Don Cossack Host

Don Cossack Host


the most numerous division of cossacks in prerevolutionary Russia, which inhabited the Land of the Don Host, including present-day Rostov Oblast, parts of Volgograd, Lugansk, and Voronezh oblasts, and part of Kalmyk ASSR.

The ancestors of the Don Cossacks had fled from the exploitation of feudal serfdom in the central regions of the Russian state to the steppes (“the wild field”). They settled on the Don, where in the 15th century they founded the first cossack settlements, independent of the central authority, between Azov and the Medveditsa River. During the second half of the 16th century the Main Don Host was formed as an organized community along the lower course of the Don, between its mouth and Tsimliansk Gorodok. By the end of the 16th century cossack settlements had been established for 800 km along the Don and its tributaries (the Severskii Donets, Medveditsa, Khoper, Buzuluk, and Zherebets). During the 17th century the raskol’niki (schismatics) fled from central Russia and settled the upper reaches of the Don. By the end of the 17th century there were as many as 125 cossack settlements. The centers of the Don Cossack Host were Razdory (16th century), Monastyrskii Gorodok (from 1622), Azov (1637-42), Makhin Ostrov (from 1642), and Cherkassk (from 1645), which consisted of 11 stanitsas (large cossack villages), including one inhabited by Tatars.

Before the 18th century the Don Cossack Host, which had recognized the supreme authority of the Russian tsar at the end of the 16th century, enjoyed a great deal of autonomy, including the right to self-government. The host was ruled by the voiskovoi krug (assembly of the host, the highest administrative and judicial body) and elected executives (an ataman, two esauly [assistants to the ataman], and a d’iak [secretary]). During campaigns a campaign ataman was elected and given unlimited authority. The host was divided into sotni (100-man units) and polusotni (50-man units) led by sotniki (commanders of 100-man units), piatidesiatniki (commanders of 50-man units), and cornets.

Prior to the 18th century the population was engaged in fishing and hunting. With the goal of seizing war booty, the Don Cossack Host organized raids on the Turkish possessions located along the coasts of the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea and on the shore of the Caspian Sea. As Don Cossack society became stratified, two groups were distinguished: the householders (old inhabitants), who lived primarily along the lower reaches of the Don, and the golyt’ba (poor people), most of whom were fugitive peasants who had gathered along the upper reaches of the Don without settling down to farming and who were easily recruited for raids and uprisings. The golyt’ba were one of the principal moving forces of the peasant war led by S. T. Razin (1670-71).

In the late 16th century the Russian government began to use the Don Cossack Host to defend its southern borders, and from the 17th century the state used the Don Cossack Host as an armed force in its wars against Turkey and Poland. For its “service” the Don Host was paid in money, gunpowder, lead, cloth, and bread. From 1623 the affairs of the Don Cossack Host were administered by the Posol’skii Prikaz (Foreign Office), with which the host communicated by sending “light” envoys and more permanent envoys known as the winter stanitsas. In 1637 the Don Cossacks captured Azov from the Turks. After withstanding a 3½-month siege, they held the city until 1642. The Don Cos-sack Host took part in the Azov Campaigns of 1695-96.

Government colonization, the prohibition against the Don Cossacks’ receiving fugitives, and the punitive actions of the tsar’s troops provoked the Bulavin Uprising of 1707-09. Long after the uprising was suppressed, the Don Cossack Host was placed under the jurisdiction of the Military Collegium (1721). The election of atamans was abolished de facto in 1718 and de jure in 1738, and the election of elders was eliminated in 1754. In 1709, during the Bulavin Uprising, up to 2,000 families led by Ataman I. Nekrasov fled to the Kuban’ and later to Dobrudja. Some of their descendants returned to Russia in the early 19th century and during the 20th century.

