1 (1908): 176-207; and reprinted in Radvan, Marian, ed., Katolicheskaia Tserkov’ nakanune revoliutsii 1917 goda: Sbornik dokumenlov (Liublin, 2003), 136–65Google Scholar. See also the discussion in Peter Waldron, “Religious Toleration in Late Imperial Russia,“ in Crisp and Edmondson, eds., CivilRights in Imperial Russia, 107-12; Werth, At the Margins of Orthodoxy, 245-54; and Werth, , “Arbiters of the Free Conscience: State, Religion, and the Problem of Confessional Transfer after 1905,” in Coleman, Heather and Steinberg, Mark D., eds., Sacred Stories: Religion and Spirituality in Modern Russia (Bloomington, forthcoming)Google Scholar.

9 Werdi, “Arbiters of the Free Conscience“; Waldron, “Religious Toleration in Late Imperial Russia.“

10 Ascher, Abraham, P. A. Stolypin: The Search for Stability in Late Imperial Russia (Stanford, 2001), 299302 Google Scholar; see also Dixon, Simon, “Sergii (Stragorodskii) in the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Finland: Apostasy and Mixed Marriages, 1905-1917,” Slavonic and East European Review 82, no. 1 (2004): 5073 Google Scholar.

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13 Rogger, Hans, Jewish Policies and Right-Wing Politics in Imperial Russia (Berkeley, 1986), 116–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

14 PSZRI, series 1, vol. 37, no. 28249 (22 April 1818).

15 Gessen, Iulii, Istoriia evreiskogo naroda v Rossii, 2 vols, (reprint, Moscow, 1993), 1: 198–99Google Scholar. See also Golitsyn, N. N., Istoriia russkago zakonodatel'stva o evreiakh, 1649-1825 (St. Petersburg, 1886)Google Scholar.

16 Gessen, Istoriia evreiskogo naroda v Rossii, 1:197-98.

17 PSZRI, series 1, vol. 37, no. 28249 (22 April 1818); Klier, Russia Gathers Her Jews, 166. See also Breyfogle, Nicholas, Heretics and Colonizers: Forging Russia's Empire in the South Caucasus (Ithaca, 2005), 2930 Google Scholar, 34.

18 Gessen, Iulii, Velizhskaia drama (St. Petersburg, 1905)Google Scholar. For ritual murder trials in early modern Poland, see Guidon, Zenon and Wijaczka, Jacek, “The Accusation of Ritual Murder in Poland, 1500-1800,” Polin 10 (1997): 99140 Google Scholar. For the modern period, see Kieval, Hillel J., “The Importance of Place: Comparative Aspects of the Ritual Murder Trial in Modern Central Europe,” in Endelman, Todd M., ed., Comparing Jewish Societies (Ann Arbor, 1997)Google Scholar.

19 PSZRI, series 2, vol. 1, no. 501 (28 July 1826); vol. 2, no. 1614 (14 December 1827). See also the discussion in Gessen, Istoriia evreiskogo naroda vRossii, 2:29-30; Gessen, , “Naem lichnyi (usluzhenie khristian) po russkomu zakonodatel'stvoi,” Evreiskaia entsiklopediia: Svod znanii o evreistve i ego kul'ture v proshlom i nastoiashchem (St. Petersburg, 1906- 1913), 13:492–96Google Scholar; and Mysh, M. I., Rukovodstuo k russkim zakonam o evreiakh, 2d ed. (St. Petersburg, 1898), 29 Google Scholar.

20 Leskov, Nikolai S., The Jews in Russia: Some Notes on the Jewish Question, trans, and ed. Schefski, Harold Klassel (Princeton, 1986), 1011 Google Scholar. Leskov's Evrei v Rossii was originally published in St. Petersburg in 1884.

21 PSZRI, series 2, vol. 2, no. 1360 (20 August 1827).

22 PSZRI, series 1, vol. 34, no. 26752 (25 March 1817).

23 Between 1841 and 1855, the Jewish Committee of the Ministry of the Interior discussed the possibilities for easing the material and psychological hardships baptized Jews encountered upon conversion. RGIA, f. 1269, op. 1, d. 10. Beginning in 1842, monetary help was offered only for conversions to Russian Orthodoxy. RGIA, f. 821, op. 8, d. 183.

24 Mysh, Rukovodstvo k russkim zakonam o evreiakh, 38-45. See also Werth, Paul W., “The Limits of Religious Ascription: Baptized Tatars and the Revision of'Apostasy,’ 1840s- 1905,” Russian Reviexu 59, no. 4 (October 2000); 497–98Google Scholar.

