Under the Tsars, Jews – who numbered approximately 5 million in the Russian Empire in the 1880s, and mostly lived in poverty – had been confined to a Pale of Settlement, where they experienced prejudice and persecution, often in the form of discriminatory laws, and had often been the victims of pogroms, many of which were organized by the Tsarist authorities or with their tacit approval. As a result of being the victims of oppression, many Jews either emigrated from the Russian Empire or joined radical parties, such as the Jewish Bund, the Bolsheviks, the Socialist Revolutionary Party, and the Mensheviks. There were also numerous antisemitic publications of the era which gained widespread circulation.
The Provisional Government cancelled all restrictions imposed on the Jews by the Tsarist regime, in a move parallel to the Jewish emancipation in Western Europe that had taken place during the 19th century.
The October Revolution officially abolished the Pale of Settlement and other laws which regarded the Jews as an outlawed people. At the same time, the Bolsheviks were strongly opposed to Judaism and conducted an extensive campaign to suppress the religious traditions among the Jewish population, alongside traditional Jewish culture. In 1918, the Yevsektsiya was established to promote Marxism, secularism and Jewish assimilation into Soviet society, and supposedly bringing Communism to the Jewish masses.
In August 1919 Jewish properties, including synagogues, were seized and many Jewish communities were dissolved. The anti-religious laws against all expressions of religion and religious education were being taken out on all religious groups, including the Jewish communities. Many Rabbis and other religious officials were forced to resign from their posts under the threat of violent persecution. This type of persecution continued on into the 1920s.
The official statements by Lenin about antisemitism were contradictory. In March 1919, he delivered a speech "On Anti-Jewish Pogroms" where he denounced antisemitism as an "attempt to divert the hatred of the workers and peasants from the exploiters toward the Jews." The speech was in line with the previous condemnation of the antisemitic pogroms perpetrated by the White Army during the Russian Civil War. At the same time, Lenin wrote in his project of a directive for the Communist Party "The policies on the Ukraine" in autumn of 1919: