Benjamin Freiman (right) from Marijampol (now in Lithuania), and another Jewish soldier in the tsarist army, Kronstadt, Russia, ca. 1890s. Photograph by U. Ia. Iakovlev. (YIVO)

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Military Service in Russia

When on 26 August 1827 Nicholas I (r. 1825–1855) issued his Ustav rekrutskoi povinnosti (Statute on Conscription Duty) making Jews in Russia liable to personal army service and canceling their prior privilege of providing money ransom instead of conscripts, he followed a policy consistent with European enlightened monarchies, which sought to transform “their” Jews from a medieval corporate entity into useful subjects integrated into the society with which Jews shared rights and obligations. Such was the pattern found in Austria under the reign of Joseph II (r. 1780–1790), who subjected Jews to the state bureaucracy; imposed upon them an obligatory German-based education; significantly expanded their residential, trade, and economic rights; and drafted them into the army.

Sheskin, a Jewish sailor who worked on the Grand Duchess Olga, a ship in the Amu-Dar’ya Flotilla, St. Petersburg, 1900. Photograph by G. Farber. (YIVO)

Nicholas I, advised by his minister of finance Egor Kankrin, never believed in the utilitarian effect of any kind of reform but bureaucratic and never trusted any form of education but military. Moreover, in Russia beginning with Peter the Great, modernization routinely implied militarization. Since in Nicholas’s eyes the army was the only genuinely educational institution, he held that Jews should be made soldiers: in the military they would learn not only Russian but also useful skills and crafts, and eventually they would become his loyal subjects. Unlike Joseph, who modernized Jews through civil integration and acculturation, Nicholas attempted to modernize them primarily through conscription.

After Nicholas’s death, the ambiguity of this modernization à la Russe became the focus of Russian Jewish political and literary debate. Social integration through the military turned out to be a mixed blessing. Following the principles of utilitarianism, homogeneity, and standardization, the Russian military bureaucracy designed a complex corpus of laws regulating Jewish conscription and service. According to these rules, Jews were to provide as many conscripts as required from the soslovie (Russian tax-paying estate) to which they belonged—usually four conscripts from each thousand subjects. Jews who were certified artisans, guild merchants, and clerics enjoyed the same exemption from conscription granted to members of the corresponding pravoslavnye (Russian Orthodox) estates.

All recruits, including Jews, had to serve 25 years in the army, and, if they married, their offspring, as children of Russian soldiers, became the patrimony of the military and were destined to attend schools for soldiers’ children entitled kantonistskie uchebnye zavedenia (cantonists’ institutions). Jews were legally entitled to religious freedom, including the right to celebrate most of the important religious holidays, if their observances did not interfere with their training schedules.

Jewish soldiers from Ostrołęka, at a Sabbath meal, Łomża (now in Poland), 1905. The Hebrew inscription reads: “Soldiers eating kosher food.” Marked with an x: J. Stolin, who later immigrated to America. (YIVO)

Yet some differences between Jews and non-Jews applied: most significantly, Jews were required to provide conscripts between the ages of 12 and 25, whereas for others the conscripts were between 18 and 35. This system betrayed the utilitarian agenda of the law; to make Jews productive, the military had to draft those still susceptible to external influence. In addition to enduring legal complexities, Jews encountered a significant and ubiquitous discrepancy between the letter of the law and its implementation, characteristic of the Russian state administration.

Unlike enlightened Jews in the Polish Congress Kingdom who argued for Jewish personal army service to prove their patriotism and eventually to bring them full emancipation, Jewish communal elders throughout the Pale of Settlement had well-grounded doubts about the good will of the Russian authorities. Before the publication of the statute, Jews realized that conscription jeopardized the traditional status of their community. Accordingly, Jews flocked to such tsadikim as Avraham Yehoshu‘a Heshel (d. 1825), seeking intercession with the Almighty. Supported by Hasidic tsadikim and wealthy Jews, they raised funds to bribe state officials, vainly struggling to prevent the law on Jewish conscription from being implemented.

Ironically, after 1827, communal leaders found themselves authorized to compose the draft lists (Rus., rekrutskie skazki) and select conscripts (rekruty). Seeking to protect the economic, social, and moral integrity of Jewish society, communal elders first interceded with the military authorities and the tsar to make sure that the privilege for Jewish soldiers to practice Judaism was enforced, especially for minors. Second, they did their best to include “non-useful Jews” in the draft lists so that the heads of tax-paying middle-class families were predominantly exempt from conscription, whereas single Jews, as well as heretics (maskilic-minded individuals), beggars, outcasts, and orphaned children were drafted. Third, they used their power to suppress protests and intimidate potential informers who sought to expose the arbitrariness of the kahal to the Russian government.

