Sunday, March 15, 2015

Cossacks under Soviet Rule

H2. Don Cossack, Field Service Summer Uniform, c. 1944
The uniform of the Don Cossack sergeant of the Red Army was very similar to that of his predecessors a generation before. He wore dark-blue breeches of riding pattern with a scarlet side-stripe which was, however, wider than that of the old Don Host. His boots were of the normal Red Army pattern and were considerably shorter in the leg than the knee-boots of the First World War. The cap, though of more modern design, was of a similar blue-grey colour but had a patent leather peak and the old Don Host scarlet band and scarlet piping. The soldier might have a khaki or blue-grey tunic, but more commonly in the field he wore, as here, the khaki gimnasterka, a pull-over type of blouse with a soft stand-up collar and loops for the shoulder-boards. The field shoulder-boards themselves were close to those of 1914, with a plain khaki background, the three bars of rank and a dark-blue edging to signify that the wearer came from the cavalry arm. This particular sergeant has been issued with the old-pattern Cossack sword, wears two heavy-wound stripe badges and carries the insignia denoting that his formation has been taken on to the roll of the Guards. This distinction was granted as a battle honour. In winter and on ceremonial occasions the Don Cossacks still wore the fur cap, although this was shorter in height than that worn before the First World War. It was scarlet-topped and carried an unringed red star badge.

H3. Kuban Cossack, Parade Uniform, c. 1945
The parade dress of the Kuban Cossack in 1945 was almost identical with that worn a generation earlier, except that the detail, at long last, was in fact uniform. The head-dress, the kubanka, was somewhat shorter than the earlier pattern and, instead of being slightly conical in the shape of an inverted flower-pot, overhung at the top edges. The red star badge was worn on the front of the kubanka. Black piping has replaced gold, and spurs have been taken into use instead of the nagaika. Breeches were piped with scarlet braid, which was also worn on the soft forage-cap. The Terek Cossacks wore a similar uniform except that the scarlet Kuban colours were replaced by the old traditional light blue. The Terek Cossack cherkesska was grey, lined with light blue.

The fame, and indeed the achievements, of the Cossacks were out of proportion to their numbers. In the 1884 census the total male population on the Don numbered only 425,000; that of the Kuban, 281,000; of the Orenburg, 155,000; of the Transbaikal, 76,000; of the Terek, 70,000. The total population of all the hosts did not amount to 1,200,000 men.

The early Bolshevik rulers were determined to destroy all trace of the Cossack communities. The hosts, the land rights, the stanitsi and the gorodki all disappeared. A large part of the Cossack population was liquidated or deported. The singing of Cossack songs and the wearing of Cossack dress were strictly prohibited, and Cossacks, as counterrevolutionaries, were banned from enlistment into the Red Army. Instead they were called up into labour battalions, almost penal in character. Some of the Cossack population merged in the mass of inogorodniki, peasants and workers. Yet for many their trials were not yet over, for they suffered yet again as victims of the collectivization of agriculture. Those who remained as small farmers in possession of land were dispossessed and transported, not this time as Cossacks but as kulaks, the name given not to the employer of farm labour but to any peasant who resisted the collectivization of his humble property.

There was, it is true, a Ukrainian Red Cossack cavalry corps serving as part of the Red Army in the early 1920s. But this existed merely to placate Ukrainian opinion. It was little more than a name given to a body of cavalry. Even the Ukrainian element was often in a minority to the Russian. Long before the Second World War the Ukrainian Cossack had disappeared.

On 17 March 1936 Marshal of the Soviet Union Budenny, a former senior non-commissioned officer of Tsarist cavalry, described in the press as 'a true son of the Don' because he once belonged to 48 Cossack Regiment, reviewed a parade of mounted men in Rostov. These were said to be Cossacks of the old sotnyas signifying their readiness to serve their country once more, this time in the ranks of the Red Army. This Soviet stage-managed demonstration was to prepare public opinion for the introduction of Cossack designations into the Red Army. The reasons for doing so are not entirely clear. It is possible that this was an attempt to strengthen the ties of patriotism by the romantic appeal of old Cossackdom; or, since war was already threatening in the west, it may have been designed to make use of the riding skills of former Cossacks and their sons. Whatever the reasons, on 20 April 1936 former Cossacks and the sons of Cossacks were no longer debarred from bearing arms in the Red Army.

