JEWISH HISTORY OF THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION
(ANCIENT TIMES UNTIL THE SECOND WORLD WAR)
Part 3 of 8
The reign of Nicholas I (1825–55) forms a somber chapter in the history of Russian Jewry. This czar, notorious in Russian history for his cruelty, sought to solve the "Jewish Problem" by suppression and coercion. In 1827 he ordered the conscription of Jewish youths into the army under the iniquitous Cantonists system which conscripted youths aged from 12 to 25 years into military service; those aged under 18 were sent to special military schools also attended by the children of soldiers. This law caused profound demoralization within the communities of Lithuania and the Ukraine (it did not apply to the Jews of the "Polish" provinces). Nobody wished to serve in the army in the prevailing inhuman conditions and the "trustees" responsible on behalf of the communities for filling the quotas of conscripts were compelled to employ "snatchers" ("khapers") to seize the youngsters. The military obligations of the Jews in Russia brought no alleviation of their condition in other spheres, and the expulsions of Jews from the villages continued with regularity. The Jews were also expelled from Kiev, and any new settlement of Jews in the towns and townlets within a distance of 50 versts of the country's borders was prohibited in 1843. On the other hand, the government encouraged agricultural settlement among Jews. The settlers were exempted from military service. Many Jewish settlements were established on government and privately owned lands in southern Russia and other regions of the Pale of Settlement.
During the 1840s the government began to concern itself with the education of the Jews. Since the Jews had not made use of the opportunity which had been given to them in 1804 to study in the general schools, the government decided to establish a network of special schools for them. The maintenance of these schools would be provided for by a special tax (the "candle tax") which would be imposed on them. In order to pave the way for this activity, the government sent Max Lilienthal, a German Jew employed as teacher in the school established in Riga by the local maskilim, on a reconnaissance trip through the Pale of Settlement. During 1841–42 Lilienthal visited the large communities of the Pale of Settlement—Vilna, Minsk, Berdichev, Odessa, and Kiev. He was received with suspicion by the Jewish masses, who regarded the project to establish government schools for Jews as a medium for the estrangement of their children from their religion. In 1844 a
decree ordering the establishment of these schools, whose teachers would be both Christians and Jews, was issued. In secret instructions which accompanied the decree it was declared that "the purpose of the education of the Jews is to bring them nearer to the Christians and to uproot their harmful beliefs which are influenced by the Talmud." Lilienthal became aware of the government's intentions and fled from Russia. The government established this network of schools which depended for instruction upon a handful of maskilim and at the head of which were the seminaries for rabbis and teachers of Vilna and Zhitomir. These institutions, to which the Jewish masses shrank from sending their children, served as the cradle for a class of Russian-speaking maskilim which was to play an important role in the lives of the Jews during the following generations.
In 1844 the government abolished the Polish-style communities but was nevertheless compelled to recognize a limited communal organization whose function it was to watch over the conscription into the army and the collection of the special taxes—the korobka and "candle tax." The community was also responsible for the election of the kazyonny ravvin ("government-appointed rabbi"), whose function it was to register births, marriages, and deaths and to deliver sermons on official holidays extolling the government. A law was also issued prohibiting Jews from growing pe'ot ("sidelocks") and wearing their traditional clothes.
The next stage of the program of Nicholas I was the division of the Jews of his country into two groups: "useful" and "non-useful." Among the "useful" ranked the wealthy merchants, craftsmen, and agriculturalists. All the other Jews, the small tradesmen and the poorer classes, constituted the "non-useful" and were threatened with general conscription into the army, where they would be trained in crafts or agriculture. This project encountered the opposition of Russian statesmen and aroused the intervention of the Jews of Western Europe on behalf of their coreligionists. In 1846 Sir Moses Montefiore traveled from England to Russia for this purpose. The order to classify the Jews according to these categories was nevertheless issued in 1851. The Crimean War delayed its application but amplified the tragedy of military conscription. The quota was increased threefold and the "snatchers" were given a free hand to seize children, and travelers who did not possess documents, and hand them over to the army. The reign of Nicholas I came to an end with the memory of those days of intensified kidnapping.