Russia eText - Chapter XV - The Cossacks

Chapter XV - The Cossacks

No sooner had the Grand Princes of Moscow thrown off the Mongol yoke and become independent Tsars of Muscovy than they began that eastward territorial expansion which has been going on steadily ever since, and which culminated in the occupation of Talienwan and Port Arthur. Ivan the Terrible conquered the Khanates of Kazan and Astrakhan (1552-54) and reduced to nominal subjection the Bashkir and Kirghiz tribes in the vicinity of the Volga, but he did not thereby establish law and order on the Steppe. The lawless tribes retained their old pastoral mode of life and predatory habits, and harassed the Russian agricultural population of the outlying provinces in the same way as the Red Indians in America used to harass the white colonists of the Far West. A large section of the Horde, inhabiting the Crimea and the Steppe to the north of the Black Sea, escaped annexation by submitting to the Ottoman Turks and becoming tributaries of the Sultan.

The Turks were at that time a formidable power, with which the Tsars of Muscovy were too weak to cope successfully, and the Khan of the Crimea could always, when hard pressed by his northern neighbours, obtain assistance from Constantinople. This potentate exercised a nominal authority over the pastoral tribes which roamed on the Steppe between the Crimea and the Russian frontier, but he had neither the power nor the desire to control their aggressive tendencies. Their raids in Russian and Polish territory ensured, among other advantages, a regular and plentiful supply of slaves, which formed the chief article of export from Kaffa--the modern Theodosia--and from the other seaports of the coast.

Of this slave trade, which flourished down to 1783, when the Crimea was finally conquered and annexed by Russia, we have a graphic account by an eye-witness, a Lithuanian traveller of the sixteenth century. "Ships from Asia," he says, "bring arms, clothes, and horses to the Crimean Tartars, and start on the homeward voyage laden with slaves. It is for this kind of merchandise alone that the Crimean markets are remarkable. Slaves may be always had for sale as a pledge or as a present, and every one rich enough to have a horse deals in them. If a man wishes to buy clothes, arms, or horses, and does not happen to have at the moment any slaves, he takes on credit the articles required, and makes a formal promise to deliver at a certain time a certain number of people of our blood--being convinced that he can get by that time the requisite number. And these promises are always accurately fulfilled, as if those who made them had always a supply of our people in their courtyards. A Jewish money-changer, sitting at the gate of Tauris and seeing constantly the countless multitude of our countrymen led in as captives, asked us whether there still remained any people in our land, and whence came such a multitude of them. The stronger of these captives, branded on the forehead and cheeks and manacled or fettered, are tortured by severe labour all day, and are shut up in dark cells at night. They are kept alive by small quantities of food, composed chiefly of the flesh of animals that have died-- putrid, covered with maggots, disgusting even to dogs. Women, who are more tender, are treated in a different fashion; some of them who can sing and play are employed to amuse the guests at festivals.

"When the slaves are led out for sale they walk to the marketplace in single file, like storks on the wing, in whole dozens, chained together by the neck, and are there sold by auction. The auctioneer shouts loudly that they are 'the newest arrivals, simple, and not cunning, lately captured from the people of the kingdom (Poland), and not from Muscovy'; for the Muscovite race, being crafty and deceitful, does not bring a good price. This kind of merchandise is appraised with great accuracy in the Crimea, and is bought by foreign merchants at a high price, in order to be sold at a still higher rate to blacker nations, such as Saracens, Persians, Indians, Arabs, Syrians, and Assyrians. When a purchase is made the teeth are examined, to see that they are neither few nor discoloured. At the same time the more hidden parts of the body are carefully inspected, and if a mole, excrescence, wound, or other latent defect is discovered, the bargain is rescinded. But notwithstanding these investigations the cunning slave-dealers and brokers succeed in cheating the buyers; for when they have valuable boys and girls, they do not at once produce them, but first fatten them, clothe them in silk, and put powder and rouge on their cheeks, so as to sell them at a better price. Sometimes beautiful and perfect maidens of our nation bring their weight in gold. This takes place in all the towns of the peninsula, but especially in Kaffa."*

* Michalonis Litvani, "De moribus Tartarorum Fragmina," X., Basilliae, 1615.

