Cossacks (First World War)

Cossacks (First World War)

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Cossacks (First World War)

During the First World War the Cossacks were some of the best and most savage of the Russian troops. Still using their traditional small tough ponies they were skilled at reconnaissance and formed much of the cavalry reserve. In 1914 a massive 939 squadrons were mobilized normally around 100 men strong. Most came from the Don (360 squadrons) and Kuban (202 squadrons) regions although Siberia sent 54 squadrons. They were organised into Steppe and Caucasian groups further divided into Voiskos or territorial divisions. The steppe Cossacks wore an ordinary uniform but the Caucasian Cossacks wore their traditional tribal dress including the Busby or black Kaftan headgear and rough woollen coats. Cossacks did not wear spurs but carried a whip and lances and carbines as well as sabres. From 1909 they were allowed to carry family weapons passed down through generations instead of the regulation sabre. Each Cossack had to supply his own weapons, horse and clothing, only the rifle was supplied for which the Government charged half the cost to his tribe. Cossacks were also seen in the artillery and Kuban infantry although in more modern uniforms.

Books on the First World War |Subject Index: First World War

You've been wrong about Cossacks this whole time

They lived according to their own laws in the free lands of the Russian South. They were one of the most trusted military forces in the Russian Empire &ndash but at the same time, a constant headache for the Russian tsars who wanted to govern and control them.

The number of Cossacks, statistics about them and their places of residence cannot be exactly defined. Historically, this very word denoted a vast congregation of free people in the Russian lands, people that had been there since ancient times.

How did the Cossacks appear?

Yalutorovsk ostrog (fortress), Tyumen region, Russia. One of the oldest surviving Siberian Cossack fortresses

The very word Cossack (&lsquoказак&rsquo) is Turkic and means a free man, a vagabond, a fortune seeker. Obviously, in Russia it appeared to denote people who weren&rsquot tied down to their masters or landlords.

The first Cossacks were people who were living on the outskirts of the Russian duchies, mainly in the South of the Russian lands &ndash approximately from the 14th-15th centuries. They lived in fortified settlements that were set up to protect the duchies from the nomadic tribes that wandered around in the area called the Wild Fields &ndash between the lands of Vladimir-Suzdal Rus&rsquo and the Caspian and the Black seas.

These communities were filled up with people who chose freedom and danger in favor of the relatively safe and dependent living in Central Russia. As serfdom, taxes, and the centralized government started to appear in Russia, the lands of the Cossacks started to accept runaway serfs, people who had trouble with the law, and whoever else chose to escape there.

When did the Cossacks start to serve the Russian government?

As soon as the first centralized government appeared in the Moscow State (around the 15th century), the first Grand Princes of Moscow tried to put the Cossacks at their service. Cossack military formations took part in the battles of the Moscow princes against the nomadic Tatars. Under Ivan the Terrible, the Cossacks living in the South (along the Don, the Dnieper rivers, and elsewhere) were partly governed by his prikazes (state institutions that preceded ministries). The Cossacks served and stood guard against the enemies of the Moscow State in border cities, partly supported by the Moscow government and commanded by official non-Cossack military men sent from the central region.

In the 17th century, a separate Cossack prikaz was organized to control the Cossacks, but they still largely lived a free way of life &ndash attacking Russia&rsquos neighbors (the Ottoman Empire in particular), disturbing them with their raids even when the government tried to uphold peace between the countries.

There were over 20 different Cossack hosts (Cossack armies) located in various parts of the Russian Empire. Up until the end of the 19th century, they kept their relatively free status. The Don Cossack host (located around the Don river basin, the territory of contemporary Ukraine) was the largest and the oldest one of them. What distinguished them from the regular army was that in peaceful periods, the Cossack hosts easily disbanded &ndash and the individual Cossacks returned to their free way of life &ndash trading goods and commodities, drinking, partying, and just living their free life on the steppes. They were free from capital tax, from recruitment, and other taxes, but were strictly obliged to appear to be drafted &ndash armed and on a horse at the first call of the central administration.

How were the Cossacks deprived of their autonomy?

Reenactment of a 17th-century Cossack battle

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the areas the Cossacks traditionally inhabited became parts of Russia. In 1667-1671, the politics of the Moscow Tsardom caused the Don Cossacks to ignite an uprising known as Stepan Razin Peasant War. The leader, Stepan Razin, was eventually surrendered to the tsar&rsquos officials by his fellow Cossacks, because they wanted to keep their autonomy. However, in the beginning of the 18th century, the Don Cossacks were subdued by Peter the Great and their lands became part of the Empire.

During Catherine the Great&rsquos reign, roughly the same thing happened &ndash as the Russian Empire started to conquer the lands of the Malorossiya (modern day Ukraine and Belarus), the Rebellion of Emelyan Pugachev took place in 1773-1775. Pugachev, also a Cossack, led his men and peasants to Central Russia, only to be crushed by the Imperial Russian Army. After that, the Don Cossacks were firmly obliged to serve the state. Cossacks became a denomination among the Russian people, with certain privileges and responsibilities.

Who were the Zaporozhian Cossacks?

"Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire," 1880-1891 by Ilya Repin (1844-1930)

In the middle of the 17th century, the Russian state was joined by another major Cossack Host - the Zaporozhian. Settled in the valley of Dnieper river on the territories of central Ukraine, Zaporozhians were politically dependent on the Polish-Lithuanian state, defending its southern and eastern borders against Crimean Tatars, Ottomans, and even Moscow Tsars. However, since their relations with Poles left much to be desired, uprisings and liberation wars permanently occurred. During one of them led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the Zaporozhian Cossacks asked Russians for help and moved under the protection and rule of Moscow &ndash the event considered in Russia and the USSR as "reunification of Ukraine and Russia".

The Zaporozhian Host's existence in the Russian state lasted just over a century. Because (due to the Russo-Ottoman wars) the Empire's borders were expanded southwards, the Zaporozhian Cossacks' territories were left far in the Russian rear, abandoning, in fact, the Cossacks' main role as the defenders of national borders. When in 1775, the Russian Empress Catherine II disbanded the Zaporozhian Host, some Cossacks chose to serve the Ottoman Sultan, the others settled down on the territories of the modern Kuban region of Russia. They became the forefathers of those whom we know today as the Kuban Cossacks.

Why were Russian explorers called Cossacks?

The Semyon Dezhnev expedition

Yermak, who subdued the Siberian Khanate, Semyon Dezhnev, who discovered what is now the Bering Strait, and many other Russian explorers of the 17th-18th centuries were called Cossacks because they served on the outskirts of the Russian land, protected its borders and expanded its influence outwards. Semyon Dezhnev even served formally as a Cossack in the Siberian town of Tobolsk. However, these Siberian Cossacks were not like the Cossacks of the Don region &ndash they were not united into hosts (armies), but were more like border guards.

What were the faiths and nationalities of Cossacks?

The Cossacks didn&rsquot belong to any particular nationality. Most of the Cossacks of Don had mixed ancestry &ndash partly Central Russian, partly Southerners, with strong Tatar as well as Polish influences, so we aren&rsquot able to define them ethnically.

Most of the Cossacks were Russian Orthodox and Russian Old Believers. Their Christian faith defined them more than their nationality or their place of living also, the Cossack principles and way of life united very different people that identified as Cossacks.

What was special about the Cossack way of life?

What strikes us immediately about the Cossacks are their hairstyles, their moustaches and their colourful clothing, that bears a strong resemblance to the clothing of the Northern Caucasus people &ndash very much because it&rsquos the clothing of professional warring riders living in warm climates.

A Cossack boy was taught to ride, to use a sword, and to fire a gun from the age of 10. Cossack upbringing was harsh. Kids worked in the fields side by side with their mothers and fathers, and even their games were military. Singing and dancing was also an important part of the upbringing of boys and girls, because a Cossack person is always a jolly and fearless one.

Since ancient times, Cossacks were always ready to withstand a sudden attack by nomadic tribes, that&rsquos why the Russian government tolerated their freedom for so long &ndash until the central authorities became able to use the army to effectively protect the Southern borders, they needed Cossacks as protectors of these lands.

How many Cossacks were there?

It&rsquos really hard to tell &ndash as the Cossacks didn&rsquot pay taxes and didn&rsquot take part in the census. We only have approximate numbers for the end of the 19th &ndash beginning of the 20th centuries.

The 1897 census, the first one that showed the numbers of the Cossacks, estimated that there were about 3 million Cossacks (1,448,382 men and 1,480,460 women). However, their real numbers were much bigger than that, estimated around five million in the whole Empire.

Where were the Cossacks in the Soviet times?

Soviet red army Cossacks giving a traditional dance performance

During Soviet times, many Cossacks suffered repressions, because most of them fiercely opposed the Bolsheviks. The Bolshevik government adopted a policy of de-Cossackification (расказачивание). In 1918-1924, great numbers of Cossacks were executed and even greater numbers forcibly moved. The area of the Don Cossacks host was inhabited in 1917 by about 4.5 million people, half of them identified as Cossacks by 1921, there were only about 2.2 million people left in this area.

However, there were Cossack military formations in the Soviet army, although they could not be compared in numbers to the Russian Empire&rsquos Cossack hosts. The Soviet Cossacks in WWII were not very effective &ndash cavalry are ineffective against tanks and airplanes.

Where are the Cossacks now?

Contemporary Russian Cossacks

Currently, people who identify themselves as Cossacks or say that they are of Cossack origin, are living on the territories of Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and in different parts of the world (many Cossacks emigrated from Russia after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917).

In 1989, the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union officially acknowledged the unjust repressions carried out against Cossacks and confirmed their right to be formally rehabilitated politically. In 1994, the government of the Russian Federation declared that &ldquoThe revival of the traditional Russian state service of the Cossacks is one of the elements of the formation of a new Russian state.&rdquo

Currently, there is a Russian paramilitary formation called the Registered Cossacks of the Russian Federation. It unites a hierarchy of contemporary Russian Cossack societies in various parts of the country. There is also a Council of Cossack affairs under the President of the Russian Federation. There are about 140,000 Cossacks (members of the Cossack societies) now in Russia, and 11 major Cossack societies registered, but the number of Cossack descendants is much bigger.

