Why Russian Cossacks don’t wish to support the new Ukrainian government?

@ Image courtesy of www.raremaps.ru

Don Cossacks expressed the desire to take part in the armed struggle against the new Ukrainian government.

A few days ago the Big Circle of the Don Cossacks and also councils of atamans bordering Ukraine spoke in favor of the split of Ukraine.

 This is a possibility of a reunion of the Cossack lands forcibly crushed by the Bolshevik regime 

By these words the Ataman of the Great Don Army Viktor Vodolatsky expressed his opinion about the events in Ukraine. Taking into account the fact that the Ataman of the Great Don Army is the highest governor of the Don Cossacks, his statement should be treated seriously.

I’ve received some  letters in which the authors indignantly asked why Don Cossacks do not support their brothers – Ukrainian Cossacks fighting against Russian influence in Ukraine.  The Don Cossacks suffered from the Soviet Empire much more than Ukraine. It seems the Cossacks should support opponents of Russia.

But this is right only at first glance. Let’s delve into the history.

The total number of Don Cossacks in 1917 was at least 2.5 million people. In 2010 the number of Cossacks was less than 150000. Cossacks were one of the most closed classes of the Russian Empire. You could not join the Cossacks. You should become a Cossack only by birth.  Since 1811  it was forbidden to enlist in the Cossacks by special imperial decree.

The Cossacks were one of the most conservative classes in the Russian Empire. They were well organized, armed and excellently trained.  Any government was obliged to reckon with them and, if possible, tried to draw them to its side.

Hypothesis that the Soviet government had initially planned destruction of the Cossacks as a class for their special lifestyle is confirmed by Soviet documents.  Let’s look at the Decision of the Don’s Bureau of the Communist Party “Main principles of attitude to Cossacks”, dated April 1919.

…Existence of the Don Cossacks with their way of life, economic privileges, firmly entrenched reactionary traditions, memories of political privileges of the patriarchal system is a constant threat  to the proletarian government…

…Learning the art of war, which makes each Cossack from 18 up to the age of complete physical old age skilled warrior, gives counterrevolution ready soldiers (up to 300 thousand people), which  can be mobilized in very short time…

…All this puts an urgent task of full, swift and decisive destruction of the Cossacks as a special domestic economic groups, the destruction of their economic foundations, the physical destruction the Cossack leadership, splitting and disposal of ordinary Cossacks and  the formal liquidation of the Cossacks society…


The reason for the violent actions against the Cossacks would be better understood from the following ideas expressed by Trotsky: “Cossacks – the only part of the Russian nation capable of self-organization.”

So the Cossacks were feared by Soviets not for their skills in shashka and nagaika fighting, but for their style of life.

The Cossack land. Map of 1792Many  Cossacks were killed, many exiled to Siberia. Immigrants   from non-Cossack areas settled  all over native Cossack lands .

While looking at the old maps of Cossack lands  it is easy to see that the Lugansk and Donetsk regions, where there are violent clashes of local residents with the new government of Ukraine, were native Cossack lands. Therefore, every true Cossack see Ukraine as an occupier, who illegally (using Bolsheviks) seized the lands of others and oppress Cossacks left on these lands. Russian Don Cossacks have close ties with the communities of the Don Cossacks living in Lugansk and Donetsk regions.

Photo Courtesy of Sytin print shop, Public domain by Wikimedia Commons

 As for fraternal relations with the Ukrainian Cossacks, the Ukrainian Cossacks were never considered allies. Attempts of joint campaigns against Turkey almost always ended by conflicts. And in the 18-19 centuries when many Ukrainian Cossacks served in the army of the Turkish Sultan, the Ukrainian Cossacks were seen as enemies.

Religious contradictions between Catholic Church of the western Ukraine and the Russian Orthodox Church has very large impact on the attitude of the Cossacks to the new government of Ukraine.  For a long time the Cossacks see themselves as defenders of the Orthodox faith.  Attacks on Orthodox churches in western Ukraine and the  inaction of the new Ukrainian government  caused a very negative reaction among the Cossacks.

The attitude of the Cossacks to Ukrainian revolution can be formulated by the next words:  If some monthes ago nagaika was more than  sufficient weapons, now it’s time for the shashkas.