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Part of the Red Terror
Location Don, Kuban
Date 1919–1933
Attack type
Deportation, Execution, Expropriation, Ethnic cleansing
Deaths anywhere from 10,000 to 500,000
Perpetrators Red Army / Bolsheviks
Part of a series on
"Zaporozhian Cossacks write to the Sultan of Turkey" by Ilya Repin (1844–1930)
Cossack hosts
Other groups
Cossack terms

Decossackization (Russian: Расказачивание, Raskazachivaniye) was the Bolshevik policy of systematic repressions against Cossacks of the Russian Empire, especially of the Don and the Kuban, between 1919 and 1933 aimed at the elimination of the Cossacks as a separate ethnic, political, and economic entity.[1] This was the first example of Soviet leaders deciding to "eliminate, exterminate, and deport the population of a whole territory," which they had taken to calling the "Soviet Vendée"[1] The decossackization is frequently described as a genocide of the Cossacks,[2][3][4][5][6] a process described by scholar Peter Holquist as part of a "ruthless" and "radical attempt to eliminate undesirable social groups" that showed the Soviet regime's "dedication to social engineering".[7][8]


Cossacks were simultaneously both an ethnicity and a grouping of special social estates in the Russian Empire from the 16th to the early 20th century. Because of their military tradition, Cossack forces played an important role in Russia's wars of the 17th–20th centuries such as the Crimean War (1853-1856), the Napoleonic Wars, various Russo-Turkish Wars, and the First World War of 1914-1918. In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, the tsarist regime deployed Cossack detachments to perform police service and to suppress revolutionary movements, especially in 1905–1907.[9]

Following the October Revolution of 1917, a conflict broke out between the new Bolshevik Communist regime in Russia and many Cossacks. In the Don territory, the Ataman of the Don Cossacks, Alexey Kaledin, declared that he would "offer full support, in close alliance with the governments of the other Cossack hosts" to Kerensky's forces.[citation needed] Establishing ties with the Ukrainian Central Rada and with the Kuban, Terek, and Orenburg hosts, Kaledin sought to overthrow the Soviet regime in Russia. On 15 November 1917 Generals Kornilov, Alekseev and Denikin began to organize the force that would become the Volunteer Army in the Cossack cultural capital, Novocherkassk. Imposing martial law, Kaledin moved in late November. On 15 December [O.S. 2 December]  1917, after a seven-day battle, his forces occupied Rostov. However, on 25 February  [O.S. 12 February]  1918 Bolshevik troops occupied Rostov and Novocherkassk. The remnants of the White Cossacks, headed by Ataman Pyotr Kharitonovich Popov (ru), fled into the Salsk steppes (ru).[10]

After the Imperial German army invaded and occupied Rostov on May 8, 1918, a government headed by Ataman Krasnov formed in the Don province. In July 1918 the White Cossack forces of Ataman Krasnov launched their first invasion of Tsaritsyn (present-day Volgograd). Soviet forces counterattacked and drove out the White Cossacks by September 7. On September 22, Krasnov's forces launched a second invasion of Tsaritsyn, but by October 25 Soviet troops had thrown Krasnov's forces back beyond the Don. On January 1, 1919, Krasnov launched a third invasion of Tsaritsyn. Soviet forces repelled the invasion and forced Krasnov's forces to withdraw from Tsaritsyn in mid-February 1919.[11]


The policy was established by a secret resolution of the Bolshevik Party on January 24, 1919, which ordered local branches to "carry out mass terror against wealthy Cossacks, exterminating all of them; carry out merciless mass terror against any and all Cossacks taking part in any way, directly or indirectly, in the struggle against Soviet power".[12] On 7 February the Southern Front issued its own instructions on how the resolution was to be applied: "The main duty of stanitsa and khutor executive committees is to neutralize the Cossackry through the merciless extirpation of its elite. District and Stanitsa atamans are subject to unconditional elimination, [but] khutor atamans should be subject to execution only in those cases where it can be proved that they actively supported Krasnov's policies (having organized pacification, conducted mobilization, refused to offer refuge to revolutionary Cossacks or to Red Army men)."[8]

In mid-March 1919 alone, Cheka forces executed more than 8,000 Cossacks. In each stanitsa, summary judgements were passed by revolutionary courts within minutes, and whole lists of people were condemned to execution for "counterrevolutionary behavior."[13]

The Don region was required by the Soviets to make a grain contribution equal to the total annual production of the area.[13] Almost all Cossacks joined the Green Army or other rebel forces. Together with Baron Wrangel's troops, they forced the Red Army out of the region in August 1920. After the retaking of the Crimea by Red Army, the Cossacks again became victims of the Red Terror. Special commissions in charge of decossackization condemned more than 6,000 people to death in October 1920 alone.[14] The families and often the neighbors of suspected rebels were taken as hostages and sent to concentration camps. According to Martin Latsis who led the Ukrainian Cheka:

"Gathered together in a camp near Maikop, the hostages, women, children and old men survive in the most appalling conditions, in the cold and the mud of October... They are dying like flies. The women will do anything to escape death. The soldiers guarding the camp take advantage of this and treat them as prostitutes."[13]

In November 1920 Feliks Dzerzhinsky, head of the Cheka, reported to Lenin:

the republic has to organize the internment in camps of about 100,000 prisoners from the Southern front and vast masses of people expelled from the rebellious [Cossack] settlements of the Terek, the Kuban, and the Don. Today 403 Cossack men and women aged between 14 and 17 arrived in Oryol for internment in concentration camp. They cannot be accepted as Oryol is already overloaded.[15]

