On August 26, 1827, Czar Nicholas I set into motion the terrible ordeal of the cantonists. Cantonist schools, which had originally served as pre-military boarding schools for military sons, were transformed into conscription centers.
While the cantonist laws affected all Russian citizens, and was harder on minorities such as Polish Catholics, Romani and Muslims, the decree was particularly harsh on the Jews. Whereas conscription for non-Jews began at age 18 (and lasted until 35), Jewish conscription was set for the ages of 12-25. However, often times, boys as young as 8 were sent to serve. They remained in the cantonist schools until 18, at which time they began their 25 years of army service.
At first the conscription order was for 2 out of every 1000, the same as among other populations. However, the required quotas changed and a disproportionate number of Jews served as cantonists.
The responsibility for recruitment was placed on the Jewish community leaders. With restrictions limiting the recruitment of adults, the recruits were often children from the poorest families. Many boys eligible for conscription fled the country, while others disfigured themselves to become ineligible.
Beginning in 1844, the Russian government decided to increase the missionizing pressure already in place on the Jews (and, to some extent, other minorities) in the military. Many boys lost all knowledge of their heritage. However, it is significant to note that only about 1/3 of the youth succumbed to baptism (and not a few of them tried to return to Judaism later in life). Only about 2% of the adult conscripts converted.
After Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War (a period of time during which the conscription efforts were significantly increased), Czar Alexander II realized that he needed to modernize the army. One means of doing this was to abolish the Cantonist Decree and to order the return of all unconverted cantonists under the age of 20 to their families. (Unfortunately, youth who had accepted baptism had to stay with their government assigned “godparents”).
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