A rada for the empire Inventing the tradition of Cossack self-governance during the 1905 Revolution1

Oleksandr Polianichev


In September 1906, Petr Opochinin, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper Kavka:, a semi-official media outlet of the Caucasus Viceroyalty, shared his thoughts on the significance of what he believed was the culmination of the revolutionary transformation experienced by the Russian Empire.

That was a great moment of the first encounter between the Russian people and the Russian Tsar after a long separation. They had been silently and lovingly looking into each other’s eyes and, in the end, they understood one another, so that now their progressive union can be broken neither by a rightwing extremist [chemosotenets], nor by a stubborn and insane bureaucrat, nor by a frenzied Social Democrat, nor by a mad anarchist.2

The moment he referred to was the Tsar’s October Manifesto of 1905, by which Nicholas II granted basic civil liberties to the population of the Russian Empire and announced the establishment of the imperial legislative body, the State Duma.3 The metaphor of a “first encounter” in its own way captured the mood that was reigning all over the empire in the midst of the Revolution: people, with their demands and aspirations, became as visible for the regime as never before, they gained the right to speak out and a chance to be heard. Opochinin’s metaphor, however, also implied that this new, more “progressive” form of political order could exist autonomously from the newly born sphere of mass politics, secured merely by the people’s loyalty to the throne and the Emperor’s patronizing love.4 It goes without saying that the fanciful images of mutual love had little to do with the turbulent revolutionary reality of the day. Yet, the language that heralded the birth of the new bonds of intimacy between the Tsar and his subjects, exemplified by Opochinin’s wording, in a very tangible way opened up an opportunity for new forms of popular engagement in the revolutionary reordering of intra-imperial relations.

Among the great diversity of the imperial population no other social category, according to the long-standing political mythology of the state, enjoyed such a close and direct patronage and benevolent care from the Tsar as the Cossacks,

DOI: 10.4324/9781003158608

A rada for the empire 189 with their image as pillars of the throne and the Orthodox faith firmly entrenched in the imperial imagination.5 Whereas the first communities of Cossack freebooters appeared as early as the sixteenth cenmry along such rivers as the Dnieper, Don, Terek, and Yaik, in the eighteenth century, the Cossack hosts refashioned themselves as military communities in the service of the empire, dependent on the Tsars’ will. By the end of the Tsarist regime, 11 Cossack hosts populated the imperial fringes from the Black Sea steppes to the Pacific coast.6 These late imperial Cossack communities shared almost no similarities with the original adventurers of the early modern era (part of them were created by the state from scratch, from people of different social backgrounds, to maintain the Tsarist rule in the empire’s Asian possessions). Rather than being an archaic rudiment of a distant past, the late imperial Cossack estate was, to a considerable extent, a surprisingly modern phenomenon that owed much to imperial social creativity. In the early twentieth century, the authorities reinvented the Cossacks as guardians of the domestic order, fulfilling police functions to fight social unrest. In 1905-1906, Cossacks gained notorious fame as the nemeses of the Revolution. However, their actual experiences of the Revolution went far beyond the superficial image of suppressors of popular will.

One particular aspect of discussions about the ideas and practices of parliamentarism, representative democracy, or self-governance in the Russian Empire brought about by the Revolution of 1905-1906 is a tradition to consider them as essentially linked to the agenda of the liberationist movement or the tasks of the nationalist mobilization. The aim of this study is to challenge this vision by looking at how such ideas played out in an assertively conservative, imperial-loyal context. The article deals with a largely neglected and short-lived experiment in self-governance attempted by the Cossacks in the North Caucasus in 1906. It had as much to do with a revolutionary search for new possibilities of popular participation in political life as with a belief that this search was a return to primordial traditions that existed in the past.

Nowadays, the term rada is mostly known as the name of the modern-day Ukrainian parliament. It echoes the name of the representative political body that emerged in revolutionary Kyiv/Kiev in March 1917, Tsentral 'na Rada, the Central Council. In turn, its name referred to a historical practice of general Cossack assemblies in the Zaporozhian Sich, one of the oldest and most remarkable early modern Cossack communities, which existed on the lower Dnieper River from the late sixteenth to the late eighteenth centuries.7 For the newly emerged Ukrainian polity in 1917, the Zaporozhian Sich was a precedent of Ukrainian statehood, while the historical phenomenon of Cossack rada served as proof of an intrinsic propensity of Ukrainian people to democratic self-organization.8

The myth of historical continuity of Ukraine from the Zaporozhian Sich, however, has a major disruption. Disbanded in 1775, tens of thousands of the Zaporozhian Cossacks ended up in the territory that was at that time the southernmost borderland of the Russian Empire, the steppe lands to the north of the Caucasus mountains, bounded by the Kuban River to the south and the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea to the west. The territory, granted to the Cossacks by

Empress Catherine II "for eternal ownership,” turned into a large Ukrainian settler colony known as Chernontoriia, or the Land of the Black Sea Cossacks. In 1860, it was renamed to Kuban oblast (province; a type of administrative unit in the Russian Empire), which also included a part of the so-called Caucasus Fortified Line (or simply Liniia), populated by largely Russian-speaking Cossacks. In the following years, as the government launched a large-scale colonization of the Caucasus highlands with the simultaneous expulsion of the native Adyghe/ Circassian people to the Ottoman Empire, Kuban oblast expanded far into the mountainous area. This region, hitherto known as Circassia, came to be called Zakuban ’e, literally - the land beyond the Kuban.9

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Kuban Cossack conservative elites, dissatisfied with dramatic transformations of the social, economic, and cultural life in the Kuban countryside, increasingly appealed to the mythologized image of the Zaporozhian Sich as a means to navigate uncertainties of the present and secure the Cossacks’ privileged status. In what was a classic example of an invented tradition, they relied on purported “Zaporozhian” legacies to advance their claims, and the Revolution of 1905 gave impetus to one such initiative.10 More than ten years before the Rada emerged in Kyiv, another rada convoked in the administrative center of Kuban oblast, Ekaterinodar, in December 1906. It was the first and only assembly with such a name that existed not after but within the empire; not against, but thanks to it, sanctioned by the Emperor and spearheaded by local authorities. That is all the more striking given that the Rada of 1906 was itself a product of the Revolution, an extraordinary phenomenon inherently at odds with the imperial system of rule. Even more ironically, the Rada was a profoundly conservative initiative brought about by the State Duma debates on the role of the Cossacks in suppressing protests all across the empire. In essence, it was a local response to these debates - a forum convened to assert the Cossacks’ loyalty to the throne and their readiness to safeguard the monarchy from the revolutionary turmoil.

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