If using any of Russia Beyond's content, partly or in full, always provide an active hyperlink to the original material.

Of Russian origin: Cossacks

Image from

There is hardly a single simple definition for them. They are not a nationality or a religion, they don’t represent a political party or movement and there is still no complete agreement among historians and anthropologists on who the Cossacks are.

In the Wikipedia they are defined as “the militaristic communities of various ethnicities living in the steppe regions of Ukraine and also southern Russia.” Described in a few words, Cossacks are free men or adventurerers. In fact, their name is derived from the Turkish Qasaq, which means exactly that.

There are also different versions of the origin of the Cossacks. According to some historians, in Russia and Ukraine Cossacks were the men who lived freely on the outlying districts. Usually they were serfs who had run away to find their own freedom.

Image from

The government tried to find and punish them, but the number of those on the run became so great that it was impossible to catch them all and soon the state had to give up and recognize the newly established communities on its borders. The first such self-governing warrior Cossack communities were formed in the 15th century (or, according to some sources, in the 13th century) in the Dnieper and Don River regions.

Cossacks also accepted Tatars, Germans, Turks and other nationalities into their communities, but there was one condition – they had to believe in Christ. Once accepted into the community, they stopped being Germans, Russians or Ukrainians – they became Cossacks.

Cossacks had their own elected headman, called ataman, who had executive powers and was supreme commander during the war. Rada (the Band Assembly) held the legislative powers. The senior officers were called starshina and the Cossack settlements were called stanitsas. The Cossacks were named by their geographical locations. Some of the most famous ones were the Zaporozhian, Don and Kuban Cossacks.

Painting by I.Repin (Image from

Military might of the Cossacks

Cossack military traditions are strong and boys were trained as warriors from a very young age. As soon as a baby had cut his teeth, he was brought to the church and a service to St. John the Warrior was served, so that the boy would grow strong and fearless, and dedicated to Orthodoxy. At the age of three the child could already mount a horse and by five he was a confident rider. Father would also teach their sons the art of sharp shooting, adroitness and coordination from a very young age.

Recognizing the Cossack’s military skills, the Russian government tried to control them and make them serve the Tsar. However, not all Cossacks were loyal to the Tsar and some participated in peasants’ revolts. The most famous rebellions were led by the Cossacks Stepan Razin, Kondratiy Bulavin and Emelyan Pugachev.

Image from

In the 18th century the government turned the Cossacks into a special social estate, which was to serve the Russian Empire. Their main responsibilities were to guard the country’s borders. In order to keep the Cossacks loyal to the Tsar, the government gave them special privileges and vast social autonomy, which they valued.

At the same time the Cossacks, remaining true to their free spirits, mostly respected the Tsar and the Patriarch, but hated state bureaucracy and when they felt the Tsar was unjust they didn’t hesitate to start rebellions. However, especially during the Romanov Dynasty, Cossacks were the most vigorous defenders of Russia. This continued up until the October Revolution of 1917.

After the Bolshevik Revolution

During the Russian Civil War the Cossacks fought mainly for the White Army, therefore, after the victory of the Red Army they were heavily persecuted, their lands were subjected to famine and they suffered many repressions. During the Second World War the Cossacks were split some fought for the Soviet Union and some supported Nazi Germany.

Many historians say that the reason some Cossacks supported the Nazis was that they saw it as a war against Stalin and against the demonic regime that killed their Tsar and Russia.

Image from

The revival of the Cossacks and their traditions began in 1989, during the Perestroika period. In 2005, Vladimir Putin, then President of Russia, introduced a bill approved at the State Duma that recognized the Cossacks not only as a distinct ethno-cultural entity, but also as a potent military force.

Today there are even special Cossack schools, where, along with the usual subjects like math and literature, students are taught Cossack traditions and history. Vast groups of Cossacks can now be found in the south of Russia and numerous Cossack groups inhabit the northwestern Caucasus, Kuban, Krasnodar and Stavropol regions.

Post by RCW Mark » 02 Aug 2005, 22:47

As the pictures above show, most Cossacks wore pretty much standard Imperial uniforms. What people tend to think of as "Cossack" uniforms are in fact the traditional garb of the Caucasian mountaineers (tidied up and made more military) and not really Cossack at all. Only the Terek and Kuban Cossacks wore such dress, since they bordered on the Caucasus.

The Cossacks were pretty much ordinary Russians by 1914, with a few special privileges and duties. Orthodox, speaking Russian and fully integrated into Imperial Russia.

Generally the tribesmen of the Russian borders were not drafted, because giving them military training was not considered a good idea. But a unit of mostly moslem tribesmen volunteers from the Caucasus (Chechens, Ingush, etc) formed the "Savage Division" which saw a lot of active service fighting the Austrians (I think). Of doubtful discipline but undoubted valour.

Post by Kelvin » 14 Sep 2011, 08:10

tyskaorden wrote: A list of the Cossack Forces in 1914 part 1.

Combined Cossack Regiment of the Lifeguards
1st His Majesty's Ural Sotnia (Sqn) Pavlovsk
2nd Orenburg Sotnia Gatchina
3rd Combined Sotnia (Siberian and Trans-Baikal Cos.) Pavlovsk
4th Amur Sotnia (troops from Astrakhan, Semireche, Amur and Ussuri Hosts) Pavlovsk

His Imperial Majesty's Own Escort (Konvoi) St Petersburg with:
1st and 2nd Kuban Cossack Sotnias (Sqns) of the Lifeguards
3rd and 4th Terek Cossack Sotnias of the Lifeguards

The 6th Battery of the Lifeguards Horse Artillery was His Majesty's Lifeguards Don Cossack Battery.


H.M. The Emperor's Lifeguards Cossack Regt. St. Petersburg
HIH The Sovereign Heir and Tsesarevich's Lifeguards Ataman Cossack Regt. St. Petersburg

1st Generalissimo Prince Suvorov-Italijsk's Don Cossack Regiment Moskva
2nd General Sjerysoev's Don Cos. Regt. Augustov
3rd Yermak Timofeev's Don Cos. Regt. Vilno
4th Count Platov's Don. Cos. Regt. Szuczucin
5th Host-Ataman Vlasov's Don Cos. Regt. Balashev
6th General Krasnosjtiekov's Don Cos. Regt. Prasnysz
7th General Krasnosjtiekov's Don Cos. Regt. Nikolajev
8th General Ilovajsk's Don Cos. Regt. Odessa
9th General-Adjutant Count Orlov-Denisov's Don Cos. Regt. Krasnik
10th General Lukovkin's Don Cos. Regt. Zamosc
11th General of Cavalry Count Denisov's Don Cos. Regt. Valdimir-Volinski
12th General-Fieldmarshal Prince Potemkin of Tauridia's Don Cos. Regt. Radzivillov
13th General-Fieldmarshal Prince Kutuzov of Smolensk's Don Cos. Regt. Zamosc
14th Host-Ataman Yefremov's Don Cos. Regt. Bendin
15th General Krasnov's Don Cos. Regt. Tomaszew
16th General Grekov's Don Cos. Regt. Mogilev-Podolski
17th General Baklanov's Don Cos. Regt. Novo Ushitsa

During the War the 18th to 34th Don Cos. Regts of the second category and 35th to 52nd Don Cos. Regts. Of the third category was mobilized.

Independent Don Cossack Squadrons (Sotnias)
1st Novocherkassk
2nd Rostov na Donu
3rd Taganrog
4th Makeevka
5th Sulin
6th Bogorodsk

Mobilized during the was second category Sotnias Nos 7-36

Don Cossack Artillery:
1st Don Cossack Battery Bendery as part of 8th Horse Artillery Bn.

1st Don Cos. Artillery Bn. Krasnostaw (6th Don Cos. Btty), Zamosc (7th Don Cos. Btty)
2nd Don Cos. Artillery Bn. Proskurov (4th and 5th Don Cos Bttys)
3rd Don Cos. Artillery Bn. Chuguev (2nd and 3rd Don cos. Bttys)

Second Category Batteries Nos 8-14
Third Category Batteries Nos 15-21


Her Imperial Highness Grand Duchess Anastasia Michailovnas's 1st Khoper Regt. Kutais
General-Fieldmarshal Grand Duke Michail Nikolajevich's 1st Kuban Regt. Karakut
General Bezkrov's 1st Taman regt. Kasji
Kosjevgo-Ataman Sidor Belog's 1st Poltava Regt. Erivan
Empress Catherine the Great's 1st Zaporozhian Regt. Kagieman
Brigadier-General Golovatog's 1st Uman Regt. Kars
Kosjevgo-Ataman Tjepegi's 1st Ekaterinodar Regt. Ekaterinodar
Empress Catherine's Viceroy General-Fieldmarshal Prince Potemkin's 1st Caucasus Regt. Merv
General Zassa's 1st Laba regt. Elendorf
General Veljaminov's 1st Line Regt. Kamenets-Podolski
Colonel Bursaka's 1st Black Sea Regt. Dzjelal-Ogljery
Second Category
2nd Khoper Regt. Batalpashinskaya
2nd Kuban Regt. Porochnookopskaya
2nd Taman Regt. Slavyanskaya
2nd Poltava Regt. "
2nd Zaporozhian Regt. Umanskaya
2nd Uman Regt. "
2nd Ekaterinodar Regt. Ekaterinodar
2nd Caucasus Regt. Kavkazskaya
2nd Labin Regt. Labinskaya
2nd Line Regt. Maikop
Third Category
3rd Khoper Regt.
3rd Kuban Regt.
3rd Taman Regt.
3rd Poltava Regt.
3rd Zaporozhian Regt.
3rd Uman Regt.
3rd Ekaterinodar Regt.
3rd Caucasus Regt.
3rd Labin Regt.
3rd Urup Regt.

Kuban Plastun Brigade (Plastun = Cossack Infantry)
1st General-Feldzugmeister Grand Duke Michail Nikolajevich’s Kuban Plastun Bn. Batum
2nd Kuban Plastun Bn. Dushet
3rd Kuban Plastun Bn. Telav
4th Kuban Plastun Bn. Elisavetpol
5th Kuban Plastun Bn. Tiflis
6th Kuban Plastun Bn. Ladodekhi Fortification in Tiflis province.
Second Category 7th-12th Kuban Plastun Bns.
Third Category 13th-18th Kuban Plastun Bns.

