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Soviet order to exterminate Cossacks is unearthed

Posted on 21 January 2003

York historian highlights demise of Cossack 'nation'

A little-known bid by the official Soviet government to exterminate the Don Cossacks is highlighted in a new history of these flamboyant and romantic people being written by University of York Russian specialist Shane O'Rourke.

The original secret document giving the order to eliminate the Cossacks was found amongst Moscow archives which have been opened up only in the last few years.

It has subsequently been publicised more widely by Dr O'Rourke. The Soviet government had always denied issuing the order.

The discovery of this order has helped Dr O'Rourke to develop his views about the way the Cossacks saw themselves as a nation. "Ten thousand Cossacks were slaughtered systematically in a few weeks in January 1919," he said. "And while that wasn't a huge number in terms of what happened throughout the Russias, it was one of the main factors which led to the disappearance of the Cossacks as a nation.

"With the end of Imperial Russia, the Cossacks, who were spread across South-Eastern Russia, had begun to see themselves as a separate nation state. The civil war of 1917-1920 was a vital part of this transition to a sense of national identity - the experience of Bolshevik rule, which they rose against, convinced any doubters.

"The Soviet government's genocide order did not crush the Cossacks but prompted a desperate rising which threw the Bolsheviks out of the Don after a few weeks. It ushered in the climactic stage of the civil war which, finally, the Cossacks lost. And later, ravaged by disease and collectivisation which broke up their farms and communities, they lost all sense of cohesiveness.

"There are very few people now who can claim to be Cossacks although there were a million before the civil war destroyed their way of life."

Dr O'Rourke's findings on the genocide of the Cossacks are to be published next year in a book he has written, The Cossacks, to be published by Manchester University Press. The book looks at the history of the Cossacks from the 15th century to the present day.

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