Four Jewish inhabitants of Ryazan: Beyond the Pale, Chapter 1

May 17th, 2010
My grandfather, Boris L. Bobroff

My grandfather, Boris L. Bobroff

The Introduction to this thread, Mysteries of my Grandfather, is here.

I hope to discover my grandfather’s world in Ryazan.  I wish to be able to envision the people my 22-year-old grandfather saw everyday, his conversations and pursuits, the passions he shared with others he knew.  Who did he pass in the street each day on his way to work?  Who did he say good morning to?  Who did he eat and relax with at night?

Ryazan around 1912

Ryazan around 1912

Unearthing stories of early 20th century life among Ryazan’s Jewish population is extremely difficult.  But I’ve discovered a four small threads – four Jewish families – with which to begin weaving my tapestry of life in Ryazan.

Ryazan was outside the Pale of Jewish Settlement to which most Russian Jews were confined by law beginning under Catherine the Great.  To live in Ryazan, Jews had to obtain government permits.  While Ryazan has been described as free of the kinds of theft and pogroms against Jews experienced elsewhere, restrictions and prejudice existed.  Jewish livelihoods could be precarious here.

Ryazan, east of Moscow, was outside the Jewish Pale of Settlement

Ryazan, east of Moscow, was outside the Jewish Pale of Settlement

With the help of the small group of participants who have Ryazan ancestors, I’ve found out a bit about four Jewish families who lived within the non-Jewish world of that city.  These four will be my cast of characters for future posts.  They include:

The Polyakov family, wealthy bankers, pharmacists, and entrepreneurs who likely had government permission to live in Ryazan because of their talents, skills, and business success.

Yakov Kull, son of Shmuel Kull

Yakov Kull, son of Shmuel Kull

The Kull family, whose father,  Shmuel, had served in the Russian army, garrisoned in Ryazan.  His son Yakov later opened a florishing dress shop in the city.

Avrom Abbe Mesigal, a shingle maker who lived under the protection of a weathy non-Jewish dairy owner in the village of Pesochnoe just east of Ryazan.  Mesigal prospered in his business, marrying and raising a family.  But when his dairy-owner protector left town, the Mesigal family were forced to leave as well.

My own grandfather, Boris L. Bobroff.  I don’t yet know how he came to be living in Ryazan.  Bobroff worked at the Ryazan Agricultural Machinery and Railway Equipment Factory.  Thanks to tremendous help by contact Leon Kull, I’ve learned that this grew into a very large factory which still exists today, now called Ryazselmash.  It was founded in 1904 by well-known entrepreneur Yekhiel Levontin.

What was the landscape in which these four Jewish inhabitants lived?  What kind of city was Ryazan?

The province of Ryazan was still overwhelmingly rural in the early 20th century.  The city of Ryazan was the largest in the province, with about 46,000 inhabitants (men outnumbered women).

But change was afoot.  Ryazan lies along the Oka River, the trade route between Moscow and Nizhny-Novgorod.  By the end of the 19th century, steamboats on the Oka River were replacing rowboats and barges pulled by men.

Ryazan railroad station.  Carriages were always waiting outside to transport passengers into downtown Ryazan

Ryazan railroad station. Carriages were always waiting outside to transport passengers into downtown Ryazan

The Moscow-Ryazan railroad began construction in 1863, the same era railroads were being built across the US.  Within a few years, a railway line was completed to Tambov province, linking Moscow, via Ryazan, with the highly-fertile black-soil regions of southern Russia.  In the 1890s, Ryazan became an important transport center as railways were built to other major cities in the empire.

These changes in Ryazan must have affected the lives of our band of four Jewish residents.  True, the area remained overwhelmingly agricultural.  But might the development of new kinds of economic activity have provided more opportunities for shingle-makers like Avrom Mesigal?  Would new wealth have created more business for Kull’s dress shop?

It seems likely, because we know that growing transportation connections to the outside world stimulated the economic and cultural life of Ryazan.  In the words of “Ryazanets” (“Ryazan resident”), who has written many articles about Ryazan on the province’s extraordinary website, History, Culture, and Traditions of Ryazan (any errors in translation are my own):

"Ryazanets," author

"Ryazanets," author

Transport of goods and transfer of information accelerated as travel became easier and more affordable. Use of the telegraph grew significantly.  Now urgent news could be transmitted over great distances.  A suburb, Troitskaya, grew up near the railroad station.  A cobbled road led from the station to the Moscow Road [the main street of Ryazan]….

Around the station were built houses for the railway workers.  [A second station was built for the railway to Kazan.]  Near the railroad stations, trade establishments appeared….  In fact, Troitskaya was the fastest growing part of the city.  By 1897, it held 7,000 inhabitants.

All of this economic change led to the development of mechanized factories in Ryazan, including the factory where my grandfather would find work.  It also led to a flowering of banking activity in Ryazan.  Surely this impacted the lives of the Polyakov family.  I will pick up the story of the new banks in my next Mysteries of my Grandfather post.  And I’ll continue to explore the lives of all four of our Jewish cast of characters on the stage of 19th and early 20th century Ryazan.

The Introduction to this thread, Mysteries of my Grandfather, is here.

For more about the four Jewish residents of Ryazan introduced here, see the entire series of posts here.

Ryazan: Prince Oleg's 14th century palace and cathedral on a tributary to the Oka River

Ryazan: Prince Oleg's 14th century palace and cathedral on a tributary to the Oka River

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