The Cossack land

The revolutionary crisis that swept the Kuban region in 1905 did not affect Cossack stanitsas (settlements) as profoundly as urban centers with masses of non-Cossack laborers. Yet, local authorities were fearful to see the symptoms of a potentially much more dangerous phenomenon. The so-called agricultural movement - peasants’ grievances over land shortages, which spread across the Russian Empire - was seen as an imminent thr eat that was about to reach the Kuban countryside.11 Indeed, in December 1905, one of the military units of the Kuban Cossack Host, the 2nd Urupskii regiment, joined the revolutionary movement by taking up arms against the command. In early January 1906, the head of Kuban oblast introduced martial law in the whole region. The official newspaper-attributed it to “the first symptoms of the agrarian movement.”12

There were many social and political reasons for the Cossack insubordination. And yet the economic factor did serve as a fertile ground that made the growth of the discontent among the Cossacks formerly unaccustomed to any sort of political action possible. One of the leaders of the mutiny, Aleksei Kurganov, recalled that the unfair distribution of lands in the mountain area of Transkubania was one of the reasons that prompted the whole regiment to rebel against its commanders. While Cossacks in the lowlands, wrote Kurganov, had 30 desiatinas of land (1 desiatina is equivalent to approximately 1.1 hectares), there were such stanitsas in Maikop district that did not even have three desiatinas at their disposal. Even worse, while rank-and-file Cossacks suffered from the lack of land, generals and officers possessed the best arable lands in the region. Kurganov demanded to enlarge land allotments and to take measures for relieving the plight of his fellow Cossacks.13

The crisis in Transkubania did not come as a surprise to the authorities or the public. Rather, it was a long-lasting effect of the poorly engineered governmental settler colonial project, the failure of which became evident soon after it began. The project, implemented in the early 1860s with an eye to consolidate the imperial grip over the new territorial acquisition, conquered after decades of protracted struggle against the Adyghe people, was also an attempt to showcase the Russians’ colonizing potential and their ability to successfully adapt to any geographic circumstances. Visions of Cossack colonizers bringing civilization to the “savage” and “virgin” Caucasus valleys galvanized bureaucrats and members of educated public alike. However, much to their chagrin, the Cossacks proved unable to fit in the new environment, and their economies remained largely unsustainable for decades.14

The pressing calls for solving the land problem in Transkubania remained the most recurrent theme of local discussions on the pages of Kuban periodicals, both conservative and liberal. By the end of 1906, the Kuban Cossack elites resolved the issue in quite an inventive way. They saw the way for solving the land problem in what the Cossacks believed to have been the experience of their own past. The Kuban Host employed the Zaporozhian myth, as a way out of the revolutionary situation, to alleviate the land problem and to organize important segments of its life according to the principles of self-governance and representative democracy.

On December 1, 1906, a large Cossack assembly convened in Ekaterinodar to distribute the lands in possession of the Kuban Host among different Cossack communities in the most equitable way possible. A total of 506 delegates, all belonging to the Cossack estate and representing every Cossack settlement of the oblast, came together for a 16-day-long session.13 Their task was to jointly, through detailed discussions, redraw the map of the Kuban Host’s landholdings and to supply the most destitute communities with additional plots of land. The assembly adopted the name rada, which referred to the ancient tradition of Zaporozhian self-rule, when the Cossacks of the Sich convened general gatherings to tackle a wide variety of issues concerning political questions and their everyday life. Indeed, the Rada of 1906 became an unparalleled phenomenon in terms of its representative, egalitarian mechanisms and aspirations. Even more curious, however, was the fact the Rada owed its existence to a profoundly illiberal, conservative initiative launched by the semi-official regional newspaper Kubanskie oblastnye vedomosti (hereinafter, KOV), being closely intertwined with and echoing events that took place at another, all-imperial assembly, first convened the same year -the State Duma.

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