To protect the agricultural population of the Steppe against the raids of these thieving, cattle-lifting, kidnapping neighbours, the Tsars of Muscovy and the Kings of Poland built forts, constructed palisades, dug trenches, and kept up a regular military cordon. The troops composing this cordon were called Cossacks; but these were not the "Free Cossacks" best known to history and romance. These latter lived beyond the frontier on the debatable land which lay between the two hostile races, and there they formed self- governing military communities. Each one of the rivers flowing southwards--the Dnieper, the Don, the Volga, and the Yaik or Ural-- was held by a community of these Free Cossacks, and no one, whether Christian or Tartar, was allowed to pass through their territory without their permission.

Officially the Free Cossacks were Russians, for they professed to be champions of Orthodox Christianity, and--with the exception of those of the Dnieper--loyal subjects of the Tsar; but in reality they were something different. Though they were Russian by origin, language, and sympathy, the habit of kidnapping Tartar women introduced among them a certain admixture of Tartar blood. Though self-constituted champions of Christianity and haters of Islam, they troubled themselves very little with religion, and did not submit to the ecclesiastical authorities. As to their religious status, it cannot be easily defined. Whilst professing allegiance and devotion to the Tsar, they did not think it necessary to obey him, except in so far as his orders suited their own convenience. And the Tsar, it must be confessed, acted towards them in a similar fashion. When he found it convenient he called them his faithful subjects; and when complaints were made to him about their raids in Turkish territory, he declared that they were not his subjects, but runaways and brigands, and that the Sultan might punish them as he saw fit. At the same time, the so-called runaways and brigands regularly received supplies and ammunition from Moscow, as is amply proved by recently-published documents. Down to the middle of the seventeenth century the Cossacks of the Dnieper stood in a similar relation to the Polish kings; but at that time they threw off their allegiance to Poland, and became subjects of the Tsars of Muscovy.

Of these semi-independent military communities, which formed a continuous barrier along the southern and southeastern frontier, the most celebrated were the Zaporovians* of the Dnieper, and the Cossacks of the Don.

* The name "Zaporovians," by which they are known in the West, is a corruption of the Russian word Zaporozhtsi, which means "Those who live beyond the rapids."

The Zaporovian Commonwealth has been compared sometimes to ancient Sparta, and sometimes to the mediaeval Military Orders, but it had in reality quite a different character. In Sparta the nobles kept in subjection a large population of slaves, and were themselves constantly under the severe discipline of the magistrates. These Cossacks of the Dnieper, on the contrary, lived by fishing, hunting, and marauding, and knew nothing of discipline, except in time of war. Amongst all the inhabitants of the Setch--so the fortified camp was called--there reigned the most perfect equality. The common saying, "Bear patiently, Cossack; you will one day be Ataman!" was often realised; for every year the office-bearers laid down the insignia of office in presence of the general assembly, and after thanking the brotherhood for the honour they had enjoyed, retired to their former position of common Cossack. At the election which followed this ceremony any member could be chosen chief of his kuren, or company, and any chief of a kuren could be chosen Ataman.

The comparison of these bold Borderers with the mediaeval Military Orders is scarcely less forced. They call themselves, indeed, Lytsars--a corruption of the Russian word Ritsar, which is in its turn a corruption of the German Ritter--talked of knightly honour (lytsarskaya tchest'), and sometimes proclaimed themselves the champions of Greek Orthodoxy against the Roman Catholicism of the Poles and the Mahometanism of the Tartars; but religion occupied in their minds a very secondary place. Their great object in life was the acquisition of booty. To attain this object they lived in intermittent warfare with the Tartars, lifted their cattle, pillaged their aouls, swept the Black Sea in flotillas of small boats, and occasionally sacked important coast towns, such as Varna and Sinope. When Tartar booty could not be easily obtained, they turned their attention to the Slavonic populations; and when hard pressed by Christian potentates, they did not hesitate to put themselves under the protection of the Sultan.

The Cossacks of the Don, of the Volga, and of the Ural had a somewhat different organisation. They had no fortified camp like the Setch, but lived in villages, and assembled as necessity demanded. As they were completely beyond the sphere of Polish influence, they knew nothing about "knightly honour" and similar conceptions of Western chivalry; they even adopted many Tartar customs, and loved in time of peace to strut about in gorgeous Tartar costumes. Besides this, they were nearly all emigrants from Great Russia, and mostly Old Ritualists or Sectarians, whilst the Zaporovians were Little Russians and Orthodox.