Kuban Artillery:
1st Kuban Btty. Erivan
2nd Kuban Btty. Sarykamysh in Kars Prov.
3rd Kuban Btty. Maikop
4th Kuban Btty. Kaakha in Trans-Caspian Prov.
5th Kuban Btty. Kinakiry
Second Category: 6th-10th Kuban Batteries


1st General Yermolov's Kizlyar-Grebenski Regt. Grozny
1st General Kurkovsky's Mountain-Mozdok Regt. Olty, in 1914 this Regt. was on active service in Persia.
1st Volga regt. Mamenets-Podolsk
1st General Sleptsov's Sunzha-Valdikavkaz Regt. Khan-Kendy.
Second Category:
2nd Mountain-Mozdok regt. Prokhladnaya
2nd Volga Regt. Goryachevodskaya
2nd Kizylar-Grebenski Regt. Groznenskaya
2nd Sundha-Vladivkavkaz Vladivkavkaz

Volga, Mountain-Mozdok, Kizylar-Grebenski and Sunzha-Valdivkavkaz Local Commands

1st and 2nd Terek Plastun Bns.

1st Terek Btty. Akhalkalaki
2nd Terek Btty. Mozdok
Second Category Nos 3rd and 4th Bttys.

//Tyskaorden alias Marcus Karlsson

Hi, Tyskaorden ,did your list of Cossack regiments were existed in pre war period ?

And Cossack cavlary was classified as mounted rilfes or light cavalry , may you tell me on that ?

The Khmelnytsky insurrection

Tensions stemming from social discontent, religious strife, and Cossack resentment of Polish authority finally coalesced and came to a head in 1648. Beginning with a seemingly typical Cossack revolt, under the leadership of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, Ukraine was quickly engulfed in an unprecedented war and revolution.

Khmelnytsky was a petty nobleman and Cossack officer who, unable to obtain justice for wrongs suffered at Polish hands, fled to the Sich in late 1647 and was soon elected hetman. In early 1648 he began preparations for an insurrection, securing for this purpose Tatar military support. A Polish army sent into Ukraine to forestall the rebellion was shattered in two battles in May. This victory gave signal to a massive popular uprising. Violence spread throughout Ukraine as Cossacks and peasants vented their fury on those they associated with Polish tyranny and social oppression—landlords, officials, Latin and Uniate clergy, and Jews. The Poles in turn took bloody reprisals against the rebellious population. In September Khmelnytsky inflicted another crushing defeat on a newly raised Polish army, marched westward through Galicia, and finally besieged Zamość in Poland proper. He did not press his advantage, however, and, with the election of a new Polish king in November, he returned to central Ukraine. In January 1649 Khmelnytsky entered Kyiv to triumphal acclaim as liberator.

Although initially seeking only a redress of grievances from the Polish crown, Khmelnytsky, following his arrival in Kyiv, began to conceive of Ukraine as an independent Cossack state. He set about establishing a system of government and state finances, created a local administration under a new governing elite drawn from the Cossack officers, and initiated relations with foreign states. Still prepared to recognize royal sovereignty, however, he entered into negotiations with the Poles. But neither the Treaty of Zboriv (August 1649) nor a less favourable agreement two years later proved acceptable—either to the Polish nobility or to the Cossack rank and file and the radicalized masses on the Ukrainian side.

While military operations continued inconclusively, and because Tatar support proved undependable at crucial moments, Khmelnytsky began to search for other allies. In 1654 at Pereyaslav he concluded with Moscow an agreement whose precise nature has generated enormous controversy: Russian historians have emphasized Ukraine’s acceptance of the tsar’s suzerainty, which subsequently legitimized Russian rule, but Ukrainian historiography has stressed Moscow’s recognition of Ukraine’s autonomy (including an elective hetmancy, self-government, and the right to conduct foreign relations) that was virtually tantamount to independence (see Pereyaslav Agreement). Moscow now entered the war against Poland. No decisive breakthrough occurred, however, despite occasional joint victories, and Khmelnytsky became increasingly disillusioned with the Muscovite alliance. There were disputes over control of conquered territory in Belarus and conflicts over Russian interference in internal Ukrainian affairs. Especially galling to the hetman was the Russo-Polish rapprochement that followed the invasion in 1655 of Poland by Sweden, Moscow’s adversary but Ukraine’s potential ally (see First Northern War). Khmelnytsky again cast about for new alliances and coalitions involving Sweden, Transylvania, Brandenburg, Moldavia, and Walachia, and there were indications that the hetman planned to sever the Muscovite connection but died before he could do so.

Guarding the Railroad, Taming the Cossacks

William S. Graves was pleased as summer 1918 began. He had just been promoted to major general and assigned command of the U.S. Army's Eighth Division, which would soon go to France to fight the Germans in the Great War. On August 2, however, Graves got a specially coded message at Camp Fremont in California, ordering him to a meeting in Kansas City.

The next evening, he was met at the Kansas City train station by Secretary of War Newton Baker, who informed Graves that his career was taking a new turn.

President Woodrow Wilson had decided that the United States, still at war in Europe, must intervene in another part of the world to protect its investments. It had nearly a billion dollars' worth of American guns and equipment strewn along a segment of the Trans-Siberian Railway between Vladivostok and Nikolsk.

Wilson had approved the dispatch of eight thousand men to Siberia— that cold, forbidding part of Russia— and he had chosen Graves as their commander. There, Graves would engage not in the kind of structured combat he had expected in Europe but in a wily contest of nerves, with Cossacks, Bolshevik guerrilla forces, and even Japanese army troops looking to bring Siberia into Japan's sphere of influence. At the same time, the American North Russian Expeditionary Force arrived in Archangel.

It would be the first, and only, time American troops were on Russian soil.

Graves and his men would face off against not German military leaders schooled in combat much the way he had been at West Point, but with the likes of Grigori Semenoff, a Cossack leader, or ataman, of a surly band of marauders whose sole joy in life was to rape, plunder, and steal among the local populations of the Trans-Baikal region of Siberia. On the Trans-Baikal Railway, one of the major links of the Trans-Siberian Railway, the Cossacks routinely commandeered railway cars and locomotives.

Wilson's decision and Graves's unexpected adventure were coming at a time when much of the world was in turmoil.

The World War was still raging in Europe and would not end until the Armistice in November 1918. Civil war was still under way in Russia even though the Bolsheviks had ousted Alexander Kerensky in November 1917, a few months after the Mensheviks had deposed the tsar that spring. There did not appear to the Allies to be a legitimate government with whom they could do business. The Allies viewed the Czech Legion and even some White Russian and Cossack forces as levers to winning the war against Germany and Austria by creating diversions in western Russia at Archangel and in eastern Siberia. They hoped this activity would cause the Central Powers to divert forces from the Western Front back to Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, the Red Army in Russia was still fighting for its life on at least four fronts.

When Baker met Graves in Kansas City, he handed him an envelope that contained the aide memoire, the reasons for sending American soldiers to innermost Russia:

  • To facilitate the safe exit of the forty-thousand-man Czech Legion from Russia. The Legion had helped clear the Trans-Siberian Railway of Bolsheviks in the spring of 1918 and were the main fighting force in Siberia sympathetic to the Allied cause. (The Bolsheviks had made a separate peace with Germany and therefore could not be trusted.)
  • To guard the nearly one billion dollars' worth of American military equipment stored at Vladivostok and Murmansk.
  • To help the Russians organize their new government.

"This contains the policy of the United States in Russia which you are to follow," Baker said as he handed over the envelope. "Watch your step you will be walking on eggs loaded with dynamite. God bless you and good-bye."

Reasons for Intervention

President Woodrow Wilson's motivation for sending troops to Siberia stemmed from the same desires that drove him to try to impose the Paris Peace Treaty on Europe: the promotion of democracy and self-determination. But first and foremost, he wanted to protect the billion-dollar investment of American guns and equipment along the Trans-Siberian Railway. Vast quantities of supplies had been sent when America believed that Russia was capable of fighting and winning against the Central Powers in the spring of 1917.

The Menshevik Revolution, which overthrew the tsar in February and March 1917, raised Wilson's hopes for democratizing Russia and implanting capitalism there. Under Alexander Kerensky's regime, the first wave of American technicians arrived to revamp and run the vast Trans-Siberian Railway. The European allies, in concert with Kerensky, agreed to establish the American-run Russian Railway Service. Beginning in November 1917, the United States provided Russia with three hundred locomotives and more than ten thousand railway cars. Bad weather and an unfavorable political climate delayed the final entry of the Russian Railway Service Corps until March 1918, when they entered Siberia from the Manchurian city of Harbin.

In addition to the supplies and the presence of Americans attempting to fix and develop Russia's railway service, Wilson also considered the Czech Legion. The Legion had been formed early in 1918 from Czech and Slovak prisoners of war in Russia, sympathetic Russian Slavs, and deserters from the Austro-Hungarian army. Beginning in March 1918, forty thousand soldiers fought with the Legion for the Allied cause. When the Bolsheviks pulled out of the war, they agreed to let the Czech Legion leave Russia. President Wilson wanted the world to know that the United States supported the safe return of the Czech Legion to its newly formed homeland.

In March 1918, the Legion moved steadily eastward along the Trans-Siberian Railway. When the Bolsheviks tried to disarm the Czechoslovaks, the soldiers of the Legion hid their weapons, and relations between the two groups frayed.

In May 1918 the Red Guard arrested several Czechoslovaks after a confrontation between legionaries and German prisoners of war at Chelyabinsk Station. A Czech had been killed, and his comrades retaliated by lynching a prisoner. The legionaries forcibly released the prisoners and took over the town. In a valiant effort to fight their way back to their homeland, the Czech Legion smashed its way both east and west, toppling just about every Soviet government in the far eastern part of Russia and Siberia.