25 Mysh, Rukovodstvo k russkim zakonam, 38-45; and Werth, “Limits of Religious Ascription,“ 497-98.

26 On missionary activities during the reign of Nicholas I, see Werth, At the Margins of Orthodoxy; John Klier, “State Policies and Conversion of the Jews in Imperial Russia” and Dittmar Schorkowitz, “The Orthodox Church, Lamaism, and Shamanism among the Buriats and Kalmyks, 1825-1925,” both in Geraci and Khodarkovsky, eds., Of Religion and Empire, 96-102, 201-16.

27 Iokhanan Petrovskii-Shtem,£twj'ums.s/toi«, 1827-1914 (Moscow, 2003), 168; Stanislawski, “Jewish Apostasy in Russia,” 193-94; and Klier, “State Policies and Conversion of the Jews in Imperial Russia,” 97-104.

28 PSZRI, series 2, vol. 31, no. 30888 (26 August 1856); and “Zapiska o poimannikakh (1855),” Evreiskaia starina 8 (1915): 216-24.

29 Mysh, Rukovodstvo k russkim zakonam, 29.

30 Werth, At the Margins of Orthodoxy, 142-45.

31 For a discussion of these petitions (and for a number of exceptions to this general trend), see Petrovskii-Shtern, Evrei v russkoi armii, 149-64, esp. 162-63; see also, for example, the case of Nikolai Epel'man who was found guilty of “blasphemy.” RGIA, f. 821, op. 8, d. 197,11. l-4ob., ll-15ob. (1870).

32 RGIA, f. 821, op. 8, d. 207 (individual petition, 1871).

33 RGIA, f. 821, op. 8, d. 209,1. 32ob. (government memos and correspondence on apostasy, 1898).

34 Paul Werth cites a similar assertion made by the Ministry of the Interior with respect to apostate Tatars; see his “Limits of Religious Ascription,” 500; see also Petrovskii- Shtern, Evrei v russkoi armii, 149-64.

35. RGIA, f. 821, op. 8, d. 205 (1875). For more examples of petitions from baptized Jews who wished to return to Judaism in the pre-1905 period, see RGIA, f. 821, op. 8, d. 209,11. 63-64ob., 70-70ob., 72-72ob., 74-75, 77-77ob., 81-81ob., 90-91ob.

36 For a detailed transcript of the case, see Sudebnaia gazeta, nos. 17 and 18 (1885).

37 On the liberalization of government policy during the reign of Alexander II, see Nathans, Beyond the Pale, and Klier, John, Imperial Russia's Jewish Question, 1855-1881 (Cambridge, Eng., 1995)Google Scholar.

38 J. Eugene Clay, “Orthodox Missionaries and ‘Orthodox Heretics’ in Russia, 1886- 1917,” in Geraci and Khodarkovsky, eds., Of Religion and Empire, 38-69; Beer, Daniel, “The Medicalization of Religious Deviance in the Russian Orthodox Church (1880-1905),” Kritika 5, no. 3 (2004): 451–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Engelstein, Laura, Castration and the Heavenly Kingdom: A Russian Folktale (Ithaca, 1999)Google Scholar; and Kizenko, Natheszda, A Prodigal Saint: Father John oJKronstadt and the Russian People (University Park, 2000)Google Scholar.

39 On the problem of Jewish-Christian contact in early modern Poland, see Kalik, Judith, “Christian Servants Employed by Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” Polin 14 (2001): 259–70Google Scholar; Kalik, “Patterns of Contacts between the Catholic Church and the Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth: The Jewish Debts,” Scripta Hierosolymitana (1998): 102-22; Goldberg, Jacob, “Poles and Jews in the 17th and 18th Centuries: Rejection or Acceptance,” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas 22 (1974): 248–82Google Scholar; and Magdalena Teter, “Jews in the Legislation and Teachings of the Catholic Church in Poland (1648-1772)” (PhD diss., Columbia University, 2000), chap. 1. For the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Jews before the partitions of Poland, see Kalik, Judith, “The Orthodox Church and the Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth,” Jewish History 17, no. 2 (2003): 229–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

40 “Naem evreiami prislugi-khristian,” Spravka k dokladu po evreiskomu voprosu, pt. 9 (St. Petersburg, 1913), 2, 4, 8.

41 Mysh, Rukovodstvo k russkim zakonam o evreiakh, 29-30; Gessen, “Naem lichnyi (usluzhenie khristian) po russkomu zakonodatel'stvu,” 495-96.

