Info on the diary, how the website came to be and the people who worked to bring this site to life.
The reasons for the Russian Army being sent to Manchuria and the factors influencing Russian interests in the region.
An overview of early Jewish experience of conscription in the Canton system and the way it shaped perception of military service.
The history of Jewish communities in Eastern Europe with the personal and political measures they took to maintain their culture.
The Boxer Rebellion was a Chinese nationalist uprising in response to the Western powers imperialist policies within China. The focal point of the rebellion was centered on Peking (Beijing) and the foreign quarter of the city – the Legation. The Boxers and their sympathizers within the Chinese government had successfully besieged the quarter and would continue to do so for 55 days. An international coalition of great powers – United Kingdom, Unites States, Russian Empire, German Empire, Austria = Hungary, France, Italy, and Japan coordinated a relief force to rescue the foreigners trapped in Peking. Ultimately this rescue was successful but the Boxer rebellion had long-term consequences on the region. Specifically, the imperialist powers recognized that it would serve their interest to have the Chinese government – the ruling Qing dynasty – be formally supportive of their presence and policies. The cooperation of the Chinese Emperor with foreign powers during a critical period of political awakening amongst the Chinese population was a catalyst to increasing nationalist sentiment and Boxer influence can be seen in subsequent nationalist victories in China with the eventual collapse of the Qing dynasty and the establishment of the Republic of China.
Russian interest and influence in China came from geographic factors. Russia and China had demarcated their border common border by 1689 and for subsequent centuries, the Russian Empire afforded greater attention to events in the west. By 1900 this was no longer the case. The major breakthrough came with the acquisition of what is known in Russia as “Primorye” (Seaside) territory. This territory was acquired around the 1860s. Vladivostok, the major city in the Far East was founded in 1860, Blagoveshchensk – 1858. In the areas that Mordecai is serving in, Russia is a newcomer but it is an Imperial power that has all of the advantages of industrial technology vis a vis the Chinese.
The geography of Manchuria meant that it was always treated as a distinct province by imperialist powers. Manchuria consists of a central flatland with mountains and rivers defining the borders of the province. This meant that with sufficient resources, a foreign power could wrest control of the province from the Chinese government. The Russian Empire and later the Empire of Japan did just that.
The Russian state gained control over the vast majority of Siberia fairly early. The problem for Russia, however, was that the majority of this land could not be effectively utilized or even navigated without industrial technology. This is due to a very inconvenient river system that flows North/South rather than East/West. The trans-Siberian railroad is the key to all of Russia’s efforts in the region and it is the primary reason that the Russian army could transport so many soldiers into Manchuria. Although construction started in 1891, and it wouldn’t be completed until 1916, by the time of the invasion there were enough completed segments between cities as to allow the efficient transport of men and material. Mordecai is operating in a region that has experienced a huge spike in interest from the Russian government and since construction of the railway began at both ends working inland, the Far East was hosting large numbers of various personnel from soldiers and laborers to new settlers and administrators.
As mentioned in the previous installment, the Russian Jewish community lived under different conditions than other peoples of the Russian Empire. This distinction was a result of two factors: faith and geography. By the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, these two factors mattered far less than in previous generations.
In the territory of the Russian Empire (formerly the territory of the Polish – Lithuanian Commonwealth) Jews communities (Shtetls) were isolated from the broader East Slavic peasant communities and Jewish religious practices meant that their communities were organized in a cooperative manner with a governing village body known as a Qahal. The Qahal had both religious and civil authority. For the Russian Empire, the Qahal was a liaison through which the government could extract resources (taxes, conscripts) without the burden of administering the territories itself. The Qahal’s dual nature caused some strain in the communities and by 1844 the civil authority of the Qahal was abolished and the resentment against the Qahal made Hassidic teachings more appealing which led to new developments in Jewish religious thought.
The Jewish population was initially confined to the Pale of Settlement, roughly the extent of their distribution under the previous Polish – Lithuanian Commonwealth. By the late 1800s however, this territory was increasingly economically important to the Russian Empire and more and more economic migrants began pouring into the area and the high birthrate of the Slavic population meant that the Jewish communities were interacting more and more frequently with their Slavic neighbors. These interactions were either hostile (in the case of the pogroms) or cooperative (in the case of various left-wing political movements). The end of the relative autonomy of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe meant that a new direction had to be chosen for life in an industrializing world.
The three main courses of action advocated by Jews at this time were: emigration, Zionism, or Bundism.
Emigration was a pragmatic and (relatively) non-political option for Russian Jews. A high number of Jewish immigrants in the United States meant that there was a support network already in place for those seeking to move. It is estimated that about 2 million Jews left Russia between 1880 and 1920.
Zionism can be classified under emigration if not for its political goals of a Jewish state. Interestingly enough, the emigration of Jews to Palestine was supported by the Tsarist government and various private organizations were allowed to be registered for assisting Jewish emigrants settle in Palestine.
Bundism was a unique phenomenon in the Jewish community and it reflected the Russian Empire’s position as the foremost country of residence for the Jews. The goals of the General Jewish Labor Bund of Lithuania, Poland, and Russia were explicitly socialist and reflected the increasing influence that leftist thought had on the Russian population, Jews included. Bundists opposed Zionism and the Hebrew language as a weakening of Jewish culture as experienced by Russian Jews and supported Yiddish and Russian as the language of communication. Additionally, they advocated political and legal means of improving the quality of life for the Jewish population and stood for election in the Russian Duma (Parliament).
The first interaction of Russian Jews with the Imperial Russian Army began with the canton schools. Canton schools were originally established in 1721 as a means of educating the male children of active duty military personnel in both military and non-military tasks. After the Napoleonic Wars, the canton schools were reorganized into cantonist battalions that served as training battalions and the subject matter became exclusively military in nature.
The hierarchical social classes and the vast size of the Russian empire meant that the experience in cantonist schools was not uniform. For more privileged members of society such as the nobility, senior officers, or clergy, their children were required to serve less than 10 years (3, 6, and 8 years respectively). The children of less privileged members of society were required to serve a full 25 year period as was the norm for all conscripts outside the canton system.
For the Jewish community, conscription into the canton system was the first substantial interaction with the Tsarist government. The majority of the Jewish population of the Russian Empire resided in territories acquired during the second and third partitions of Poland in the 18th century. Until the decree of conscription in 1827, the Jewish population paid an exemption tax and Jews were not conscripted into the armed forces. The change in the relationship between the Tsarist government and the Jewish community was prompted by a desire to integrate the Jewish population into broader Russian society. This was manifested by requiring Jewish conscripts to be of a younger age in comparison to their Russian counterparts. Although the number of recruits (4 for each 1000 subjects) was uniform amongst all nationalities, the younger Jewish recruits were placed into canton schools which meant that there was a higher concentration of Jews in the canton system than representatives of other nationalities relative to their population sizes. The rigorous conditions and official and unofficial pressures to convert to Russian Orthodoxy meant that the Jewish recruits had one of two options: either convert and assimilate into Russian society and lose their connection to their native village and families or remain steadfast in their belief while serving for 25 years in an alien culture.
The cantonist system was abolished in 1856 and the Jewish community was no longer required to send recruits of a younger age. However, at this point conscription was already a feared policy and it soured relations between the authorities and the Jewish community. By the time Mordecai was conscripted, Jewish recruits no longer had the concentration that they had under the canton system which meant that the average Jewish soldier was in some ways more alienated from his comrades. It is interesting to note Mordecai’s predilection for chronicling the Jewish population of each settlement or city that he visited on his way to Manchuria.