Russian Jewish Life in the Army

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.