Members of the Baicher family, Moscow, 1890s. Aron Baicher (seated, left), a dealer in wood and construction materials, served in the army for 25 years and then received a permit to settle in Moscow. He reportedly fathered 17 children in a first marriage and 26 children in his second marriage. (Centropa)

In some cases, communal elders had the most threatening informers murdered (the Ushitsa case, 1836). By the late 1840s and early 1850s, with the quota doubled for Russians and quadrupled for Jews, and especially during the Crimean War of 1854–1855, Jewish communal leaders had long exhausted their pool of nonuseful subjects. In order to fill the ever-growing quota, kahal elders resorted to the help of khapers (Yid., catchers)—Jews who caught their brethren of any age and of any status and handed them to conscription centers. In Jewish memory, the three-year period of khapers (1852–1855) came to be coterminous with the entire conscription system of Nicholas I.

The first 1827 draft involved some 1,800 Jewish conscripts, half of whom, upon the decision of the kahal, were children (the draft of children was legally stopped in 1856 but in fact lasted through 1859). With the exception of the Crimean War period, the figure of 2,000–3,000 Jewish conscripts per draft remained unchanged for the pre-reform Russian army. To facilitate the effectiveness of the draft system, military authorities suggested dividing Russia into northern, southern, eastern, and western “conscription zones” and the levy was announced annually for only one of them. There were years when the Pale of Jewish settlement remained outside conscription. Thus before the de facto cancelation of the conscription zones during the Crimean War, notorious for its several all-empire annual drafts, Jews sent to the army some 1,500 conscripts per year, a figure that grew five–six times toward the end of the nineteenth century.

In 1843, after the extension of the conscription system to the Kingdom of Poland, some 1,500–2,000 adult Polish Jews per draft joined other Jewish soldiers from the Pale of Settlement. Jews who were 18 years of age and older were distributed to navy and army regiments, while children were sent to some 25 cantonist battalions (schools), both within and beyond the Pale of Settlement. Those Jewish cantonists who reached the age of 18 were then transferred into the army.

Among adult Jews, most lower ranks were found fit for combat service. As part of the training curriculum, both Jews and Russian soldiers learned productive skills, yet there were more Jews among them who mastered trades than non-Jews. According to military statistics, Jews demonstrated considerably higher discipline and a lower crime rate. For routinely underfed and underequipped soldiers—Jews and non-Jews alike—theft of food and illegal trade in munitions were among the most characteristic crimes. However, unlike Russian lower ranks, Jewish soldiers never rebelled against their commanders, and even in the wake of the 1905 Revolution they did not move into the fulcrum of the military mutinies.

Jewish soldiers were the first among Jews of Eastern Europe to develop a Russian Jewish dual identity. Separated from their families and communities, Jewish lower ranks, especially those who served beyond the Pale, were neither fully observant Jews nor fully assimilated into the Russian Orthodox, predominantly peasant-origin milieu. Most Jewish soldiers kept together, helping one another preserve traces of communal identity. This partially explains the low level of baptisms among them (a maximum of 2% in any given year between 1827 and 1874).

Mosheh Bilson and his wife Ḥanah Tislevitsh, granddaughter of the state rabbi of Kharkov, Zhdanov (now Mariupol, Ukr.), 1914. As a teenager, Bilson worked at a coal mine. After army service, he graduated from the Hygiene Technical School and worked in construction. (YIVO)

Though the military failed to abide by its obligation to dispatch chaplains (rabbis) to regiments with more than 300 Jewish soldiers, local regimental authorities routinely allotted Jews room for prayer groups, to conduct services on the Sabbath and the festivals, and even to raise money for the purchase of Torah scrolls of their own. Jews who served in regiments billeted in the Pale were individually and collectively allowed to stay in touch with nearby Jewish communities. Those who spent army service beyond the Pale were allowed to settle there permanently upon their transfer into the reserve and to establish Jewish communities of their own.

