In the 19th century, world’s largest Jewish community lived in areas of the former Republic of Poland, after 1795 annexed by the Russian Empire. In 1791, empress Catherine II the Great, by way of a ukase, created the Pale of Settlement in the western part of the empire, thus designating a zone where Jews were allowed to stay.
The territory of the Pale underwent gradual transformations over the years, covering the area from Kovno and Vitebsk Governorates in the north to the Kherson and Taurida Governorates in the south. The tsarist regime concentrated almost all Jews within this strip of land, from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Jewish inhabitants had limited civil rights. In 1897, about 5 million Ashkenazi Jews lived in Russia-controlled Congress Poland and in the Pale of Settlement.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Jews in Russia represented approx. 4.8% of population. The majority of them lived in cities, where they often constituted 60-70% of all residents. Towns inhabited by a great number of Jews, where Jewish culture would thrive, where called shtetls (“small town” in Yiddish).
The identity of Jews living in the Russian Empire was determined by shared religion, tradition and language – Yiddish. Life concentrated around synagogue and religion, with the rabbi as the central authority figure. All this resulted in a situation where Jews lived “together” and at the same time “next to” Poles, Russians and other nations.
Still, the Jewish community was quite diverse. Some considered themselves mostly as Jews in a diaspora, while others – as citizens of a particular country believing in Judaism.