The Commune of the Ural Cossacks

(Extracts from "Studies On The Interior Of Russia" by Westphalian baron August von Haxthausen. The original German edition of the book appeared in 1847)

The Ural Cossacks, who probably descend from the Great Russian race, live along the Ural River adjacent to the Kirghiz steppe. They settled on the right bank of the Ural for protection from the Kirghiz hordes. Only in two places do they have settlements on the left bank, which serve also as military outposts. The line which they inhabit begins at Mukhranov, which is approximately 35 miles from Orenburg, and continues for more than 450 miles to Chunev, where the Ural empties into the Caspian Sea. They dwell in stanitsy, villages with one to two hundred houses, located about 10- 1 3 miles apart. The river flows through a vast plain which, for the most part, is a wholly sterile salt-steppe and only the lowlands, the banks of the rivers, and particularly the banks of the mighty Ural have fertile soil, most of which is meadow land. The Cossack settlers carry on very little agriculture; those living north of Uralsk do not farm the land at all and those who dwell to the south just a little here and there. Tiny gardens can be found near their homes. They live principally from fishing and cattle raising. Initially the Cossacks probably settled voluntarily on the banks of the Ural River. The first settlers were the so-called deserters from the Don, who were later joined by many Streltsy fugitives. At first they organized themselves in their own fashion, and only later did the government lend their communities a greater coherence and unity by several regulations. They are of robust stock, handsome, lively, industrious, submissive to authority, brave, good-natured, hospitable (they consider it a disgrace to accept payment for food and drink), indefatigable, and intelligent. In their legal institutions, customs, and manner of life we can still discover the genuine old Russia.

All the Cossacks are required to serve within the territory from their eighteenth to their twentieth birthdays and outside the territory from the age of twenty to fifty-five, as often as needed. As a rule, the Don Cossacks serve for nine years, three of which are spent outside the territory, the Bashkir and Ural Cossacks for three years from a total of twelve. According to a general regulation they are supposed to fulfill their military obligations in a definite sequence, but in reality this is not the case. Circumstances do not always conform to such lifeless written orders. Let us assume that the man whose turn it is to serve cannot leave home without totally disrupting his affairs. But he is wealthy and his neighbor poor and, furthermore, it is not necessary for his neighbor to be at home. His neighbor will thus volunteer to take his place and, in return, he will provide for his neighbor's family or give him a certain amount of money. The government is prudent enough not to interfere with these arrangements, which develop naturally and without constraint. Every order is thus directed to the entire community rather than to specific individuals. This explains, moreover, why no region can muster its troops as rapidly and efficiently as these Cossacks!

There are approximately 24,000-25,000 men here of whom 10,000-12,000 between the ages of eighteen and forty-five are in the service. In 1837 only 3,300 of these men were inactive and at home. The war necessitated an immediate mobilization of the troops .1 7 Four regiments of 550 men each or two-thirds of all the able-bodied men in the territory were supposed to be called. Within three weeks they appeared at the designated place fully mounted, armed, and equipped! The order to gather at the marketplace in Uralsk had been passed from commune to commune. The voiskavoi, deputy and adjutant of the ataman, rode into the crowd that had assembled and, holding the emperor's order above his head, cried out: "Atamany! You are ordered to mount your horses and to furnish four regiments!" He then removed his cap, read the order aloud and designated the places where they should gather. And with that the matter was concluded on the part of the authorities. On such occasions the majority of the troops who are ready to march organize themselves in the marketplace. Generally they group together in families. If one out of every five or seven men is summoned to duty, the closest relatives decide upon their delegates. Whoever can afford to leave his home with the least inconvenience and wants to serve goes. The others offer him a certain amount in payment, equip him, and provide for his family. If he is a drunkard, he does not get the money, but instead it will be given directly to his family. The price fluctuates depending upon the circumstances. If only a few men are enrolled, they will each receive a considerable sum, since a large number [of men] are contributing. If, for example, eight or ten men are required to send one man, each of them could easily pay 100-200 rubles. Those who are called to serve in the Imperial Guard in Petersburg, which is, of course, comprised of tall, handsome men (everyone else is rejected) and in which the duty is very difficult, sometimes received 5,000-6,000 rubles. There are approximately 3,000 men serving in the Caucasus. They, too, agree among themselves as to who will maintain sentry duty in the interior. Those who live nearest the posts to be occupied assume the duty, and the others pay them 200-300 rubles. At the time I referred to above, two out of every three men were to be levied, which meant that the third man had to pay the other two. Only the wealthiest and those who were absolutely needed at home were freed from their military obligations. To be sure, they had to sacrifice a substantial part of their fortune for the others. In such a case a settlement is arrived at as follows. One man advances 200 rubles not to go; the second offers 300 rubles and the third 350. They bid until one claims that he cannot afford a larger contribution and offers to go. He then receives the sum that the others have offered to remain free.