Interested in discipline and control, the pragmatic-minded war ministry authorized the establishment of Jewish soldiers’ prayer houses and synagogues. As a result, long before the dismantling of the Pale in 1917, permanent and not insignificant Jewish communities emerged around the congregations of reserve Jewish soldiers in Arkhangel’sk, Irkutsk, Nikolaev, Nizhnii Novgorod, Omsk, Perm’, Petrozavodsk, Semipalatinsk, Simbirsk, Tiumen, Tobol’sk, Tomsk, Tula, Tver’, Ufa, Vladivostok, and other towns in both European and Asian parts of the Russian Empire far beyond the Pale of Settlement.

The fate of some 40,000 Jewish children-soldiers who served in the army was different from that of older Jewish soldiers, but was similar to that of Catholic children of Polish origin who had been taken to cantonist battalions. Only one-fifth of the battalions were situated within, or very close to, the Pale of Settlement. Others were as far away as Kazan, Saratov, or Tomsk. Like representatives of all creeds, Jewish children were drafted between the ages of 8 and 13, yet Jews, like Catholics—but unlike Russian Orthodox, who constituted an overwhelming majority in the battalions—were not allowed to stay with their parents while studying in the cantonist schools.

For all cantonists, the 25-year term of service began after the soldiers reached age 18 and were distributed into the army. The distribution patterns of the 18-year-old cantonists demonstrated that Jews were not discriminated against: they showed similar average literacy, physical ability, and training results and were sent in the same army and navy units as Christian graduating cantonists. A comparison between baptized and nonbaptized Jewish cantonists indicates relatively insignificant advantages that the former enjoyed over the latter.

Military authorities rejected the pleas of children’s relatives and denied Jewish cantonists the privilege of separate kosher cuisine and, in many cases, of practicing Judaism. Like Lutherans, Catholics, Muslims, and pagans, Jewish cantonists were not infrequently forced into the Russian Orthodox creed, a process that before the early 1840s had been in most cases a local initiative rather than a state policy. However, in 1842, Nicholas I, who had been monitoring the rate of Christianization in the army very closely, made a decision to authorize this process, encouraging the initiative of military commanders, sending additional parish priests to the battalions for propaganda, endorsing maximum leniency with regard to prerequisites and formalities for baptism, and allocating monetary rewards for the newly baptized.

Despite the extraordinary missionary efforts and arbitrariness of some battalion commanders aimed at baptizing Jewish cantonists, the most optimistic reports showed significant resistance to Christianization. If the integrated reports that tended to please the tsar are to be believed, between 1827 and 1840, one-third of some 15,050 Jewish cantonists converted, whereas two-thirds (9,722) remained Jewish. Other year-by-year reports showed much lower success of the missionary campaign in the military. With the ascent of Alexander II (r. 1855–1881) and the de jure transformation of the institutions of cantonists into military schools, hundreds of Jewish cantonists who had been baptized under duress (e.g., in the Arkhangel’sk and Kiev battalions), publicly rejected their baptism, reclaimed their Jewish names and identity, and organized collective protests that scandalized the Russian military.

War ministry commissions investigating these protests in 1856–1859 proved the arbitrariness of the military missionary program. However, bound by Russian legislation that considered deviation from Russian Orthodoxy a major crime, the committees suppressed the resistance of the Jewish teenaged soldiers and did not allow them to return to Judaism. Alexander II’s reforms and the 1874 statute on universal military duty (Zakon o vsesoslovnoi voinskoi povinnosti) radically modified Nicholas’s conscription, establishing a six-year term of service, extending military duty to all estates, and introducing a relatively transparent system of exemptions. Despite War Minister Dmitrii Miliutin’s much-proclaimed intention to establish uniform parameters of military service for all ethnic, social, and religious groups, the committee in charge of the preparation of the new statute (made up of such acclaimed shtadlonim [intercessors] as Horace Gintsburg) approved a number of special amendments applicable to Jews that subverted the equality of Jews vis-à-vis military duty.

The Ministry of Interior argued against Jewish equality and triggered, especially during the term of war minister Petr Vannovskii (1881–1897), the introduction of discriminatory regulations regarding Jewish military service. The military required a disproportionately large number of Jewish recruits and introduced the collective responsibility of Jews for draft arrears. It dramatically limited the number of Jewish doctors in the army, blaming them for low sanitary control and high mortality rates. It prohibited the employment of Jews as rank-and-file in fortress garrisons and engineer troops, as doctors, pharmacists, and medical assistants in the western military districts, and as regimental scribes and artisans. It also rescinded permission for Jews to settle permanently in places of their military service outside the Pale that reserve Jewish soldiers who served their full term enjoyed before 1874. The same privilege to settle outside the Pale for those Jews who participated in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905) was not extended to the capitals, and elsewhere was implemented unevenly.

