Sons of Russian private soldiers who from 1805 to 1827 were educated in special "canton schools" for future military service; after 1827 the term was applied also to Jewish boys, who, according to a statute issued Sept. 7, 1827, were drafted to military service at the age of twelve and placed for their military education in cantonist schools of distant provinces.
The sons of Jewish soldiers were at this period regarded as government property and were educated for military service by the authorities, who, during the reign of Nicholas I. of Russia, had a special regard for the Jewish cantonists, as it was easier to convert them to the Greek Orthodox Church than it was to convert their elders, whose religious principles had been firmly established. The best method to obtain this result was to take them far away from their birthplace so that they could forget their religion and be unprotected against the missionary propaganda of the officers of the army (I. Orshanski, "Russkoe Zakonodatelstvo o Yevreyakh," p. 25, St. Petersburg, 1877). According to Nikitin, "Otechestvennyya Zapiski," 1871, viii. 352, those mobilized at Kiev were sent to Perm; those at Brest to Nijni-Novgorod. Eye-witnesses have many times described the inhuman torturesendured by these innocent conscripts ("Allg. Zeit. des Jud." 1854, pp. 120, 195); and as the root of the evil did not lie in the corruption of subordinate authorities, but in the legislative administrative system, complaints were of no avail. This severe method of forcing Jews into the Greek Orthodox Church was criticized throughout Europe; and owing to the force of public opinion the cantonist school was abolished in 1857 by Alexander II.
- Levanda, Polny Khronologicheski Sbornik Zakonov (Index);
- L. Gordon's novel, Ha-'Aẓamot ha-Yebeshot ("Dry Bones"), Odessa, 1889;
- Allg. Zeit. des Jud. 1854, p. 22; and articles mentioned in text.