In 1763 compulsory lifetime military service was introduced for the cossacks. During the 18th century farming and raising horses became the principal cossack occupations. At the time of the Peasant War of 1773-75, which was led by the Don Cossack E. I. Pugachev, the Don region was occupied by tsarist troops and finally lost its independence (1775). The forced resettlement of Don Cossacks in the Caucasus, which began in the early 18th century and was accelerated toward the end of the century, provoked an uprising by five stanitsas led by the esaul Rubtsov (1793). The 18th century was marked by the growth of the economic and political power of the elders, who acquired the rights of the Russian dvorianstvo (nobility or gentry) between 1798 and 1800. The elders seized host lands and accepted fugitive peasants from the slobodskaia Ukraine (the territory of future Kharkov Province and parts of Kursk and Voronezh provinces, occupied in the 17th century by peasant slobody [settlements]). In 1796 the fugitive peasants were enserfed by the cossack elders. In 1802 the territory of the Don Cossack Host was divided into seven districts and in 1887, into nine. A statute was introduced on military service in the Don Cossack Host, establishing a 30-year term, with each man providing his own weapons and two horses.

The economic management of the Don landlords and the burden of service impoverished the rank-and-file cossacks and caused the peasant disturbances of 1818-21 and acute dissatisfaction among the cossacks. In 1818 a commission on the administration of the Don Cossack Host was organized, which formulated the Statute of 1835, under which a land share of 30 desiatinas (32.7 hectares [ha]) was established for each cossack. However, by 1916 the seizure by private horse breeders of the Trans-Don Steppe, the ownership of large amounts of land by relatively few individuals, and population growth had reduced this share to an average of 11 desiatinas (approximately 12 ha), and of these only 9.8 desiatinas (approximately 10.7 ha) could be considered good land. Moreover, as a result of debts incurred to provide supplies for military service, in the late 19th and early 20th century approximately 50 percent of the families had in fact lost their land shares, which were rented out by them or the stanitsas. Only 20 percent of the farms were prosperous.

In 1835 the administration of the Don Cossack Host was divided into a military and a civilian branch, which were united under the chief ataman. The centers of the host were Cherkassk (until 1806) and Novocherkassk (until 1920). In 1875 the term of military service was reduced to 20 years: three years (later, one year) of training, four years in the army, and eight years of exemption from active service, during which the troops had to be ready for battle. From the age of 33 a man was in the reserves, and from the age of 38 he was subject to service in the militia. At the beginning of the 20th century during peacetime the Don Cossack Host provided a total of 24,000 men in 17 army regiments, two guards regiments, eight batteries, six sotni, and 12 command detachments. During World War I the Don Cossack Host furnished 60 cavalry regiments, 136 individual sotni and polusotni, six infantry battalions, 33 batteries, and five reserve regiments, for a total of more than 100,000 men.

By 1917 the population of the Don region was 3.53 million, of which 42.3 percent were cossacks and 25.5 percent were “indigenous” peasants. The remainder were inogorodnie (noncossack peasants). The territory of the Don Cossack Host encompassed 134 stanitsas (including 13 populated by 30,600 Kalmyks) and 163 peasant volosts (small rural districts) with an average share of 4.4 desiatinas (approximately 4.8 ha) per peasant. The cossacks owned 64.5 percent of the land, the Kalmyks, 3.8 percent, the landlords, 15 percent, and the peasants, 3.9 percent. A host land reserve occupied 12.8 percent of the land. A mining and metallurgical industr developed, which employed up to 140,000 workers.

The Don Cossack Host has participated in all of Russia’s wars from the 18th through the 20th century. During thel9th and particularly the 20th century tsarism made extensive use of the Don Cossacks to suppress the revolutionary movement, evoking protests and even disturbances among the cossacks. During World War I class stratification among the Don Cossacks intensified, and antiwar and revolutionary moods spread among them. After the Revolution of February 1917 the counter-revolutionary officers’ corps formed the so-called Don Host Government, which was headed by Ataman A. M. Kaledin. It opposed the soviets that had been established in Novocherkassk, Rostov, Taganrog, and a number of stanitsas. After the October Revolution, Kaledin attempted to transform the Don into a base for counterrevolution, and with the support of the White Guards Volunteer Army he captured Rostov and Taganrog.

