August 04, 2022
Putin’s latest evil tactic is all too reminiscent of Jews snatched from their families in Russia’s forced conscription in the 19th century
Tsar Nicholas I, portrait by Georg von Bothmann (1855)
Among crimes committed by Russia in its war on Ukraine is deportation of children, a macabre turn backward two centuries to a Tsarist policy with especially painful historic memories for Jews. For during the reign of Tsar Nicholas I (1825-1855) tens of thousands of Jewish children were forcibly separated from their families, recruited as conscripts (“cantonists”) in the Russian army, and subjected to forced Russification.
Jews came under Russian rule in the partitions of Poland in the late-18th century, and were targeted with dozens of discriminatory laws until the 1917 revolution, with often conflicting motives: to Russify and assimilate them or suppress their assimilation; to oppress or enlighten them; to exploit them economically or make them economically weak; to convert them to Christianity; or to drive them to leave Russia.
Tsarist anti-Jewish laws, including restrictions on residence, mobility and choice of profession, were rarely eased and never removed. The main handicap was the continued existence of the Pale of Settlement on the western frontier of the Russian empire, where the Jews were confined, increasingly impoverished and over-crowded, until the 1917 revolution.
In common with antisemitic laws generally, the conscription laws caused widespread suffering and humiliation. Jewish communities had to fill a quota between the ages of 12 and 25 for 25 years of military service starting from age 18.
Of about 70,000 Jewish recruits in the time of Nicholas I, two-thirds are estimated to have been cantonists; many were forced to convert. Tsarist policies were aimed to weaken rabbinic authority but cruel, discriminatory governmental treatment strengthened the Russian Jewish sense of difference and national identity.
The Russian Jews were mostly Orthodox and conscripts had to swear an oath in Hebrew to serve with the same loyalty to the Tsar as to the Land of Israel and the holy Torah. The penalty for breaking this oath: a herem (excommunication) both for the conscript and his family in this world and the world to come.
In 1835, the Russian revolutionary, Alexander Herzen, was a horrified eyewitness of Jewish child conscripts on their way to Siberia: “Pale, exhausted, with frightened faces, they stood in thick, clumsy, soldiers’ overcoats, with stand-up collars, fixing helpless, pitiful eyes on the garrison soldiers who were roughly getting them into ranks.
“The white lips, the blue rings under their eyes, bore witness to fever or chill. And these sick children, without care or kindness, exposed to the icy wind that blows unobstructed from the Arctic Ocean, were going to their graves.”
The recruitment laws turned Jew against Jew, divided rich and poor and, during the Crimean War (1853-6), created a breed of communal officials (khappers, or ‘snatchers’) whose awful job it was to fill the quotas.
The trauma of official persecution and forced Jewish complicity, exacerbated by dozens of other discriminatory laws, was remembered long after the cantonist system was ended by Alexander II, and is reflected in Russian-Jewish literature.
The Hebrew writer Peretz Smolenskin was a child witness of the kidnapping of his older brother, never to be seen again. SJ Abramowitz’s Hebrew novel, Fathers and Children (1868, 1912) recalls this time in the nightmares of its main character: “A bitter heartrending cry in the distance. Men rushed past carrying a little boy, naked as if snatched from bed. His cry pierced the stillness of the night. Terror. His son’s cry, his darling son. Army recruiters had snatched him from bed.”
Russian Jews regarded the cantonist policy, even after it ended, as emblematic of the evil of Russian society and autocratic government.
But the Jews were not the only victims of Tsarist rule. Other nationalities in the empire, including Poles, Ukrainians, Finns, Armenians and Belarussians, suffered persecution and forced Russification; Polish Catholic children were recruited as cantonists; Lutherans, Catholics, and Muslims were pressured to convert to Russian Orthodoxy; and until 1861 a large number of the Russian population were serfs, owned by their masters and subject to their will.
Yet the Jews, with no territory in Russia and a history of victimisation, proved to be the most vulnerable to maltreatment, injustice and violence. Russian antisemitism was decisive in modern Jewish history, in the growth of Zionism and revolutionary socialism and, above all, as a spur to emigration. Long before the rise of Hitler, Russia showed that antisemitism could be exploited to serve State interests.
A result of Tsarist rule, Isaiah Berlin observed, was that literature became a battleground for social and political issues: “Acute shame or furious indignation caused by the misery and degradation of a system in which human beings — serfs — were viewed as ‘baptised property’, together with a sense of impotence before the rule of injustice, stupidity and corruption, tended to drive pent-up imagination and moral feeling into the only channels that the censorship had not completely shut off — literature and the arts.”
Russian Jews seeking modernisation of Jewish life often found in Hebrew and Yiddish literature an outlet for their cultural and political identity, their fears and hopes, and their sense of alienation from Russia. The pogroms of 1881-2 and 1903-06 reinforced Jewish antipathy to Tsarist rule, creating a new spirit of dissidence and revolt, best expressed by the Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman Bialik:
“We’ll have no pity
when the whole nation rises, cries –
Bialik wrote City of Slaughter, the most influential modern Hebrew poem, in a village near Kiev, in angry response to the atrocities committed against Jews in the Ukraine in 1903.
By this time, Russian Jews had become the largest Jewish community in the world, numbering about five million, mostly confined to the Pale of Settlement and increasingly driven to desperate measures — over a quarter left Russia between 1881 and 1914, mostly for America.
Jews might have been content to live in an enlightened Russia but were horrified by its anti-Jewish violence and persecution, reinforced by legal disabilities; their economic conditions deteriorated, leaving large numbers unemployed.
Some turned to Zionism to escape the taint of perpetual victimhood depicted unflinchingly in City of Slaughter, seeking to be, as Bialik put it, “The last generation of slaves, the first to be free!”
Others became socialists and revolutionaries: during the pogroms of 1903-1906, when Jews comprised about 4 per cent of the Russian population, about half of those imprisoned for revolutionary activities were Jews; and in 1917 a disproportionate number of leading revolutionaries were Jews.
Vladimir Putin seems intent on regressing to what he evidently sees as the glory days of the Russian empire, when an autocratic Tsar had the power to impose his will, however unjustly, upon his people.
In the end, the repression and suffering inflicted by Tsarist autocracy undermined it and contributed to its overthrow. Now, too, a turning point can be envisaged, when even the long-suffering Russian people will tire of intimidation, when the longing for stable and just government will banish fear, when the tolerance for cruelty and injustice will break, and Russia will seek freedom — and make it last.
David Aberbach is Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Studies at McGill University and author of several books on Russian Jewish literature, including Bialik