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Thursday, September 20, 2018 - 13:23

The Soviet Authorities’ Policies Toward the Don Cossackdom (1917-1937)

March 2014

It was not uncommon for contemporaries and participants of the revolutionary events in the Russian empire in 1917 to interpret them in relation to the French Revolution. This model helped give the events and political acts as well as the imperial space a certain logical, conceptual framework. Lenin saw the Don region as the Russian equivalent of the Vandée—the stronghold of pro-Restoration peasants.  

This book, by young Kharkiv historian Bohdan Ivchenko, contributes to a topic in Soviet Studies that has not yet received due attention. The categories of nation and class, by which intellectuals and politicians characterized the population, were of little use with regard to the Don Cossackdom. The author constructs his own narrative, emphasizing the plurality of means through which the Bolsheviks and the Cossacks interacted. At first, the Bolshevik leaders were inclined to think they had the support of the “revolutionary” worker Cossacks, opposing their military elite. However, after the mass Cossack uprising of May 1918, the notion of the counter-revolutionary Cossackdom, as such, became official.

The scholar conducts a detailed analysis of the “decossackization” policy carried out in the Bolshevik occupied Don Province in January 1919. The establishment of Soviet rule was accompanied by terror against all strata of the Cossackdom (a member of the Don Committee even openly called it a “mass annihilation of the Cossacks”, unleashed in the victorious euphoria). In two months, the Veshen Revolt—under the slogan “For Councils without the Communists”—forced local and central authorities to soften their line and begin incorporating the Cossack lands into the administrative body of the Russian state.

The political development of the region led to the loss of its exceptional identity. Tens of thousands of migrants from the central Russian provinces served as agents, strengthening new loyalties. Meanwhile, the authorities obstructed the emergence of a Cossack national project; the Cossackdom was acquiring a modern Russian identity.

Bohdan Ivchenko’s book resembles an undergraduate thesis and ought to be seen as an introduction to its subject. The scholar does not rely on archival material and makes use of limited secondary  sources. Among the many important emigrant and Western works that he has overlooked are the three-volume Don Chronicles and the works of Shane O’Rourke, Peter Holquist and Brian Murphy. These contributions could have been very useful in delineating—if not overcoming—the methodological gap between Western and Ukrainian historical schools.

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