However, at this time the majority of the cossacks did not support the counterrevolutionary forces. On Jan. 10 (23), 1918, a congress of frontline cossack units at the stanitsa of Kamenskaia elected the Don Cossack Military Revolutionary Committee, which soon proclaimed Soviet power. The revolutionary cossacks and Red Guard detachments defeated the White Guards and occupied Rostov and Novocherkassk. The Don Soviet Republic was formed. However, as a result of the sharpening class conflict and certain mistakes made by the local agencies of Soviet power, the prosperous cossacks, who tended to be anti-Soviet, managed to attract the basic masses of the middle cossacks, who were holding on to their class privileges, to the side of the counterrevolution, one of the principal centers of which became the Don.

In March and April 1918 a number of anit-Soviet revolts flared up in several stanitsas. Under pressure from the German interventionists and White Guard troops, the Soviet Army was forced to abandon Don Oblast by mid-August. On May 3 (16) the counterrevolutionary Assembly for the Salvation of the Don formed the so-called government of the Great Don Host, headed by Ataman P. N. Krasnov, who relied on aid from Germany. After forming a considerable army (in August, 47,000 troops; in September, 65,000), Krasnov mounted two offensives against Tsaritsyn between July and October 1918, but he failed to take the city. With the successful offensive of the Soviet Army on the Don in early 1919, the White Cossack Army began to disintegrate. On Jan. 10, 1919, the Don Army joined forces with General A. I. Denikin, and General V. I. Sidorin became its head. By the summer of 1919 the White Guards had expelled the Soviet troops from Don Oblast; in March of that year the anti-Soviet Veshenskii cossack revolt had flared up in the rear of the Soviet troops. During Denikin’s campaign on Moscow the Don Army guarded the right flank of the Volunteer Army.

In 1919 a fierce class conflict developed in the Don region. Revolutionary cossacks were among the sources for the formation of the First and Second Cavalry armies. In October 1919 the White Cossacks were defeated near Voronezh and Kastornaia, in January 1920, Soviet troops occupied Rostov and Novocherkassk, and by March they had completely cleared Don Oblast of the enemy. In 1920 the Don Cossack Host ceased to exist. The Red Army formed Don Cossack divisions, which took an active part in the Great Patriotic War. The Don Cossack V Guards Corps particularly distinguished itself.


Lenin, V. I. “Russkaia revoliutsiia i grazhdanskaia voina.” Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 34.
Lenin, V. I. “Doklad SNK na Chrezvychainom Vserossiiskom zheleznodorozhnom s”ezde.” Ibid., vol. 35.
“Doklad o bor’be s golodom.” Ibid., vol. 36.
Istoriia Dona, vols. 1-2. Rostov-on-Don, 1965-67.
Pronshtein, A. P. ZemliaDonskaia vXVIII v. Rostov-on-Don, 1961.
Savel’ev, A. Trekhsotletie Voiska Donskogo, 1570-1870: Ocherki iz istorii donskikh kazakov. St. Petersburg, 1870.
Sukhorukov, V. D. Istoricheskoe opisanie zemli Voiska Donskogo, 2nd ed. Novocherkassk, 1903.
Oktiabr’skaia revoliutsiia na Donu: Sb. st. Rostov-on-Don, 1957.
Babichev, D. S. Donskoe trudovoe kazachestvo v bor’be za vlast’ Sovetov. Rostov-on-Don. 1969.


References in periodicals archive ?
The subject of the Don Cossack Host and its relations with Muscovy and the Crimean Tatars, Nogais, and Kalmyks has always interested readers of Russian history.
Oleg Kuts's 2009 monograph Donskoe kazachestvo will likely be recognized as one of the more valuable studies on the Don Cossack Host in the 17th century.
A centre of the Don Cossack host and port on the river Don, it changed hands no less than six times and witnessed waves of White and Red terror, food shortages, and destruction.