Don Cossacks

Don Cossacks
Don Cossacks
Flag of Don Cossacks.svg
Flag of the Don Cossacks.
Total population
0.2-2 million
Regions with significant populations
 Russia: Rostov and Volgograd Oblasts 140,000 [1]



Eastern Orthodox Christians

Related ethnic groups

South Russians, Tatars, Ukrainians, others esp. Slavic Peoples, other Cossacks

Don Cossacks (Russian: донские казаки) were Cossacks who settled along the middle and lower Don.


Etymology and origins

The Don Cossack Host (Russian: Всевеликое Войско Донское, Vsevelikoye Voysko Donskoye) was a frontier military organization from the end of the 16th until the early 20th century.

The name Cossack (казак, козак) was widely used to describe "free people" as opposed to others with different standing in a feudal society (i.e., peasants, nobles, clergy, etc..). The word 'cossack' was also applied to migrants, free-booters and bandits.[2] Kazakh (казах) is another example of a derivative of this word used to describe nomads of the Central Asian steppes.

The main theory on the origin of Cossacks is that they are descended from peasants fleeing the bonds of serfdom. According to this theory Cossacks originated as bands of run-away peasants of different ethnic origins (Ruthenians, Turks, Germans etc.), but primarily Ukrainians and Russians. The necessity of defending their lifestyle (piracy, unregulated fishing and hunting) and protecting their settlements from the attacks of Tatars, Mongols and other nomadic tribes that lived in the steppes of Southern Russia, forced these bands of escapees to organize into a military society. In exchange for protection of the Southern borders of medieval Russia, the Don Cossacks were given the privilege of not paying taxes and the tsar's authority in Cossack lands was not as absolute as in other parts of Russia. They colonized areas previously occupied by nomadic tribes and were first to establish permanent settlements in Don area such as villages (станицы) and towns, which were populated originally by Turkic, Kypchak-speaking peoples, whom the Cossacks may have intermixed with to a degree.

Traditions and culture

A Cossack from Don area 1821. An illustration from Fyodor Solntsev, 1869

The Cossacks had a democratic society where the most important decisions were made during a Common Assembly (Казачий Круг). The assembly elected temporary authorities — atamans.

Don Cossacks were masters of horse riding and had superb military training, due to their long conflict with the Crimean Khanate and the Ottoman Empire. They were selling their military services to different powers in Eastern Europe. Together with the Polish King, they raided Moscow during the Time of Troubles (Смутное Время) and under Russian authority carried out raids and expeditions against Turkey and Persia.

The Cossacks faith is a Pravoslavny one (literally, Those worshiping the right way, Orthodox ones) and they see themselves as its protectors.

Though there are some differences in traditions and customs, the Don Cossacks speak the Russian language and have always related themselves to the greater Russia, although with somewhat unique national identity.

The Don Cossacks have a tradition of choral singing and many of their songs, such as Chyorny Voron (Black Raven) and Lyubo, Bratsi, Lyubo (It's good, brothers, good) became popular throughout the rest of Russia. Many of the songs, unsurprisingly are about death in war.

Up to the 18th century marriages and divorces took place in the Common Assembly (Казачий Круг). If a Cossack wanted to marry a girl, he should have brought her to the Common Assembly and present her to it. If the Common Assembly gave an approval, the marriage followed. The same procedure took place if there was a divorce. Later on, Peter I banned marriages and divorces in the Common Assembly, so Cossacks could marry only in the church.

A Cossack marriage is a complex ritual, accompanied by songs, dances and performances. A bridegroom is to come on horseback and take his bride to the church. A marriage train with a bridegroom and a bride comes to the church. After a wedding everybody goes to the bridegroom's house. Parents bless a young couple, break a loaf of bread above their heads, and sprinkle them with wheat, nuts, sweets and hop. Then comes a rite of unbraiding the bride's hair.

When a son was born in a Cossack family, his relatives presented him an arrow, a bow, a cartridge, a bullet and a gun. All these things were hung on the wall, over the boy's bed. At the age of three, the boy could ride a horse, at the age of 7-8 he was allowed to ride in the street, to go fishing and hunt with grown-ups.

Cossacks liked horse races. A rider was to hit the mark. The most dexterous did it, standing on a horseback.

There was a tradition in a Cossack family to provide a young Cossack with 2 horses, uniform and arms.

Cossack leave-taking was always festive. All leaving Cossacks were used to gather in the church, then put on their necks a small bag with a pinch of the native soil and set off with a song. Having left their stanitsa, they drank a cup of vodka and said good-bye to their native land.

Don Cossack in the early 1800s.


Don Cossack history is intertwined with that of the rest of Russia.[3]

More than two thousand years ago the Scythians lived on the banks of the river Don. Many Scythian tombs have been found in this area.

Then the area was inhabited by the Khazars and the Polovtsians. The steppes of the Don River were called "The Wild Field" (Дикое Поле). Numerous Tatar armed groups wandered there and attacked the Russian and foreign merchants.

Since the 14th century the vast steppe of the Don region was populated by those people who were not satisfied with the existing social order, by those who did not recognize the power of the land-owners, by the runaway serves, by those who longed for freedom. In the course of time they turned into a united community and were called "the Cossacks". At first the main occupation of these small armed detachments was hunting and fishing as well as constant struggle against the Turks and the Tatars who attacked them. Only later they began to settle and work on land. The first notes about the Cossack villages - "stanitsa" - dates back to 1549.