The Pyatigorsk Cheka organized a "day of Red Terror" to execute 300 people in one day. They ordered local Communist Party organizations to draw up execution lists. According to one of the chekists, "this rather unsatisfactory method led to a great deal of private settling of old scores. ... In Kislovodsk, for lack of a better idea, it was decided to kill people who were in the hospital." Many Cossack towns were burned to the ground, and all survivors deported on the orders by Sergo Ordzhonikidze who was head of the Revolutionary Committee of the Northern Caucasus.[16]


The deportations and exterminations are considered genocide by many scholars.[2][3][4][5][6] Despite there being more than a million Cossacks before 1917, very few people consider themselves Cossacks today.[6]

University of York Russian specialist Shane O'Rourke states that the decossackization "was one of the main factors which led to the disappearance of the Cossacks as a nation".[6] The late Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev, head of the Presidential Committee for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression, notes that "hundreds of thousands of Cossacks were killed".[17] Historian Robert Gellately claims that "the most reliable estimates indicate that between 300,000 and 500,000 were killed or deported in 1919–20" out of a population of around three million.[16]

Peter Holquist states the overall number of executions is difficult to establish. In some regions hundreds were executed. In Khoper, the tribunal was very active, with a one-month total of 226 executions. The Tsymlianskaia tribunal oversaw the execution of over 700 people. The Kotel'nikovo tribunal executed 117 in early May and nearly 1,000 overall. Others were not quite as active. The Berezovskaia tribunal made a total of twenty arrests in a community of 13,500 people. Holquist also notes that some of White reports of Red atrocities in the Don were consciously scripted for agitation purposes.[18] In one example, an insurgent leader reported that 140 were executed in Bokovskaia, but later provided a different account, according to which only eight people in Bokovskaia were sentenced to death, and the authorities did not manage to carry these sentences out. This same historian emphasises he is "not seeking to downplay or dismiss very real executions by the Soviets". Overall, Holquist estimates a death toll of around 10,000 from decossackization.[8]

Research by Pavel Polian from Russian Academy of Sciences on the subject of forced migrations in Russia shows that more than 45,000 Cossacks were deported from the Terek province to Ukraine. Their land was distributed among pro-soviet Cossacks and Chechens.[19]

According to the Dictionary of Genocides, the "genocidal treatment" of the Cossacks was based on class, ethnicity and politics and part of a broader Bolshevik policy of remaking society.[20]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Nicolas Werth, Karel Bartošek, Jean-Louis Panné, Jean-Louis Margolin, Andrzej Paczkowski, Stéphane Courtois. The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Harvard University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-674-07608-7 p. 98
  2. 2.0 2.1 Orlando Figes. A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891–1924. Penguin Books, 1998. ISBN 0-14-024364-X
  3. 3.0 3.1 Donald Rayfield. Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him Random House, 2004. ISBN 0-375-50632-2
  4. 4.0 4.1 Mikhail Heller & Aleksandr Nekrich. Utopia in Power: The History of the Soviet Union from 1917 to the Present.
  5. 5.0 5.1 R. J. Rummel (1990). Lethal Politics: Soviet Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1917. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 1-56000-887-3. Retrieved 2014-03-01.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Soviet order to exterminate Cossacks is unearthed Archived December 10, 2009, at the Wayback Machine University of York Communications Office, 21 January 2003
  7. Holquist, Peter (1917-03-08). Making War, Forging Revolution: Russia's Continuum of Crisis, 1914-1921 - Peter Holquist - Google Boeken. ISBN 9780674009073. Retrieved 2014-03-01.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Peter Holquist. "Conduct merciless mass terror": decossackization on the Don, 1919[permanent dead link]"
  9. Казачество
  10. Калединщина
  11. Царицынская оборона 1918—19
  12. Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev. A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia. Yale University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-300-08760-8 p. 100
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Nicolas Werth, Karel Bartošek, Jean-Louis Panné, Jean-Louis Margolin, Andrzej Paczkowski, Stéphane Courtois. The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Harvard University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-674-07608-7 p 99-100
  14. Nicolas Werth, Karel Bartošek, Jean-Louis Panné, Jean-Louis Margolin, Andrzej Paczkowski, Stéphane Courtois. The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Harvard University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-674-07608-7 p 100
  15. Dmitri Volkogonov. Autopsy of an Empire: The Seven Leaders Who Built the Soviet Regime. Free Press, 1998. ISBN 0-684-87112-2 p. 74
  16. 16.0 16.1 Robert Gellately. Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler: The Age of Social Catastrophe Archived May 5, 2016, at the Wayback Machine Knopf, 2007 ISBN 1-4000-4005-1 pp. 70–71.
  17. Alexander Nikolaevich Yakovlev. A Century of Violence in Soviet Russia. Yale University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-300-08760-8 p. 102 Archived November 19, 2014, at the Wayback Machine
  18. Holquist, Peter, "A Russian Vendee: The Practice of Revolutionary Politics in the Don Countryside, 1917–1921." Ph.D. dissertation, Columbia University, 1994.
  19. Pavel Polian (January 2004). Against Their Will: The History and Geography of Forced Migrations in the USSR. Central European University Press, 2004. p. 60. ISBN 978-963-9241-68-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. Paul R. Bartrop, Samuel Totten (30 November 2007). Dictionary of Genocide. pp. 88–9. ISBN 9780313346415.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links