Cossack Starshina

Starshina, Cossack


a category of cossack officials in the period from the 16th through 18th centuries.

From the very beginning, the cossacks were marked by property inequalities. The wealthier cossacks exerted a great influence on the life of the cossack community and usually supplied the leading elected officials, such as atamans, clerks, and judges. Their interests were represented by the cossack starshina. As class differentiation grew more pronounced, the influence of the starshina increased. Elections gradually became a mere formality. The supreme body of the cossack hosts—the rada or krug (assemblies of the cossack hosts)—lost its importance, evolving into the representative body of the domovitye (literally, “thrifty”) cossacks on the Don or the statechnye (literally, “eminent”) cossacks in the Zaporozh’e. The feudal governments of Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita) relied on the starshina in their attempts to subjugate the cossacks. Some members of the starshina, especially in the Ukraine, sometimes opposed the central government and defended cossack independence or autonomy.

The cossacks lost their autonomy once and for all after defeat in the Peasant War of 1773–75 in Russia. Cossack self-government was drastically curtailed, and election of the host starshina was abolished. The starshina was thenceforth appointed by the government. The members of the starshina were granted officers’ ranks and, consequently, the rights of the nobility; the majority eventually became landlords. In the 19th century, the term starshina fell into disuse.