To repeat, at that time two out of every three men were to be enrolled. The price varied between 900 and 2,000 rubles, which the two recruits divided. Within a couple of days 1,100 wealthy Cossacks had raised no less than 1,500,000 rubles. What great wealth among a people with such simple customs! On the fourth day following the proclamation of the order, the entire population assembled at the marketplace in Uralsk with each of the four regiments together with its officers taking up the position to which it had been assigned. The contracting parties then stepped forward. The man who was to remain behind presented the other two and announced the price which they had agreed upon. They shook hands, the officer placing his hand above theirs, and the contract was concluded. Everyone then returned home and, within fourteen days, the regiments were ready to march. These agreements are always kept, for if they were broken the government would intervene after two weeks and simply seize anyone who could be found.

And what excellent troops they are! All of them depart cheerfully and willingly because it is their own decision and they are paid. Their families are provided for, they are well equipped, and it does not cost the government a penny. Clearly the government could not commit a more serious political error than to attempt to modify this system even slightly. But, nevertheless, several pedants with a love for formalities have come up with the ingenious idea that it is impossible to decorate the Cossacks with chevrons indicating the number of years they have served.

The entire organization of the villages (stanitsy) is totally military. Whereas an officer is at the head of every larger village, each smaller community stands under the authority of a petty officer. Both are appointed by the crown and charged with the duties of law enforcement and the administration of communal affairs, etc. In each village there is a complete military guard comprised of fifteen to twenty men. Three men keep sentry at intervals of three to four versts between the villages, one sentinel always standing watch on a high scaffold while the other two, who are below, eat, sleep, and so forth. Always armed to the teeth, the Cossack is never without his musket.

The entire territory forms a social, economic, military, and political unity, whose center is the market town of Uralsk. Formerly the ataman and his voiskavye governed the entire Cossack state from this point. Today he is assisted by a committee of four counsellors. With the exception of the last two, all the atamany have been native Cossacks. The present ataman, Kazhesnikov, is said to be an excellent man. The individual villages do not have separate finances; rather, the entire Cossack community has a single budget. The revenues derived from the sale of fishing licenses, which often amount to 100,000 rubles, represent the main source of income. These permits are purchased by the men who are not on active duty and who do not have the right to fish. The salt tax constitutes the remainder of the community's income. Although the Cossacks receive salt for household use gratis, the salt used to pickle fish for sale is taxable. Most of the salt is taken from Lake Inder. The expenditures are for the ataman and the authorities and also, I believe, for the pay of those officers who are at war outside of the territory. An ensign receives 240 rubles banco. The ordinary soldier serving within the territory or less than one hundred versts from the Urals, gets no pay; beyond that limit he receives his pay and his rations from the crown.

The economic conditions of these Cossacks are extremely curious. The basis of the right of ownership is the Russian family, its extension, the commune, and its communal property, as we have already described it. According to this principle there is no private ownership of land; rather, this territory measuring seven to eight hundred versts is the common property of 50,000 people! Of particular interest in this respect is the harvesting of the hay. Not only do the individuals not own private property and not only do the villages not have their own meadows, but the meadow lands have always been the property of the entire large Cossack community. The hay is harvested under the supervision of the ataman and his aides, the voiskavye, and the village officers.

The ataman determines the date for the harvesting to begin, which is usually the first of June. An officer is stationed as an inspector at all of the points where there are extensive meadows. Every Cossack who is serving in the army (only they have this right) chooses the piece of land that he would like to mow. The night before the harvesting is to begin, they all appear at their places. At the break of day, the officer gives the signal and everyone begins to mow his piece. On the first day, however, the Cossack simply mows a circle around his plot. Whatever lies within this circle becomes his property, and he can mow it leisurely in the following days with the help of his family. A good deal of calculation and ingenuity is needed to find the right circumference. If on the first day he attempts to mow too large a circle, his neighbors will enter his plot where the circle is still open. The object is to mow the largest possible circle and to close it as quickly as possible. The Cossack works with the most incredible output of energy, hardly taking time out for a drink of water, since all work must cease at sunset and everyone must have taken possession of his property within this time limit. Only the Cossack soldier on active duty may mow, with no member of his family being permitted to help him. Before the first of June no one is allowed to mow even the smallest plot of grass and to take the hay home. Should someone discover in the Cossack's home the blade of his scythe attached to the handle, he will be deprived of his share of the hay for the year.

