Universities in Czarist Russia


Numerus Clausus In Czarist Russia

During the 1880s, vast numbers of Jews flooding Russia’s schools and universities induced Russia to clamp down a numerous clausus (closed number) policy. This limited the availability of higher education for Jews to such an extent that some young Jews went to the extreme of converting to be able to pursue lucrative careers. Far more resorted to bribes or exile.



During the first half of the 19th century, Russia fought mightily to attract young Jews to Russian schools, viewing this as a subtle path to their assimilation. Policies were formulated from the beginning of the 19th century until 1844 to get Jews into secular educational establishments. Initially, the plot failed thanks to powerful opposition from Jewish leaders, who well knew the Russians’ real intent. By 1853 there were only 159 Jewish pupils in all of Russia’s secondary schools and only a few dozen students in the country’s universities.

But times were changing. Many Jews were influenced by the haskolah, which preached that it was important to imbibe secular knowledge together with Torah, although decades later they admitted that all that had been achieved was generations of am ho’oratzim. Also, during the relevantly benevolent reign of Czar Alexander II lasting from 1855 to 1881, Jews were given incentive to pursue secular studies. Educated Jews were granted residential rights in places outside the Jewish Pale in 1865, and important concession regarding military service in 1874.

By 1880, Jewish enrollment in secondary schools shot up to 8,000, 11.5% of the total number of pupils in Russia. 556 Jews were now studying in universities, comprising 6.8% of the country’s student body.

Over time, the proportion of Jewish students rose to 35.2% in the Odessa region and to 26.7% in the region of Vilna.

Government and local administration jobs were barred from Jews, so they competed with non-Jews for professional jobs in the fields of medicine, law and journalism. Envy set in. An anti-Semitic propaganda program against Jewish education was launched in 1880 with a letter to the editor of the influential Novoye Vremya paper titled Zhid Idyot (The Jew is Coming).

Jewish emancipation came to a screaming halt in 5641/1881, when revolutionaries assassinated Czar Alexander II with a bomb in St. Petersburg. The accession of his son Alexander III ushered in an era of harsh oppression. 200 pogroms erupted during his first year of rule.

Higher and secondary schools began restricting the admission of Jews. In 1887 the Ministry of Education limited the proportion of Jews in secondary schools and higher institutions to 10% in the Pale of Settlement, 5% outside it, and 3% in Moscow. The restrictions spread to schools under other ministries and many schools shut Jews out completely. By 1892, the number of Jewish pupils in secondary schools had plunged to 5,394, constituting only 7% of the total student body.



Desperate parents resorted to bribery to get their children secular educations and some youngsters even converted as a last resort.

Russian Jewess Pauline Wengeroff (5593/1833-5676/1916), who grew up in a strictly religious family and later moved with her husband and children to St. Petersburg, learned that secular education could come with a heavy price tag.

“I was in a position to see the transformation that European education wrought on Jewish family life,” she wrote. “…What a time of heartbreak when my son attended the gymnasium (high school). Simon was a fourth year student. The students were taken to a religious chapel for religious services. All but Simon kneeled before the icons. When the teacher ordered him to kneel he refused: ‘I am a Jew. My religion forbids me to kneel to an image.’ After the service, the enraged teacher told Simon he was expelled.

“I went to the school superintendent, imploring and weeping… The school superintendent reflected. The boy was dismissed from this gymnasium but he would arrange to have Simon admitted to another.”

“In the 80s, with anti-Semitism raging all over Russia, a Jew had two choices,” Pauline Wengeroff wrote of that time. “He could, in the name of Judaism, renounce everything [secular] that had become indispensable to him, or he could choose freedom with its choice of education and career, through baptism. Hundreds of enlightened Jews chose the latter… My children went the way of so many others. The first to leave us was Simon… Volodya, my favorite child, no longer among the living, followed Simon’s example.”

She describes how this happened:

“After completing the gymnasium in Minsk with a brilliant record, he applied to the University of St. Petersburg. He submitted his papers and the admissions clerk rejected them. ‘These are not your papers. You must have stolen them. You are a Jew, but these papers refer to someone with a Russian name, Vladimir.’ Several more times he applied to the university with the same results. Then he took the fateful step and was immediately accepted.”

