Catherine II (AKA Catherine the Great, 1729-1796) was born Sophia Augusta Frederica, a daughter of the ruling family of Anhalt (a German state). In 1744, she married her second cousin, who was to become Czar Peter III. Six months after Peter III ascended the throne, he was deposed and assassinated, and Catherine assumed the throne.

Catherine’s early reign reflected the enlightenment in which she had been raised. However, since she had achieved the throne with the support of the nobility and relied on the backing of the Orthodox church, she had to act cautiously. Therefore, instead of ratifying a Senate decree allowing Jews free access to the interior of Russia, Catherine allowed them in as “foreign” merchants.

This was fine during the first part of Catherine’s reign, when Russia had a relatively small Jewish population. When Russia later acquired a large chunk of Poland, however, the Empire also acquired a great number of Jews. In 1772, Jews in the new territory were recognized as Russian citizens, but through various administrative laws, were restricted from living in greater Russian.

In 1792, Catherine finally acquiesced to internal pressure and created the Pale of Settlement, largely composed of the former Polish/Lithuanian territory in which Jewish settlement was allowed. Jews were prohibited, however, from residing in the rest of Russia. Many of the large cities within the Pale were also allowed to bar Jews. In time, the Pale’s boundaries shifted. For instance, on June 23, 1794, Jewish settlement was expanded to the Ukraine and included Kiev, where there had been a Jewish presence on and off since the 8th century.

Catherine the Great died in 1796, but the ramifications of the creation of the Pale of Settlement lasted for generations. The Pale of Settlement is said to have been responsible for the increase in shtetl life (life in small villages) and the rise of the European yeshivot (learning academies).

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