January 25, 2021

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The untold story of hundreds of thousands of Jews who perished in the Russian Empire (Michael Elgort)


Lately everyone is talking about #JewishPrivilege and how “white Ashkenazi Jews” benefited from such privilege. I have decided to take a step back and to look closely at those “white Ashkenazi Jews.”.

Since the majority of Jews who are talking about such privilege are from the US, I want to share with them something that they may not know about their own ancestors.

Of course you all heard about numerous atrocities that Jews had to endure throughout centuries, inquisition, expulsions, genocides, raping, libels and many others. You name it. Later in the 20th century we had the Holocaust and various atrocities that are unparalleled.

But what if I tell you there was a gigantic industry of oppression that specifically abused Jews and Jewish children a century before it? Sounds weird, how can we not know about it, right? Something that killed tens of thousands and had 2.5 million Jews who went through it? That includes my ancestors,probably your ancestors and almost any other Ashkenazi Jews alive. And no, I am not referring to pogroms that you definitely heard of, but this also happened in  the Russian Empire.

In the 19th century the largest Ashkenazi Jewish groups lived in the Russian Empire and Austro-Hungarian Empire, mostly spread within what is now Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania, Hungary, Czechia and Slovakia.

Jews lived in Muscovy (and before that in Kievan Rus) relatively sporadically, occasionally coming as merchants or high level specialists (teachers, doctors, scientists). Examples include some prominent figures like vice-Chancellor Baron Shafirov – a good friend and coadjutor of Peter the Great.

However until the 18th century there were almost no Jews living in Russia as Peter’s daughter – Queen Elizabeth – prohibited them from settling in and even ordered an expulsion of Jews. It has changed during the reign of Catherine the Great who participated in Poland’s partition. In 1772, 1793 and 1795 the Poland Commonwealth was divided between three empires: Prussian, Austro-Hungarian and Russian. So you can correctly say that it is not the Jews who came to Russia, but it is Russia who came to the Jews (see this Wikipedia article).


It was in 1772 when the Pale  of Settlement rule was enacted – it was a legal limitation imposed on Jews and Jews only – they were not allowed to settle in the areas to the East of an artificial border line, however were allowed to be mobile within these borders. When Russia expanded to the West during the 2nd partition in 1793, the Pale of Settlement was expanded to include Jews who lived in former Poland – around 5 million Jews became Crown’s subjects which is estimated to be 30 to 40% of all world Jews at that time.



Fast forward to the year 1825. A new Russian emperor – Nicholas I was crowned. Shortly after that in 1827 a new law was passed – Jews for the first time were subject to the Russian imperial army service. Jewish shtetls within the Pale of Settlement were ordered to provide 10 recruits per 1,000 men which is 30% more than any Christians were supposed to provide (7 recruits per 1,000 men). cantonists


The service was for 25 years and those “unlucky 10” were chosen by a recruitment lottery. The age of conscription was from 12 to 25 years old inclusive, but sometimes covered even 7-8 year old children. When the recruits were younger than 16, they were sent to special military school to become a so-called “cantonists”. I will make a thread on cantonists separately in a few days, as this atrocity deserves a separate coverage. I will elaborate on how Jewish children were abused, tortured and traumatized to become soldiers and how they were forced to convert, but for now you can read some basics about Jewish juvenile soldiers.

By the way, a small extra here – it is worth mentioning that Jews back then didn’t have proper surnames, so majority of Jews who were recruited were named after shtetls from where they came from. Hence so many Jews now bear Russian/Polish/Ukrainian sound surnames that are actual names of towns, cities and villages with a suffix “sky”, “ski, “skie” – Brodsky, Mogilevsky, Milikowski, Slutzky, Lansky, Gorsky and the like. Any time you hear people saying Jews are not real, because they have Slavic surnames, remember why they really have them.

Now back to our topic. The period in a cantonist school was not counted towards  those 25 years of service. These schools for Jews existed for exactly 30 years from 1827 to 1857 and were abolished by Emperor Alexander II, the son of Nicholas I. Peer pressure on any Jewish soldier including adults was especially hard, and many ended up converting to Christianity, choosing suicide or running away. However for every Jewish soldier who managed to run away or decided to take his own life, their own shtetl was supposed either to bring 3 new recruits younger than 20 years old as a direct substitution or to pay a huge fine. Up until 1850 the Jews were not even allowed to become warrant officers – only low rank soldiers. Each case of heroic act by a Jewish soldier was considered by the Emperor personally and there were very rare examples of Jewish making military career before Crimean war (1854-1856). Any such career required a specific consideration by the Emperor himself. In addition to recruiting, Qahals (local shtetl municipalities in Emperor’s Russia during Nicholas’ reign until 1840s) were obligated by Russian Imperial Senate to pay large monetary contributions as taxes. In order to reduce such an enormous burden, for any recruit of 16 or older each Qahal received a discount of 1000 rubles and for any recruit between 12 and 16 – 500 rubles discount. During the Crimean war (1854-56) the conscription of Jewish soldiers tripled, meaning that shtetls were ordered to provide 30 men per 1,000 instead of 10. During the famous Sevastopol battle between 500 to 1000 Jews were killed, protecting the city from the British and French invasion.