In 1891, some 20,000 Jews—mostly reserve soldiers and their families—were banished from Moscow. Simultaneously, the war ministry began disciplining and removing Russian military commanders who were either eager to alleviate the burden of service for Jewish soldiers or were ready to establish pragmatic, unbiased relations with them. By the 1890s—attacked for being less than Russian patriots, cunning draft dodgers, and useless soldiers unfit for combat—Jews in the army found themselves segregated.

In the post-reform era, the maskilic press in Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish praised the new military legislation and called upon Jews to defend their country. Both kazennye (crown-appointed) and dukhovnye (spiritual) rabbinic leaders established close relations with Jewish soldiers, celebrated Jews fulfilling their patriotic duty, and enhanced the soldiers’ Jewish–Russian self-awareness. Maḥaneh Yisra’el (1881), a halakhic digest for Jewish soldiers written by Yisra’el Me’ir ha-Kohen (1838–1933), acknowledged Jewish military duty as a new political reality and instructed Jewish soldiers on combining their military discipline with Judaic observance without damaging either.

In the wake of World War I, Orthodox rabbis from the Vilna and Warsaw provinces argued that “Jewish soldiers have never been traitors to their [Russian] motherland; they proved it with their loyalty and self-abnegation [on the front].” Jewish soldiers shared these sensibilities: they demonstrated examples of patriotic enthusiasm and heroism at the battlefronts of the Crimean, Russo-Turkish, and Russo-Japanese wars. Their deeds were epitomized, for example, in the monument by architect François Vernet to 500 Jewish soldiers who had perished in 1855 during the defense of Sebastopol (Sebastopol Jewish military cemetery; 1864); in the names of four Jewish soldiers, heroes of the Plevna battle, engraved on the walls of Plevna Chapel in Moscow (1887, architect Vladimir Osipovich Shervud); and in the figure of Yosef Trumpeldor (1880–1920), to whom Nicholas II personally awarded the order of St. George, the highest Russian soldiers’ military distinction, for his excellent performance on the Russo-Japanese front.

Between 1874 and 1914, there were more Jews in the Russian army than non-Jews in proportion to the general population. For example, in 1907, Jewish soldiers constituted almost 5 percent of the entire military but only 4 percent of the population of the empire. These figures make obsolete any vociferous right-wing criticism of the “Jewish draft dodging” that after 1882 and especially after 1905 was considered a collective crime of Jews in Russian political discourse.

Allowed according to the 1874 regulations to serve in regiments stationed near their permanent places of residence, Jews were remarkably visible in western military districts. For example, in 1908, there were some 4,000 Jews in Kiev, 6,500 in Warsaw, and 5,500 in the Vilna military districts. Some regiments in Kharkov province contained between 15 and 20 percent Jewish soldiers. Most Jews in the armed forces, about 90 percent, served in combat positions: 75 percent in infantry regiments, between 7–20 percent in artillery, and 2–4 percent in cavalry. Due to anti-Jewish regulations, in the 1900s the number of Jews in artillery dramatically dropped to 4–6 percent.

Like other soldiers of inorodtsy (alien beliefs)—Polish Catholics, Finns, and Lithuanians—Jews were harshly punished for minor deviations from military discipline: late arrival after a leave of absence was treated as desertion, arguing with an immediate commander as disobedience, carelessness in handling armament as self-mutilation. The economic crisis and pauperization of hundreds of thousands of Jewish households caused by late imperial Russia’s industrialization prevented Jewish communities from financially supporting their drafted brethren. Despite communal and family financial help, Jewish soldiers—as well as Russian lower ranks in general—figured among the poorest estates of the Russian population.