This dramatic turn of events brought the fate of the Czech Legion to the attention of Wilson and ultimately led to the American intervention in Siberia.1 In June 1918, Wilson received a number of diplomatic visits directly related to the Allied demand for intervention in Russia. Both the French and British military missions to Russia sent representatives to persuade him to send American troops to Siberia. The War Department had been studying the issue for some time, but they were hardly as sanguine as the French and British wished. The Europeans sought at least thirty thousand American troops in Siberia to go in alongside some sixty thousand Japanese. The Allies stressed the need to deprive the Germans of access to the billions of dollars' worth of assets that lay strewn about the Siberian landscape. The bulk of the effort was to persuade the Czechs to remain in Siberia as a serious counterweight to the Germans. The Allies hoped that by keeping pressure on the Red Army, they could prevent an alliance between the Bolsheviks and the Central Powers, which they feared might allow Germany and Austria to shift valuable men and material to the Western Front.

Finally on July 6, 1918, Wilson decided to intervene in Siberia. The mandate for eight thousand American troops and seventy thousand Japanese troops gave the rationale of protecting the supplies and communications (the Trans-Siberian Railway) and aiding the Czech Legion in its quest to return home.2

The Japanese had landed the first contingents of more than seventy thousand soldiers in June and July and consolidated their control of the Chinese Eastern Railway and much of northern Manchuria near Semenoff's headquarters in Chita. Japanese designs on Manchuria and Siberian economic resources required that no stable government be permitted to develop. To keep the region unsettled, the Japanese could gain leverage in the area by fomenting trouble via Cossack bandits. From the outset, the Japanese cultivated Semenoff and likeminded Cossacks, and lavish gifts and money found their way to Chita and to strongholds of other atamans in eastern Siberia.

Although General Graves did not arrive in Siberia until September 4, 1918, some American troops had arrived as early as August 15, 1918, and quickly took up guard duty along segments of the railway between Vladivostok and Nikolsk in the north.

Gregori Semenoff

Ataman Gregori Semenoff had made a name for himself during World War I while serving in Poland he received numerous decorations for valor from the tsarist regime. In the nineteenth century, armies of the Russian tsar had driven the Cossacks out of their homelands in the Crimea and steppes of Central Asia. Cut adrift, Cossack bands pledged unbending loyalty to strong figures like Grigori Semenoff.

Upon the overthrow of the tsar, Alexander Kerensky, head of the Provisional Government, still felt that he needed Semenoff's military skills and transferred him to the Trans-Baikal region in central Siberia. Soon afterward, the Bolshevik revolution swept eastward out of European Russia into Siberia and followed the towns along the Trans-Siberian railroad all the way to Vladivostok. Only one month after the capture of Vladivostok and all of Siberia by Bolshevik forces, Semenoff narrowly escaped capture by the Red Army. He quickly turned to organizing his "Special Manchurian Detachment" to recapture the Trans-Baikal region from the Bolsheviks.

One of Semenoff's foremost admirers was an American intelligence officer, Maj. David P. Barrows, who was on loan in Manchuria and Siberia from the U.S. Army intelligence office in the Philippines. In April of 1918, Barrows accompanied Semenoff on his campaign against Red Army units operating in and around Manchuli, Manchuria. In an attachment to his report on the successful Semenoff campaign, Barrows summarized his opinion of Semenoff, in part:

While always cool, he undoubtedly has a passionate disposition and capable of intense anger and fixed resentment. He had three and one half years of fighting in Europe and many stories are told in his camp as to his prowess. So far as I can judge, he is completely independent of the influence of those around him and other Russian leaders with whom he has relations. His personality easily dominates. His feelings toward the Bolsheviki and the prisoners who have joined their ranks is very strong. He detests their undoing of Russia. . . . He is devoting his life to their destruction and after that to the resumption of the warfare against the Central Powers. He is capable of great severity toward his enemies and toward the disobedient in his own ranks.3

While Barrows thus treated Semenoff as something of a potential savior for Siberia and the whole Russian nation, other Americans in April 1918 did not view Semenoff with such optimism. James G. Bailey, secretary to the American embassy at Petrograd, disagreed with Barrows that Semenoff had the impartial, energetic leadership qualities to rally Russians against the Central Powers. Bailey felt that Semenoff, backed by the French, the British, and probably the Japanese, was doing more to mobilize the Red Armies in defense of the motherland than a tsarist or Menshevik army could.4

Only a few months later, General Graves and his staff were to join the chorus of opposition to Semenoff.

Semenoff's successful technique consisted of using the element of surprise to overwhelm consistently larger Red forces, rapidly disarming opposition forces, and placing all prisoners in locked box cars to be shipped into the heart of Siberia and certain death. Despite the infusion of many new Mongolian, Japanese, Chinese, and White Russian volunteers into his detachment, Semenoff remained largely stymied in his efforts to free his beloved Chita and the surrounding Trans-Baikal from Bolshevik control. Ironically, it was the Czech Legion that was pivotal in wresting the area from Red Army control in August 1918. Semenoff and others quickly took advantage of the political vacuum left behind.5

The Czechs had spent six months and nine thousand casualties to try to secure their safe exit from Russia by seizing almost the entire length of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Now that they had delivered the promised route to the west along the Trans-Siberian, the promised Allied help was not forthcoming, and they became disillusioned.6

In 1918, the Czech Legion moved eastward along the Trans-Siberian Railway in armored cars, fighting their way to Vladvostok, from where they hoped to sail for home. (111-SC-75877)

Semenoff had also been busy playing off the Allies against each other. In 1917, Kerensky's government had dispatched Semenoff to raise an all-Cossack Army to fight Germany on the eastern front. When Russian money dried up in 1918, Semenoff turned to the British and Japanese to bankroll his raids and support his extravagant lifestyle. His special Manchurian detachment consisted of 556 officers, civil officials, Mongols, and Chinese. At first, he extracted ten thousand pounds sterling a month from the British, but they quickly grew tired of him as Semenoff would not submit to the British efforts to train and organize his motley force. Semenoff had much more success in meeting Japanese needs as he declared that his goals were nonpolitical and that his main concern was "restoring order" in eastern Siberia, a goal that would play into Japanese hands.7 He greatly aided Japan's goal in the area, which was to keep Siberians politically destabilized and disunited.8

When General Graves arrived in Vladivostok on September 3, 1918, he turned his attention to guarding the military stores in Vladivostok and in depots along the Trans-Siberian Railway.

The first meeting between Graves and Semenoff took place in late September in Vladivostok. Although the tone of the meeting was civil, Graves claimed that the ataman was not only in the pay of the Japanese but that he could not have lasted a week in Siberia without the "protection of the Japanese."9 In October, Graves went to visit the Twenty-seventh Infantry, which was guarding the major railway station of Habarovsk. While there, he met the other main Cossack ataman, Ivan Kalmikoff. The main difference between Kalmikoff and Semenoff was that the former chose to kill, maim and rape his victims directly. Semenoff used subordinates to do his dirty work.10

By the time of Graves's arrival in Vladivostok, Semenoff's connections with the Japanese had ripened into a firm but unstated alliance. Nonetheless, Semenoff tried to obtain better artillery pieces and airplanes from the Americans. Graves, who viewed his mission as upholding American neutrality regarding the various factions in Siberia, refused. But he had to acknowledge that Semenoff was a major force to be reckoned with because he controlled the strategic rail link along the Trans-Baikal Railway from Lake Baikal City to Chita.11

The end of World War I in Europe in November 1918 would have a profound effect on conditions in Siberia, but it brought no immediate change for Graves's AEF Siberia. The American forces would stay put because President Wilson wanted to wait until after the Paris peace conference before deciding which of several Russian governments to recognize and whether to withdraw the AEF Siberia from Vladivostok.12

Meanwhile, Semenoff dispatched an agent to Washington to see if he could arrange political asylum and immigration to the United States for his boss. Upon learning of the visit, General Graves had a real chuckle. Graves noted that the requirements for legal immigration to the United States stated that an individual seeking asylum need be mentally sound, morally clean, and physically fit. "If Semenoff was 'morally clean' then I never saw a human being who was not morally clean," wrote Graves.13

Germans Arrange Return of Vladimir Lenin

The war had led to Nicholas losing his grip on power, but the February Revolution (which has that name because under the old Russian calendar, its events occurred in February) was just the start. The czarist regime was replaced by the Provisional Government, composed of moderate Duma deputies, socialists and liberals who bickered among themselves as they tried to get Russia under control again. The new government tried to continue the war and honor the alliances made by the monarchy, while it searched for an exit strategy.

The Germans, eager to get Russia out of the war so that it could concentrate on fighting France and Britain, decided to destabilize the Provisional Government. They arranged for Vladimir Lenin, a communist revolutionary who headed the Bolshevik party, to return from European exile to Russia in a secret sealed train. When he arrived, his slogan was “Peace, Land, Bread,” an appeal to Russians who were tired of the war.

Cossacks: Origins, History, and Military Prowess

Painting by Jozef Brandt

Posted By: Dattatreya Mandal August 29, 2018

Our popular notions about the Cossacks tended to portray them as the energetic and rambunctious horsemen of the lower steppe from Russia and Ukraine. And while such a perception also holds true in the historical sense, there was more to these ‘horsemen’ that went beyond their boisterous military scope. To that end, the Cossacks are one of the rare ‘polities’ in Slavic (and Russian) history who formed their ranks based on societal connections rather than ethnicities and origins – borne by the pretenseless mutual appreciation of protecting each other. So without further ado, let us take a gander at the origins, history, and military prowess of the Cossacks, from circa 16th – 19th century.

*Note – In this article, we have focused on the major Cossack groups (as opposed to the numerous later branches and variations of these communities).

The ‘Convoluted’ Origins –

Russian Prince fighting against a Mongol Keshik. Source: Apessay

The entry in Britannica puts forth the origin of the word ‘Cossack’ as (being derived from) Turkic kazak , meaning ‘freeman’ or ‘adventurer’. The first recorded use of ‘Cossacks’ was possibly made by the Italian trading colonies along the Black Sea in the 14th century for the bandits and freebooters who operated in the hinterland. To that end, most historians agree that the first of these Cossacks were probably Tatar raiders (possibly composed of Cuman origins and remnants of the Mongol invasion) who conducted their forays and sorties along the southern Pontic steppe.

