The first known Jewish community there was set up by former cantonists -- victims of a policy enforced from 1827 to 1856 that forced Jewish communities to give up 10 children older than 12 for every 1,000 Jews.
Last year, authorities in the Siberian city of Tomsk handed over to the local Jewish community a unique wooden synagogue built by former cantonists. The community, led by a Chabad rabbi, is currently preparing to open a large community center next to its main synagogue.
The vast majority identified themselves instead by referencing their officially ascribed social category or estate--that is, as peasants, soldiers, townspeople, nobles, clergy, orphans, artisans, "Honorable Citizens," "cantonists
," foreigners, merchants, and so forth.
Everyone agreed that he was indeed a Jew, but a hidden one who was perhaps descended from the Cantonists
; hence he had not taken a gentile wife and remained a bachelor.
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.
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
. Stories about khappers (recruitment kidnappers) have received detailed treatment in Litvak's and Michael Stanislawski's books.
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.
The most obvious difficulty, which Petrovsky-Shtern grapples with in a lengthy chapter, is the notorious cantonist