Some little known pages of Russian Jewry’s history in the reign of Nicholas I

By Valery Kadzhaya (Courtesy )

So much has been written about the Jews’ life in Russia that it may look like too much already. Yet, very few know the tragic fate of the kantonists (boys registered for military service from green years). Even the pogroms, terrible and inhuman as they were, pale in comparison to their fate.

The kantonists:                                                            

Before the accession of Tsar Nicholas I to the throne in 1825, Jews were not liable to conscription. Instead they had to pay double tax. The new emperor saw the army barracks as the ideal state system and so considered that this practice irregular. To achieve uniformity, on August 28, 1827, he issued a decree “to oblige the Jews to discharge the recruiting duty in natural form.” The tsar saw this innovation as a way to provide the Jews with equal rights with Christians, or, to be more accurate, to Christianize them. The equalization, however, was unequal: the Jewish communities (kagals) were to provide every year ten men per thousand of the population, while the standard for the Orthodox Christians was seven men per thousand once in two years, that is, actually almost one-third as many men. So much for equality!

However, that aspect was not the only cause for alarm and confusion for the Jews. While Orthodox Christians were drafted at the age of 18 to 25, the Jewish communities were allowed to replace mature men with boys. Of course, children were not assigned to active duty, they were first put into kantonist schools. Such schools had been started in 1805 as an elementary education facility for soldiers’ children and orphans. Boys were trained there for military service and taught the basics of writing, reading, arithmetic and the Scriptures.

We usually think of soldiering as army service: manouveurs, parades, and wars. In fact, after several years of service, the soldiers were allowed to start families. They lived in huts in the cantonments, and could earn money as craftsmen, petty tradesmen or by cultivating their tiny plots. Their families were large, as a rule, and parents, especially widows, quite willingly let their children enrol in the government sponsored schools: after all, their fathers’ principal occupation was wars, from which some of them did not come back.

On reaching 18, the kantonists were transferred to soldiering for 25 years. Their school years were not included in the service record. Prior to the announced recruitment date, the government would set every community a quota of recruits to be provided by each of them. Heads of the kagals were responsible for drafts and obliged to carry out the plans from above; failure was punishable by conscription. From year to year, the authorities would introduce new demands. When the city of Berdichev accumulated “arrears” of 45 recruits whom the city was unable to supply, the governor demanded that it supply as punishment 135 (!) recruits. The city was surrounded by troops and for six weeks Berdichev was under siege. Soldiers and policemen conducted searches and raids. In the end, they succeeded in collecting 80 children and 11 adults.

Boys were separated from their families for life and usually sent to remote areas such as the provinces of Perm, Vyatka, Kazan, Simbirsk and other places with no Jewish population. No more than a third of the boys from Ukraine managed to reach Siberia, the others died on the way from long marches on foot in cold, in heat, under rains, with scarce food, and abuses that would be too harsh even for adults. “We were soaked through and through,” recalled a kantonist, “there was no place to dry; our underwear was steaming, but we had no more strength left to wash, nor had any soap been issued. We were so exhausted that we fell asleep under benches, on wet floors; our sleep was so deep we could not be woken up mornings.”

The Archipelago for Jewish children

Why would Nicholas I drive Jewish children into those schools? Not for a stronger Russian army, not at all: Jews were considered too weak for army service, cowardly and generally unreliable. It was just one of Nicholas’ extravagant ideas. He saw it as the simplest way to assimilation, more accurately, christianization of the Jews. To make an adult Jew change his faith seemed an absolutely impractical idea; but a child was a different matter.

“Underage Jews turned into kantonists, torn away from their native environment as they were, found it hard, of course, to hold their own under the pressure of instructors (who also got incentives for successful conversions of their charges)”, noted Solzhenitsyn. While Solzhenitsyn recognized that such manner of conversion to Christianity was far from being Christian, he nevertheless believes that “the stories of the cruelties of the kantonists’ conversion to Orthodox Christianity under threat of death… the stories going about in the public… belong to the category of invention.” Well, “going about in the public” is one of Solzhenitsyn’s many newspeak finds, no doubt. However, much closer to the truth would have been “going through purgatory.” It was precisely what the most Christian tsar condemned his Jewish subjects to, both adults and – in greater number – minors (maloletkas). The Russian description for the underage “maloletka” also belongs to newspeak but it was not contributed by Solzhenitsyn. The word was much in use by the inmates of his Archipelago.

Such Archipelago was fashioned by Nicholas I for Jewish minors long before the Soviet regime took to placing children into prison camps without ethnic or religious distinctions. A curious coincidence: just as Nicholas I’s decree allowed the drafting of Jewish boys aged 12 into kantonists, Stalin’s law of 1932 established the same age as triable.

