Whilst the Enlightenment had a huge impact on tolerance and development of ideas in Western Europe, this did not spread to Eastern Europe.
The assassination of the Tsar Alexander II in 1881 was a turning point in Russia’s persecution of the Jews. The Tsar was murdered by anarchists, but a rumour that Jews had been involved led to severe antisemitism in the following years.
A series of pogroms and antisemitic policies were initiated. This resulted in the migration of over two million Jews from the Russian Empire by the start of the First World War.
The first pogrom in 1881 started in Elisavetgrad in the Ukraine. A Jewish landlord ejected a drunk Russian after an argument concerning a ritual murder accusation. This action started a riot against the Jews in Elisavetgrad. This was stopped by the police that evening.
However, the next morning, the attacks continued and this time, the police did not intervene. The attack soon spread to other cities such as Kiev, with the police in many areas joining the attackers. Pogroms were recorded in over 160 places in South Russia.
In 1882, rather than convicting the attackers, the Tsarist government released the May Laws. These laws restricted Jews’ freedom. Jews could no longer conduct business on Sundays, they could no longer own or manage real estate outside of the Pale of Settlement, and efforts were made to ban Jewish students from schools and universities.
The situation for the Jews did not improve and at the turn of the century the pogroms started again. From 1905 onwards the pogroms were primarily organised by the Union of the Russian People, which had government backing. From 1905-1909 pogroms took place in over 184 cities. From these pogroms alone there were an estimated 50,000 victims.
Unsurprisingly, many Jews chose, or were forced, to emigrate from Tsarist Russia. They headed for places such as Great Britain and America. In 1880 the population of Jews in New York City was 230,000. In 1914 this population had reached 1.75 million, an increase of over 700%.
This type of antisemitism was not confined to Russia. Austria and Romania also had record numbers of Jews emigrate in this period.