Typically, these lightly armed horsemen operated as independent groups, thus alluding to their origins as ‘free adventurers’. However, over time, the term Cossack was also used for the locals who confronted these raiders, possibly with the aid of similar tactics (of fast raids and deft horsemanship). By mid 15th century, many such ‘intermingled’ horsemen were employed by proximate powers like Muscovy and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

During this time, the (local) Russian and Ukrainian Cossacks gradually began to outnumber their southern Tatar counterparts – and as such, these varied groups, though broadly categorized under a singular name (Cossacks), were hired as guides, mercenaries, border patrols, and guardsmen for the rich folks and caravans that crossed the Wild Fields (or wild plains – dikoe pole ) from the Pontic steppe towards the Don and Volga rivers.

The Free Cossacks –

Employed Cossack on the right. Illustration by Angus McBride

According to historian Albert Seaton (as referenced in his book The Cossacks ), by late 15th century – early 16th century, the Cossacks could be broadly divided into the ‘town’ Cossacks and the ‘free’ Cossacks. The former had a semblance of institutions, with most of these ‘town’ Cossacks ( gorodovye kazaki ) plying their trade as warriors and protectors of the frontier towns, often employed (or at least partially aided) by their respective states and princedoms.

One pertinent example would relate to the armed force of Kazan Tatars from the Principality of Ryazan, southeast of Moscow. Essentially, much like the late Roman urban militia, these men performed their roles as farmer-soldiers for their frontier commanders while living with their own respective families. The ‘free’ Cossacks, on the other hand, tended to live and raid beyond the settlements and frontiers. In some seasons, they were temporarily hired as guides and patrols for the caravans treading the dangerous (and often scant) steppe routes. But most of the time, they lived and fought as ‘separate’ people with autonomous status and bare-bones jurisdiction.

In essence, most of these ‘free’ Cossacks (with sometimes intermingled ethnicities) were conglomerations of fringe groups often divided on basis of their language. Suffice it to say, based on their insubstantial allegiances, some of these horsemen also took to banditry, thus (in few scenarios) facing off against their ‘town’ counterparts.

The Russian ‘Stock’ –

From the historical perspective, it was the ‘free’ Cossacks who went on to define the legacy of the romanticized Cossack people as we know them today. The first of these ‘real’ Cossacks, as we noted earlier, were expert horsemen, and this expertise was rather borne by necessity – to make fast raids and escape even faster from the garrison towns. In fact, many of these groups were semi-nomadic in nature who subsisted by hunting, fishing, trapping, and looting. Simply put, it was their mobility that put them at an advantage in the ‘wildlands’ of the steppe. Consequently, as a cultural extension, agriculture and sedentary lifestyle were looked down upon, which made the proximate settlements and realms ‘natural’ enemies of the Cossacks.

Pertaining to the last statement, many contemporary kingdoms, including the Russian Tsardom and the Crimean Khanate, made aggressive overtures against the Cossacks, who by the 1630s, had ballooned into a supranational entity of sorts (though, in a more localized scope), commanding hosts of horsemen and freebooters. In spite of facing such military actions from the neighboring organized states, the ranks of the Cossacks continued to grow – partly fueled by the steady trickle of Russian refugees. Some of these disfranchised people came all the way from Novgorod, either individually or in families – after escaping from a multitude of situations, like serfdom, perjury, and even downright starvation.

In essence, most of these Russian Cossacks shared their disdain for the Tsarist laws, and as such viewed their life beyond the frontiers with a sense of newfound opportunism. At the same time, the majority of them were welcomed into Cossackdom – whereby their previous crimes were absolved in the equitable society of ‘free-adventurers’.

The Don Cossacks –

Illustration by Angus McBride

Circa mid 16th century AD, the region by the Don river was inhabited by a host ( voiska ) of ‘free’ Cossacks who bore the brunt of military actions directed against them by the Tatars as well as the northern Russian state (though the latter sometimes provided latent support to these ‘adventurers’ as a bulwark against the roving Tatars). However, in 1570 AD, in the war against the Crimean Tatars, Tsar Ivan IV Vasilyevich (better known as Ivan the Terrible in the West) made a momentous decision by publicly acknowledging the Cossacks of the Don region. Consequently, under the ‘masked’ support of the Grand Principality of Moscow, these Cossacks organized themselves into capable military units that made regular forays into the Crimean Tatar lands, while also lending their detachments (to Moscow) to fight in distant lands like Livonia and Siberia.

Thereby known as the Don Cossacks (or Muscovy Cossacks – as called by their southern Muslim foes), these semi-nomadic people formed a buffer state of sorts, with their stronghold at Cherkassk (presently known as Starocherkasskaya) on the right bank of the Don River. In fact, as historian Albert Seaton mentioned, most of their fortified camps ( stanitsi or ‘herds’) were founded along the river banks, not only as strategic outposts and forward stations for piracy activities (that even took them to Black Sea coasts) but also as mini economic-centers for fishing.

To that end, in a nod to their egalitarian society, the Don Cossacks held collective ownership of their lands (as opposed to private ownership) wherein every member had the equal right to hunting, grazing, and fishing. However, in the initial years, farming was remarkably forbidden under law, with most of the subsidized grain being supplied from Tsar’s lands. But over time, the Don Cossacks did take part in maintaining salt pans (to salt-preserve their fish) and farms.

As for their relatively forthright form of administration, the local assembly was known as the krug (or rada in Ukrainian) and the stanitsa chief was known as the ataman (derived from the Tatar language). The Don Cossacks were at times unflinchingly democratic, with every member of the community having the right to speak at the Krug . And while the ataman (or rather head ataman ) held autocratic powers during times of war, thus fulfilling the role of the commander-in-chief of the Cossacks, he could as easily be deposed (and even punished) by the popular vote at the krug during times of peace. The krug was also responsible for framing the laws of the land that was not only applicable to the Cossacks but also non-Cossack entities who had taken refuge by the Don River.

The Protectors of the Steppes –

Illustration by Adam Hook

Now of course like many societies in history, the equitable nature of the Don Cossack laws, including collective ownership, was probably relegated in favor of a hierarchical system by the end of the 17th century – early 18th century. This probably had to do with the class distinction between the ‘old’ Cossacks (i.e., Cossacks who lived in the Don region for generations) and the ‘new’ Cossacks (i.e., newer arrivals from the north). The former, by this time, had accumulated their fair share of wealth, often complemented by large farmsteads and herds of cattle, while the latter still remained relatively disfranchised and poor. Unsurprisingly, the rich Cossacks tended to have better relations with the emerging Russian Empire, and as such, the atamans and leaders were selected from their strata, while the poorer folks still loathed the Tsarist laws and pushed further inland to escape from the Muscovite influence.

Suffice it to say, the Don Cossacks gradually became Russianized, in part because of their language that was Russian by all accounts. And if we attach a romanticized account of these Russian Cossacks, the narrative mostly alludes how these ‘free’ horsemen, armed with their characteristic saber and lance, roamed the steppe to protect the emergent Russian realm from the incursions of the Tatars and their (Ottoman) Turkish overlords. We should also note how the majority of these autonomous Don Cossacks were adherents of the Christian Orthodox faith prescribed before the reforms of Patriarch Nikon of Moscow (circa 1666 AD). Essentially, they were staunch Old Believers who were wary of the ‘metropolitan’ nature of the New Believers based in Moscow.

The Thorn On Napoleon’s Side –

Source: Pinterest

The ascendancy of the Russian Empire in the 17th century was partly fueled by the Don Cossacks’ martial aptitude and willingness to fight (under the Tsar). Consequently, the Russian Cossacks participated in far-flung military campaigns, ranging from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea. Pertaining to the former, in 1637 AD, the Don Cossacks, along with their Zaporozhian brethren (discussed later in the article) famously captured the mighty Ottoman fortress of Azov on the Don river that strategically guarded the passage to the Black Sea.

In the subsequent centuries, the territory of the Don Cossacks was known as the Voyska Donskogo (Don Voisko Lands), while in the year 1805, befitting their newly-gained renown, they transferred their capital to the larger ‘planned’ city of Novocherkassk (New Cherkassk). Less than a decade later, Napoleon led the French invasion of Russia, with his Grande Armée possibly numbering over 650,000 men. And while the main Russian army promptly retreated in the face of such a massive invasion force, it was the Don Cossacks who arguably played a pivotal role in not only harassing the French army but also applying the scorched-earth policy. These incessant actions forced the ill-prepared Napoleonic forces to rely on their paltry and dangerously exposed supply lines.

Furthermore, the highly mobile Cossack horsemen were instrumental in mounting raids against their French adversaries at the Battle of Borodino (the largest battle during the Napoleonic Wars) and also covering the retreat of the Russian army to Moscow. After two months, the war of attrition finally took its toll on the Grande Armée , with Napoleon losing over 300,000 of his men, resulting in an unexpected Russian victory. The Russians, in turn, pushed forth their advantage, with the Cossacks taking part in further actions in the European theater and the momentous capture of Paris in 1814. The impact of these steppe horsemen was reflected by Napoleon’s own words – “Cossacks are the finest light troops among all that exists. If I had them in my army, I would go through all the world with them.”

The Ukrainian Scope –

Source: Pinterest

The story of the Ukrainian Cossacks almost mirrored the origins of their Russian counterparts. To that end, like the Don host, many of the poorer folks and serfs in Ukraine strove to escape from the clutches of the organized states. However, in their case, the predicament arguably had a greater magnitude since most of Ukraine was ruled by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, thus entailing an aristocracy that not only spoke a different language but also professed a different branch of Christianity (the Poles preferred Roman Catholicism while most of the poorer sections of Ukraine were Eastern Orthodox). Their problems were further exacerbated by high taxations and strict socage services demanded by many a pan (Polish landowner).