There were alternatives to apostasy. A limited number of Jews were still accepted in Russian universities and many Jews went to study at foreign universities in Western Europe where they formed vast student colonies in the university towns of Switzerland, Germany, France, etc. A Jewish public figure from that time discussed his personal experience of the phenomenon in his memoirs.

“Here I was, eighteen years old, a graduate of the Real-Gymnasium of Pinsk. What was to be the next step? …Was I to try to break through the narrow gate of the numerus clausus, as my two brothers did some years later, or of Petrograd? I would no doubt have succeeded. But the road was one of endless chicanery, deception and humiliation.

“I might pass the difficult entrance examination- Jewish students were given a special set of more difficult papers- and still fail to obtain the necessary residential rights. I would then have to go the mummery of enrolment of an artisan holding a fake job in one of the forbidden cities. Then there would be the years of bribery and uncertainty; endless dodging of police roundups; constant change of address… So I went west.”

“These student colonies were an interesting and characteristic feature of Western Europe in the days of czarist Russia,” he recalled. “In Berlin, Berne, Zurich, Geneva, Munich, Paris, Montpellier, Nancy, Heidelberg, young Russian Jews driven from the land of their birth… contributed special and identifiable groups… The first westward tide of students had set in with the clamping down of educational restrictions in the early eighties. In my time, the colonies were already well established; they had a tradition and a character.”

The “character” he wrote of refers to the fact that in addition to training Jews as doctors, engineers, chemists and lawyers, the western universities were also fertile breeding grounds of Jewish Soviet revolutionaries and Zionist leaders.



The Jews, A Study of Race and Environment (Maurice Fishberg, 1911) crunches the numerus clausus facts and numbers. Speaking of the rest of Europe, the book notes that at the time, Jews were “represented as students in universities and high schools far more strongly than their number would warrant.”

“Up to about one hundred years ago it was very difficult, often impossible, for a Jew to gain admittance to a higher school of learning, no matter what his qualifications might have been,” The Jews noted. “But since the road for higher education has been opened for them all over Europe, excepting Russia, they have flocked to these seats of learning in a number which has astonished everybody, even the Jews themselves.

“Thus, in Prussia, where the Jews constitute only 1.14 percent of the total population, they make up 8.11 percent of the students in the universities. In Baden, the Jews have 35.93 students per 10,000 population, as against only 10.93 per 10,000 Christians in the two universities Heidelberg and Freiberg, and in the technical high school in Karlsruhe. The Jews have thus proportionately about 3.5 times as many students as the Christians.”

In Austria, The Jews writes, Jews constituted 25% of the students while constituting less than 5% of the population; in Hungary they constituted 30.27% of the students while constituting 4.9% of the population. But in Russia, it notes, it was found in 1899 that of the 16,170 students enrolled in the country’s nine universities, 1,757 were Jews.

“They thus constituted 10.9 percent of the total number of students, or 3.5 per 10,0000 population,” The Jews concludes. “When compared with conditions in the rest of Europe, where 25 to 30 percent of the students are Jewish, it appears that Russia has succeeded, in a great measure, in keeping them out of her own universities.”

The Jews notes that “there are about 3,000 Russian Jewish students in the universities of the countries just mentioned,” and, “If America and England are added, the number of Russian Jews compelled to seek a higher education abroad would be found to be enormous.”

The Russian Revolution of 1905 led to the constitutional reform including a multi-party system and a Russian constitution and also resulted in the increase of the proportion of Jews in secondary schools and universities. The numerus clausus was abolished with the Revolution of 1917.

Other countries later introduced the numerus clausus. A number of European countries introduced it during the decades preceding World War 2 and a trend of Jewish exclusion existed in the United States during most of the first half of the 20th century.

(Sources include: Lucy S. Dawidowicz, The Golden Tradition: Jewish Life and Thought in Eastern Europe, Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, NY, 1996. Jewish Virtual Library. Trial and Error, the Autobiography of Chaim Weizman, East and West Library, London, 1950.)


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