Fishing is also precisely regulated. it is limited to specific times in the winter, spring, and autumn. Whoever dares to catch a fish out of season loses his share for that year. Even if the Cossack happens to find a sturgeon which has been tossed onto the land, he will carefully throw it back into the water rather than take it home. In the winter the ataman sets the day for the opening of the season. The operation begins at a point approximately eight versts from Uralsk. All the Cossack soldiers on active duty gather there the night before, each equipped with a fishgig, an icebreaker, and a pick, which is used to help pull the fish out of the water. Behind each fisherman is a horse and a wagon driven by a member of his family. His relatives, however, are absolutely forbidden to help him in the actual catching of the fish. Crowded together in a row along the bank, all the fishermen, having chosen their places, await the starting signal. If someone steps onto the ice before the signal has been given, he will have to forfeit his right to fish for the day. Only he who has been elected ataman-for-fishing for that year strolls gravely about on the ice. A cannon stands on the bank, the ataman gives the signal, and the cannoneer fires. In the same instant everyone leaps onto the ice, selects his place, chops a hole in the ice and begins spearing fish. In the good spots, which, of course, are sought out, the fish are so abundant that every stab nets a fish. The shallow areas, where fewer fish are to be found, are left for the stragglers. The Cossack's family on the bank hauls the fish away and lends as much aid as possible. Only the Cossack soldier is permitted to step onto the ice and to wield the above instruments.

The Muscovite merchants are already waiting on the bank, and very brisk trading commences. Generally all the fish are sold on the spot. The price of a sturgeon is determined by its size, with a large fish costing as much as 400 rubles. In order to subsist, a Cossack has to earn approximately that amount each year. For a period of three weeks following the initial catch, they work their way down the river for 250-350 miles under the same inspector and the same regulations.

In the spring the Cossacks fish from boats which are twelve to sixteen feet in length. Artistically hollowed out of trees, these boats are often decorated with sculpture and bound with iron. Everyone gathers on the bank in an orderly fashion long before the activities are to begin. The Cossack stands directly at the river's edge with his hand on his boat; standing at the other end of the craft is a hired Kirghiz. The signal is given, and in the same moment the boat and its crew, the Cossack and his Kirghiz, are afloat.

For the autumn catch, two Cossacks join efforts with their two boats. . . . Between the boats are two nets, one of which has large holes measuring more than half a foot square. The other net, which is of fine mesh, is placed behind the larger one. Upon entering the first net the sturgeon becomes entangled between the two and is thus captured. The fishing season in the spring and in the fall lasts for six weeks. Formerly, all the fishermen assembled at the marketplace in Uralsk. Everyone sat waiting on his sled and as soon as the signal sounded, rushed pell-mell in the direction of the river. But the tumult was terrific and accidents often occurred. Today mishaps are very rare. In the autumn they also fish at the Caspian Sea, as far as the Cossack coast extends. Huge dragnets are used, and everyone is permitted to participate. It is forbidden to navigate the mouth of the Ural River up to a certain distance into the sea. For the most part, only small fish and no cartilaginous fish are to be found here. The abundance of fish in the Caspian Sea is said to have diminished considerably, since the water contains too much sulphate of magnesia, etc.

The fish are salted immediately in order to prepare the caviar. While the Cossacks receive the salt for their personal needs without charge, they must, however, pay a tax on the salt used in preparing the fish for sale. By taking the amount of tax revenue, we have calculated that the return from the annual catch is approximately 2,000,000 rubles. A portion of the fresh caviar is always sent posthaste to the emperor in Petersburg by a Cossack officer and is known as the tsar's morsel (tsarskii-kusok).

I would like to repeat that one cannot be careful enough in changing the military organization and the economic institutions of this people. If a regular tour of military duty were enforced and the purchase of replacements and the system of compensation, etc. forbidden, one would impose. the greatest hardships on them and would completely destroy their natural societal organization. The introduction of another system of civil administration, the distribution of the meadow lands among the communes or individuals, and the systematic organization of the fishery would completely undermine their outstanding esprit de corps as well as an incomparable political institution. Officials would have to be salaried, the doors would be open to abuses, corruption, and the mania of regimentation, whereas now only a minimal amount of direction is necessary, which, moreover, is without cost and complications. No people renders so many services to its government as this tribe of Ural Cossacks. I would like to conclude this chapter by applying a well-known maxim to them: Sint ut sunt aut non sunt! ("Let them be as they are, or are not.")

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