42 Freeze, Parish Clergy in Nineteenth-Century Russia, 352-448; Beer, “Medicalization of Religious Deviance in the Russian Orthodox Church (1880-1905)“; and Shevzov, Russian Orthodoxy on the Eve of Revolution, 12-14, 35-53.

43 Rogger, Jewish Policies and Right-Wing Politics, 25-39. On Russification policies, see Weeks, Theodore R., “Religion and Russification: Russian Language in the Catholic Churches of the ‘Northwest Provinces’ after 1863,” Kritika 2, no. 1 (2001): 87110 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mikhail Dolbilov, “Russification and the Bureaucratic Mind in the Russian Empire's Northwest Region in the 1860s,” Darius Staliunas, “Did the Government Seek to Russify Lithuanians and Poles in the Northwest Territory after the Uprising of 1863-64?” and Kappeler, Andreas, “The Ambiguities of Russification,” Kritika 5, no. 2 (2004): 245–72CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 273-90, 291-98.

44 RGIA, f. 821, op. 133, d. 792,1. 14 (Ministry of the Interior correspondence on the notation of tz evreev in the passports of baptized Jews, 1900-1902). This law did not pertain to Jews who converted to Lutheranism or Catholicism, but in a few exceptional cases Moscow police officials disregarded the law and marked iz evreev for all Jews who converted to Russian Orthodoxy, as well as Lutheranism and Catholicism. Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Rossiiskoi Federatsii (GARF), f. 102, deloproizvodstvo 2, op. 76A, d. 1969,1.14. For a similar example of racial ascription in the French Caribbean, see Dubois, Laurent, “Inscribing Race in the Revolutionary French Antilles,” in Peabody, Sue and Stovall, Tyler, eds., The Color of Liberty: Histories of Race in France (Durham, 2003), 95107 CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Despite the emancipation decree of 1794, administrators used racial categories (noir) to control and document ex-slaves. Russian imperial administrators treated baptized Jews in a similar manner by inscribing their ethnoreligious origins in passports and other identity documents.

45 Eugene M. Avrutin, “A Legible People: Identification Politics and Jewish Accommodation in Tsarist Russia” (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2004), 221-37; for a discussion of name changes in the Russian empire, see Verner, Andrew M., “What's in a Name? Of Dog-Killers, Jews, and Rasputin,” Slavic Preview 53, no. 4 (Winter 1994): 1046–70CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

46 Engelstein, Keys to Happiness, 7-9.

47 PSZRI, series 3, vol. 25, no. 26126, art. 3(17 April 1905). See also the discussion in Werth, “Arbiters of the Free Conscience.“

48 For the 18 August 1905 circular that attempted to clarify much of the confusion that resulted after the April statute, see RGIA, f. 821, op. 8, d. 209, 11. 95-96. The April statute did not indicate to civil administrators how to properly transfer individuals from one faith to another, since vital events were recorded in metrical books by clergy and since the procedures varied with each respective religion. The August circular (#4628) indicated that individuals needed to petition their local governor or police officials first. These officials were then required to inform the local Orthodox clergy. Within a month, local administrators were required to inform the non-Orthodox clergy as well.

49 RGIA, f. 821, op. 10, d. 263,1. 182 (conversion statistics tabulated by the DDDII).

50 On 25 June 1906, DDDII issued circular #3192, which allowed baptized Jews who had converted to other tolerated Christian faiths to return legally to Judaism. RGIA, f. 821, op. 8, d. 185,11. 82-122, esp. 11. 104-104ob. This decree increased the absolute number of returnees to Judaism.

51 RGIA, f. 821, op. 10, d. 288,1. 60 (conversion statistics tabulated by the DDDII).

52 See, for example, Rozenblit, Marsha, Jews of Vienna, 1867-1914: Assimilation and Identity (Albany, 1983), 132–46Google Scholar; and Alan Levenson, “The Conversionary Impulse in Fin de Siècle Germany,” Leo Baeck Institute Year Book (1995): 107-22.

53 GARF, f. 102, deloproizvodstvo 2, op. 76A, d. 1042,11. 3-3ob. (Ministry of Interior memo to Konstantin Pobedonostsev, 1891).

54 “Zakon 17 aprelia i evrei,” Khronika exrreiskoi zhizni (28 April 1905): 1.

55 RGIA, f. 796, op. 186, d. 5932 (individual petition, 1905).

56 RGIA, f. 796, op. 186, d. 5926 (individual petition, 1905); RGIA, f. 797, otd. 92, stol. 3, op. 76, d. 66 (individual petition, 1906).

57 RGIA, f. 821, op. 8, d. 185 (1887). Although Molashaskaia petitioned eighteen years prior to 1905, many young baptized Jews petitioned for similar reasons; see, for example, RGIA, f. 796, op. 187, d. 7392.