Ironically, as Jews they were protecting the city in which they were not allowed to settle as Sevastopol was excluded from the Pale of Settlement. Almost no one among them was awarded or distinguished for their heroic acts.



Many Jews served as volunteer doctors, including, for example, Dr. Yehuda Leib (Leon) Pinsker – later to become one of the leaders of Hovevei Tzion movement. Overall, medical careers were among the most popular for Jews then as it allowed to avoid army services and still contribute.

During the Crimean war Nicholas I suddenly died and his son was crowned – Alexander II, known as The Liberator. Unlike his predecessor (and two emperors who will come after him), he is considered the most liberal and “enlightened” emperor in Russian history. One of his biggest achievements is that in 1861 he abolished a practice of serfdom – an official slavery that existed in Russia when nobility owned peasantry as actual slaves. It happened in February 1861 just 2 months before the beginning of Civil War in the US. Simultaneously he had canceled brutal cantonist schools in 1856 (the last one was closed in 1857), and from 1858 Jews (and Muslims) were allowed to be awarded medals and honors in a similar way the Christian soldiers were allowed before. He canceled the practice of recruiting children younger than 16, reduced the ratio of Jewish recruitment and made it similar across all groups of population, reduced a term of service from 25 to 15 years, allowed Jews to become officers, in 1867 for any soldier who served in Russian Army the Pale of Settlement rule was canceled as well. In 1874 he canceled conscription for different age groups completely – now only grown up adult in the age of 21 was supposed to serve in the army. Following actions of emperor, many people were unhappy about Jews getting the rights similar to them and a wave of pogroms ran across the Empire in early 1870s, creating the first large wave of Jews leaving to Ottoman Empire and USA. Many decided it is time to run away from the military conscription.

battle of Gorny Dubniak

In spite of all hardships thousands of Jews fought in the 1877-78 Russian-Turkish war; there were many war heroes and distinguished officers. For example in the Dubniak Gorka Fortress assault more than a quarter of 16th division of famous Russian general Skobelev army was Jewish (Skobelev was known as a general who promoted people based on merits, not religion or nationality) and officer Fainerman called his soldiers to a melee fight with Shma Yisrael. During the reign of Alexander II there were cases when Jews became high rank officers in Russian army. However Alexander II was killed by a revolutionary youth in 1881 and since then his son – Alexander III was surrounded by antisemites, the life of Jews in Russia went gradually south. He began to return to the practices of his grandfather – Nicholas I. Jews were not allowed to be promoted, the army had quotas for warrant officers and officers for Jews set in 1882 (5 and 3% respectively). Nicholas_II_by_Boissonnas_&_Eggler_c1909


When the son of Alexander III – Nicholas II was crowned in 1894, he continued his father’s practice.

In 1904-1905, approximately 30 thousand Jews fought in the Russian-Japanese war. Numerous Jews became selfless heroes, but only a handful of them were awarded. Two prominent examples are Trumpeldor and Stolberg who became full cavaliers of St. George Order (of all 4 degrees). But they were exception, rather than the rule. Simultaneously when Jews were fighting and dying for Russia, the empire faced the largest pogroms in its history – throughout Moldova and Ukraine. And then in 1910 Nicholas has decided that Jews cannot be trusted and they were again not allowed to become officers of any kind. Many of them retired and left Russian empire completely. Between 1905 and 1922 thousands and thousands of Jews left Russia and moved to USA;  the majority of what is now known as American Jewry originated from this wave, partially due to pogroms, partially due to conscription or discrimination in military careers. When the First World War came, Russia had an enormous mobilization of about 500,000 Jews. They fought with valor and thousands of them died, however in spite of all their heroic acts, they were still treated as second class people by their military peers. Due to that fact, many of Russian Jews ended up in the Red Army during the Russian Revolution, but plenty still decided to serve in the White Army (the remnants of Imperial forces). Almost all those Jews from White Army left the Russian empire. But Russian revolution and Soviet time is a different story and it deserves a separate story.

To sum it all up: between 1827 and 1917 around 2.5 million Jewish men and boys went through the abusive machine of Russian Imperial Army. It is estimated that at least 10% died in the battles, from malnutrition, bullying and constant abuse. The exact number is hard to count, as no one was running the statistics and also many deaths were not even registered.

The Bottom line: please do not say that Ashkenazi Jews were historically privileged. They were not. Ashkenazi Jews (as any other Jewish group on Earth) had their slice of hardships and our history does not deserve to be whitewashed. The Jews of Russian Empire suffered from a lot – abuse, tortures, forced conversion, pogroms and from institutional exploitation of Jewish men by Russian Imperial Army.

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