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1827: Russia Begins to Draft Its Jews

One of the major events in the history of Russian Jewry was the imposition of military obligations on them by Czar Nicholas the First in 1827. Here is the background (taken from “The Jews in Poland and Russia,” by A. Polonsky, 2013, pp. 81-82):

“The induction of Jews into the army elsewhere in Europe was part of the process of transforming them into citizens. This was not the case in Russia. Here, military service was not a general obligation but was imposed selectively on different estates and social and religious groups. Jews had initially been exempt from military service after the incorporation into the empire of the areas where they lived. They were all classed as merchants from the point of view of conscription and were required to pay a 500 rouble exemption tax. There were occasional discussions over whether they should be drafted, but they were generally felt to be unsuitable as recruits. This was not the view of Nicholas. He was a convinced believer in the value of the army as a school for virtue which could play a major role in the transformation of his Jewish subjects…”

“The quota varied from year to year, but generally the Jews were required to furnish four to eight recruits for every thousand tax souls… Jews were inducted into the army between the ages of 12 and 25. Those over 18 served for 25 years in the regular army; those under 18 served in special cantonist battalions…until they reached the age of 18, when they commenced their 25-year service. Cantonist battalions had [already] existed for other categories of recruits…Those who served in them were educated in special boarding schools attached to army camps that had first been created in 1805 for the sons of Russian private soldiers.”

“Some categories of Jews were exempt… As was the case with all groups liable for inscription, the local community was collectively responsible for its implementation… [Jews were to stay] only in Christian homes during their travels and were forbidden contact with local Jews. Jews who completed their military term were eligible to serve in the civil service.”

“This was a punitive law and its introduction was the cause of appalling suffering and of major disruption to Jewish life. In all, during the reign of Nicholas I about 70,000 Jews served in the Russian army; between 4.5 and 6.5 percent of Jews in Russia were conscripted. One reason why service in the army was so hated by the large majority of the Jewish community was that…conversion [of those drafted] was openly encouraged… Perhaps at least half of the cantonists [converted]…and a substantial number of adult recruits did so between 1827 and 1854…”

“The involvement of the communal leadership in enforcement of conscription caused enormous shock, undermining deep-rooted traditions of social solidarity. It precipitated a breakdown of communal bonds, which manifested itself in a number of ways, including violent protests against the khappers (those who seized people in order to conscript them) and the kahal…”

To explain a bit further, the fact that between 4.5 and 6.5 percent of Jews in Russia were conscripted does not sound so terrible. The problem was that every day you did not know if your child would be one of those khapped by the kahal!

What is most interesting is the response of the Eastern European Karaites. To give a little background, in the centuries after the foundation of Karaism in around the eighth century C.E. (the foundation of this sect is a complex subject), major Karaite communities flourished in Israel, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq. Karaites did not arrive in Eastern Europe until the 13th to 15th centuries. Just like their rabbinic Jewish brethren, they suffered in the massacres in Eastern Europe of 1648-49.

But what happened in 1827? Two leading Karaites from Crimea, Simhah Babovich and Joseph Solomon Lutski, went to St. Petersburg to petition the Czar to exempt them, and they were successful. The latter wrote an account of their journey. It was intended to be read in Karaite synagogues in Eastern Europe annually in celebration of their success. It was written in a style parallel to the book of Esther. It is called “Iggeret Teshu’at Yisrael.” (The Hebrew text with English translation can be purchased at a reasonable cost. It is found in “Karaite Separatism in Nineteenth-Century Russia” by Philip E. Miller.)

The “Iggeret” begins as follows: “In the days of Nicholas the first, the great Czar and emperor (may he live forever!) who ruled all the Russias and other places, in the year 1827 according to the Christians and in the year 5588 since Creation according to us…a royal order was given… It was a new law to be established for generations to come, one unknown in earlier days. It was the king’s express command that letters be sent by messenger to all the officials in his kingdom in which it was explicitly stated that men from among the Jews be taken for military service in equal measure to other nations and tongues under his rule…The Jews would not be permitted to buy men of other nations or to give substitutes other than their own nation’s sons…Great was the mourning, fasting and weeping among the Jews when the king’s order reached each province…As the word “Jews” was written in the text of the decree, and as it was understood afterwards in some places that the decree was to include each and every Jewish sect and did not exclude the Karaites, the officials in the Crimean towns included us Karaites in this decree as well…”

I admit that I have not read this work and how the Karaites successfully argued for their exemption. I believe a main argument was that because they did not follow the Talmud, the decree should not apply to them.

This was not the Karaites’ first political success in Eastern Europe. In 1774, the Karaites in Austria were able to obtain preferential treatment from Empress Maria Theresa: They received an exemption from the marriage tax and half of the poll tax that was placed on the Jews. Also, in 1795, the Russian regime imposed a poll tax on the Jews that was double what was imposed on Christians, and Catherine the Great granted the Karaite petition for an exemption.

Subsequent to their success in 1827, the Karaites in the Russian empire received full recognition as Russian citizens in 1863. The Karaites of Eastern Europe continued to minimize any connection to the Jews in order to avoid harsh governmental treatment. Later they were able to convince the Nazis that they were descended from Turkish tribes and most were spared in the Holocaust.

This column is based on an article by Daniel Lasker online at Tablet Magazine, Sept 11, 2020, “Inventing the Karaites.” Lasker is a professor at Ben-Gurion University and one of his specialties is the study of the Karaites.

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. His website is rootsandrituals.org. He is not related to Czar Nicholas the First. (One time in his youth, when he was in Europe, making a collect call to his parents, the operator thought he identified himself as “Mitchell the First”!)

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