During the 1800s, Jews in Russia faced discrimination and restrictions on movement and land ownership within the country. The first major waves of Russian immigration to the United States largely comprised of Jews trying to escape restrictions placed upon them by Russian czars. Even though the end of the 19th century included famine, Russian immigration was not substantial until the 20th century, and the U.S. saw a population of 65,000 Russians at the 1910 census.

Alexander I and the Pale

Worsening conditions for Jews in Russia under Alexander I contributed to the first wave of Russian immigration to the United States. His initial policy toward Jews in Russia was that of tolerance and fairness as he oversaw the writing of the "Enactment concerning the Jews" in 1804. This policy allowed Russian Jews to buy land in western and southern areas of Russia called the Pale of Settlement, attend school, create factories and move within the Russian provinces. While Alexander intended this Enactment to be generous, these rights were seen as restrictive because they did not allow Jews to live in the country areas outside of the Pale of settlement or become innkeepers on the land they were granted. After an 1818 convening of congress, Alexander enacted more restrictive laws against Russian Jews, including forbidding Jews to have Christian servants, prohibiting permanent settlement and removing Jews from certain provinces.

Nicholas I and the Military

Nicholas I followed Alexander I as the ruler of Russia, and he set as a goal the conversion of Jews to Russian Orthodox Christianity, including forced baptisms for young children. Additionally, he required Jewish boys beginning at the age of 12 to participate in the Russian military. In 1843, Nicholas I issued an edict evicting Jews from their homes in the western areas of Russia and settle only in Lithuania, New Russia, Little Russia and parts of the Ukraine. Subsequent decrees forced Jewish education into the hands of the state and the eventual development of state-run schools for Jewish students.

Kiev and Settlement

Prior to Alexander I's reign, Catherine II allowed Jews to live in Kiev under the condition that they paid double taxes. When Alexander I took power, Christians petitioned to have the Jewish population removed from Kiev. Although the petition was denied, conflict began between the Christian and Jewish citizens in the area. Eventually, Nicholas I issued an order in 1827 that forbade Jews from building temples in Kiev and were given up to six months, depending upon their financial ties to the area, to move to the areas designated for the Jewish population by Alexander I under the "Enactment."

Pogroms

During the second half of the 19th century, Russian Jews were subjected to pogroms, or attacks. Russians targeted the Jewish population after the assassination of Alexander II in 1881. The most devastating pogrom occurred in the province of Kiev under the watch of government officials as property was destroyed and residents were beaten over a period of three days. Following these pogroms, Jews were also banned from Moscow, and immigration to the United States began in large numbers.