Montefiore and the Politics of Emancipation
In March 1846, Moses Montefiore, an unusually tall, clean-shaven, traditionally observant, and inordinately wealthy English Jew, crossed the Dvina river in his luxurious private carriage, braving the thawing ice floes in order to travel along Russia's notoriously poor roads to St. Petersburg, the capital. His appearance was extraordinary in every sense, and he meant it to be so. He arrived wearing the scarlet uniform of a Sheriff of London, with gold epaulets, a plumed hat, and a sword by his side. Once in the city, he made his way up the ladder of officialdom, first meeting with Tsar Nicholas I's important ministers and, ultimately, with the Tsar himself.
Montefiore encouraged Nicholas, who had ruled for decades over millions of Jews but had never before spoken to one, to follow the example of Western European countries and grant the Jews of his empire equal, or at least greater, rights. The officials and the Tsar himself resisted any such ideas, complaining about the baneful influence of the Talmud, the Jews' self-segregation through clothing and language, and their continued involvement in questionable economic practices such as smuggling and selling liquor to peasants on credit.
During his stay in Russia, Montefiore's fellow Jews celebrated him enthusiastically. In St. Petersburg, he met with delegations of Jews from across the Pale of Settlement and prayed with Jewish soldiers in the capital's barracks. Afterwards, on his way home, the 30,000 Jews of Vilna and the 36,000 of Warsaw welcomed him as a hero if not something of a messiah, the political futility of his visit notwithstanding. Montefiore's trip to Russia became part of the folklore of Russian Jewry, retold for generations, with each new version diverging further from reality.