Every Jew knows the story. The evil tsarist authorities ride into the Shtetl. They demand a levy of young men for the army. Mothers' weep. Fathers' sigh. The community mourns the loss of its young. It's a good story, and some of it's even true. The reality, of course, was much more complex as we learn in Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern's excellent Jews in the Russian Army, 1827-1917 (Cambridge UP, 2008). The drafting of Jews into the Russian army was not really an act of oppression, but, as Petrovsky-Shtern argues, integration. By calling up Jews, the government was de facto recognizing them as full-fledged subject of the empire, the equals of other imperial minorities and even Russians themselves. Of course they were subject to discrimination. But they were not simply victims: the Jewish soldiers changed the culture of the army just as the army changed what it meant to be Jewish within the empire. As Petrovsky-Shtern points out, all this was part and parcel of the process of making both entities–the Jews and empire–modern.
So, did your bubbe tell you the story about the wicked Russians press-ganging your poor great grandfather Moishe and then forcibly converted him to Christianity? Read this book and find out what really happened.
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