Rehabilitation of Cossack Divisions

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

Relations between the various Cossack “hosts” and the Soviet state were largely determined by the privileges that the tsarist regime had granted to the Cossacks which over time had become part of Cossacks’ social identity and by Soviet leaders’ ideologically based hostility towards them. Although some Cossacks had fought on the side of the Reds during the civil war (see Isaac Babel’s stories published as Red Cavalry), most vigorously opposed Soviet rule. Relations were further complicated after the civil war by the Soviet government’s attempts to eliminate the cultural distinctiveness and economic advantages of the Cossacks and by Cossack resistance to being folded into the social category of peasants. Indeed, at least for the Don Cossacks, nothing could be worse than to be equated with the inogorodnie (“peasant outsiders”). Neither a class nor a nationality by Soviet reckoning, the Cossacks remained a tough nut to crack throughout the 1920s.

Much remains unclear about the collectivization of Cossack lands and the simultaneous process of dekulakization during the late 1920s and early 1930s. The extraordinary pace of collectivization in the North Caucasus and Lower Volga and the ensuing famine in 1932-33 hint at the devastation to which the Cossacks in those regions were subjected. In any case, with international tensions mounting, the Soviet government decided in 1936 to remove restrictions on Cossacks serving in the Red Army. This decision was accompanied by an order issued by Marshal Voroshilov, the People’s Commissar of Defense, to recreate special Cossack divisions within the army.

The reaction of Cossacks, as reported by the head of the NKVD in Migulin raion (Rostov-on-Don oblast), was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Some, however, regarded the order distrustfully, interpreting it as a sign of weakness and claiming that “nothing will come of this.” Others expressed bitterness at the earlier repression of their “brothers.” Seeking to co-opt the Cossack esprit de corps, Soviet authorities sponsored parades of Cossack cavalry in Rostov, and promoted folklorized versions of Cossack dances on stage and horsemanship in the circus. During the Great Patriotic War, the invading Nazis enjoyed some success in wooing the Cossacks to their side. However, the majority of Cossack soldiers fought bravely if not always effectively against the invader.

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