As historian Albert Seaton discussed, this is where the Ukrainian Cossacks diverged from their Russian counterparts. By 16th century, the small-time landowners and poor farmers who migrated from the western part of their country to the ‘wildlands’ between Dnieper and Don, sought to create a nationalistic identity of their own that was inherently Ukrainian (as opposed to the Don Cossacks who perceived themselves as a ‘separate’ people from the Muscovy Russians, in spite of speaking the same language). Suffice it to say, these newly established Ukrainian Cossacks were seen (by many of their compatriots) as the ‘rightful’ protectors of their nation’s poor and the disfranchised, which further cemented their idealized status among the frontier town folks and farmers.

The Zaporozhian Sich Cossacks –

Painting by Jozef Brandt

The very term Zaporozhtsi is derived from Zaporozhia (or Zaporozyhe), meaning the ‘land beyond the rapids’. Essentially, the Ukrainian Cossack host that roamed and inhabited the region below the Dnieper rapids were called the Zaporozhian Cossacks. These people made clearings ( sich or sech ) in swampland around an already existing fort on one of the river islands, thus establishing their first stronghold. From then onwards, the Zaporozhian Sich Cossacks went to create an autonomous polity of their own that was often viewed as a semi-independent state (by the proximate powers, including the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth) for almost two centuries, circa 16th – 18th century AD.

Now as we mentioned earlier, most of these Cossacks were composed of the disfranchised Ukrainians and serfs, originally under Polish rule, who made their way to the southern parts of the Dnieper. In fact, many of the youths from the rural population of the middle Dnieper, allured by the romanticism of ‘free adventurers’, formed the bulk of the recruits for the Zaporozhian Cossacks. They were joined by Belorussians, along with a smaller number of Moldovans, Serbs, Circassians, Tatars, and even renegade Poles and Germans (as referenced in The Cossacks by Albert Seaton).

To that end, by the late 16th century, the situation of ‘power-drain’ became so precarious for the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth that the state even began to employ (and provide economic subsidies) to some Ukrainians who were registered as ‘town’ Cossacks of the Polish army. As for the nature of the Zaporozhian Sich Cossacks, in many ways, the Dnieper host resembled their Don counterparts, especially when it came to the relatively equitable status of the members. In a broader scope, they were excellent raiders (who made successful forays against their southern Tatar neighbors) and expert fishermen (who also dabbled in piracy in and around the Turkish settlements of the Black Sea) – recognized by their clean-shaven heads with the exception of topknots, elegant mustaches, vibrant Tatar attire, and boisterous attitude to go along.

However, as opposed to the Russian Don Cossacks – who mainly settled as families and villages, the Zaporozhian Sich Cossacks maintained their military exclusivity. Simply put, they perceived themselves as a military brotherhood of sorts (that excluded women) – who could conduct lightning forays and plundering expeditions and then escape back to their riverside sich strongholds. Unsurprisingly, their lifestyle was Spartan with makeshift quarters comprising hastily-built mud barracks. And on occasions, some of these Sich Cossacks did settle on the frontier rural areas (where they were regarded as protectors) and practiced agriculture.

The Kuban Cossacks –

Kuban Cossack in the front. Credit: Osprey Publishing

With the decline of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth and the fall of the Crimean Tatar Khanate, the military ‘independence’ of the Cossacks was rather seen as a threat (as opposed to a buffer) by the ascendant Russian Empire, which had already taken over large parcels of Ukraine by the 19th century. Furthermore, in the previous century, the Zaporozhian Cossacks were all but destroyed under the directive of Russian general Grigory Potemkin, and few of their remnants found refuge in the Danube section held by the Ottoman Turks.

Consequently, the Russian government sought to make the transition from treating Cossacks as an autonomous polity to making them a frontier military entity governed by the state. This decision brought forth the birth of the Kuban Cossacks (in circa 1860 AD) – ‘created’ by merging the remaining Zaporozhian Cossacks (by the Dnieper) and units from the Frontier Army (regiments formed of various Cossacks and non-Cossack elements). Suffice it to say, in spite of their primarily Ukrainian origins, the Kuban Cossacks was thoroughly Russianized in their institutions – so much so that the Russian court even employed an acting ataman (or hetman ) who presided over the rada (assembly) and made all the executive decisions pertaining to the host.

Nevertheless, every Kuban Cossack male over 16 years of age was guaranteed his own plot of land (in accordance with the traditions of the Zaporozhian Cossacks). Furthermore, these Cossacks also showcased their military effectiveness in a range of Russian campaigns, including their initial role in the anti-Bolshevik Volunteer army during the Civil War of 1917. According to the Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine –

Military training for the Cossacks was very demanding. It included three years of basic training in the stanitsi , four years of active service in the various regiments, four years in the reserve units with annual summer exercises, four years in secondary reserve units with one major exercise during that period, and five years in the general reserve corps, when the Cossacks could be mobilized in an emergency. The Cossacks provided their own uniforms, swords, and horses. Compared to other Cossack armies, the Kuban host mobilized many units. In 1860 it mustered 22 cavalry regiments, 3 cavalry squadrons, 13 scout ( plastun ) battalions, and 5 artillery batteries. Later, Kuban Cossacks were often posted in Warsaw and elsewhere in the empire to suppress revolts and serve as special guard units. In 1914 the host comprised 37 cavalry regiments, 22 plastun battalions, 6 artillery batteries, and 47 various other units, for a total of about 90,000 men in active service.

Horsemanship and Equipment –

Source: ArtCorusse

Expert horsemanship was an integral part of the Cossack culture, with their equestrian skills and adeptness influenced (and inspired) by the proximate steppe dwellers like the Tatars, Circassians, and the Avars. For example, the Terek Cossacks were known for flaunting the art of dzhigitovka (pictured above) – basically, daredevilry and showmanship on horses possibly learned from their Circassian enemies. Interestingly enough, the regular Cossacks were also noted for not using spurs (relying on their nagaika whips), thus alluding to their effective control over the relatively passive-natured and smaller steppe horses.

As for the Cossack equipment, the early 16th century horsemen between the Dnieper and the Don was typically armed with the lance, saber, and sometimes bow. By the late 19th century, the colorful Tatar-inspired attire, comprising the sharovary silk pants, gave way to the more ‘ordinary’ all-weather breeches, accompanied by a tunic, standard Russian infantry greatcoat (often complemented by a fur coat), forage cap, and sturdy leather boots. The Cossacks of the later years, however, still retained their typical Caucasian-style papakha (hat made of lamb’s wool) and bashlik hood.

As referenced in The Cossacks by Albert Seaton, the Kuban Cossacks and their Terek brethren also wore the cherkesska , basically a Circassian-origin tunic with pockets sewn on both sides for carrying cartridges. Pertaining to the last part, the 19th century Cossack was usually armed with a Berdan rifle (slung across the back) – strikingly, with no bayonet attachments, dragoon-type sword/s, and sometimes lances. The Kuban Cossacks were also known to carry the kinzhal , a Circassian-type dagger.

The Prowess –

“Zaporozhian Cossacks write to the Sultan of Turkey” by Ilya Repin (1844–1930). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Over the course of two centuries (16th – 18th century), the Zaporozhian Cossacks, with their revived polity below Dnieper rapids, challenged the might of three proximate powers – the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Russian Empire, and the Crimean Khanate. During the contemporary period, the Don Cossacks carved out an autonomous territory for themselves while audaciously carrying out piracy activities on the Turkish cities of the Black Sea coast.

Suffice it to say, the Cossacks at their apical stage, were a military power to reckon with – and it is all the more impressive due to the fact that these societies were borne by the will to survive in the discriminatory world of emerging empires and ‘serfdoms’. To that end, not only did the Cossacks survive but also thrived – fueled by their mobile fighting tactics and unorthodox yet (relatively) equitable economic system, thus justifying their legacy as the ‘free adventurers’ of the steppe.

The Decline –

Painting by Jozef Brandt

As we mentioned before, the Napoleonic Wars rather enhanced the worldwide reputation of the Cossacks. And as forthright and vociferous people themselves, the Cossacks never shied away from the bragging rights reserved for their martial prowess. However, like many military societies in history, there was the natural decline of these horsemen when it came to sheer military effectiveness – with the nadir generally coinciding with late 19th to early 20th century (First World War) period.

The reasons for this delve into the realm of complexity, though one of the primary factors relates to how the Cossacks remained relatively anachronistic in their approach to warfare, and thus they were ‘overtaken’ by the better drilled and equipped German horseman of the same period.

Talking of being drilled, the typical Cossack of the 19th century was rather unkempt and even at times even undisciplined (relying on their natural martial ability instead), which went against the military doctrine of the epoch. Moreover, in a cruel irony, the ascendancy of the Cossacks in the previous centuries partially paved the way for their downfall. In that regard, the Russian Empire politically curbed the power of these horsemen and consequently, tended to relegate (in many cases) their officers and detachments to policing and prison duties. Of course, in spite of such impositions, many Cossack regiments did prove their value as regular cavalry divisions and reconnaissance units.

Featured Image: Painting by Jozef Brandt (Source – Wikimedia Commons)

Book Reference: The Cossacks (By Albert Seaton)

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Why Did Churchill Betray the Cossacks in World War II?

At Yalta, Churchill agreed to turn over to Stalin all captured Soviet Cossacks that had been on the German side. Surely he knew what that meant.

Here's What You Need to Know: An estimated four million Red Army soldiers were captured by the Germans during the six months after the launching of Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, on June 22, 1941. Indeed, the chief of the German General Staff, Colonel General Franz Halder, wrote, “The Russians have lost this war in the first eight days! Their casualties—in both men and equipment—are unimaginable.”

He was both right and wrong as it turned out, and thus Adolf Hitler was not the only German who had underestimated the Soviets. The German field marshals and generals share in the blame for the debacle that was to come in the East. The German Armed Forces High Command, the OKW, had originally counted on a 12-week war against the staggering Soviet Union, but under Joseph Stalin, the Soviets rallied and came back stronger than ever.

The Blitzkrieg into Russia, featuring panzer armor divisions, was initially successful but ultimately failed. The Eastern Front war dragged on for four years and was characterized by unprecedented ferocity and loss of life, not only due to the war itself, but also to starvation, disease, slave-like working conditions, and the vast ethnic cleansing occurring under both Stalin and Hitler for different reasons.

