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The May Laws were anti-Jewish regulations enacted on May 15 (May 3 O.S.), 1882, by Czar Alexander III of Russia that were described as "temporary" ("Временные правила") but remained in effect for more than thirty years.



The May Laws, reflecting a systematic policy of discrimination against the Jews, banned the Jewish inhabitants of Russia from living in rural areas and towns of fewer than ten thousand people, including within the Pale of Settlement. Strict quotas were placed on the number of Jews admitted to high schools and universities, and many professions were declared off-limits. The laws remained in effect until 1917 and provided the impetus for mass emigration. In the period from 1881 to 1920, more than two million Jews left the Russian Empire, many of whom immigrated to America.

The repressive legislation was repeatedly revised. In 1887, the educational quotas were tightened down to 10% within the Pale, 5% outside the Pale, except Moscow and St. Petersburg which were held at 3%. For many towns in the Pale with significant Jewish population, this resulted in half-empty schools and a number of potential students forbidden to enroll. Many students were unable to complete their education on the soil of their birth.

Many historians note the concurrence of the state-enforced anti-Semitic policies with waves of pogroms. [1]

In 1889, Jews were forbidden admission to law bar association. Alexander's note on a margin of a memorandum urging curtailing of repressive practices read: "But we must never forget that the Jews have crucified our Master and have shed his precious blood." [2]

"The proportion of Jewish doctors working in the army was not allowed to exceed 5%, while any Jewish lawyer who wished to become a barrister needed the express consent of the Minister of Justice. And at the end of the reign the right of Jews to sell alcohol was revoked." [3]


In 1886, an Edict of Expulsion was applied to Jews of Kiev. In the spring of 1891, Moscow was cleansed of its Jews (except a few deemed useful) and a newly built synagogue was closed by the city's authorities headed by governor-general Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the tsar's brother. About 20,000 were expelled, causing international condemnations.

In his December 9, 1891, speech to the United States Congress, the President Benjamin Harrison said:

"This government had found occasion to express in a friendly spirit, but with much earnestness, to the government of the tsar its serious concern because of harsh measures being enforced against the Hebrews." [4]

In 1892, new measures banned Jewish participation in local elections despite their large numbers in many towns of the Pale. "The Town Regulations ("Городовое положение") of 1892 prohibited Jews from the right to elect or be elected to town Dumas... That way, reverse proportional representation was achieved: the majority of town's taxpayers had to be subjugated to minority governing the town against Jewish interests." [5]

The next year, the Law Concerning the Names ("Об именах") imposed criminal punishment on those Jews who tried to "adopt Christian names" and dictated that Jews must use their birth names ("какими они означены в метрических книгах") in business, writings, advertisements, nametags, etc. [6]

In 1893–1894, some areas of the Crimean peninsula were cut out of the Pale. Alexander III died in Crimea on October 20, 1894, and according to Simon Dubnow, "as the body of the deceased was carried by railway to St. Petersburg, the same rails were carrying the Jewish exiles from Yalta to the Pale. The reign of Alexander III ended symbolically. It began with pogroms and concluded with expulsions."[7]

Most Russian Jewish emigrants settled in the United States or Argentina, though some made aliyah to the Land of Israel, then a province of the Ottoman Empire.


  1. ^  "But Were They Good for the Jews?" by Elliot Rosenberg, p.182
  2. ^  A History of Russia by Nicholas Riasanovsky, p.395
  3. ^  Rosenberg, p.183
  4. ^  Imperial Russia, 1801-1905 by Tim Chapman, p.128
  5. ^  Rosenberg, p.184
  6. ^  "The Most Recent History of the Jewish people, 1789-1914" by Simon Dubnow, vol.3, Russian ed., p.152
  7. ^  ibid. p. 151
  8. ^  ibid. p. 153

See also

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