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Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 4.3 (2003) 735-746

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Nikolai Aleksandrovich Mininkov, Donskoe kazachestvo v epokhu pozdnego srednevekov'ia (do 1671). Rostov-na-Donu: Izdatel'stvo Rostovskogo universiteta, 1998. 510 pp. ISBN 5-7507-0495-5.
Serhii Plokhy, The Cossacks and Religion in Early Modern Ukraine. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. x + 401 pp. ISBN 0-19-924739-0. $74.00.
Dmitrii Vladimirovich Sen', "Voisko Kubanskoe Ignatovo Kavkazskoe": Istoricheskie puti kazakov-nekrasovtsev (1708 g.-konets 1920-kh gg.). Krasnodar: Izdatel'stvo Kubanskogo gosudarstvennogo universiteta, 2001. 385 pp. ISBN 5-8209-0029-4.
Shane O'Rourke, Warriors and Peasants: The Don Cossacks in Late Imperial Russia. New York: St. Martin's Press in association with St. Antony's College, Oxford, 2000. viii + 200 pp. ISBN 0-312-22774-4. $69.95.

To talk about "the Cossacks" is often an exercise in mistaken identity. Like "the crusaders," "the cowboys," and "the Spartans," Cossacks have become an internationally recognized community. Their past presents a reservoir into which nationalists, scholars, strategists, creators of college mascots, and designers of video games have selectively dipped over the ages. In communities from Canada to the Caucasus it is possible to encounter people who claim to be descended from "the Cossacks." Many have found this feeling of continuity in books, others find its expression in oral tradition, and some were born into communities in which a Cossack identity was cultivated independently of national affiliations promoted by outsiders. An Old Believer in Oregon, a professor in Kyiv, and a self-proclaimed Cossack general in Krasnodar could all make a strong case for their personal connection to Cossack history, but each would bring to the discussion a different bricolage of memories, texts, and traditions. The challenge of writing Cossack history, therefore, involves integrating diverse, and often contradictory, experiences and interpretations into a single Cossack story.

The four books under review here all contribute in their own way to the deconstruction of "the" Cossack. When read in tandem they reveal that the Cossack category either comprises mutually exclusive identity options or is riddled with multiple-personality disorders. The Cossack has been both friend and foe of [End Page 735] Russia, a defender of the Ukrainian cause and loyal subject of the Ottoman Sultan. He--for histories of Cossack communities often exclude women--has been both devoutly Orthodox and uncomfortably heterodox, both opposed to agriculture and a tiller of the land. This review does not attempt to rescue the Cossack category by reconciling the differences among these studies. Instead, I offer an assessment of how these books, and the scholarly traditions they represent, can help to put the Cossack phenomenon in context.

As comprehensive monographs based upon extensive research, these studies stand out among the veritable flood of books, articles, polemical essays, and practical handbooks that have addressed Cossack topics in recent years. They also illustrate the range of issues and interpretations that confront modern researchers. While each stands apart, representing the state of the art in a division of the fragmented historiography of Cossackdom, together they testify to a continuing interest in a Cossack past. Before proceeding to comparison, I provide a précis and evaluation of each book.

Nikolai Aleksandrovich Mininkov's monograph examines the history of the Don Cossacks from their origins to 1671. The book represents the magnum opus of a scholar who has devoted decades to studying Cossack history, and those fortunate enough to obtain 1 of the 500 copies are rewarded with an encyclopedic compendium of information about the Don region.1 Thematic chapters are devoted to the territory, population, way of life, and political system of the Don region, its relations with Moscow and its role in wars and popular rebellions. While recognizing the book as a major contribution to our knowledge of all aspects of Don Cossack life, one must note...