Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Cossacks and the Great War

The Cossacks are an interesting aspect of Russian imperialism as well as the war, revolution, and Russian Civil War. They were originally refugees from the Turkic states of Central Asia, who preferred a nomadic life on the steppes to serfdom. The Cossacks accepted anyone who was considered a worthy warrior, but eventually members had to believe in Christ. Their cultural inclinations made them perfect for fighting along the rough borderlands. After a centuries-long process they were co-opted into Russian service, becoming the vanguards of expansion and the protectors of the frontier. They were found by the tsars to be so loyal and trustworthy that they were given the additional  mission of internal security, which included cracking down on dissidents and participating in pogroms against Jewish settlements.

Cossack Cavalry Patrol

The Cossacks had specific customs and traditions. A child was taught the warrior-ways of the Cossacks from birth. When a male child was born, the parents would take his hand and place it on a weapon. The Cossacks were superior horsemen. By the time a Cossack was three years old he was riding horses. As children, Cossack males would stage pretend battles complete with horses and sabers. The ataman, or army chief, would praise the children who exhibited bravery in these mock battles. The Cossack life was also based on simplicity. Members shared land and lived in communes. 

One of the greatest triumphs in Cossack history was the annexation of Siberia. In September 1581, Timofeyevich led 840 troops to wrest the Siberian city of Sibir from Tartar control. With the use of firearms, the Cossacks easily defeated Kuchum's forces. The Cossacks lost a subsequent 1584 battle against Kuchum, but, despite the loss, Siberia came under complete control of the Russian Empire in 1586. 

In the late 19th century, Cossacks were deployed in border patrols and garrisons in the Caucasus, Central Asia, Siberia, Poland, Ukraine, and Lithuania. They contributed tens of thousands of troops for the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78 and the ill-fated conflict with Japan in 1904–05. An enduring popular image of the Cossacks, however, is as fearsome mounted police, suppressing disorder in the Russian heartland. Large numbers were assigned to internal security as revolutionary unrest escalated from the 1880s and spread across the country in 1905. Eyewitness accounts recall the terror of charges by Cossacks wielding whips on crowds of protesting peasants and workers.

Shane O’Rourke noted, though, that the 1905 Revolution was also a traumatic experience for the Cossacks. Thousands of men were taken from farms facing ruin to conduct a vicious campaign of repression that they personally found revolting. Mutinies broke out within Cossack regiments and spread to their home territories. Cossack deputies to the new Russian parliament, the Duma, complained bitterly about police service.

1914: Mobilized Cossacks Heading to the Front

There was no such objection to mobilization for the First World War, but it took a heavy toll. Cossacks supplied a disproportionately high number of soldiers who, with little use for cavalry, fought alongside peasant soldiers in the misery of the trenches. Casualties reached 12 percent of those mobilized. Women left behind struggled to feed their families. During the overthrow of the monarchy in the February Revolution of 1917, war-weary and impoverished Cossacks surprised everyone by siding with workers and ordinary soldiers against the regime. Almost immediately, though, divisions erupted between Cossack and non-Cossack populations on host territories, between Cossacks of different faith, generation, and gender and between radicalized rank-and-file Cossacks and more conservative elites, who in August 1917 supported the coup attempt by General Lavr G. Kornilov (1870–1918).

The Civil War resulting from the Bolshevik takeover devastated Cossack homelands, transforming them into battlefields on which more than 1 million men, women, and children perished, making the losses of the First World War pale into insignificance. Rifts within Cossack society meant that few initially rallied to their government's calls to defend their territories against Bolshevik forces. Many, especially those who had been at the front, welcomed slogans of peace and Soviet power, while others were concerned with local conflicts between Cossacks and non-Cossacks.

Kerensky Visiting a Cossack Unit Prior to the October Revolution

Disillusionment with the one-party dictatorship and horror at the violence of Bolshevik punitive expeditions by spring 1918, however, sparked armed resistance, although Cossacks fought alongside both the Red and White armies. In Siberia and the Far East, individual settlements were fiercely defended and brutal reigns of atamans established, while identification with an overarching Cossack community evaporated. In longer-standing hosts of European Russia, such as the Don, hostilities were accompanied by the creation of regular armies mobilized in the name of Cossack independence.

The concept of a separate Cossack people also shaped the Bolsheviks’ shift in early 1919 from a policy of removing Cossack estate privileges and punishing counterrevolutionary action to indiscriminate terror against Cossacks as a suspect population. As Red Army regiments pressed into Cossack territory, thousands of Cossacks were executed by revolutionary tribunals. The policy of physical extermination of the Cossacks was renounced as the Red Army retreated toward Moscow. Eventual Bolshevik victory, however, sparked the emigration of tens of thousands of Cossacks, the dismantling of collective Cossack legal and administrative structures, famine on Cossack territory, and the targeting of Cossacks for deportation as part of Stalin’s dekulakization and collectivization campaigns, breaking surviving Cossack communities through the loss of farms and people.

Sources: History Magazine, Oct/Nov 2001; Over the Top, March 2014; Wikipedia

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