Russian Terek Cossacks

Cossack Glory.

Amongst the many legends of Russia that are so deeply rooted in the European sub conscience, the Cossack myths are perhaps the best known. In comfortable towns throughout Europe, the cry of “the Russians are coming!” would send the good respectable citizens scurrying to their cellars in expectation of Cossack search parties. Fearsome and ruthless, the predatory Cossacks would rove in the advance guard of Russian armies as they marched across the continent. In Stockholm (1719), Berlin (1760), Paris (1814) and Warsaw (frequently) the people remembered their robbery and fury and passed the memory down the generations. However this was not always the reality. In 1813 the Prussians, tiring of the continental blockade and other ‘charms’ of the French occupation, saw the Cossacks as liberators, and in their admiration of the rugged Russian warriors began to create volunteer ‘Cossack’ units, clothing and equipping them in similar style. Field marshal Blucher, who had the reputation of a Russophile, requested Don Cossacks for his personal escort. Very partial to vodka, garlic and other people’s property, always to be seen mounted, fierce and merciless, ever ready to give his life for the “Orthodox Faith, Tsar and Fatherland” – that was the impression of the Cossack in European imagination.

The first reference to Cossacks in the Russian chronicles appeared in the terrible year of 1223. In that year the Mongols first appeared in the Dnepr steppes, and the ‘brodniki’, who served the Mongols as guides and intelligence gatherers, lured the Druzhinas (bodyguards of the Russian princes) onto the curved swords of the barbarians. From time immemorial the lower reaches of the Dnepr and the Don rivers had been settled by migrants from the Slavic tribes. The reasons were many, but principally the area offered remoteness from the emerging states, which suited these independently-minded people. The word ‘Cossack’, which is of Turkish origin, had yet to come into use, and contemporaries called these people "brodnik", which derived either from the Russian noun "brod" (a ford) or from the Russian verb ‘brodit’ (to wander), reflecting their lifestyle. We will not attempt to trace further the etymology of the word, but it is clear that the ancestors of the later Cossacks were robbers, without any element of social or national consciousness. Their subsequent history bore witness to this fact, as it was they who, under the banners of an impostor, arrived in Moscow and dragged the country that had brought them up into years of bloody anarchy known as the “Russian Disturbance”. It was also these people that answered the calls of Stepan Razin and turned half the country into ruins a few decades later. Finally it was also they who initiated the Pugachev uprising, almost regressing the empire by two centuries back into the swamp of Asian barbarism just as the state was beginning to emerge on European lines. The famous words of the classic Russian poet Pushkin – “God save us from seeing a Russian riot – senseless and merciless” – were spoken of the mutiny of the Ural Cossacks led by Emelian Pugachev. It was not without reason that a well-known pre-revolutionary Russian historian, Solovyev, a genuine patriot and sincere orthodox believer, directly opposed the Cossack’s way of life. We have said a lot of negative things about the Cossacks, but we should say that their history is divided into several periods, though it is not always possible to define these absolutely. From the time of Peter I, the state, which was trying to put an end to the anarchy of the East, began to counter the antisocial elements by placing the violent bands of steppe warriors in its own service. This struggle, which lasted for the entire XVIII century and was marked by a number of bloody excesses on both sides, ended with victory to the state, to the great benefit of the whole country. Nevertheless, the Cossacks retained some features of their old way of life to the end of their existence. So what were these features, and how were they transformed in the continuing process of amalgamation of Cossacks into Russian society?

