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Decossackization (Russian: Расказачивание, Raskazachivaniye) was the Bolshevik policy of systematic repressions against Cossacks of the Russian Empire, especially of the Don and the Kuban, between 1917 and 1933 aimed at the elimination of the Cossacks as a separate ethnic, political, and economic entity.
Many authors characterize decossackization as genocide of the Cossacks, while others reject this characterization. For example, Peter Holquist, a specialist of the conflict in the Don region, concludes that decossackization did not constitute an "open-ended program of genocide" but rather was a "ruthless" and "radical attempt to eliminate undesirable social groups," which showed the Soviet regime's "dedication to social engineering." On the other hand, Shane O' Rourke, a specialist in Cossack history, concludes that decossackization did constitute a genocide of the Cossack people.
Cossacks were simultaneously both an ethnicity and special social estates in the Russian Empire from the 16th to the early 20th century. There were two different estates in the Russian empire. The part of the descendants of the former Cossacks of Ukrainian regiments were the less numerous civil estate of Cossacks. Any Russian empire population census allowed these Cossacks only to mention "a Cossack" as their civil estate. They did not serve in either the Cossack Hosts or the Cossack commands. Other Cossacks had dual estate. They belonged both to some civil estate and to the Cossack military estate. Though their Cossack estate was a military secret many Cossacks violated their obligations to keep this secret and mentioned "Cossack" as their social civil estate during any population census in the Russian empire to distinguish themselves from "usual peasants and soldiers". There was decossackization in the Russian empire during which many Cossacks lost their military estate and turned, as Yakiv Markovich wrote, into "the peaceful dwellers". The majority of the Cossack military estate members belonged to the civil estate of "village dwellers" (peasants). This is why General Lavr Kornilov described himself as the son of "a Cossack and a peasant". When his father had left the peasant estate because of his promotion to nobility, he did not leave the Cossack military estate in any way. But Cossacks had privileges in contrast to usual peasants. Non-Cossack peasants had the status of aliens in the Cossack regions and villages. The alien community and the Cossack community were different ones with distinct land properties in any Cossack town and village. Cossack hosts performed the duty of border guards and settled in the Russian borderlands of the times: in southern Russia in the Don and Kuban areas, as well as parts of Siberia and Central Asia such as Orenburg and Transbaikalia. Because of their military tradition, Cossack forces played an important role in Russia's wars of the 17th–20th centuries such as the Crimean War, Napoleonic Wars, various Russo-Turkish Wars, and the First World War. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the tsarist regime employed them extensively to perform police service and suppress the revolutionary movement, especially in 1905–07.
Following the Communist Revolution, a conflict broke out between the new Communist regime in Russia and the Cossacks. In the Don territory, Ataman Kaledin declared that he would "offer full support, in close alliance with the governments of the other Cossack hosts" to Kerensky's forces. Establishing ties with the Ukrainian Central Rada and the Kuban, Terek, and Orenburg hosts, Kaledin sought to overthrow Soviet regime in Russia. On 15 November 1917 Generals Kornilov, Alekseev and Denikin began to organize the Volunteer Army in Novocherkassk. Imposing martial law, Kaledin moved in late November to eliminate the Soviets. On December 15, after a seven-day battle, they occupied Rostov. On 7 January 1918, Soviet troops began a coordinated offensive from Gorlovka, Lugansk, and Millerovo. They were supported by uprisings of the workers, alien peasants and Red Cossacks. On February 25, Bolshevik troops occupied Rostov and Novocherkassk. The remnants of the White Cossacks, headed by Ataman Popov, fled into the Salsk steppes.
After the German forces invaded and occupied Rostov on May 8, a government headed by Ataman Krasnov was formed in the Don province. In July 1918, the White Cossack forces of Ataman Krasnov launched their first invasion of Tsaritsyn. Soviet forces counterattacked and drove out the White Cossacks by September 7. On September 22, Krasnov's forces launched a second invasion of Tsaritsyn but by October 25, Krasnov's forces were thrown back beyond the Don by Soviet troops. On January 1, 1919, Krasnov launched a third invasion of Tsaritsyn. Soviet forces repelled the invasion and forced Krasnov's forces to withdraw from Tsaritsyn in mid-February 1919. In the period that General Krasnov's White Cossack forces controlled the Don province, from May 1918 to February 1919, the "All-Great Don Host" was estimated to have killed between 25,000 to 45,000 people.
the republic has to organize the internment in camps of about 100,000 prisoners from the Southern front and vast masses of people expelled from the rebellious [Cossack] settlements of the Terek, the Kuban, and the Don. Today 403 Cossack men and women aged between 14 and 17 arrived in Oryol for internment in concentration camp. They cannot be accepted as Oryol is already overloaded.
