Metropolitan Russia encounters the Cossacks

The elections to this legislative organ, announced by the October Manifesto of 1905, in Kuban oblast were held in a rather calm manner, as opposed to heated competition in other, industrially developed and politically variegated, areas of the Russian Empire.16 The population of Kuban, divided into two separate curiae - of the Cossacks and of the non-Cossack estates - voted for electors in their settlements, and the chosen representatives, in their turn, selected the deputies for the Duma among themselves in a ballot in Ekaterinodar. Three deputies, elected from the Cossack curia, Nikifor Kochevskii, Kondrat Bardizh, and Petr Grishai, had a considerable administrative experience of running economic and military affairs of their respective stanitsas (Dolzhanskaia, Batalpashinskaia, and Zelenchukskaia) during their tenure as stanitsa atamans.17

All of them were rather liberal-minded and, eventually, during the Duma sessions, sided with the Constitutional Democrats, while Bardizh joined the party as its member. At the same time, the election of their candidatures went unopposed by the Cossack conservatives. An editorial of KOVcharacterized the deputies positively, listing everyone’s merits as those of distinguished administrators. Even the lack of education, as was the case of Grishai, was touted as a virtue: although he could not express his thoughts “stylistically correctly,” he did it in a clear and competent way.18

On the day of the deputies' departure for St. Petersburg, the Host organized the farewell at a high level, with a public prayer in the Ekaterinodar cathedral, attended by the Host’s leadership. Both the authorities and the conservative supporters of the Cossack traditional values believed that the deputies would uphold the broadly defined, common interests of the Kuban Cossacks and, most likely, hoped that they would counterbalance the non-Cossack deputies with their explicit liberationist agenda.19

The actual political discussions that took place at the Tauride Palace, the seat of the State Duma, elucidated profound discrepancies among the Cossack representatives and made it clear that the notion of Cossack interests was far too meaningless to suggest any concrete program of legislative action. Deputies from the Duma's Cossack caucus, who had different political leanings and were elected from different hosts, failed to elaborate the common agenda and expressed opposing points of view on basic matters pertaining to Cossack life. One major discussion - and the only one in which the Kuban Cossack deputies took part - became a landmark moment for both the participants of the debates and the Kuban public that kept an eye on reports about sessions of the parliament.

On June 13, the Duma raised a question that was relevant to the Cossack hosts and to the population of the empire at large. Cossacks’ notorious participation in dissolving mass rallies throughout the Russian Empire, from its core to its

A rada for the empire 193 most remote corners, and the police service that the Cossacks carried out in great variety of towns and cities, became the first - and frightening if not painful -encounter of the imperial metropole with the real, not mythologized Cossacks, and the Cossacks’ role in fighting the Revolution naturally became a subject of the parliament’s proceedings. The parliamentary hearings of the Duma’s request to the War Minister, in which a special commission accused him of violating a range of laws and rules in view of the supposedly illegitimate mobilization of the Cossacks on police service, spectacularly turned into an emotional drama as soon as the Cossack representatives took the floor. The parliament, composed mostly of liberal-minded deputies who claimed to represent the people that were affected by the Cossack actions, became a stage for a performed court hearing.20 It brought together two “warring sides”: the representatives of those who beat the people appeared before the representatives of those who were beaten. Following the scenario of the political performance, the Cossack deputies were making excuses for the actions of their electors. For instance, one deputy from the Oblast of the Don Host depicted a truly apocalyptic vision of the Cossacks’ role in the Revolution: "It was like a slaughter. It was as if the Tatars or other ancient enemies marched through Rus' with the whistle of whips [nagaiki], leaving behind nothing but tears, tears, tears!” Lavishly exaggerating Cossack brutality, most of the deputies at the same time put all the blame on the imperial government, the military authorities, and the arbitrary exercise of power in general. The same deputy assured the Duma that it was the “lawlessness” that “moved the Cossacks to Rus’ and made them hated by it.”21 Another Don representative condemned the Tsarist military upbringing for turning the once free Cossacks into “living, artificially bestialized [ozverennye] machines.”22 Several deputies from other regions emphasized the fundamental and striking discrepancy between the myth of the Cossacks they had been taught about and the personally experienced reality. A deputy from Simbirsk gubernia (governorate; the main type of administrative division in the Russian Empire) expressed his disappointment that throughout his youth, from primary school to university, the figure of the Cossack epitomized for him “all the best and free that the Russian people had.” This image, he bewailed, was endlessly distant from the actual Cossack behavior he had an unfortunate chance to observe.23

For a deputy from Kiev gubernia, the encounter with the Cossacks came as a shock that made him disenchanted with the image of Cossackdom altogether. He went as far as to speculate that the Cossacks stationed in his native region were not Cossacks at all as long as they shared no similarities with the brave Zaporozhian Cossacks he knew about from literature and Ukrainian folklore: “they do not look like Cossacks, they are something vague, not ours at all, because a Cossack is Little Russian [Ukrainian] by origin.” After everyone gained first-hand knowledge of those Cossacks, the deputy rhetorically asked, “would [they] sing about the Cossacks all over Ukraine as before?”24

