In 1791, the Jewish Pale of Settlement was formed within the Russian Empire. The Pale was a geographical region in which Jews were allowed to settle, and beyond which they were primarily not allowed to settle. It was formed soon after Catherine the Great had claimed large territories formerly belonging to Poland and the Ottoman Empire for Russia. Although the annexation of these lands brought Russia new power and resources, the tsarist government worried that the diverse population it now governed would threaten Russia’s security and cultural traditions.
Most of Russia’s Jews (about five million) lived in shtetls within the Pale, the borders of which changed several times. They were, for the most part, not allowed to move to Russia proper nor to the major cities of the Empire; there were some exceptions to this rule, including for Jews who had served in the army, and members of the elite classes. Odessa, where Babel grew up, was one of the few large cities open to Jews. The Pale of Settlement ended with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, as the Jews of Eastern Europe were granted new opportunities.
Suggested Activity: Share this map with students, and explain that the events Babel describes in Red Cavalry take place largely in the territory of Volhynia, which lies on the western border of the Pale. Ask students, in pairs, to find the following places on the map: St. Petersburg (the Russian capital at the time), Moscow, Odessa (Babel’s home city, and home to many urban Jews), Kyiv (the capital of today’s Ukraine), Zhytomyr (a large shtetl where many Jews lived), Berdychev (another large shtetl).