Don Cossacks - Marriage and Family

Marriage. Until the end of the seventeenth century the great majority of the Don Cossacks were single males. Falling in love, getting married, and settling down were considered out of keeping with the free life-style of the Cossack, and those few who followed such a course often found themselves mocked by their peers. With the influx of settlers to the Don region, however, the family emerged as a basic domestic unit. Previously most of the Cossack wives were captive women. Few married in the churches. In order to be considered wedded, a man and a woman would appear in front of a public gathering, say a prayer, and declare each other husband and wife. It was just as easy to divorce a wife by declaring that she was no longer loved. Upon this declaration, a divorced woman could be sold to any other Cossack for cash or goods. The dishonor of a divorce was removed after a new husband had partially covered a purchased woman with his coat and then declared her his wife.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the wedding rites became increasingly similar to the Russian ones, and most of the marriages took place in the churches. A husband had an unlimited authority over his wife and could beat, sell, or even murder her without a fear of punishment. Masculine domination often asserted itself in bitter, very profane cursing and sometimes in sadistic secret beatings. In view of these attitudes and practices, young women frequently detested the institution of marriage. Marriage traditionally was arranged by the father of the prospective bridegroom, who entered into negotiations with the girl's father through the agency of an elderly female relative of the young man, who served as matchmaker. Considerable haggling took place between the matchmaker, representing the bridegroom's family, and the father of the bride. A girl might have considerable choice, since her wishes were sometimes considered by her father in deciding whether to accept a proposed marriage. If the decision was yes, the two families began addressing each other immediately as relatives, broke out bread and a bottle of vodka, and began disputing over the amount of the dowry. A small procession, directed by the bridegroom dressed in a black frock coat, went to fetch the bride in several gaily colored wagonettes. While the newly arrived guests were drinking kvass and vodka, the bride's sisters put up a mock defense of the bride against the bridegroom. Sitting beside her, with poker and rolling pin as weapons, they refused to "sell" their sister for the offered price—a coin in the bottom of the bridegroom's glass. They finally did relinquish her, however; then the bridegroom explained that the total bride-price had been paid. Postmarital residence was traditionally patrilocal. Leaving the home of the bride's parents, the couple was showered with hops and wheat. After receiving the blessing of the groom's father, they went into the church for the formal wedding. During this ceremony the groom, at least, held a candle and the two exchanged rings. The ceremony culminated with a kiss. In the post-1917 period civil marriages became prevalent. Today, because of the severe housing shortage, postmarital residence is conditioned mostly by the availability of space rather than the force of tradition. The age of marriage and childbearing is early or mid-twenties for both men and women. The rate of divorce is high. Legal abortion is a principal means of birth control.

Domestic Unit. The family household, the kuren, was the basic domestic unit of the Cossacks. It appears that an extended family household was less prevalent among the Don Cossacks than among the Russians and the Ukrainians. Boys were brought up in a strict military fashion and at the age of 3 were able to ride a horse.

Inheritance. Inheritance was through the male line.

Socialization. Male bonding and friendship were the most important traditional means of socialization for men. Any Cossack felt a definite superiority over any non-Cossack. A poor Don Cossack considered the rich non-Cossack merchant "a peasant." Until the eighteenth century Cossack women were secluded. Later they became more visible, socializing mostly with each other. Respect for parents and the aged remains important. In an elderly man, the Cossacks respect clarity of mind, incorruptible honesty, and hospitable ways. The universally admired Cossack today is one who has mastered military skills and who loves farming and hard work. The Don Cossacks were also known for their piety and loyalty to the monarch. An elderly Cossack considered his life fulfilled when he had "lived his days, served his czar, and drunk enough vodka." Drinking was similar to a ritual and avoiding it was regarded almost as an apostasy.

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