The Pyatigorsk Cheka organized a "day of Red Terror" to execute 300 people in one day. They ordered local Communist Party organizations to draw up execution lists. According to one of the chekists, "this rather unsatisfactory method led to a great deal of private settling of old scores. ... In Kislovodsk, for lack of a better idea, it was decided to kill people who were in the hospital." Many Cossack towns were burned to the ground, and all survivors deported on the orders by Sergo Ordzhonikidze who was head of the Revolutionary Committee of the Northern Caucasus. The files of Sergo Ordzhonikidze include documents which detail such operations. On the 23rd of October he ordered:
1. The town of Kalinovskaya to be burned.
2. The inhabitants of Ermolovskaya, Romanovskaya, Samachinskaya and Mikhailovskaya to be driven out of their homes, and the houses and land redistributed among the poor peasants, particularly among the Chechens, who have always shown great respect for Soviet power.
3. All males ages eighteen to fifty from the above-mentioned towns to be gathered into convoys and deported under armed escort to the north, where they will be forced into heavy labor.
4. Women, children, and old people to be driven from their homes, although they are allowed to resettle farther north.
5. All the cattle and goods of the above mentioned towns to be seized.
Three weeks later Ordzhonikidze received a report outlining how the operation was progressing:
Kalinovskaya: town razed and the whole population (4,220) deported or expelled
Ermolovskaya: emptied of all inhabitants (3,218)
Romanovskaya: 1,600 deported, 1,661 awaiting deportation
Samachinskaya: 1,018 deported, 1,900 awaiting deportation
Mikhailovskaya: 600 deported, 2,200 awaiting deportation
The policy was established by a secret resolution of the Bolshevik Party on January 24, 1919, which ordered local branches to "carry out mass terror against wealthy Cossacks, exterminating all of them; carry out merciless mass terror against any and all Cossacks taking part in any way, directly or indirectly, in the struggle against Soviet power." On February 7 the Southern Front issued its own instructions on how the resolution was to be applied: "The main duty of stanitsa and khutor executive committees is to neutralize the Cossackry through the merciless extirpation of its elite. District and Stanitsa atamans are subject to unconditional elimination, [but] khutor atamans should be subject to execution only in those cases where it can be proved that they actively supported Krasnov's policies (having organized pacification, conducted mobilization, refused to offer refuge to revolutionary Cossacks or to Red Army men)." The policy of "high decossackization" was cancelled on March 16, 1919 in response to a major revolt against Soviet power in Veshenskaia. The Soviet state focused on the formal elimination of the Cossackry as a monolithic social, juridical, and economic entity. The complete rehabilitation of the Cossacks and the Don Territory came in September 1919. An article in the newspaper of the Army instructed that: "While it is true that a certain portion of the Don Territory's population is counter-revolutionary for reasons of an economic nature, this is far from the majority. And this entire remaining section of the population could become our ally."
University of York Russian specialist Shane O'Rourke states that "ten thousand Cossacks were slaughtered systematically in a few weeks in January 1919" and that this "was one of the main factors which led to the disappearance of the Cossacks as a nation." The late Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev, head of the Presidential Committee for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression, notes that "hundreds of thousands of Cossacks were killed." Historian Robert Gellately claims that "the most reliable estimates indicate that between 300,000 and 500,000 were killed or deported in 1919–20." This out of a population of around three million.
In contrast, a Russian communist historian L. Futorayansky asserts that widespread estimates of hundreds of thousands or millions of people being repressed are unsubstantiated. He notes, as an example, that that claims made by Denikin's "Commission for Investigation of Bolshevik Crimes"—that 5598 people were executed in Stavropol, 3,442 in the Don region, and 2,142 in the Kuban—were exaggerated. He also points out, "Eugene Losev in his book "Mironov" shows the monstrous cruelty of the "decossackization" statistics by the Reds in the Don, with more than 1000 shot...Recall at least that in the period of the Krasnov's rule on the Don, more than 45 thousand were shot and hanged. The total number of the executions was more than half of the entire Krasnov army. A recent book estimates that Krasnov's forces shot 25 thousand... But this is still 25 times the measures taken by the Reds."
Peter Holquist states the overall number of executions is difficult to establish. In some regions hundreds were executed. In Khoper, the tribunal was very active, with a one-month total of 226 executions. The Tsymlianskaia tribunal oversaw the execution of over 700 people. The Kotel'nikovo tribunal executed 117 in early May and nearly 1,000 overall. Others were not quite as active. The Berezovskaia tribunal made a total of twenty arrests in a community of 13,500 people. Holquist also notes that some of White reports of Red atrocities in the Don were consciously scripted for agitation purposes. In one example, an insurgent leader reported that 140 were executed in Bokovskaia, but later provided a different account, according to which only eight people in Bokovskaia were sentenced to death, and the authorities did not manage to carry these sentences out. This same historian emphasises he is "not seeking to downplay or dismiss very real executions by the Soviets."
Research by Pavel Polian from Russian Academy of Sciences on the subject of forced migrations in Russia shows that more than 45,000 Cossacks were deported from the Terek province to Ukraine. Their land was distributed among pro-soviet Cossacks and Chechens.
In June 1919, Lenin blamed the excesses on local official's "immature overenthusiasm." However, Holquist asserts that the Central government was "fully aware of the tribunal's activities" and that the tribunals "were showing no compunction about executing people."
- Red Terror
- Population transfer in the Soviet Union
- Forced settlements in the Soviet Union
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