The height of the Stalinist repression, the Great Terror, occurred in the late 1930s just prior to the German invasion. Minority nationalities inside the Soviet Union, including the Cossacks, were among those cruelly victimized during this period, especially those who posed resistance. Stalin ruthlessly expanded the collectivization program into an offensive against the peasantry. Millions were displaced, and millions were killed. A significant number of Soviet citizens, including many of the Cossacks, therefore greeted the invading Germans as liberators. Thousands of ordinary Soviets became partisans in the German military.

The Cossacks: a Privileged Military Class

Traditionally, the Cossacks derived mostly from the area of southern Ukraine. They had lived in clans that were designated by the name of the nearest major river, i.e., Don Cossacks, Kuban Cossacks, Ural Cossacks. Their superior horsemanship, proficiency with the saber, and colorful uniforms defined them. The great majority of them were loyal to the Romanov family, going all the way back to Catherine the Great. By the time of the last tsars, the Cossacks were widely viewed as a privileged military class.

During the Bolshevik revolution, sectors of the Cossacks put up some of the toughest resistance experienced anywhere by the Red Army. Therefore, after the Revolution, the Bolsheviks retaliated by destroying all federated Cossack Republics in a terribly cruel manner, considering them all as part of “White Russia” (sympathetic to the tsar), though it wasn’t necessarily true.

Just after Russia’s poor military showing in the 1939 Russo-Finnish War, Stalin reintroduced the Cossacks into the Soviet military. Yet just 60 days after the beginning of World War II, the first major defection of Red Army soldiers to the German side occurred: It was a Cossack unit, the 436th Infantry, commanded by Major Ivan Nikitich Kononov. On August 3, 1941, fully 70,000 Cossacks went over to fight for the Germans. Another 50,000 joined them by October 1942. By that time, the German Army had established a semi-autonomous Cossack District from which they could recruit.

It should be emphasized that their defection to the German side was not done in favor of Nazism, but for the love of their homeland and for the cause of a second Russian Civil War. There was tremendous risk in going against the Red Army, however. Hitler declared that Russian soldiers would not be granted POW status, which meant captives would be treated as subhuman. Of the nearly six million Russians taken prisoner after 1941, only 1.1 million lived to see the end of the war. Given the brutality of the Germans, it seems incomprehensible that so many of these people were still willing to don German uniforms. Such was their hatred of Stalin.

By February of 1945, when it was evident the Germans had all but lost the war, the Cossacks, under the leadership of German Maj. Gen. Helmuth von Pannwitz, wanted to surrender to the British Army in liberated Austria, to escape being returned to Stalinist tyranny. Negotiations were opened on this basis in good faith.

Fates Decided at Yalta

The fate of these Cossacks had already been decided, however, at Yalta in February, when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, American President Franklin Roosevelt, and Russian Marshal Josef Stalin met to decide the final issues remaining from the war in Europe. One issue on the table was called “reciprocal repatriation.” This discussion related to Allied prisoners in Germany liberated by Soviet forces and also to the prisoners of Soviet origin serving in the German Army, among whom the dissident Cossacks formed a major component. A trilateral commission was established to form an agreement acceptable to all three nations on issues including the displaced civilian populations.

Two basically identical agreements were signed on February 11, 1945, by the British and Americans. The British agreement stipulated that all Soviet citizens “liberated by the Allied armies—as soon as possible after their liberation—were to be separated from German prisoners of war and lodged in separate camps…” and “situated in camps or other localities to which the Soviet authorities responsible for their repatriation would have immediate access….

“…The British authorities responsible would cooperate with their Soviet colleagues in the United Kingdom with a view to identifying all Soviet citizens who had been liberated and transferred to the UK.” The British would also “be responsible for the transport of Soviet citizens up unto the moment that said citizens would be handed over to Soviet authorities.”

As pointed out by noted authority Francois de Lannoy, “If there was nothing in the agreement that stated specifically the necessity of repatriating all Soviet citizens regardless of their wishes and—if necessary, by the use of force— it was well understood that from a legal point of view, that was what was intended.”

This, then, was the very crux of the thorny matter that would shatter the Cossack nation, bedevil the British civilian and military authorities in occupied Austria, and poison relations between the still anti-Red East and the West for decades afterward.

Concluded de Lannoy, “According to Stalin’s wishes, the contents of the agreements were kept secret, and did not figure in the final communiqué issued at the end of the Yalta Conference. It is evident, though, that had the details been published openly, those Soviet citizens serving the Wehrmacht who would’ve been well aware of their fate if returned to the Soviet Union (death, concentration camp, or deportation) would’ve taken all necessary steps to avoid falling into the hands of the Allies.”

“On Oct. 1, 1945, Gen. (later Marshal) Filip Ivanovich Golikov, responsible for repatriation of Soviet citizens after the war, announced that of 5,236,130 Soviets repatriated, 1,645,633 had found employment and 750,000 were waiting for a job. Of the remaining 2,840,367 of whom no further details were given, it is probable that they died in transit, were executed, or sent to concentration camps.

“At the time of the Yalta Conference, 100,000 Soviet soldiers serving the Wehrmacht had been captured by the Allied forces.…The Soviets … had liberated 50,000 British POWs who had sought refuge in the Soviet Union, as well as far greater numbers of French soldiers…,” most of whom had been captured by the Germans in 1940.

Cossacks in the Nazi Ranks

From the summer of 1941 through 1943, none of the top German political leaders involved with the Eastern Front wanted anything to do with Soviet POWs or Cossack turncoats fighting in German uniforms for the Third Reich. Then came the trio of crushing German defeats at Moscow, Stalingrad, and Kursk.

The first top Nazi to start changing his views of all Soviets as “sub-humans” was the Baltic-born German Alfred Rosenberg, Reich minister for the occupied Eastern Territories. He and his “Eastern politicians” were the first, besides the military, to realize that Nazi Germany could actually lose the war in the East. He also knew that millions of enslaved peoples saw themselves as fighting alongside the Germans, not for them, but were not willing to exchange the Red yoke for one of the swastika. It would have to be a genuine alliance.

As late as the summer of 1944, both Hitler and SS commanding general Heinrich Himmler denied this possibility, however, as did the powerful secretary to the Führer Martin Bormann and Prussian Regional Leader Erich Koch. Led by Rosenberg’s ministry on the crucial theme of needed manpower, however, even they slowly changed their minds since it was evident that Nazi Germany would be drowned by Red Army hordes if they did not.

Meanwhile, even against Hitler’s, the German Army in the East had begun training and equipping both dissident Cossacks and the so-called Russian Liberation Army (RONA) to fight the Soviets. The man who really stepped to the fore of his own volition in September 1942 was the East German career cavalry officer, Helmuth von Pannwitz, who well knew that during the Russian Civil War Cossack “wolves” had taken no Bolshevik prisoners and were eager to kill them again.

Primary Sources

(1) Stephen Graham, Russia and the World (1915)

I was staying in an Altai Cossack village on the frontier of Mongolia when the war broke out, a most verdant resting-place with a majestic fir forests, snow-crowned mountains range behind range, green and purple valleys deep in larkspur and monkshood. All the young men and women of the village were out of the grassy hills with scythes the children gathered currants in the wood each day, and folks sat at home and sewed furs together, the pitch-boilers, and charcoal-burners worked at their black fires with barrels and scoops.

At 4 a.m. on 31st July the first telegram came through an order to mobilize and be prepared for active service. I was awakened that morning by an unusual commotion, and, going into the village street, saw the soldier population collected in groups, talking excitedly. My peasant hostess cried out to me, "have you heard the news? There is war." A young man on a fine horse came galloping down the street, a great red flag hanging from his shoulders and flapping in the wind, and as he went he called out the news to each and every one, "War! War!"

Who was the enemy? Nobody knew. The telegram contained no indications. All the village population knew was that the same telegram had come as came ten years ago, when they were called to fight the Japanese. Rumours abounded. All the morning it was persisted that the yellow peril had matured, and that the war was with China. Russia had pushed too far into Mongolia, and China had declared war.

Then a rumour went round. "It is with England, with England." So far away these people lived they did not know that our old hostility had vanished. Only after four days did something like the truth come to us, and then nobody believed it.

"An immense war," said a peasant to me. "Thirteen powers engaged - England, France, Russia, Belgium, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, against Germany, Austria, Italy, Romania, Turkey.

Two days after the first telegram a second came, and this one called up every man between the ages of eighteen and forty-three.

(2) Felix Yusupov was at first optimistic about Russia's chances of victory in the First World War.

The military campaigns had opened brilliantly by a deep break-through into East Prussia the offensive was launched prematurely at the demand of the Allies to relieve the congested Western front. At the end of August, through lack of ordnance, General Samsonoff's army corps was surrounded near Tannenberg. The General, not wishing to survive the loss of his army, shot himself.

The offensive was successfully renewed on the Austrian front, but in February 1915 a further offensive in East Prussia ended in the disaster of Augustovo. On May 2nd, the Austro-German army broke through the South-Western Russian front. Our troops were underfed, ill-equipped, and had no ammunition, yet under these appalling conditions they fought against the best-equipped army in the world. Whole regiments were taken prisoner without having a chance to resist, owing to the lack of equipment which failed to arrive in time.

(3) Alan Woods, Tsarist Russia and the War (13 March 2015)

Thousands of Russian troops were sent to the front without proper equipment. They lacked everything: weapons, ammunition, boots or bedding. As many as a third of Russian soldiers were not issued with a rifle. In late 1914 Russia&rsquos general headquarters reported that 100,000 new rifles were needed each month, but that Russian factories were capable of producing less than half this number (42,000 per month). The soldiers, however, were well armed with prayers, as Russian Orthodox bishops and priests worked diligently to bless those about to go into battle, showering them generously with holy water from a bucket.

By December, 1914, the Russian Army had 6,553,000 men. However, they only had 4,652,000 rifles. Untrained troops were ordered into battle without adequate arms or ammunition. And because the Russian Army had about one surgeon for every 10,000 men, many wounded of its soldiers died from wounds that would have been treated on the Western Front. With medical staff spread out across a 500 mile front, the likelihood of any Russian soldier receiving any medical treatment was close to zero.