The Cossack was well used to war, or at least a certain type of war. The fertile soil in the lower reaches of the rivers Dnepr, Don and Volga yielded rich harvests, but the proximity of Turkish nomads meant there was no opportunity to have the life of a peaceful ploughman. As for the Cossacks of the Urals, Siberia and the Far East, the climate of those regions allowed for very little agriculture. Here they relied a good deal on fishing as they always lived on the banks of rivers, and hunting helped to supplement the diet, but the best source of sustenance was always war, a permanent guerrilla war, conducted with no limitations. While always ready to repulse the predatory raids of other steppe and mountain barbarians, the Cossacks were in turn also ready to conduct such raids themselves. They did not concern themselves with any patriotic or religious justification – the only incentive was booty, booty, booty. In the XVI and XVII centuries, the Cossacks sometimes united with their natural enemies – Tartars and Nogays – to rob Russia. Subsequently their incorporation into the structure of the empire partly effaced these inclinations (we emphasize partly, since greed was always a component of the Cossack mentality). The second half of the XVIII century saw the steppes, that had been so full of robbers, ‘purified’ by the bayonet of Russian soldiers. Wheat was grown in the fields, and on the banks of the Don and Kuban vineyards bloomed yielding excellent sparkling wines. Those Cossacks allotted plots of arable land were not liable to pay taxes and suffered no duties save one – at the call of the Government they were to provide military service on their own horse and clothed at their own expense. The luckiest of the Cossack commanders – ‘atamans’ – became ancestral nobility of the empire., and the heir to the throne was nominally considered to be the commander-in-chief of all Cossack units (the number and names of which changed frequently). In times of peace these Cossack troops, whose lands bordered those of unsubjugated tribes, fulfilled the function of border guards, and the numerous Don Cossacks were sent to the Austrian border towards the end of the XVIII century, where they mercilessly destroyed smugglers. In short, by the beginning of the XIX century the Cossacks had been transformed from robber gangs into a military class. The government was unable to put an end to their age-old habits, and turned a blind eye to some of their actions. The army command however unofficially retained the ancient custom of giving to them any town captured by the Cossacks for a period of 72 hours, during which time they could do as they pleased, so long as they were acting as part of the army. It was this custom that gained for them a terrifying fame, and in 1919 it was to cause the ruin of the whole White cause at the height of the Civil War. After a successful fight near Voronezh the road to Moscow was all but clear of Reds, but the Cossacks, who composed the majority of General Denikin’s White army, turned to the rear attempting to carry home all their rich plunder.

Although he spoke and swore in Russian, the Cossack did not consider himself to be Russian, and indeed ethnically they were not the same (the names of our new sets “Russian Terek Cossacks” and “Russian Cossack Infantry and Sailors”, prepared for release in 2004, as well as the “Russian Don Cossacks” prepared for release in 2005, are rather general, referring to their citizenship rather than nationality). For centuries the Cossacks were in contact with the mountain tribes and nomads, Turks, Persians, the tribes of Siberia and the Far East, and due to a lack of woman they willingly married girls from these other peoples (racial differences were generally never a stumbling block for the Slavs). They were also not squeamish about practicing another ancient custom – that of kidnapping brides. This mix of blood brought strong and beautiful children whose appearance, however, fell in no anthropological category. A Cossack could be a giant or almost a dwarf, blonde or dark-haired, have an eagle-nose like that of the Caucasian tribesmen or one that was flat like a mongoloid. We tried to represent this diversity in our set of Cossack infantry, where among 34 figures you can see athletically built people along with those that are average and small. As far as the renowned beauty of the Cossack women is concerned, even now, the natives of Rostov and Krasnodar districts are considered to be the most beautiful women in Russia. However it was not only in the process of the mixing of blood that a specific military class was born, one that regarded themselves as a special nation. Entire tribes of Buryats and Yakuts in Siberia were assigned by the government to the Transbaikal and Amur Cossack War districts, and the Kalmyks, who settled from the Don to the Volga, became wholly part of The Greater Don War district.

Whether they cared for this process or not, the Cossacks enjoyed considerable privileges such as the right of internal self-administration, and got used to looking down on the rest of the population of the Empire, considering themselves a separate species. The government did everything it could to affirm this belief as it always wanted a reliable military police force close at hand (subsequently a special hatred divided Cossacks and urban workers, since Cossacks did not have their own industry and therefore found urban life alien). It must be said that this thoroughly cultivated antagonism was to have disastrous consequences for the tsarist regime and the White cause. As always in 1917 Cossacks made an important distinction between their interests and the interests of Russia as a whole, but it is a myth that they were all bitter enemies of the Communist revolution. In fact it was a small number of well-educated officers from the regular Imperial army who were capable to seeing beyond their own horizon and realized the danger of bolshevism for the country and the world – these were the consistent enemies of the Soviet regime. However the majority of the Cossacks were simply indifferent to events beyond their borders, and after banishing the Red Army from their territories, returned to their homes. They were soon to pay a high price for such improvidence.

