Don Cossacks - Economy



Subsistence and Commercial Activities . Until the eighteenth century the Don Cossacks did not practice farming—their military commanders specifically banned such activity. Instead they subsisted on the grain supplies from Moscow, shipped to them in exchange for military service. Annual supplies of gunpowder, bullets, liquor, and cash were also provided by the government. Sometimes the Don Cossacks purchased these and other indispensable commodities in the neighboring Russian towns, but the authorities in Moscow tried to prevent such trade. In addition the Don Cossacks were paid cash upon the completion of a military campaign. The state monopoly on salt and liquor did not apply to the Cossacks, and the right to produce both constituted a crucial privilege. Another major source of wealth was booty ( zipun ) captured in raids against the Ottoman provinces and the neighboring peoples. Among the most valuable items taken were animal herds, horses, household items, and particularly captives, who later were ransomed or exchanged. Fishing, hunting, and apiculture were major aspects of the economy; Cossacks resisted with particular vehemence any infringement on their exclusive rights to fish in the Don area. Animal husbandry—raising horses, cows, goats, pigs—remained an important part of the local economy. With the increased number of colonists in the eighteenth century and introduction of market crops in the nineteenth century, however, agriculture began to dominate the economy of the region. Wheat was the most important agricultural product, and considerable mechanical equipment was used in its cultivation. The ground was broken with harrows and plows; the crops were reaped by machine and then transported on underframes beneath wagons. Bullocks were the most common dray animals for field work. Wheat was kept in granaries, individual and communal, and ground in communal mills. Other field crops included barley, rye, and hemp. A rich farmer might have had more than a dozen bullocks, horses, cows, and flocks of sheep. Also raised were pigs, chickens, turkeys, and ducks. Cattle were kept in common pasture and were watched over by a village herder, who drove the animals back from the steppes in the evening. Gardens and farms made each household virtually independent with regard to its food needs. A village without orchards and gardens was called "unhappy." Besides the customary apple trees and potato patch, the peasants also had patches of sunflowers, cultivated for their seeds. Hay was made from the steppe grass, and clover was also cut and used as hay. In the 1890s the region experienced economic depression, which continued unabated until the Soviet policies of industrialization changed the economic landscape of the area. Today, in addition to agriculture and animal husbandry, the area has a heavy concentration of various industries: steel, machinery, coal mining, and textiles.

Food. The most common breakfast was porridge. A major meal might consist of hot bread and butter, salted watermelon, pumpkin, pickled cucumbers and pickled cabbage, cabbage soup, homemade vermicelli, mutton, chicken, cold lamb's trotters, potatoes baked in their jackets, wheat gruel with butter, vermicelli with dried cherries, pancakes, and clotted cream. Workers in the fields enjoyed fatty meat and sour milk, whereas soldiers in the field often subsisted on cabbage soup, buckwheat gruel, and millet cooked in a pot.

Trade. In the past, most of the trade, particularly the slave trade, was conducted in Cherkassk, the administrative center. Transportation was by horse-drawn wagons or carts, in winter by bullock-drawn sledges. In the nineteenth century the Don Cossacks traded grain and cattle at the several annual fairs in the region. Today the major products are grain, coal, and steel, which are transported by rail or water to the other parts of the former USSR. Since 1952 the Volga-Don Canal has connected the two major arteries of European Russia.

Division of Labor. In pre-Soviet times labor was divided between men and women as in most traditional peasant societies. Women were judged by their ability to work and were almost constantly busy in the fields or their homes. Some of their duties included milking the cows and cooking, often under the critical supervision of a mother-in-law. For washing, the women beat clothing with flat stones in the river. They also prepared yarn on spinning wheels and knitted in idle moments. The Cossack men despised work and spent most of their time in military service, hunting, or fishing. Under Soviet rule the role of gender in the division of labor ceased to be important. Particularly during and after World War II, more women were employed at the jobs that traditionally had been reserved for men.

Land Tenure. Historically, the Don Cossacks had no immovable property and the land remained in common possession. With the influx of settlers and the incorporation of the Cossacks into the Russian military, landownership and serfdom were introduced in the region in the early nineteenth century. Water, forests, and grazing lands remained in usufruct, although each member of the stanitsa was eligible for a plot of land either as a shareholder or a rent payer. During the 1930s the Cossack lands were forcibly collectivized. Those who resisted were jailed or exiled to Siberia; others involuntarily joined the Soviet collective farms.


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