That year five existing Red Army cavalry divisions had been renamed Cossack divisions, two as Don Cossack, one as Kuban Cossack, one as Kuban-Terek Cossack and the last as Terek- Stavropol Cossack. According to the official announcement signed by Marshal Voroshilov, the Commissar for Defence, recruits for these divisions were henceforth to come from the population of the Don, the Terek, the Kuban and Stavropol without distinction of origin or class, except that the mountain tribes would not be eligible. And so the Don, Kuban and Terek Cossacks were officially but only militarily reborn.

It was against Soviet interest and practice to raise purely national or regional formations, and Moscow often overcame the difficulty by merely using national and regional titles and designations for many of its troops. What percentage of men from the Kuban were to be found in the reembodied Kuban Cossacks can be only a matter of conjecture. They may well have been outnumbered by Russians.

But whatever their origin, a number of cavalry regiments had by 1939 been given the newly designed Cossack uniform. The Don Cossacks appeared in a blue-topped forage-cap with a red band and red piping, a khaki or blue tunic piped with red, khaki or dark-blue breeches with the old Don Cossack broad red stripe down the outer seam. The usual knee-boots and khaki greatcoat completed the equipment. For ceremonial occasions the black fur hat was taken into use once more with a red top trimmed with two rows of fine black braid (gold for officers) sewn on to form a cross.

The Terek and Kuban Cossacks now wore a khaki forage-cap with a blue cap band; black piping for the Terek Cossacks, red piping for those of the Kuban. The breeches of the Kuban Cossacks were piped with red while the Terek Cossacks retained their traditional light-blue piping. In addition to their khaki uniforms the Terek and Kuban Cossacks were given a new ceremonial uniform very similar to that of the Guard sotnyas of Tsarist times: the kubanka, a squat round fur hat broader at the crown than at the rim, with a red top for the Kuban and a light-blue top for the Terek Cossacks, with the same braid pattern as that of the Don Cossacks; the coloured hood with long ends; a long grey waisted cherkesska tunic adorned with the stitched cartridge pockets with a light-blue lining for the Terek and a dark-blue cherkesska lined with red for the Kuban Cossack. Both Terek and Kuban Cossacks wore the heavy circular black riding cloaks.

In 1941 the Soviet cavalry arm was the largest in the world, yet it was small by Tsarist standards. The Cossack horse was still a wiry pony, but the soldier was generally better mounted than in the First World War. The bridle was still a jointed snaffle, but the leatherwork was superior to the old and was fitted with buckles and D-pieces. Officers' chargers had double bridles of jointed snaffle and curb bar and chain. Lances were no longer carried, the personal arms consisting of a 24/27 carbine, the universal cavalry-pattern 27 sabre with wooden scabbard covered with leather or canvas, or, more usually, the 1914-pattern Cossack sword without the hilt. The old Kuban and Terek swords and daggers were still worn with the ceremonial dress.

There can be no doubt that the new Cossack formations and units existed and took their share in the fighting in the Second World War; they were, indeed, well publicized for the benefit of the foreign press. Yet in Soviet accounts they received relatively small mention. Two Kuban Cossack and one Don Cossack cavalry corps are said to have been in existence in 1942 and 1943. As the war progressed, the cavalry element with the Red Army was of course reduced, but eventually the Cossack corps passed into oblivion. And comparatively rare is the mention of any Cossack division or regiment after the period 1941-3 in which the U. S. S. R. was in danger of defeat.

Many of the Cossack prisoners of war in German hands and many of the embittered descendants of Cossacks were eventually recruited by the Wehrmacht into a Cossack force for use against either the Red Army or the partisans in the Balkans. Once again they adopted traditional Tsarist Cossack dress on which they mounted the Nazi German eagle; even the nagaika reappeared. Some of the intake were Russian cavalry with a grievance; others joined to escape the fearful conditions in the German prisoner-of-war camps; others, again, were genuine Cossacks who had no reason to love the Bolshevik regime and were deluded by the former Don ataman General Krasnov, then a guest of Germany, who promised them a free and independent Cossackdom. Yet, all in all, the record of the renegade Cossack, right or wrong, depending on whether this is viewed by the standard of Moscow or Novocherkassk, was neither better nor worse than the conduct of the Great Russian in captivity. For many of these also entered the German service.

The military Cossack still remains, however, in the post-war Soviet Army. The horses have mostly gone and the cavalry formations have been converted to mechanized and armoured troops. But the mounted Cossack continues to appear on ceremonial occasions, wearing a uniform little removed from that of the Imperial Guard of the Tsar Nicolas II. The wheel has turned full circle.

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