According to publications, “going about in the public” and the “public memory,” hardly one of ten minor recruits survived to complete schooling and acquire soldier status. Numerous are the memoirs of former kantonists who were fortunate enough to survive to tell of the barbarity they were subjected to. The Book of Times and Events: to force boys into early baptism, they were flogged without end, fed salted fish and deprived of water, left naked outdoor to freeze in sub-zero temperatures, and dipped in water till they lost conscience and grew deaf. It reads as if copied from Archipelago but with one difference: the Gulags tortured adults, not children. Here is just an excerpt from the memoirs:

“We were brought to Kronstadt in one party, cramped into a room and beaten up without mercy, this was repeated on the following day, and on the third … After that, they would drive us into an overheated bath, build up steam and stand over us with rods forcing us to be baptized; after all that, nobody could hold out.”

Apparently, it was a widely employed method; steam torture was later also used by the NKVD. Here is one more testimony:

“Thick steam puffs escaped from the oven, blinding everyone in the room. Sweat ran down me in streams, my body was on fire, I was literally choking and so I jumped down. But such a move had been expected. Privates with bunches of birch branches stood in a line at the last bench and watched us closely. Should one attempt to escape or just roll down from the upper bench they would flog him till he, covered with blood, would rush howling to the upper level to escape from those terrible razor sharp branches that cut into our sweating bodies… Steam, cries, moans, whipping, flowing blood, naked children rolling down headlong to be mercilessly whipped. It was an inferno. And hoarse shouts: ‘more, more, burn them, burn them more! You’ll agree now, you sons of bitches?’”

A simpler example:

“The corporal grabs the boy’s head, dips it rapidly ten or fifteen times in water. The boy chokes, rushes about trying to get free under shouts: “Be baptized, or I won’t let you go!”

People called the kantonist schools “flaying houses” long before Jewish boys appeared there. Cruelty, rudeness, severe punishment and the impunity of “masters” for inflicting suffering on the boys. But with the arrival of Jewish boys, all limitations were lifted.

“There was nobody to complain to. The battalion commander was the tsar and God. For him, all training for soldiers consisted in beating. “Masters” did their best. You woke up with beating, lunched with beating, and went to bed with beating. Sometimes as many as 50 kantonists died monthly as a consequence of this kind of life… If several children died at once, invalided out soldiers would dig a single large pit and throw as many as five bodies into it. Since the small bodies would not land in an orderly manner, a soldier would jump into the pit to trample them down so that more bodies would fit in.”

You will agree that it was more terrible than the gas chambers of Auschwitz…

The testimony of Leskov

Older boys, aged 14-15, as a rule, would resist changing their faith. But a considerable proportion of the Jewish kantonists were children below 12!

“The most glaring injustice in the delivery of the children was the fact that they, with very few exceptions, had no birth certificates from the rabbis,” wrote author Nikolai Leskov. “So the age of the boy, I’d say, would be decided by his appearance, which could be deceiving, or by ‘jury determinations’ that were always even more deceiving.” Leskov knew what he wrote about. In the early 1850s, as a very young boy, he worked in Kiev in the capacity of assistant to the chief of the recruiting section for the auditor, and personally witnessed how it was done.

In addition to the fact that the tsar’s decree was inhuman and unjustified, its unfairness turned it immediately into the breeding ground for all kinds of lawlessness. Various swindlers and rascals sprang up, bribery that was prospering before now reached unbelievable heights. However, Solzhenitsyn places all the blame for the situation on the Jews themselves: the selection was made not by the authorities but by the kagals. But since Solzhenitsyn took it on himself to write about the Jews’ life, he should have been aware that the kagal elders were totally under the control of the local police chief, who was the supreme authority in his district. Solzhenitsyn does not mention the fact that the recruits a Jewish community was to supply were to be accepted by the local recruiting office. It is that office that found kids of 12 and even of 8 fit for military service!

But look at Solzhenitsyn’s shrewd ability to turn things upside down when he comments on the godless practice. Under the decree of 1827, “the Jewish communities were allowed to provide in place of an adult one minor” of 12 (that is, under the Jewish marriageable age)… But that permission did not at all mean a compulsory draft and so it was not specifically “the introduction of an obligatory conscription of Jewish boys” as the Encyclopaedia erroneously writes and as has become traditional in the literature about Jews and later in the public memory. The kagals found such replacement convenient and resorted to it widely by supplying “orphans, sons of widows (against the law in cases of an only son) and of the poor,” often “in favour of the rich families.”

Thus, the kindest and most Christian tsar did not order the call up of 12-year old Jewish boys, he only permitted it, and the kagal elders used that permission most basely. But how could it happen that the humanist author of The GULAG Archipelago and of the piercing description of underage prisoners of the Gulags failed to understand that the very decree of the tsar was base?

