In 1827 Czar Nicholas I implemented the military draft on the Jewish community of Russia as a means of integrating Jews into Russian society. The Jewish kahal was required to supply the young recruits, who then generally served for 25 years in the Czar’s army. The most infamous element of the draft was the cantonists. These were a select group of future draftees who were taken at a younger age to special cantonist brigades, where they underwent paramilitary training, and significant percentages of its ranks converted to the Russian Orthodox Church. The story of the cantonists in Czar Nicholas’s army has gone down in Jewish lore as one of the great tragedies of modern Jewish history. Through both fact and legend, the cantonists fate has come to define the troubled relationship between the Czarist government and the Jewish subjects of the Pale, as well as the points of tension and conflict within the Jewish community itself. Though the military reforms of Nicholas’s successor Czar Alexander II ended the cantonist draft and shortened the general military draft following the end of the Crimean War in 1856, the saga of the cantonists would haunt Jewish history for decades to come.

 

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