The changed-surname-to-avoid-the-Tzar’s-Army story was common among eastern European Jewish immigrants. As with any story heard from our relatives and/or ancestors it’s always important to remember that genealogy/family history is a research discipline. Our job is not to accept the story as told, but to use it as a jumping off point for further research. Does the story make sense in terms of what we know about our family, the time period and place of the activity, and what we have been able to determine through research?
From 1804 through 1893, several Russian government edicts were explicit that Jews were to adopt hereditary surnames and keep them in perpetuity – no exceptions, except (sometimes) for those who were baptized and/or in the military. It is clear that many Jews early in the century reacted with indifference to adoption of permanent surnames. The Russians seemed to reissue variations of the edict several times in the 19th century. By the second half of the century these rules were enforced.
In terms of historical context of the adoption/conscription story, adoption, as we understand it today, did not exist for Jews in the Russian Empire. Jewish children taken in by others could not be formally adopted and their names, under the vast majority of circumstances, could not be changed from what they had been at birth (see: Paull and Briskman, www.surnamedna.com/?articles=history-adoption-and-regulation-of-jewish-surnames-in-the-russian-empire ).
With regard to Jewish attitudes and actions towards conscription, it does depend on the time period. But Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern’s research into archival records [Jews in the Russian Army, 1827-1917 (2009)] shows that by the 1880s Jews responded positively to the draft.
All this being noted, I do not doubt that some Russian Jewish people at some times and places tried to find a way around conscription. If the story about adoption/conscription was true, one would expect to see some court records of Jews caught in the act. I hope that those who have the skills to access eastern European archives look for such records. Thus far, I have not seen any reports of them.
I have a similar story adoption/conscription story in my family from Volhynia Gubernia. Four brothers. The original name was Utchenik. The others took Garber, Reznick and Lehman (or, more likely, Lederman). I did not think much of this story until I figured out, via analyses of the paper trail and DNA test results (Y and autosomal), my great grandfather Avraham Abba Garber (born ca. 1864) had a full brother named Levi Yitzkhak Liderman (b. ca. 1850s). (I hasten to add that I have DNA tested two members of an Utchenik family and found no relations thus far.) I reported on this research in Avotaynu 31:2 (Summer 2015). I will also be presenting a live talk in the virtual 2020 IAJGS Conference that includes this case as an example (“Memory and Mystery: Breaking Down Family Lore”). At this point, I cannot say why the name change occurred - only that it did. I resist adopting the explanatory story lest I succumb to confirmation bias.
There is no doubt it became more and more difficult for Jewish people to change surnames in the Russian Empire as the 19th century progressed. If we do find a name change, it is critical that we do not jump to explanations that may defy history, context and logic. I implore those who find interesting cases to do the hard work of dis/proving them before adopting what may be apocryphal explanations.