Very few could withstand the pressures some examples of which we cited above, especially if the kantonists got commanders who fancied themselves as “Jew exterminators” and excelled in the most improbable tortures. These were not reported to the emperor, instead he got reports (he demanded them monthly) on the numbers of the converted to Orthodox Christianity. Such reports bear his august comments: “Very few,” “Highly unsuccessful,” “We are not satisfied with the slow progress of the conversion to Orthodox Christianity.” But zealous commanders were praised, decorated and promoted. Against that generally inhuman background, Nicholas’ homily regarding the conversion of Jews to Christianity “with all care, gentleness and without the least oppression” was hypocrisy.

On conversion to Christianity, Jewish kantonists were to receive benefits: they were no longer beaten, nor forced to wash barracks floors out of turn on bare knees. And were given a 30-rouble premium each; this disgusted Nikolai Leskov, who pointed out the analogy with the thirty pieces of silver Judas got for betraying Christ.

Emperor Nicholas I’s decree was the harshest blow to the Jewry because it concerned children, its most sensitive part. Nikolai Leskov dealt with this tragedy in one of his best short stories The Master’s Judgement based on real facts.

Nikolai Leskov, a Russian Christian writer, saw the Jewish people’s tragedy as awful in its inhumanity. Solzhenitsyn, also a writer, claims to be a Christian. Read closely what he writes and compare it with Leskov. “According to the General Headquarters archives, the largest induction of Jewish kantonists was between 1847 and 1854, when they constituted 2.4 percent of all kantonists in Russia, that is, their proportion was not above the percentage of Jews in the population of the nation, even according to census data reduced by the kagals.”

Accounts of sufferings

The share of suffering and heartache is usually bypassed in bookkeeping simply because no heading for them exists. The General Headquarters recorded the numbers of the conscripts but not their fate. It was not its concern. It is a different kind of statistics. But since Solzhenitsyn undertook this labour, he should have investigated other statistics: how many of that 2.4 percent survived till the age of 18? It is recorded in literature (which Solzhenitsyn persists in ignoring, as he ignores the “public memory”) that Jewish kantonists did not last more than two or three years, instead of regulation six. What was their percent? How many of them died during months of foot march? Here is how A. Hertzen described a party of minors from that 2.4 percent. He encountered them at a roadside inn in 1835. The writer’s attention was captured by a pitiful group of huddling children.

“An aged officer of small stature with a face reflecting his past concerns, petty needs and fear of his superiors, welcomed me with all the hospitality of deadening boredom,” we read in Hertzen’s notes. “He was one of those dull-witted and good-natured soldiers who had toiled for some twenty-five years without thinking, without promotions in the same way that old horses serve believing, probably, that things were as they should be: to put on a collar at sunrise and pull something.”

“Whom do you lead, and where?”

“O, don’t you ask it, sometimes it breaks my heart: but, indeed, the superiors know it all, our job is to fulfill their orders, we are not responsible. But in human terms it’s ugly.”

“But what’s the trouble?”

“You see, they put together a mob of damned little Yids, eight and nine years old. To serve in the Navy, maybe, I just don’t know. First they were to be brought to Perm, but a change was ordered, now we drive them to Kazan. I’ve taken over the command some hundred miles from here. The officer that handed them over said: It’s trouble, a third of them were left on the road (the officer’s finger pointed down). A half will not reach the destination.”

“An epidemic, or what?” I asked shocked to the innards.
“No, not that it’s an epidemic, they just die like flies. A little Jew boy, you see, is so much a weakling, so frail like a ragged cat, not used to wading through mud for ten hours on a diet of dried bread… Again, they’re alien, no father, no mother, no pampering; he’ll cough and cough and land in Mogilev (the name of a city sounding like a derivative of the Russian word for ‘grave’ – Ed.). You just tell me, please, what can be done with them, the kids?”

I was silent.

“When do you set off?”

“We should have been off long ago. The rain was too heavy. Hey, soldier, pass orders to get the small fry ready.”

The small kids were brought and ordered to fall in. It was one of the most terrible scenes I have ever witnessed: poor, poor children! Boys of 12 and 13 managed to stand on their feet but the tiny ones of eight, ten… No black brush can paint so much horror on canvas!

“Pale, exhausted, frightened looking, they stood in ungainly soldier’s greatcoats with stand-up collars, casting strangely helpless, pitiful looks at the garrison soldiers roughly pushing them into ranks; white lips, blue shades under eyes indicating either fever or chill. Those sick kids without care or tenderness under Arctic winds were on a straight road to their graves.

“With all that, note the fact that they were led by a kindly officer, who evidently pitied the children. But what would it have been had they had a military political economist?

“I took the officer’s hand, and said: ‘Look after them!’ and rushed to the carriage. I felt like bursting in tears, I felt I would not be able to restrain myself…”

What other monstrous and unknown crimes are still hidden in the archives of the evil and amoral reign of Nicholas? We have grown used to them, they were ordinary, everyday affairs and so passed unnoticed, lost in the remote past, in departmental discords or withheld by police censorship.