During the reign of Ivan the Terrible (Ivan IV), the legendary ataman Yermak Timofeyevich went on an expedition to conquer Siberia. After defeating Khan Kuchum in the fall of 1582 and occupying Isker, the capital of the Siberian Khanate, Yermak sent a Cossack detachment down the Irtysh in the winter of 1583. The detachment led by Bogdan Bryazga (according to other sources, the Cossack chieftain Nikita Pan) passed through the lands of the Konda-Pelym Voguls and reached the walls of the town of Samarovo. Taken by surprise by the Cossack attack, the Ostyaks surrendered. In fall 1585, shortly after Yermak's death, Cossacks led by voevoda (army commander) Ivan Mansurov founded the first Russian fortified town in Siberia, Obskoy, at the mouth of the Irtysh river on the right bank of the Ob river. The Mansi and Khanty lands thus became part of the Russian state, finally secured by the founding of the cities of Pelym and Berezov in 1592 and Surgut in 1594. As a result of Yermak's expedition, Russia was able to annex Siberia.

During Polish–Russian War (1605–1618), Polish-Lithuanian noble Aleksander Józef Lisowski founded cavalry mercenary group (named Lisowczycy after his death) from various outlaws, partly Don Cossacks. This group served under Polish Crown, after war with Muscovites Lisowczycy took place in Moldavian Magnate Wars (Battle of Humenné - November 23, 1619 - at Upper Hungary, novadays east of Slovakia), later they plundered Silesia and Moravia as allies of Habsburg armies in The Bohemian Revolt - first phase of Thirty Years' War. This phase ended by Battle of White Mountain - November 8, 1620 (near Prague, the capital of Lands of the Bohemian Crown, novadays Czech republic), where Lisowczycy were victoriously set by Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly against hungarian cavalry. They captured twenty standards. After the battle, they terrorised village people around Prague and some other cities[4] (page 8-9), so they were expeditiously paid and released from service in May 7, 1621. Some of them returned to Poland, others served under Habsburg Maximilian I, Elector of Bavaria.

Under Peter the Great and subsequent rulers, the Don Cossacks participated in numerous military campaigns, which resulted in the expansion of the Russian Empire from the Black to the Baltic Sea. For years, the Cossacks waged war against the Ottomans and Crimean Khanate. The Siege of Azov in 1641 was one of the key actions in Don Cossack history.

Three of Russia's most notorious rebels, Stenka Razin, Kondraty Bulavin and Emelian Pugachev, were Don Cossacks.

Don Cossacks are credited with playing a significant part in repelling Napoleon's Invasion of Russia. Under the command of Count Matvey Ivanovich Platov, the Don Cossacks successfully fought in the number of battles with Grande Armée. In the Battle of Borodino Don Cossacks were making raids to the rear of the French Army. Ataman Platov commanded all Cossack troops and had successfully covered the retreat of the Russian Army to Moscow. The Don Cossacks distinguished themselves in all the campaigns to come and took part in the capture of Paris. Napoleon is credited with declaring, "Cossacks are the finest light troops among all that exist. If I had them in my army, I would go through all the world with them."[citation needed]

Admiral Aleksandr Vasiliyevich Kolchak, one of the leaders of the White Movement during the Russian Civil War, was of Don Cossack descent.

Ivan Vasilyevich Turchaninov.[5]
1915 drawing from The War Illustrated describing an exploit of a Don Cossack.

Since 1786, their territory was officially called Don Voisko Lands, and was renamed Don Voisko Province (Russian: Oblast’ Voyska Donskogo) in 1870 (presently shared by the Rostov, Volgograd, and Voronezh regions of the Russian Federation as well as part of the Luhansk region of Ukraine). In 1916, the Don Host enlisted over 1.5 million cossacks. It was disbanded on Russian soil in 1918, after the Russian Revolution, but the Don Cossacks in the White Army and those who emigrated abroad, continued to preserve the traditions, musical and otherwise, of their host. Many found employment as trick riders in various circuses throughout Europe and the United States.

Following the defeat of the White Army in Russian Civil War, a policy of decossackization (Raskazachivaniye) took place on the surviving Cossacks and their homelands since they were viewed as a potential threat to the new Soviet regime.[6] The Cossack homelands were often very fertile, and during the collectivisation campaign many Cossacks shared the fate of the kulaks. According to historian Michael Kort, "During 1919 and 1920, out of a population of approximately 1.5 million Don Cossacks, the Bolshevik regime killed or deported an estimated 300,000 to 500,000".[7] The region also suffered greatly during the Soviet famine of 1932–1933 as a result of the Soviet policies.

During World War II, the Don Cossacks mustered the largest single concentration of Cossacks within the German Army, the XVth SS Cossack Cavalry Corps. A great part of the Cossacks were former Russian citizens who elected to fight not so much for Germany as against the Soviet Union. The XVth SS Cossack Cavalry Corps included the 1st Cossack Division and the 2nd Cossack Division.

The Host was revived in the early 1990s and was officially recognised by the government in 1997.

On October 4, 2009 an ataman of the Don Cossacks, Viktor Demyanenko, was refused entry into Ukraine.[8]

Don Cossack Choir

The Don Cossack Choir Serge Jaroff was a group of former officers of the Russian Imperial Army, discovered singing in Constantinople, where they had fled after the defeat of their army in the Crimea. They made their formal concert debut in Vienna in 1923, led by their founder, conductor and composer, Serge Jaroff.

They were immensely popular in America and elsewhere, touring the world in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. The men, dressed as Cossacks, sang a cappella in a repertory of Russian sacred and secular music, army, folk and art songs. Cossack dancing was eventually added to their programmes.

In popular culture

Mikhail Sholokhov's monumental work, And Quiet Flows the Don, deals sympathetically with the Don Cossacks and depicts the destruction of their way of life as a result of World War I and the Russian Civil War.

See also


External links

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