58 RGIA, f. 821, op. 8, d. 211,11. 64-64ob. (individual petition, 1909).

59 RGIA, f. 821, op. 8, d. 185,11. 54-65ob. (individual petition).

60 RGIA, f. 796, otd. 6, stol. 3, d. I l l (individual petition, 1909); and for another similar example, see RGIA, f. 796, op. 189, d. 8019 (1908).

61 RGIA, f. 821, op. 133, d. 770,1. 8 (individual petition, 1913).

62 GARF, f. 102, deloproizvodstvo 2, op. 76A, d. 2143 (individual petition, 1906).

63 RGIA, f. 821, op. 133, d. 754,11.1-lob. (individual petition, 1910).

64 GARF, f. 102, deloproizvodstvo 2, op. 76A, d. 2143 (Ministry of the Interior correspondence).

65 RGIA, f. 821, op. 133, d. 754,1. 3; RGIA, f. 821, op. 8, d. 211,11. 22-22ob. (July- August 1907).

66 RGIA, f. 821, op. 8, d. 211, 11. 12-12ob. (DDDII correspondence on apostasy).

67 Ibid., 1.53.

68 Ibid., 11.12-12ob., 53ob.

69 RGIA, f. 821, op. 133, d. 770,11. 5-5ob., 11 (individual petition and DDDII correspondence, 1911-16).

70 RGIA, f. 821, op. 133, d. 754,11.34-38,53ob. (DDDIIcorrespondence, 1910-16).

71 Ibid., 1. 28ob.

72 Ibid., 1.11.

73 RGIA, f. 1412, op. 251, d. 104 (Chancellery of Petitions statistics); RGIA, f. 1412, op. 251, d. 113; RGIA, f. 1412, op. 251, d. 116. On the chancellery, see Pisarev, S. N., Uchrezhdenie po priniatiiu i napravleniiu proshenii i zhalob, prinosimykh na Vysochaishee imia, 1810-1910gg. Istoricheskii ocherk (St. Petersburg, 1909)Google Scholar.

74 Robbins, Richard G. Jr., The Tsar's Viceroys: Russian Provincial Governors in the Last Years oftheEmpire (Ithaca, 1987), 17 Google Scholar. See also Yaney, George L., The Syslematization of Russian Government: Social Evolution in the Domestic Administration of Imperial Russia, 1711-1905 (Urbana, 1973)Google Scholar.

75 RGIA, f. 796, op. 186, d. 5929 (individual petition).

76 See, for example, RGIA, f. 796, op. 186, d. 5926; RGIA, f. 796, op. 186, d. 5932; RGIA, f. 821, op. 8, d. 211,11. 64-64ob.

77 In his literal reading of the Russian legal codes, the legal historian I. G. Orshanskii was perhaps the first and most influential scholar to view conversion in essentially “dichotomous“ terms. This interpretation quickly became a common reference point for subsequent commentators. See Orshanskii, I. G., Russkoe zakonodatel'stvo o evreiakh: Ocherki i izsledovaniia (St. Petersburg, 1877), 78 Google Scholar. On Orshanskii's influence, see Nauians, Beyond the Pale, 319; and Stanislawski, Tsar Nicholas I and thejews, 5-7.

78 Klier, “State Policies and Conversion of thejews in Imperial Russia,” 109.

79 These statistics are taken from Vsepoddanneishii otchet ober-prokurora sviateishago sinodapo vedomstvepravoslavnago ispovedaniia (St. Petersburg-Petrograd, 1886-1916).

80 For Warsaw, see Endelman, “Jewish Converts in Nineteenth-Century Warsaw,“ 47-48.

81 RGIA, f. 821, op. 10, d. 273, 1. 10 (government correspondence on residency rights for Jews who converted to Protestantism, 1910-15).

82 Evreiskaia nedelia, no. 10 (1910): 9.

83 RGIA, f. 821, op. 133, d. 740,1. 60 (government correspondence on the problem of Jewish conversion, 1911-16).

84 The motivation behind Mandel'shtam's conversion to Evangelical Methodism remains obscure, however, since he already belonged to the merchant guilds and enjoyed interior residency privileges. On Mandel'shtam's conversion, see Stanislawski, Michael, Autobiographical Jews: Essays injewish Self-Fashioning (Seattle, 2004), 8687 Google Scholar.

85 RGIA, f. 821, op. 133, d. 770, 11. 37-37ob. (Ministry of the Interior correspondence, 1915).

86 Rogger,Jewish Policies and Right-WingPolitics, 36-38.

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