The cantonist system in the Russian Empire evolved from bureaucratic attempts to combine a solution to two unrelated problems: welfare provision for the families of common soldiers and sailors, and the dearth of trained personnel to meet the multifarious needs of the modernizing imperial state. The evolution of this category was part of the development of social estates (sosloviia ) in Russia, where membership was tied to service obligations.
The recruitment of peasant men into the Russian armed forces frequently plunged their wives (the soldatka ) and children into destitution. The state sought to remedy this situation by creating the category of "soldiers' children" (soldatskie deti ) in 1719. These children were removed from the status of serfs, and assigned to the "military domain," with the expectation that they would eventually serve in the military. Before beginning active service, they were assigned to schools and training institutions attached to military garrisons in order to receive an education of use to the armed forces. The training was provided for children between the ages of seven and fifteen, with an additional three years of advanced training for pupils who proved to be especially talented. They were educated in basic literacy before being given specialized artisan training, musical, or medical instruction, or the numerous other skills required by the military. The most able were given advanced training in fields such as engineering and architecture. Some children resided with their parents while receiving schooling, others were dispatched to training courses far away from home. Upon completion of their education, the soldiers' children were assigned to the military or other branches of state service. Upon completion of their term of service, which ranged from fifteen to twenty-five years, they were given the status of state peasants, or were allowed to choose an appropriate branch of state service.
The garrison schools were permitted to admit, as a welfare measure, the children of other groups, such as impoverished gentry. In 1798 the schools were renamed the "Military Orphanage" (Voenno-Sirotskie Otdelenya ), with 16,400 students. In 1805, the students were renamed "cantonists" (kantonisty ), and reorganized into battalions. In 1824, the schools were placed under the supervision of the Department of Military Colonies, then headed by Count Alexei Arakcheyev. The cantonist system continued to grow, and to admit diverse social elements under Nicholas I. In 1856, Alexander II freed cantonists from the military domain, and the schools were gradually phased out.
The cantonist system never fulfilled its objectives. Its welfare obligations overwhelmed resources, and it never found training space for more than a tenth of the eligible children. The cantonist battalions themselves became notorious as "stick academies," marked by brutality and child abuse, high mortality rates, and ineffective educational methods. The bureaucracy failed to adequately oversee the category of soldiers' children, who were often hidden in other social estates.
In 1827, the legislation obliging Jews in the Pale of Settlement to provide military recruits permitted communities to provide children for the cantonist battalions in lieu of adult recruits. The fate of these Jewish cantonists was especially harsh. Children were immediately removed from their parents, and often were subjected to brutal measures designed to convert them to Russian Orthodoxy. The provision of child recruits by the Jewish leadership did much to fatally undermine their authority within the community.
See also: education; jews; military, imperial era
Stanislawski, Michael. (1983). Tsar Nicholas I and the Jews: The Transformation of Jewish Society in Russia, 1825–1855. Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society of America.
John D. Klier
"Cantonists." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 27, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cantonists
"Cantonists." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . Retrieved May 27, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/cantonists
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"Cantonists." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. (May 27, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/cantonists
"Cantonists." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved May 27, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/cantonists