These military communities rendered valuable service to Russia. The best means of protecting the southern frontier was to have as allies a large body of men leading the same kind of life and capable of carrying on the same kind of warfare as the nomadic marauders; and such a body of men were the Free Cossacks. The sentiment of self-preservation and the desire of booty kept them constantly on the alert. By sending out small parties in all directions, by "procuring tongues"--that is to say, by kidnapping and torturing straggling Tartars with a view to extracting information from them--and by keeping spies in the enemy's territory, they were generally apprised beforehand of any intended incursion. When danger threatened, the ordinary precautions were redoubled. Day and night patrols kept watch at the points where the enemy was expected, and as soon as sure signs of his approach were discovered a pile of tarred barrels prepared for the purpose was fired to give the alarm. Rapidly the signal was repeated at one point of observation after another, and by this primitive system of telegraphy in the course of a few hours the whole district was up in arms. If the invaders were not too numerous, they were at once attacked and driven back. If they could not be successfully resisted, they were allowed to pass; but a troop of Cossacks was sent to pillage their aouls in their absence, whilst another and larger force was collected, in order to intercept them when they were returning home laden with booty. Thus many a nameless battle was fought on the trackless Steppe, and many brave men fell unhonoured and unsung:

"Illacrymabiles Urgentur ignotique longa Nocte, carent quia vate sacro."

Notwithstanding these valuable services, the Cossack communities were a constant source of diplomatic difficulties and political dangers. As they paid very little attention to the orders of the Government, they supplied the Sultan with any number of casi belli, and were often ready to turn their arms against the power to which they professed allegiance. During "the troublous times," for example, when the national existence was endangered by civil strife and foreign invasion, they overran the country, robbing, pillaging, and burning as they were wont to do in the Tartar aouls. At a later period the Don Cossacks twice raised formidable insurrections--first under Stenka Razin (1670), and secondly under Pugatchef (1773)--and during the war between Peter the Great and Charles XII. of Sweden the Zaporovians took the side of the Swedish king.

The Government naturally strove to put an end to this danger, and ultimately succeeded. All the Cossacks were deprived of their independence, but the fate of the various communities was different. Those of the Volga were transfered to the Terek, where they had abundant occupation in guarding the frontier against the incursions of the Eastern Caucasian tribes. The Zaporovians held tenaciously to their "Dnieper liberties," and resisted all interference, till they were forcibly disbanded in the time of Catherine II. The majority of them fled to Turkey, where some of their descendants are still to be found, and the remainder were settled on the Kuban, where they could lead their old life by carrying on an irregular warfare with the tribes of the Western Caucasus. Since the capture of Shamyl and the pacification of the Caucasus, this Cossack population of the Kuban and the Terek, extending in an unbroken line from the Sea of Azof to the Caspian, have been able to turn their attention to peaceful pursuits, and now raise large quantities of wheat for exportation; but they still retain their martial bearing, and some of them regret the good old times when a brush with the Circassians was an ordinary occurrence and the work of tilling the soil was often diversified with a more exciting kind of occupation.

The Cossacks of the Ural and the Don have been allowed to remain in their old homes, but they have been deprived of their independence and self-government, and their social organisation has been completely changed. The boisterous popular assemblies which formerly decided all public affairs have been abolished, and the custom of choosing the Ataman and other office-bearers by popular election has been replaced by a system of regular promotion, according to rules elaborated in St. Petersburg. The officers and their families now compose a kind of hereditary aristocracy which has succeeded in appropriating, by means of Imperial grants, a large portion of the land which was formerly common property. As the Empire expanded in Asia the system of protecting the parties by Cossack colonists was extended eastwards, so now there is a belt of Cossack territory stretching almost without interruption from the banks of the Don to the coast of the Pacific. It is divided into eleven sections, in each of which is settled a Cossack corps with a separate administration.

When universal military service was introduced, in 1873, the Cossacks were brought under the new law, but in order to preserve their military traditions and habits they were allowed to retain, with certain modifications, their old organisation, rights, and privileges. In return for a large amount of fertile land and exemption from direct taxation, they have to equip themselves at their own expense, and serve for twenty years, of which three are spent in preparatory training, twelve in the active army, and five in the reserve. This system gives to the army a contingent of about 330,000 men--divided into 890 squadrons and 108 infantry companies--with 236 guns.