After 1905, the position of the Jewish soldiers in the army became precarious. Between 1906 and 1914, far-right ideologues argued in the Duma that all Jews were traitors, cowards, and useless soldiers who corrupted Russia through socialist propaganda. Hence, it was claimed, the army would benefit from banishing Jews from its ranks. A questionnaire, distributed by the War Ministry in 1911–1912, manifested a significant degree of anti-Jewish sensibility among the highest echelons of army commanders, who subscribed to far-right arguments. Books such as M. Usov’s (Moisei Trivus) Evrei v armii (Jews in the Army; 1911), the anonymous Voina i evrei (War and Jews; 1912), and Saul Ginsburg’s Velikaia otechestvennaia voina 1812 goda i russkie evrei (The Patriotic War of 1812 and Russian Jews; 1912) that testified to Jewish patriotism, good service, and excellent combat performance, as well as the ardent apologetics articulated by liberal-minded Duma members, could hardly check the wave of anti-Jewish slander in Russian society. However, the war ministry showed a certain level of pragmatism and did not yield to the arguments of far-right politicians. The 1912 Statute of the War Ministry confirmed Jewish eligibility for military duty, although it also approved and legalized all anti-Jewish regulations that had been adopted in the 1880s and 1890s.

The 1912 Statute had little impact on some 300,000 Jews who served in the Russian army during World War I. Despite a vociferous anti-alien campaign that blamed Russian military failures on Jews in general and on the Jewish population inhabiting Galicia in particular, Jewish soldiers (as military censors reported) shared patriotic enthusiasm with their Russian parallels. Responding to an obviously biased general questionnaire in 1915 about Jewish traitors, deserters, and cowards within the lower ranks, regimental commanders replied that Jews “by and large fulfilled their military duty satisfactorily,” participated in combat “on par with others,” and “did not differ either positively or negatively from other lower ranks.” Russian military memoirs portrayed Jewish soldiers as excellent telegraphers, gun layers, and scouts. To fight the antisemitic bias of Russian high commanders, Maksim Gorky and Leonid Andreev compiled a collection of stories and poetry, Shchit (The Shield; 1916), depicting the honesty and courage of Jewish soldiers, sharply criticizing the inherited bias of the Russian society, and arguing for complete Jewish emancipation.

After the February Revolution of 1917, the provisional government canceled all anti-Jewish regulations in the military, allowing upper mobility to the Jews and opening the doors of officers’ schools to them. Perhaps the disproportionate number of Jews in the highest positions in the Red Army command signified that Jews tended to recompense themselves for the hundred years of service in the Russian army on the lower rank level; that they mastered the military craft and did not shun it; and that they viewed the military as a focal tool for achieving privileges denied them in a nonliberal society.

Suggested Reading

Salo Baron, The Russian Jew under Tsars and Soviets (New York, 1964); Simon Dubnow, History of the Jews in Russia and Poland, trans. Israel Friedlaender, 3 vols. (Philadelphia, 1916–1920); Saul Ginsburg, Historishe Verk (New York, 1932), vol. 2, pp. 3–20, vol. 3, pp. 3–135; John Klier, Imperial Russia’s Jewish Question, 1855–1881 (Cambridge, 1995), pp. 332–349; Isaac Levitats, The Jewish Community in Russia, 1772–1844 (New York, 1943); Olga Litvak, “The Literary Response to Conscription: Individuality and Authority in the Russian-Jewish Enlightenment” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1999); Eric Lohr, “The Russian Army and the Jews: Mass Deportation, Hostages, and Violence during World War I,” The Russian Review 60 (2001): 404–409; Adina Ofek, “Cantonists: Jewish Children as Soldiers in Tsar Nicholas’s Army,” Modern Judaism 13.3 (1993): 277–308; Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, “Jews in the Russian Army, 1827–1914” (Ph.D. diss., Brandeis University, 2001); Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, “The Guardians of Faith, or Jewish Self-Governing Societies in the Russian Army: The Case of Briansk 35th Regiment,” in The Military and Society in Russia, 1450–1917, ed. Eric Lohr and Marshall Poe, pp. 413–434 (Leiden, 2002); Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern (Iokhanan Petrovskii-Shtern), “The ‘Jewish Policy’ of the Late Imperial War Ministry: The Impact of the Russian Right,” KRITIKA: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 2 (2002): 217–254; Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern (Iokhanan Petrovskii-Shtern), Evrei v russkoi armii, 1827–1914 (Moscow, 2003); Michael Stanislawski, Tsar Nicholas I and the Jews: The Transformation of Jewish Society in Russia, 1825–1855 (Philadelphia, 1983); Michael Stanislawski, Psalms for the Tsar: A Minute-Book of a Psalms-Society in the Russian Army (New York, 1988).