Don Cossacks - Sociopolitical Organization



Social Organization. Traditional Don Cossack society was a military democracy. Local miliary commanders ( ataman ) as well as the chief commander ( voiskovoi ataman ) were elected in a public gathering ( krug ) . Yet even at this early period Cossack society was clearly divided into the better-off, more established Don Cossacks ( domovitye ) who resided predominantly along the lower Don and the poor newcomers ( golutvennye ) who took residence farther up the Don. Social differentiation continued to grow with the Cossacks' further incorporation into Russian military, political, and legal systems. The atamans, now appointed by the Russian government, and the expanding bureaucracy formed a distinct social elite ( starshina ) . The majority, however, were either rank-and-file cavalry or agriculturalists. In Soviet society the distinctions between social groups of the Don area became primarily occupational.

Social Control. The Cossacks traditionally have been bound by customary law. An offender was brought before the krug, and the punishment, agreed upon by all present, was announced by the ataman. Stealing from a fellow Cossack was one of the most grievous offenses. Testimony of two trustworthy witnesses was sufficient to sentence a serious offender to capital punishment by drowning ( v vodu posadit ) . Corporal punishment was common. In a dispute between two parties, the ataman of the stanitsa served as mediator. If he failed to resolve the issue, he sent the contestants to Cherkassk, where the decision was made by the voiskovoi ataman and a group of elders. From the late eighteenth century until 1917 the legal system was comprised of the khutor court as a basic unit, the stanitsa court with four to twelve elected judges, an honor court for each two stanitsas, and the host government as the highest court. Elders had the authority to conduct courts-martial, and a man could be deprived of the title of Don Cossack. Youths were sworn into military service in a group ceremony involving as many as 1,500 young men. After taking their oath from a priest, the newly sworn kissed a crucifix. Discipline was severe, with sergeant-majors permitted tacitly to strike recruits in the face with whips with impunity, even under the eyes of officers. Punishment by a military tribunal sometimes led to execution by firing squad or a public birching, the latter carried out before a crowd on the public square with the pantless culprit bent over a bench. After 1917, Soviet courts and the Soviet legal system were introduced in the Don region. Today, the militia is used to enforce authority.

Conflict. Essentially a militaristic society, the history of the Don Cossack Host is the history of a military, political, social, and religious conflict. Until the late eighteenth century the Don Cossacks were in constant conflict with their neighbors: the Kalmyks, the Nogays, the Tatars, the Russians, and the Ukrainians. Government attempts to control the military actions of the Don Cossacks and to incorporate them into the Russian military led to some of the largest revolts in Russian history: one led by Stepan Razin in 1670-1671, another by Kondratii Bulavin in 1708, and yet another by Yemelyan Pugachov (1773—1774). Although these revolts were crushed, the Cossacks continued to play a major role in most of the social uprisings throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. After the Bolshevik Revolution the majority of the Don Cossacks remained strongly anti-Soviet and took an active part in the civil war of 1918-1920 on the side of the counterrevolutionary forces. In 1961 a mass demonstration of workers and students to protest food shortages ended in a bloodbath in the city of Novocherkassk.


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