(4) Arthur Ransome made several visits to the Eastern Front in 1916 and 1917.

I saw a great deal of that long-drawn out front and of the men who, ill-armed, ill-supplied, were holding it against an enemy who, even in his anxiety to fight was no greater than the Russian's, was infinitely better equipped. I came back to Petrograd full of admiration for the Russian soldiers who were holding the front without enough weapons to go round.

(5) Nicholas II, letter to Alexandra (7th July, 1915)

Again that cursed question of shortage of artillery and rifle ammunition - it stands in the way of an energetic advance. If we should have three days of serious fighting we might run out of ammunition altogether. Without new rifles, it is impossible to fill up the gaps. The army is now almost stronger than in peace time it should be (and was at the beginning) three times as strong. This is the position we find ourselves in at present. If we had a rest from fighting for about a month, our condition would greatly improve. It is understood, of course, that what I say is strictly for you only. Please do not say a word of this to any one.

(6) In 1915 Hamilton Fyfe began reporting the war on the Eastern Front.

Brussilov was the ablest of the army-group commanders. His front was in good order. For that reason we were sent to it. The impression I got in April was the Russian troops, all the men and most of the officers, were magnificent material who were being wasted because of the incompetence, intrigues, and corruption of the men who governed the country.

In June Brussilov's advance showed what they could do, when they were furnished with sufficient weapons and ammunition. But that effort was wasted, too, for want of other blows to supplement it, for want of any definite plan of campaign.

The Russian officers, brutal as they often were to their men (many of them scarcely considered privates to be human), were as a rule friendly and helpful to us. They showed us all we wanted to see. They always cheerfully provided for Arthur Ransome (a fellow journalist), who could not ride owing to some disablement, a cart to get about in.

(7) Report from the Russian village of Grushevka (8th August, 1916)

The figures are: 115 (10 killed, 34 wounded, 71 missing or in captivity) out of 829 souls mobilized. Consequently, for the village of Grushevka the losses amount to 13 per cent of the total population of 3,307 souls. Harvesting and thrashing are going on everywhere, and there is hope that the work will be finished on time in the fall. In addition to women, children, and the aged, I have working for me 36 people from the Kherson jail, and 947 Austrian war prisoners.

(8) In his book My Reminiscences of the Russian Revolution, the journalist, Morgan Philips Price described Lavr Kornilov making a speech in Moscow on 25th August, 1917.

A wiry little little man with strong Tartar features. He wore a general's full-dress uniform with a sword and red-striped trousers. His speech was begun in a blunt soldierly manner by a declaration that he had nothing to do with politics. He had come there, he said, to tell the truth about the condition of the Russian army. Discipline had simply ceased to exist. The army was becoming nothing more than a rabble. Soldiers stole the property, not only of the State, but also of private citizens, and scoured the country plundering and terrorizing. The Russian army was becoming a greater danger to the peaceful population of the western provinces than any invading German army could be.

(9) Peter Wrangel, Memoirs of General Peter Wrangel (1929)

Towards the winter of 1916 the bloody struggles which had been waged throughout the summer and autumn drew to a close. We consolidated our position, filled in the gaps in our effective forces, and reorganized generally.

The experience gained from two years of warfare had not been acquired in vain. We had learnt a great deal, and the shortcomings for which we had paid so dearly were now discounted. A number of generals who had not kept pace with modern needs had had to give up their commands, and life had brought other more capable men to the fore. But nepotism, which permeated all spheres of Russian life, still brought unworthy men into important positions too often.

After two years of warfare, the Army was not what it had been. The majority of the original officers and men, especially the infantry, had been killed or put out of action. The new officers, hastily trained, and lacking military education and espirit de corps, could not make satisfactory instructors of the men. They found difficulty in enduring the dangers, fatigue, and privations of life at the front, and war to them meant nothing but suffering. It was impossible for them to inspire the troops and put fresh heart into their men.

Neither were the troops what they had been. The original soldiers, inured to fatigue and privation, and brave in battle, were better than ever but there were few of them left. The new contingents were by no means satisfactory. The reserve forces were primarily fathers of families who had been dragged away from their villages, and were warriors only in spite of themselves. For they had forgotten that once upon a time they had been soldiers they hated war, and thought only of returning to their homes as soon as possible.

(10) Statement issued by the Petrograd Soviet (9th April, 1917)

We are appealing to our brother proletarians of the Austro-German coalition. The Russian Revolution will not retreat before the bayonets of conquerors and will not allow itself to be crushed by military force. But we are calling to you, throw off your yoke of your semi-autocratic rule as the Russian people have shaken off the Tsar's and then by our united efforts we will stop the horrible butchery which is disgracing humanity and is beclouding the great days of the birth of Russian freedom. Proletarians of all countries unite.

(11) Paul Milyukov, Foreign Minister of the Provisional Government, letter sent to all Allied ambassadors (5th May, 1917)

Free Russia does not aim at the domination of other nations, or at occupying by force foreign territories. Its aim is not to subjugate or humiliate anyone. In referring to the "penalties and guarantees" essential to a durable peace the Provisional Government had in view reduction of armaments, the establishment of international tribunals, etc.

(12) Soon after the February Revolution the journalist Harold Williams interviewed Alexander Kerensky.

Last week's ridiculous manifesto (Order No 1), issued in the name of the Council of Workmen's Deputies (the Soviet), calling on the soldiers not to obey their officers, Kerensky sharply characterized as an act of provocation. There had been a few instances of grave disturbance of discipline, but the Minister was confident that this phase would soon pass, together with the other eccentricities. He declared: "The general effect of the liberation will, I am convinced, be to give an immense uplift to the spirit of the troops, and so to shorten the war. We are for iron discipline in working hours, but out of working hours we want the soldiers to feel they are also free men."

(13) Alfred Knox, diary entry (20th July, 1917)

Events have moved with dramatic quickness. Kerensky returned from the front last night and, in a stormy meeting of the Ministry, demanded dictatorial powers in order to bring the army back to discipline. The socialists disagreed. Lvov and Tereshchenko did their utmost to reconcile the diverging views. While addressing the men he was handed a telegram telling him of the disaster on the South-West Front, where the Germans have broken through. He took back the telegram to the Ministerial Council and the attitude changed. Lvov has resigned and Kerensky will be Prime Minister and Minister of War.

(14) Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front (1929)

I am often on guard over the Russians. In the darkness one sees their forms move like stick storks, like great birds. They come close up to the wire fence and lean their faces against it. Their fingers hook round the mesh. Often many stand side by side, and breathe the wind that comes down from the moors and the forest.

They rarely speak and then only a few words. They are more human and more brotherly towards one another, it seems to me, than we are. But perhaps that is merely because they feel themselves to be more unfortunate than us. Anyway the war is over so far as they are concerned. But to wait for dysentery is not much of a life either.

A word of command has made these silent figures our enemies a word of command might transform them into our friends. At some table a document is signed by some persons whom none of us knows, and then for years together that very crime on which formerly the world's condemnation and severest penalty fall, becomes our highest aim. Any non-commissioned officer is more of an enemy to a recruit, any schoolmaster to a pupil, then they are if they were free.

(15) In the summer of 1917 Ernest Poole visited the rural areas of Russia. This included an interview with a farmer who was a member of a village cooperative.

Our cooperative store has still quite a stock of goods, and the steadier peasants all belong. We have eighteen hundred members now. Each paid five roubles to buy a share. There were six thousand purchasers last year and because we charge higher prices to outsiders than to members, so many more peasants wish to join that we are almost ready to announce a second issue of stock.

Of course, our progress has been blocked by the war and the revolution. Goods have gone up to ruinous rates. Already we are nearly out of horseshoes, axes, harrows, ploughs. Last spring we had not ploughs enough to do the needed ploughing, and that is why our crop is short. There is not enough rye in the district to take us through the winter, let alone to feed the towns. And so the town people will starve for awhile - and sooner or later, I suppose, they will finish with their wrangling, start their mills and factories, and turn out the ploughs and tools we need.

(16) Albert Rhys Williams, Through the Russian Revolution (1923)

In thousands the soldiers were throwing down their guns and streaming from the front. Like plagues of locusts they came, clogging railways, highways and waterways. They swarmed down on trains, packing roofs and platforms, clinging to car-steps like clusters of grapes, sometimes evicting passengers from their berths.

The ruling-class used every device to keep those weapons in the soldiers' hands. It waved the flag and screamed "Victory and Glory." It organized Women's Battalions of Death crying "Shame on you men to let girls do your fighting." It placed machine-guns in the rear of rebelling regiments declaring certain death to those who retreated.

(17) Louise Bryant, Six Months in Russia (1918)

One of the things that strikes coldness to one's heart are the long lines of scantily clad people standing in the bitter cold waiting to buy bread, milk, sugar or tobacco. From four o'clock in the morning they begin to stand there.

(18) John Reed, Ten Days That Shook the World (1919)

The policy of the Provisional Government alternated between ineffective reforms and stern repressive measures. An edict from the Socialist Minister of Labour ordered all the Workers' Committees henceforth to meet only after working hours. Among the troops at the front, 'agitators' of opposition political parties were arrested, radical newspapers closed down, and capital punishment applied - to revolutionary propagandists. Attempts were made to disarm the Red Guard. Cossacks were spent order in the provinces.

In September 1917, matters reached a crisis. Against the overwhelming sentiment of the country, Kerensky and the 'moderate' Socialists succeeded in establishing a Government of Coalition with the propertied classes and as a result, the Mensheviki and Socialist Revolutionaries lost the confidence of the people for ever.

Week by week food became scarcer. The daily allowance of bread fell from a pound and a half to a pound, than three-quarters, half, and a quarter-pound. Towards the end there was a week without any bread at all. Sugar one was entitled to at the rate of two pounds a month - if one could get it at all, which was seldom. A bar of chocolate or a pound of tasteless candy cost anywhere from seven to ten roubles - at least a dollar. For milk and bread and sugar and tobacco one had to stand in queue. Coming home from an all-night meeting I have seen the tail beginning to form before dawn, mostly women, some babies in their arms.

Watch the video: History Of The Russian Cossacks Until World War 1 I THE GREAT WAR Special (January 2023).

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