For all his faults, the Cossack had a number of unquestionable merits when it came to combat. He had incredible bravery, which was forged in the centuries of permanent warfare and reinforced by the fact that his regiment was made up of sotnyas (“Sotnya” = hundred) drafted from the inhabitants not simply of one area but from one settlement, so any suggestion of cowardice would bring shame on that individual in his community. Furthermore the Cossack was characterized by superhuman endurance. Disregarding clouds of flies, he could sit in cover for 24 hours, awaiting his victim, whether a roe or a Chechen. The accuracy of his shooting was legendary, and he was born (and often died) in the saddle. When at the beginning of the XX century an American circus with the famous cowboys arrived in the Don, the Cossacks viewed their tricks and accepted them as amateur clowns. When in the XVI century Ermak, the Cossack Cortez of Russia, subjugated vast parts of Siberia with a force of just 800 men, his warriors, like the legendary Argonauts, dragged their heavily-laden boats with all their supplies from one river to another, covering tens of kilometres at a time. Another Cossack Dezhnev with many dozens of his comrades sailed in fragile little ships through the Arctic Ocean. Such examples can be counted in the thousands, and hundreds of large volumes could be written about the Cossack’s boldness and taste for adventure. We will not do this, but it is sufficient to say only that in comparison to Cossacks the dashing hussars would seem as students of a Presbyterian school.

To complete the description of Cossack upbringing and mentality, it’s necessary to mention that though they were very far from an urban life, in comparison to the majority of the population of the Empire they were known for their literacy, which possibly was achieved due to the freedom granted to them. (By the first Russo-Japanese war in 1904, all Cossacks could read and write, although 89% of the army was illiterate). This same freedom gave a considerable degree of liberty to the women of the Kuban, Don and Terek, despite the then generally subdued position of women in Russia.

We must apologise here for what is, in our opinion, such a long description of the internal life of the Cossacks and their true essence. We had to do it because apart from the three sets relating to the Crimean War mentioned above, we are also planning to release three further sets, dedicated to the First World War – “The Don Cossacks”, “The Kuban’ Cossacks”, as well as “The “Wild” Division”, consisting of the Caucasus mountaineers, that appeared in approximately the same dress as the Kuban’ Cossacks, with the exception of the head-gear. Several years ago Revell released a set of the Soviet Army Cossacks, Zvezda and HaT respectively sets of the guard and (judging by their appearance) Ural Cossacks of the era of the Napoleonic wars. Orion have announced their intention to release the Zaporozhskie Cossacks of XVI-XVII centuries. Thus the history of Cossacks in the 1/72 scale already covers a long time interval and we want to introduce to our readers not only our plans for the next period, but also give a maximum of the necessary information - not so much the facts as such, but the new approach to these facts, especially because some views on this issue are somewhat shallow. Now we will try to describe our sets.

As we’ve already mentioned, the number and the names of the Cossack districts were constantly changing. Some of them in the course of time were abolished as, for example, Chuguyev Cossacks (East Ukraine, Kharkov region), while others were literally burnt out by hardened iron for their persistent insubordination, going as far as high treason, as for example, the famous Zaporozhskaya Sech. Out of the entire selection of Cossacks Districts (11 as at the end of the Empire) we intend to offer to our customers only three – the Kuban, Terek and Don. Let us describe them one by one. The set of Cossack Infantry and Sailors consists of 4 sprues, three of which compose the Kuban Cossacks. It is necessary to say that during the period of the Crimean War the Cossack troops stationed on the banks of the rivers Kuban and Terek were called the Black Sea Cossack War District that united both future Terek and Kuban Districts. The descendants of the notorious Zaporozhskie Cossacks, who survived the crushing defeat of Zaporzhskaya Sech by the Russian army, following their numerous requests were moved by Catherine II to the Kuban. Today, the natives of the Krasnodar district of Russia bear Ukrainian surnames, slightly modified in the Russian manner. This Black Sea Cossack War District created on the initiative of prince Potemkin in 1783, very quickly took second place after the Don Cossack War District in terms of numbers and reputation. Stretching from the Azov Sea and straits with the Crimea in the West to the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea in the East, they initially performed police and some customs duties in the regions, added, but not yet assimilated by the Empire. These duties did not require special efforts, but the war with the local tribes that soon started in the Caucasus again forced the Black Sea Cossacks to take up their weapons and not to put them down again until 1864. Officially the beginning of the Caucasian war is dated to 1817 but actually the war started as early as 1786 by the intrusion of the hordes of Gaza-Magomed, who encountered even young Peter Bagration, future hero of 1812, well-known to the majority of our readers. In the course of the war the Black Sea Cossacks, as autonomous units, were entered into the troops of the so-called Caucasian line, as were their nearest neighbours – Terek Cossacks.