The Cossacks in active service are to be met with in all parts of the Empire, from the Prussian to the Chinese frontier. In the Asiatic Provinces their services are invaluable. Capable of enduring an incredible amount of fatigue and all manner of privations, they can live and thrive in conditions which would soon disable regular troops. The capacity of self-adaptation, which is characteristic of the Russian people generally, is possessed by them in the highest degree. When placed on some distant Asiatic frontier they can at once transform themselves into squatters-- building their own houses, raising crops of grain, and living as colonists without neglecting their military duties.

I have sometimes heard it asserted by military men that the Cossack organisation is an antiquated institution, and that the soldiers which it produces, however useful they may be in Central Asia, would be of little service in regular European warfare. Whether this view, which received some confirmation in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, is true or false I cannot pretend to say, for it is a subject on which a civilian has no right to speak; but I may remark that the Cossacks themselves are not by any means of that opinion. They regard themselves as the most valuable troops which the Tsar possesses, believing themselves capable of performing anything within the bounds of human possibility, and a good deal that lies beyond that limit. More than once Don Cossacks have assured me that if the Tsar had allowed them to fit out a flotilla of small boats during the Crimean War they would have captured the British fleet, as their ancestors used to capture Turkish galleys on the Black Sea!

In old times, throughout the whole territory of the Don Cossacks, agriculture was prohibited on pain of death. It is generally supposed that this measure was adopted with a view to preserve the martial spirit of the inhabitants, but it may be explained otherwise. The great majority of the Cossacks, averse to all regular, laborious occupations, wished to live by fishing, hunting, cattle-breeding, and marauding, but there was always amongst them a considerable number of immigrants--runaway serfs from the interior-- who had been accustomed to live by agriculture. These latter wished to raise crops on the fertile virgin soil, and if they had been allowed to do so they would to some extent have spoiled the pastures. We have here, I believe, the true reason for the above- mentioned prohibition, and this view is strongly confirmed by analogous facts which I have observed in another locality. In the Kirghiz territory the poorer inhabitants of the aouls near the frontier, having few or no cattle, wish to let part of the common land to the neighbouring Russian peasantry for agricultural purposes; but the richer inhabitants, who possess flocks and herds, strenuously oppose this movement, and would doubtless prohibit it under pain of death if they had the power, because all agricultural encroachments diminish the pasture-land.

Whatever was the real reason of the prohibition, practical necessity proved in the long run too strong for the anti- agriculturists. As the population augmented and the opportunities for marauding decreased, the majority had to overcome their repugnance to husbandry; and soon large patches of ploughed land or waving grain were to be seen in the vicinity of the stanitsas, as the Cossack villages are termed. At first there was no attempt to regulate this new use of the ager publicus. Each Cossack who wished to raise a crop ploughed and sowed wherever he thought fit, and retained as long as he chose the land thus appropriated; and when the soil began to show signs of exhaustion he abandoned his plot and ploughed elsewhere. But this unregulated use of the Communal property could not long continue. As the number of agriculturists increased, quarrels frequently arose, and sometimes terminated in bloodshed. Still worse evils appeared when markets were created in the vicinity, and it became possible to sell the grain for exportation. In some stanitsas the richer families appropriated enormous quantities of the common land by using several teams of oxen, or by hiring peasants in the nearest villages to come and plough for them; and instead of abandoning the land after raising two or three crops they retained possession of it, and came to regard it as their private property. Thus the whole of the arable land, or at least the best part of it, became actually, if not legally, the private property of a few families, whilst the less energetic or less fortunate inhabitants of the stanitsa had only parcels of comparatively barren soil, or had no land whatever, and became mere agricultural labourers.

After a time this injustice was remedied. The landless members justly complained that they had to bear the same burdens as those who possessed the land, and that therefore they ought to enjoy the same privileges. The old spirit of equality was still strong amongst them, and they ultimately succeeded in asserting their rights. In accordance with their demands the appropriated land was confiscated by the Commune, and the system of periodical redistributions was introduced. By this system each adult male possesses a share of the land.

These facts tend to throw light on some of the dark questions of social development in its early stages.