Naturally, the liberationist stance in this discussion was not the only one. A few deputies opposed the very idea of challenging the necessity of the Cossack mobilization. Their arguments ranged from the insistence on unquestioned subordination to the will of the Tsar and the government, whatever it might be, to the more nuanced and tactical support for the Cossack participation in suppressing the Revolution as the justification of the Cossack existence as a privileged estate. As one deputy wondered, “if the Emperor did not need the Cossacks, then, I think, he would have dissolved them altogether.”25

Both groups claimed to act on behalf of the ordinary Cossacks and to be the real exponents of people’s opinion and aspirations. To substantiate their arguments, most of the deputies referred to letters at their disposal, handed to them by rank-and-file Cossacks before they departed for St. Petersburg, nakazy (“mandates”). These mandates, one of the most salient features of the emergent mass politics in the Russian Empire of 1905-1906, were demands to the Duma deputies on the part of their electors to act on their behalf and in their interests.26 Whereas monarchists read aloud the letters, whose compilers expressed loyalist feelings and their unconditional readiness to obey orders and to fight with the rioters as long as necessary, liberationists demonstrated letters of complaint, whose authors lamented about unbearable hardships of mobilization. In his turn, Kochevskii, speaking in support of the request to the war minister, asserted that his fellow Kuban Cossacks had given him a mandate, in which they commissioned him “not to ask but to demand the immediate disbandment” of the Cossack regiments and battalions taking part in suppressing the popular protests.27

The discussion of the Cossacks’ role in the Revolution, which bore resemblance to an orchestrated, performative tribunal before an imperial-wide audience, provoked an angry reaction among the Kuban official circles and in the semi-official press. One author of KOV, condemning the speeches by Bardizh and Kochevskii, warned that the need to fight the Revolution was self-evident for all the Cossacks, because otherwise the Cossacks risked “to lose everything that our ancestors acquired with the help of arms and what we now possess.”28 The implication was clear: the loyal service was the guarantee of the Cossack estate’s well-being, secured by the state. Another correspondent went as far as to invite stanitsas assemblies to pass resolutions denouncing the speeches by Bardizh and Kochevskii and even to exclude them from the Cossack estate.29

Moreover, the appeal to the voices of ordinary Cossacks, to the instiuction they had ostensibly given to Kochevskii and his fellow deputies, the reference to a certain mandate, prompted a counter-initiative on the part of the Kuban conservatives. The official newspaper, denying that any sort of instructions had actually been given to the deputies, put forward the idea to elaborate a real mandate to the deputies, “so that they would not dare, in front of the whole Russia, to present their thoughts, opinions, and convictions as the thoughts, opinions, and convictions of all the Cossacks.”30

After Nicholas II, with his increasingly negative attitude toward the Duma, dissolved it in July 1906 and announced the elections to the second convocation of the parliament, KOV once again raised the question of the elaboration of the mandate for next cohort of Duma representatives. An anonymous author of a newspaper article outlined his view of how to proceed with this matter. To determine the principal needs of the Cossacks, he proposed to convene a common council, which would consist of five representatives from every settlement (three from Cossacks and two from non-Cossacks), and of one high rank officer from every military unit on actual service or administrative institution of the Host.31

If conservatives proposed the idea of the mandate elaboration as a means to accuse Bardizh and Kochevskii of not having the right to speak on behalf of the Kuban Cossacks, liberationist press, too, adhered to the initiative, inverting at the same time its accusatory implication. Kirill Zhivilo, who responded with an article in the left-wing local newspaper Svoboda, argued that in view of the absence of any instruction that the deputies were to follow, they could not bear responsibility to the Host for the presumed breach of obligations. Instead, it was the Host’s fault for not having entrusted the deputies with a precise mandate.32

Meanwhile, the initiative developed rapidly. In early September, KOV urged stanitsas not to defer with composing resolutions concerning the council.33 Even before this call was published, the question of the council had already been discussed and well received at the grassroots level in at least one stanitsa. A resolution, passed by the assembly of stanitsa Blagoveshchenskaia, expressed its full support for the idea of the council. In the meantime, the planned convention received its own, remarkable title. It is not clear who and when decided to name it rada, but the name was already in use in early September 1906. Whereas the assembly used the word “council” (sovet), KOV used the word rada in the title of its article, referring to the Zaporozhian tradition of regular mass assemblies.34

At the same time, the initiative took a completely new turn. Instead of becoming a council for elaborating instruction for the future deputies, it turned into a consultative body, which was entrusted with the mission of solving the long-pressing land question by means of more equitable reallocation of land to the benefit of the Cossack settlements in Transkubania.

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