In 1827, Czar Nicholas I of Russia published a harsh “Recruitment Decree” which required the 25-year conscription of Jewish boys between the ages of 12 and 25. These children were taken away from their families and became known as cantonists, and for the next 29 years, until Czar Alexander II abolished the law in 1856, up to 50,000 Jewish children were forcibly drafted into the Russian Army.
The law was even more draconian: the 25-year service period began only when a child reached 18. Thus, if a Jewish boy was taken into the army at a younger age, his service was extended. Until the age of 18, Jewish “draftees” lived in preparatory institutes that combined pre-military training with rudimentary education.
The formal goal of the cantonist program was to bring Jews, who were perceived as a “foreign” element, into the army so that they would become loyal Russian subjects while learning the Russian language along with useful skills and crafts. This aim can be seen in the difference in draft ages for Jews and non-Jews, the latter of whom were drafted only beginning at age 18. According to the YIVO Encyclopedia, by starting at a much younger age, the czar clearly wanted to draft Jews when they were “still susceptible to external influence.”
While the stated view of Nicholas I was that the army was the only “genuinely educational institution” where true social integration could be imposed, the reality for Jewish soldiers was quite different: the Russian authorities hoped to use the army to alienate cantonist child-recruits from both their people and their religion. They were accordingly transferred from their homes in the Russian Pale of Settlement, where Jews were allowed to live, to cantonist institutions in Kazan, Orenburg, Perm and Siberia, a journey of many weeks.
Once there, Russian sergeants and soldiers were instructed to “influence” the children to abandon Judaism. Historian Simon Dubnov writes that, “the barrack was to serve as a school, or rather as a factory, for producing a new generation of de-Judaized Jews, who were completely Russified.”
Children who had brought with them tzitzit (ritual fringes) and Tefillin (phylacteries) had those items forcibly removed. Speaking Yiddish was banned, as was Hebrew prayer. Kosher food, of course, was unavailable. Children who disobeyed were deprived of sleep, threatened with starvation or beaten. Indeed, physical torture was reportedly routine. Some cantonist children were sent to Russian farms in remote villages where they were forced into exhausting labor.
Many of the children gave in and were compelled to convert. (Russian statistics say that one third of them did so.) Their names were changed, but their army commanders didn’t always accept their “conversions” and continued to mistreat them. Occasionally, a Jewish cantonist, upon reaching the age of 18, would state that he wished to revert to Judaism. Punishment, including long-term detainment, would follow until the cantonist signed a retraction. Some brave cantonists returned to Judaism after their eventual release from the army, but if they were discovered, they would be in danger of losing their retirement benefits.
In general, Jewish cantonists, especially those who served beyond the area of the Pale of Settlement, were neither fully observant Jews nor fully assimilated into the Russian Orthodox milieu. That said, Jews were occasionally allocated room for prayer groups and to conduct services on the Sabbath and festivals. The military even promised the Jewish leadership that it would provide a rabbi to regiments with more than 300 soldiers, although the army never fulfilled this obligation.
Perhaps the most horrific element of the cantonist years were the khapers – mostly Jewish gangs who were sent to kidnap young Jewish boys from their families to join the army. Parents lived in a state of ongoing terror, never knowing if their children would arrive home from school at the end of the day. The khapers were actually dispatched by Jewish leaders to address an intractable moral dilemma: how could the Jewish community fill its draft quota (which reached a height of 30 per thousand men during the Crimean War years of 1854-55)? Failure to meet the quota would put the entire community at risk (and would in any case increase the quota still further).
Should young married men, already supporting a wife and children, be drafted? The agonizing solution was instead to conscript the very young since they didn’t yet have dependents. Since no family would willingly volunteer its own child, the khapers were paid a fee for each child abducted. While the age of 12 was supposed to be the cut off point, the khapers weren’t scrupulous, leading to children as young as seven and eight years old being grabbed against their will. Special attention was paid to beggars, outcasts and orphans.
Some Jewish children were off limits – but just those who were already more assimilated into Russian society. Jewish youth who attended Russian state schools, or the children of Jewish agricultural colonists, for example, were exempted from military obligation. The cantonist legislation also did not apply to Poland and Bessarabia (at least until 1843 for Poland and 1852 for Bessarabia), which prompted Jewish migration from Ukraine, Belorussia and Lithuania to these areas.
In 1856, Czar Alexander II issued a manifesto forbidding the taking of underage Jewish children, and it was soon ordered that boys in cantonist battalions be released. But Jewish children who had been forcibly converted could not return to their previous status as Jews. So in practicality, the Jewish cantonists remained in the army.
To comprehend the scale of the cantonist program, consider that in 1843, 6,753 Jewish children were reported to be in 22 cantonist institutions. In 1854, at the height of the cantonist campaign during the Crimean War, 7,515 Jewish minors were conscripted.
Soldiers who served outside the Pale of Settlement area were allowed to remain there permanently upon their transfer into the army reserves and to establish Jewish communities of their own. That’s how Jews arrived in Finland, where they had been stationed during their service in the Russian Army.
In 1809, Finland had became part of the Russian Empire, but laws from its previous ruler, Sweden, remained in place; these laws forbade Jews from settling in Finnish territory. However, the former Jewish cantonists were exempt from this rule – a right that was, ironically, forcefully defended by the Russian military authorities. Finland declared its independence in 1917, after which Jews in the country were granted full rights as Finnish citizens.
In 1855, hundreds of Jewish cantonists who had been converted under duress publicly sought to reembrace Judaism: they reclaimed their Jewish names and identity, and organized collective protests. It scandalized the Russian military. However, since deviation from Russian Orthodoxy was considered a major crime at that time, the war ministry commission set up to investigate the protests did not allow the Jewish cantonists to return to Judaism.
True relief and the abolishment of the cantonist system would not be found until Alexander II’s 1874 statute, which established a much shorter six-year military service and was extended to all groups equally, with a relatively transparent system of exemptions.
But the good tidings would not last long. Russian War Minister Petr Vannovskii introduced a series of discriminatory regulations towards Jews in the military between 1881-1897. Jews were prohibited from various army jobs (such as engineers, doctors, fortress garrisons) and found themselves segregated from their non-Jewish comrades. Beginning in 1906, far right ideologues argued that Jews were “traitors, cowards and useless soldiers who corrupted Russia.” Nevertheless, 300,000 Jews served in the Russian Army during World War I.
In 1917, all anti-Jewish regulations in the military were canceled, allowing Jews upper mobility and opening the doors of officer schools to them. The long and brutal legacy of the cantonist period was finally over.