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     To the left: Don Cossack, Wehrmacht.
      To the right: Don Cossack, Red Army.

Cossacks in WWII

Stalin, when he realized that the war with Hitler is inevitable, tried to appeal to the Cossack's patriotism. He did it by establishing a Cossack division in the Red Army. But being of Cossack blood was not a condition for being in that unit. There were Cossacks of course, but it was not purely Cossack division, as a result, it could not be the same. By the beginning of the war, there were over 100,000 soldiers of the Cossack blood in the Red Army.

Again, like during the Civil War, Cossacks were divided. Some fought on the Soviet side, considering that this way they fight for Mother-Russia. Some supported Germans, hoping that they would destroy godless Stalin's state and give the Cossacks autonomy in traditionally Cossack areas like Don and Kuban. During the war, Soviet side formed a few Cossack units, they were not purely Cossack, they were Cossack just in name and uniforms. At the same time many real Cossacks fought in non-cavalry units, in non-Cossack uniforms. Stalin didn't really want the Cossack tradition to be re-born. The community of well organized and armed people, standing up for each other was not something that bolsheviks were willing to have in their state.

Cossacks in the Third Reich had a somewhat special status. They were not considered to be Slavic people, and German ideologists argued that Cossacks were descended from the Goths who used to live in the territories later populated by the Cossacks (areas north of the Black Sea). Therefore, the Cossacks were regarded as Aryans. Since Hitler was famous for his anty-Communism, Cossacks who emigrated to Germany after the Civil War supported him from the very early stages. They would support anybody who was against the bolsheviks.

When the war between Germany and USSR finally broke out, those Cossacks who had to leave after the Russian revolution sided with the Germans, since Germany was the only force at that time confronting bolsheviks in a combat.

Most of the Cossacks fought against the bolsheviks in the Civil War. The White Army run out in that bloody war, but the Cossacks never reconciled with the new government and new ideology. The Soviet state suppressed the Cossack traditions, denied their right to exist as a special entity the way they were under the Tsars - no wonder the Cossacks didn't want to fight for the Stalin's government.

Germans tried to attract more of the Cossacks on their side. They knew too well that Cossacks were perhaps the most prosecuted group by the communist government. Germans managed to raise a few Cossack units from the White Army Russians who emigrated after the Civil War, from POWs who happened to be of the Cossack ancestry, and from some volunteers from the Cossack areas, who believed that Hitler was a lesser evil than Stalin.

Some Cossacks that were drafted in the Red Army crossed over to the German side. They wanted to fight against the Soviets. Some Cossacks fought in the ranks of the Red Army - those fought for Russia, not for the communists. Son of one of those who eventually ended up on the German side (a Cossack of the Don Host) told me a story his father told him: when supposed to go in the attack against Germans, Russian soldiers first "accidentally" shot their Communist Political instructor (which was a sort of ideological commander of the unit), and only after that directed their rifles towards Nazi. The communist government and ideology were extremely unpopular and were held only by repressive structures like NKVD (later known as KGB). It was tough to make choices then, the situation was not black and white for the Cossacks. When in 1942 Germans advanced to the Cossack areas of Don and Kuban, they were met as liberators by the whole stanitsa's. People sang the anthems they were not supposed to sing under the Soviets. Men showed up with their sabers, daggers and guns they had to hide after the Civil War, in the traditional Cossack costumes.

The situation was very ambiguous: Cossacks wanted to fight communists, but that war eventually turned into war against Russia, with the brutality towards the civil population. As a result, Germans could not really use Cossacks in the Eastern Front operations. There were hundreds of thousands of Cossacks fighting Germans in the Red Army. At the same time, there is statistic that by 1944 there were over 250 thousand Cossacks on the German side.

After the war, the members of the those units within the Wehrmacht were forcibly repatriated to the Soviet Union by the British forces (in spite of all the promises that were given to the Cossacks), and the Cossacks were executed by Stalin. All the senior officers were hanged, including generals Krasnov (about 70 years old then) and Shkuro, who fought against the Red Army during the Civil War; most of the junior officers were shot, the rest were sent to the GULAG'S, where most of them perished. Some of those Cossacks were not even Russian citizen, they were born in emigration in Cossack families that left the country to avoid prosecution from the communists. But the British government helped Stalin to get rid of those who managed to escape from Lenin and Trotsky...

Both those Cossacks who fought in the Red Army and those who fought in the Wehrmacht had their reasons, and it's not for us to judge them now. The Cossack leaders were dreaming of building a Cossack state - Kazakia - in the lands that were historically theirs. They never got what was promised from the Germans, and they never got their rights back from the Soviets.

When the war was over, Stalin didn't need Cossacks' patriotism anymore. The Cossack uniform that re-appeared for a short period of time was gone again. Soviet Government again returned to the anty-Cossack practices, destroying what was left of the Cossack communities.


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