From the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-1798), Jews of Russia were confined to live within the Pale of Settlement (1791-1917), made up mostly of modern day Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, and Ukraine.
Life in the Pale of Settlements was exceeding difficult and poverty-stricken. By the turn of the 19th century, five million Jews, or 40% of the world’s Jewish population, could be found within the Pale.
An unsubstantiated rumour of Jewish involvement in the assassination of Alexander II (1855-1881) led to significant outbreak of violence against the Jews; these acts of anti-Semitism are known as pograms. Alexander III (1881-1894) therefore implemented a series of anti-Semitic legislation to deter a similar fate.
Konstantin Pobedonostsev, a close advisor of Alexander III, captured the essence of the regime, “One-third of the Jews will convert, one-third will die, and one-third will emigrate.”
From 1881-1920, the never-ending pogroms and the increased official repression against the Jewish population lead to more than two million Russian Jews fleeing the country. Whilst a vast majority fled to the United States and England, some Jews made their way eastwards eventually ending up in the city of Harbin.
Harbin is now the capital city of Heilongjiang Province (黑龙江省), the most north eastern province of Manchuria. It was a small fishing village prior to 1895 and served as the base of Russian military operation in Manchuria during the Russo-Japanese War (1904 – 05). For a certain period, Harbin had the largest Russian population outside of the Soviet Union; in fact, at the time of the revolution in 1917, 40,000 of the 100,000 people in Harbin were ethnically Russian. Today, it is often called the “Moscow of the East” by the Chinese although much of the Russian developed city is no longer there.
The Russian Jews came to Harbin in three relatively distinct phases.
First Phase – China Eastern Railway
When the First Sino-Japanese War (甲午战争) came to a close with Japanese victory in 1895, China as a power was severely undermined and sought to form alliances if it ever needed to challenge Japanese power. China, therefore, looked north and granted Russia permission to construct the Chinese Eastern Railway (东清铁路). The construction of this would provide a shortcut to the tail end of the Trans-Siberian Railway by linking Chita and Vladivostok via Harbin.
In order to expedite the completion of the China Eastern Railway, the Russian ruling class encouraged people to move eastwards and take up a role in the railway’s construction. They offered the incentive of more rights and privileges, which would not be a lot given the state of the Pale of Settlements. Nevertheless, 500 Russian Jews who were keen to having a better lifestyle found themselves in Harbin by 1903.
The construction of the railway brought an influx of people to Harbin, as well as a need for all types and goods and services. The Jews grasped onto this opportunity and involved themselves in the development of many industries, including hotels, fur trade, and wood and coal production. The Jews eventually made sure these new businesses reached beyond the borders of China, as they eventually reached the Russian Empire, as well as European countries, Japan, and even the United States.
Second Phase – Russo-Japanese War
In the early 1900s, Japan offered to recognise Russia’s influence in Manchuria in exchange for Russia’s recognition of Japan’s influence in Korea. Upon Russia’s refusal, Japan declared war.
The Russian Jews, although denied of civil rights and confined in the Pale, found themselves at the forefront of conscription; as second tier citizens, they were on the priority list when it came to mustering.
In 1905, Russia lost the 19-month war and lacked the funding to repatriate troops. Demobilized soldiers, including many Jews who were reluctant of returning to the Pale of Settlement, decided to settled down in Harbin.
By 1908, there were about 8000 Russian Jews in Manchuria; in fact, a third of all Russians in Harbin were of Jewish descent. In 1909, the growing population built a synagogue which would come to be the centre of their worship and gatherings. In 2014, this synagogue was refurbished into a concert hall for the performance of classical music.
Third Phase – Russian Revolutions
The Great War (1914-1918), the Russian Revolution (1917) and the subsequent Russian Civil War (1917-1922) brought a sharp influx of Jewish refugees to Harbin. The grandfather of Ehud Olmert, Israel’s ex-Prime Minister, fled to Harbin from Russia after World War I, in 1919. When Zionism was outlawed in the Soviet Union, he and his Jewish community in Harbin became the only representative of Russian-speaking Zionists.
Olmert’s father, Mordechai, grew up in Harbin where he was a founding member of the local Betar youth movement, an international organisation devoted to the pursuit of a Jewish homeland. Olmert’s parents met in Harbin and made Aliyah to Mandatory Palestine in 1933.
By 1920, Harbin was home to approximately 20,000 Russian-Jewish. Between 1920 and 1930, approximately 20 Jewish newspapers were in circulation. This was a time when the Soviet Union was too preoccupied elsewhere to pay much attention to Manchuria and the Jews of Harbin enjoyed the same rights as other foreigners.
Japanese occupation of Northeast China in 1931 and the creation of puppet state, Manchukuo (满洲国), in 1932 was devastating to the Harbin Jewish community. The Japanese soon became the dominant economic power in the region; the Jews, overshadowed by their new neighbours, struggled financially, leading to emigration to places from Palestine to Shanghai.