So long as a village community leads a purely pastoral life, and possesses an abundance of land, there is no reason why the individuals or the families of which it is composed should divide the land into private lots, and there are very potent reasons why they should not adopt such a course. To give the division of the land any practical significance, it would be necessary to raise fences of some kind, and these fences, requiring for their construction a certain amount of labour, would prove merely a useless encumbrance, for it is much more convenient that all the sheep and cattle should graze together. If there is a scarcity of pasture, and consequently a conflict of interest among the families, the enjoyment of the common land will be regulated not by raising fences, but by simply limiting the number of sheep and cattle which each family is entitled to put upon the pasturage, as is done in many Russian villages at the present day. When any one desires to keep more sheep and cattle than the maximum to which he is entitled, he pays to the others a certain compensation. Thus, we see, in pastoral life the dividing of the common land is unnecessary and inexpedient, and consequently private property in land is not likely to come into existence.

With the introduction of agriculture appears a tendency to divide the land among the families composing the community, for each family living by husbandry requires a definite portion of the soil. If the land suitable for agricultural purposes be plentiful, each head of a family may be allowed to take possession of as much of it as he requires, as was formerly done in the Cossack stanitsas; if, on the contrary, the area of arable land is small, as is the case in some Bashkir aouls, there will probably be a regular allotment of it among the families.

With the tendency to divide the land into definite portions arises a conflict between the principle of communal and the principle of private property. Those who obtain definite portions of the soil are in general likely to keep them and transmit them to their descendants. In a country, however, like the Steppe--and it is only of such countries that I am at present speaking--the nature of the soil and the system of agriculture militate against this conversion of simple possession into a right of property. A plot of land is commonly cultivated for only three or four years in succession. It is then abandoned for at least double that period, and the cultivators remove to some other portion of the communal territory. After a time, it is true, they return to the old portion, which has been in the meantime lying fallow; but as the soil is tolerably equal in quality, the families or individuals have no reason to desire the precise plots which they formerly possessed. Under such circumstances the principle of private property in the land is not likely to strike root; each family insists on possessing a certain QUANTITY rather than a certain PLOT of land, and contents itself with a right of usufruct, whilst the right of property remains in the hands of the Commune; and it must not be forgotten that the difference between usufruct and property here is of great practical importance, for so long as the Commune retains the right of property it may re-allot the land in any way it thinks fit.

As the population increases and land becomes less plentiful, the primitive method of agriculture above alluded to gives place to a less primitive method, commonly known as "the three-field system," according to which the cultivators do not migrate periodically from one part of the communal territory to another, but till always the same fields, and are obliged to manure the plots which they occupy. The principle of communal property rarely survives this change, for by long possession the families acquire a prescriptive right to the portions which they cultivate, and those who manure their land well naturally object to exchange it for land which has been held by indolent, improvident neighbours. In Russia, however, this change has not destroyed the principle of communal property. Though the three-field system has been in use for many generations in the central provinces, the communal principle, with its periodical re- allotment of the land, still remains intact.

For the student of sociology the past history and actual condition of the Don Cossacks present many other features equally interesting and instructive. He may there see, for instance, how an aristocracy can be created by military promotion, and how serfage may originate and become a recognised institution without any legislative enactment. If he takes an interest in peculiar manifestations of religious thought and feeling, he will find a rich field of investigation in the countless religious sects; and if he is a collector of quaint old customs, he will not lack occupation.

One curious custom, which has very recently died out, I may here mention by way of illustration. As the Cossacks knew very little about land-surveying, and still less about land-registration, the precise boundary between two contiguous yurts--as the communal land of a stanitsa was called--was often a matter of uncertainty and a fruitful source of disputes. When the boundary was once determined, the following method of registering it was employed. All the boys of the two stanitsas were collected and driven in a body like sheep to the intervening frontier. The whole population then walked along the frontier that had been agreed upon, and at each landmark a number of boys were soundly whipped and allowed to run home! This was done in the hope that the victims would remember, as long as they lived, the spot where they had received their unmerited castigation.* The device, I have been assured, was generally very effective, but it was not always quite successful. Whether from the castigation not being sufficiently severe, or from some other defect in the method, it sometimes happened that disputes afterwards arose, and the whipped boys, now grown up to manhood, gave conflicting testimony. When such a case occurred the following expedient was adopted. One of the oldest inhabitants was chosen as arbiter, and made to swear on the Scriptures that he would act honestly to the best of his knowledge; then taking an Icon in his hand, he walked along what he believed to be the old frontier. Whether he made mistakes or not, his decision was accepted by both parties and regarded as final. This custom existed in some stanitsas down to the year 1850, when the boundaries were clearly determined by Government officials.

* A custom of this kind, I am told, existed not very long ago in England and is still spoken of as "the beating of the bounds."