There were significant differences in the way Jewish cantonists
were selected, however, resulting in not only a disproportionate number of Jewish cantonists
, but a large number of under-aged Jewish cantonists
, often as young as twelve.
It is also telling that a significant minority of cantonists
actually volunteered for service, joining the army as full-time paid professionals where they received a guaranteed minimum wage and were free to earn more money as hawkers, servants and building workers in their long off-duty hours.
Beginning primarily in the Reform Era, as the 1863 Polish Uprising was already helping to shape a new imperial politics, Jewish conversion to Orthodoxy also became a public issue, in part due to the new freedom of former cantonists
to contest their forcible conversion as children.
62) Jewish contestations of coerced baptisms occurred amid a spate of religious mutinies in the Imperial Army between 1855 and 1860, launched by former Jewish cantonists who claimed they had been forcibly baptized as underage recruits.
In addition, the 1864 judicial reforms provided public, civil channels for cantonist converts from Judaism to challenge their coerced baptisms in the pre-reform army and for prosecutors to indict relapsed converts and their alleged Jewish enablers on charges of leading neophytes astray or of "seduction" (sovrashchenie), (3) In this late imperial discourse of Jewish violence, the female convert as victim was used to construct an ethnoconfessional political order that set "fanatical" minorities apart from the rational, tolerant, and civilized imperial order.
The Russian state formally exited the Jewish conversion business in the reform era, when it closed cantonist units in the army, yet it soon began to exert more indirect pressures on Jews to convert.
These affected not only Jewish cantonist conscripts, especially from 1843 to 1855, but also Baltic Lutheran peasants in the 1840s, relapsed Tatar converts in the Volga-Kama region in the 1860s, mass Catholic conversions in the mid-1860s, and Uniates--or Greek Catholics--in 1839 and 1875.
Stories of gendered Jewish violence in the popular press, especially prominent in conservative newspapers like Kievlianin, were thus influenced by reform-era developments, including not only the Polish uprising of 1863, but also the judicial reform and the abolition of cantonist units.
Jewish assimilation could refer only to attempts made to convert Jews to Orthodoxy, and the empires ruling elite could hardly have had such intentions (except, perhaps, in reference to Jewish boys who were cantonists
in the tsar's army).
However, since the kahal, the self-administration of Jewish communities (abolished officially in 1844 but de facto still functioning after), was entrusted with meeting recruitment demands, an internecine war took place in Jewish communities, which led in the reign of Nicholas I to untold horrors, including the conscription of underage boys, the so-called cantonists.
However, the chapter titles reflect the thrust of the author's argument: "The Empire Reforms, the Community Responds," "Militarizing the Jew, Judaizing the Military," "Let the Children Come to Me': Jewish Minors in the Cantonist Battalions," "The Revolutionary Draft," "Banished from Modernity.
They include military pieces on plans, intelligence-gathering, staffs, and other operational matters; on logistics, including arsenals, arms factories, requisitioning, and food supply; on such personnel issues as recruitment, officer training, cantonists
, ranks, and rewards; and on many other aspects of the campaign.