Don Cossacks - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. After the schism within Russian Orthodoxy in the mid-seventeenth century, the Old Believers found a welcome refuge among the Don Cossacks, and a significant proportion of the population has remained Old Believer. Other Christian sects also came to settle in the Don region, although the Don Cossacks as a whole were committed to Russian Orthodoxy. By the 1820s there were 330 churches in the area. The church, located in the center of the village, had an onion-shaped cupola, sometimes green, with an adjoining garden surrounded by a brick wall. The houses of the priests, excellent by local living standards, stood nearby. The village church bell rang vespers and matins on Sundays, and time was reckoned by the church calendar. Confession was practiced and members of the church frequently crossed themselves before important acts and decisions. Prayers were often written down and carried as amulets. Unlike the practice elsewhere in the Russian Empire, the priests were elected until the middle of the last century. In 1891 there were 6,966 Russian Orthodox priests in the Don region, and the religious constituency of the area was diverse: Russian Orthodox, 1,864,000; Old Believers, 117,000; other Christians, 43,000; Tibetan Buddhists (Kalmyks), 29,551; Jews, 15,000; and Muslims, 2,478. The Soviet government made a sustained effort to eradicate religion. Today, although a significant number regard themselves as Christians, the majority are not practicing Christians.

Orthodoxy was commingled with other elements. Prayers were addressed not only to the Supreme Ruler and the Mother of God but also to folk heroes. Superstitions and folklore were mixed thoroughly with tradition. In song, the Don Cossacks referred to the Don as their "father" and to the surrounding countryside as "Mother Donland." Returning from military campaigns, they offered gifts to "Father Don": hats, capes, etc. Superstitions included fear of cats and of the number thirteen. An owl screeching from a belfry could portend trouble. Illness was seen as God's punishment and the illness of a child as punishment of the mother. Witchcraft could cause cows to go dry, as well as cause the death of livestock. The "evil eye" could make a girl morose or give her unwonted sexual yearning. Remedies for witchcraft were the province of crones, who might advise "washing away" the longing in the river by the light of dawn or sprinkling water over the shoulder. Some medicine had superstitious overtones. For bleeding, earth mixed with spiderweb was chewed, the bolus being applied to the wound. Superstition and tradition blended in such practices as that of placing a 1-year-old boy on a horse, in the belief that this would make him a good Cossack.

Arts. Oral epic poetry glorifying military feats and bravery was particularly well known. Cossack dancing and singing were also very popular. The Don Cossacks sang about their good horses and valiant battles but rarely about love.

Medicine. Today hospitals and physicians are available to the population. The poor state of Soviet and post-Soviet medicine, however, as well as traditional beliefs, still lead many to seek help from the folk practitioners.

Death and Afterlife. Death and pain were not matters of particular importance, unless a relative was involved, in which case there was a sense of bereavement. Burial could be in "Christian fashion," with the head toward the east and a small shrine placed over it or, as in the case of a peasant infant, simply in a small coffin under a tree with no accompanying service. Requiem masses were celebrated for the death of an adult, followed nine days later by a family feast for the priest and friends.

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