On this day in 1856, Russian Czar Alexander II declared the end of the cantonist system, which mandated military conscription of Jews and several other minority groups from the margins of society. Under the policy, which had been in effect vis-à-vis the empire’s Jews since 1827, a quota of young men were taken from their families at age 12 and educated for the next six years in military boarding schools, after which they began a 25-year term of service in the imperial army. Following their release, they were permitted to own land and live wherever they wanted (as opposed to being restricted to the Pale of Settlement). In fact, most never returned home so the policy clearly contributed to Jewish assimilation. About one-third are thought to have converted.
The elected bodies within individual Jewish communities, the kahals, were responsible for supplying a quota of boys in each draft. They often applied the policy undemocratically, if not with brute force. Sometimes conscripts were taken who were underage, or from families of a lower socio-economic class, or whose parents simply couldn’t afford to pay their way to freedom. After the Russian army’s defeat to the European-Ottoman alliance in the Crimean War, Russian society began to undergo a process of modernization, which included the abolition of serfdom and the reform of the armed forces. It was in this context that the cantonist policy was abolished. Those Jewish cantonists conscripts who had not been converted to Russian Orthodoxy and were under the age of 20 were permitted to return to their families. It is estimated that some 40,000 Jewish boys served as cantonists during the 29 years that the policy was in place.
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