In contrast to the Kuban Cossacks (Kubantsy) the date of the emergence of the Terek Cossacks (Tertsy) cannot be traced. Their history is lost in the gloom of the centuries. The Russian run away serf/peasants, who earned their living in essence by robbery, had settled from time immemorial in the foothills of the Caucasus. The overwhelming majority of them were ardent sectarians, who do not recognize the spiritual authority of the state orthodox church. Their customs and dispositions are in detail described by Leo Tolstoy in his story “Cossacks”. Here we focus the attention of our customers to the following minor but important detail: Tertsy and Kubantsy wore similar uniforms, but the first according to their religious views never used tobacco, which ripened well under the climatic conditions of Southern Russia, considering it as a “hellish grass”. Meanwhile if you carefully study the photograph of our master models, you will note an infantryman smoking a small pipe while on watch. Being an orthodox, in contrast to their Terek brothers, Kuban Cossacks following this custom, which was inherited from their Zaporozhye ancestors, and did not part with their pipes (“Lyulka”). Since they were not soldiers of the regular army, they completely disregarded regulations which forbade smoking while on the watch.

The government tolerated Terek Cossacks only because of their unsurpassed military skill. For centuries quarrelling with the Chechens, the Avars, the Kazi-Kumyks and other tribes of the Eastern Caucasus, these tough warriors adopted their methods of guerrilla warfare and the clothes of their irreconcilable enemies. The hatred, which divided the Cossacks and merciless mountaineers, is evidenced even today in the preserved Cossack lullaby which goes like this: “Wicked Chechen in the dark is crawling, sharpening his dagger”. This hatred, as we again emphasize, never prevented the Cossacks from marrying their women prisoners, so that among the heroes of the Crimean campaign there were many of mixed blood. The notorious Caucasian double-edged dagger was an indispensable possession of any Kuban and Terek Cossack. Apart from daggers the soldiers of the Caucasian line went to war armed with muskets in the sheep skin cases and “shashka” – a sabre without a shield guard, which in the Cossacks’ opinion only interfered with fencing. Cossacks also highly praised captured English rifles, which shot considerably further and more accurately than their grandfather’s flint and percussion guns. The shoulders of the Kuban and Terek Cossacks were covered in fur raincoats – “burka”, also borrowed from the Caucasus mountaineers. Cossacks completely disregarded the long-skirted uniform of dark green colour and very simple cut set out by the regulations, preferring instead a tunic – “cherkeska” - of inconspicuous colours with the bandoliers – “gazyri” - sewn on the breast. Their heads were covered by the shaggy fur “papakha” or round Chechen caps with the magnificent fur cap band. For a while these caps were officially sanctioned as regulation head-gear for all Russian troops which were stationed on the Caucasus. As far as the famous “kubanka” – flat fur cap – is concerned, familiar to our readers from the documentary films of the 2nd World War, it appeared only at the beginning of the XX century. Revell made its Cossacks set of the Soviet Army in these hats. We will in turn crown the heads of our Kubantsy of the period of the 1st World War with them.

As we can see, the garments of the soldiers of the Caucasian line were wholly borrowed from the mountaineers. Armament was richly decorated with gold, silver and stones. Clothing, on the contrary, was decrepit. Some Cossacks, who arrived on foot into the Crimea, had under their coats only torn trousers. In order to cover the lower part of the body of those newly arrived, the garrison quartermasters had to urgently find old trousers in the warehouses. Therefore do not be surprised, when buying our next set of Cossack infantry, you will see the tunics of some of the riflemen covered in large patches. Balalaikas and teapots on the belts add a touch of realism to the figures, and the small bags on their backs are substitutes for haversacks. In these bags the Cossacks carried all of their simple property and gathered trophies.

The uniform of the renowned Don Cossacks did not resemble the garment of the Kuban and Terek Cossacks. Generally speaking, in the long list of the various Cossack districts of the Empire the latter were considered mountainous troops, and the Don – the steppe troops. They first began to wear a uniform in the second-half of the XVIII century. Their distinctive colour up to 1908 was traditionally dark-blue. In 1854 the outfit of the Don Cossack consisted of the long-skirted tunic with a small standing collar and long trousers with red stripes - their distinguishing feature. On their violent heads they wore high narrow fur caps with a hanging red cloth blade. A forelock from beneath the cap to the forehead was a necessary attribute and a symbol of bravery. Apart from the guns and shashkas, an indispensable attribute of the Don Cossack was a lance without a pennant – a weapon they handled with extraordinary skill. When they wanted to use a shashka, they slung the lance behind their back to a special belt. Although not mentioned in any regulations, a rope lasso was also a necessary part of their equipment. Any Cossack could throw it as well as any Mongol. Spurs were never favoured by the mounted Cossacks.

