In many respects the history of Soviet and Russian Central Asia is a military history and, as such, a history of the Cossacks. The Cossacks by the time of the conquest of Central Asia were already an indispensable part of the Russian military force. Only the Cossacks, it seems, were able to push into and hold territory held by nomadic populations, long considered to be natural warriors with unsurpassed military skill. Ermak‘s success in storming and slowly absorbing the Sibir Khanate into Russian space offers some evidence towards this proposition. When the Russian Empire began to move into the land of what is today Kazakhstan with lines of fortifications stretching to modern-day Oral and Atyrau, it was the beginning of Cossack settlement in Kazakhstan. Let’s consider two expressions seemingly at odds, but perhaps illustrative of the problem I pursue in this post:
“The Cossacks are flesh of one flesh, bone of one bone with Russian people.” [note 1]
Semën Nomikosov, Cossack administrative official
“The Wolf, the Qazaq, and the Cossack, are three brothers.” [note 2]
19th century Qazaq proverb
I have been reading historical works (biographies, monographs, travel diaries, embassy documents) about the Kazakhs for several years. All this time, I assumed that the Cossacks, being from the core areas of Russian imperial power, would have a far better historical record than the Kazakhs. This year I began looking more closely at the relationship between different elements of the population of 19th century Kazakhstan: Kazakh pastoralists, their Chinggisid (so-called white-bone) elites, the religious/charismatic figures they associated with, and the Cossack settlements that marked the extent of Russian power at that time. I found that there were many people whom today would be described as Kazakhs serving in the ranks of the Cossacks and attending their schools.
I thought it might be interesting to readers at Registan to illustrate how important historical topics are primarily those topics with the most diverse readings. Kazakhs and Cossacks alike have been lauded by some historians as romantic and recklessly brave warriors, while others have regarded them as primordial savages lusting only for rapine and destruction. I am currently digging through Cossack history (east of the Don and Dnieper) to try and parse out the similar and dissimilar threads of their history. I have two modest examples prepared. The first example I have found is the so-called “Muscovite Peasant” thesis of the early 19th century. The second is the fate of the Kazakh/Cossack way-of-life in the 1950s.
Tsar Nicholas I in 1835 brought forth an imperial decree (указ, also imposition) on the “Administrative Regulation for the Don Host.” This pivotal decree changed forever how the Cossacks would be approached from the Russian center, as it converted the Cossacks from a people to a “military class.” One of the interesting side-effects of this decision was the history written at the Tsar’s request by Bronevsky, entitled History of the Don Cossacks. Ignoring the prior work of Cossack historian Sukhorukov and including no historical data or evidence, Bronevsky explained the theory that the Cossacks were formed primarily from fugitive Russians in the 15th and 16th centuries. This idea was absorbed and has been deeply engrained into various sections of Cossack and Russian society even as historians, ethnographers, and scholars have long since proven that the Cossacks are a completely separable people from the Russians. What does not need to be among the pan-Turkist bogeymen of the Russian (and Soviet) government to guess that the Kazakhs and Cossacks have a common, intertwined, entangled history, similar with many Turkic-speaking inhabitants of the steppe. Even though the Cossacks have since been Christianized and largely settled, many of the markers of their identity as Cossacks derive from Turkic words easily identifiable to those familiar with the Kazakhs and other Turkic steppe people.
Why did Bronevsky’s theory state that the Cossacks derived largely from Russian peasants and criminals, if not from cited historical data? The most likely reason is that it allowed contemporary Tsarist policy to lay claim to the Cossacks, to further assimilate them, and to control their movements similar to the way the serfs were controlled. However, the freedom of the Cossack was preserved as separate from serfdom, largely through the medium of control: the Russian Imperial Military. That being said, I understand that my explanation is far too simplistic and also lacking in historical data. This is a blog post and not a journal article yet.
The entanglement of Cossack and Kazakh history continued throughout the life of the Russian Empire and into the Soviet Union, as Cossack settlements remained in areas nominally defined by being ethnic homelands for non-Cossacks. A far greater, more difficult task would be to disentangle the history of the Ukrainian people from that of the Cossacks – a task in which I have little interest or background. Suffice it to say that the Cossacks of the Soviet Union, particularly in the post-war years, saw many of the same crises of modernization witnessed by the Kazakhs: forced relocation/resettlement, forced industrialization, emigration of Russians into territory they had recently owned, and the re-appropriation of said territory.
I hope to approach the first of these examples in a paper I’m writing this semester. I hope that if this topic interests my readers, they’ll feel comfortable commenting or contacting me personally. This is really my first foray into the world of Cossackia, so I appreciate your understanding of my ignorance.
 Nomikosov, S. (ed.) Statisticheskoe Opisanie Oblasti Voiska Donskago. Novocherkassk, 1884. 247.
“Kaschkyr, Kazak häm Orus-kazak üsch againy. (Wolf, Kirgise und Kosak sind drei Brüder.)” Radlov, Vasilii. Aus Sibirien: Lose Blätter aus meinem Tagebuch. Leipzig: Weigel, 1893. 407.