The Cossack had a reputation of being a universal warrior. He fought with equal skill on horseback, dismounted and even crawling. This last made him irreplaceable in the Crimean campaign, since no one could compete with him in this skill. Two battalions of the Kuban “plastuny” (literally meaning crawlers) that were quickly moved from the Caucasus to the Crimea were especially renowned for this skill (it was not possible to remove a larger quantity of men from the Caucasus line because of the increase in the frequency of attacks of the mountaineers, instigated by British and Turkish emissaries). The Terek Cossacks were fewer in number, since even in good times their numbers were small. After ascending the bastions of Sevastopol, they first became the butt of jokes from the soldiers of the regular army for their poor clothes and incorrect Russian pronunciation. Soon, however, the jokes were substituted by undisguised admiration. Without exception they showed themselves as excellent snipers and unsurpassed intelligence gatherers. No one was better than they at hiding behind a small mound for hours following the movements of an enemy officer through a gun sight, and no one could better creep up to the enemy redoubt in broad daylight, and silently slaughter a guard or carry away to the Russian lines an inattentive Zouave – directly from the camp fire. The Allies did not have soldiers of such a type. Of course the Chasseurs and the Zouaves of Louis-Napoleon and the soldiers of HM Rifle Corps were good at individual battle, but, after passing through the school of colonial wars, they were in essence the students of guerrillas, while the Cossacks were partisans at birth. Here we approach the main thrust of our narration.

Both in the West and in the East, until now, many consider a Cossack as the military symbol of Russia. We have done everything possible to dispel this myth. The military symbol and backbone of Russia always was, is and always will be an infantryman in a grey overcoat with a tetrahedral bayonet. This modest worker of war, who reaped the abundant harvests of laurels on thousands of bloody battlefields. We specifically pay tribute to him, as it is he who should rightfully stand on the pedestal of glory. A Cossack was no more than an enterprising partisan, with all his specific methods, peculiar world outlook, and with all the bad and good that can be learned from barbarous war on the frontiers. Apart from his “home” local and permanent war, a Cossack passed through the fire of hundreds of large battles and did not gain major laurels for himself. We do not want to humble a dashing horseman - it’s not his fault. We’ve got to realise that due to his specific character the Cossack was not intended for the European war. By history itself he was called to move increasingly further to the East and South, fighting with unknown tribes, mastering the unknown land. He achieved this with great, at times even huge, success, until the iron hand of the Russian tsars pointed his way to the West by imperious motion. Here the Cossack proved to be powerless. Dozens of memoirs of Frenchmen - participants in the invasion of 1812 - survive to this day. Dozens of reports reached newspaper editorial staffs from the Crimean War battlefields. Almost everywhere the Cossacks and the horror inspired by them were mentioned, but read them more carefully and you will note that this was always the fear of the forthcoming encounter. Cossacks attacked only completely disorganised enemy units demoralized by hunger and Russian winter. Denis Davydov, a dashing hussar-poet and the main initiator of the partisan movement in 1812, correctly says that when the battalion of the Old Guards encountered the hordes of his Cossacks on the snow-covered Smolensk road, it simply passed through hundreds of riders, “like a ship through waves” even without having been assembled into battle formation. Marbot writes that at Leipzig the Kalmycks, called the Amours for their tight bows, did not dare to approach the Frenchmen within the range of their gun fire. The ‘born-in-the-saddle’ mass of thousands of Don Cossacks at Balaklava could not resist several hundred British cavalrymen, the majority of whom, having been before service in the army rural farmhands or urban unemployed, had hardly ever sat on a horse. This is not to be wondered at, since no habits acquired from the childhood can compensate for correct training for “regular” warfare.

Unlike previous occasions, this time we will not describe the separate figures of our two new sets. You can look at them on our site and send your opinions and wishes. After reading this article, you understand why the majority of the figures of the Kuban’ Cossacks shoot from the elbow, and many of them crawl with the daggers in their teeth. No one will be surprised at the lassos in the hands of the Kuban and Terek Cossacks, or their whimsical but picturesque details. To those of you who will wish to paint our figures in future, we recommend you paint the coats of the officers in white - according to Caucasian tradition a white tunic was considered to be the sign of noble origin. The officer of the mounted Terek Cossacks is easily recognised by the army peaked cap and percussion pistol, and the three junior officers in the set of the Kuban Cossacks - two by the shashkas in the hands, and the third holds the shot through flag.

"Cossack Infantry and Sailors" - 46 figures, 46 poses. Colour - green. (The description of sailors will be given in the article "Stepsons of the Oceans")
"Mounted Terek Cossacks" - 12 figures, 12 poses. Colour - green