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How was it possible?

At first glance, the Rada's aims, be it the elaboration of parliament deputies’ instruction, as it was initially conceived, or the redistribution of lands, as it happened to be in the end, were quite moderate in their ambitions. Indeed, the Cossacks’ aspiration to make the Rada into an institution that would run Kuban Cossack affairs on a regular basis, a complete “restoration” of the Zaporozhian administrative practice, was far too bold to come true. And yet even the occasional, one-time implementation of this ostensible Zaporozhian tradition to solve the problem of land shortage was a radical move in and of itself, fraught with unwelcome repercussions for the imperial administration. Allowing to convene a local mini parliament of a sort, the government set a precedent for the mechanism of popular participation in self-government. Even more strikingly, the government allowed the assembly to adopt a name with strong seditious connotations, which directly referred to the experience of autonomy and statehood that the Sich and Ukraine once had.

How did it happen? How did the Rada, instead of elaborating the mandate, acquire a completely new function? Although the flow of documentation that would allow answering this question in foil measure is yet to be found, a detailed summary of the correspondence conducted by authorities at various levels, anonymously published in a local liberal periodical, reveals the major steps of the decision-making process. Whereas the Duma speeches raised controversies over the issue of the Kuban Host’s public representation at the parliament, the Host’s administration took pains to settle the issue of land shortage. According to the Kuban Host’s prospective solution made in April 1906, vast amounts of spare land, which still was in common possession of the Kuban Host, was to be distributed among Cossack settlements according to the geohistorical principle. The reserve land, located on the territory of former Chernomoria, was supposed to be divided among former Black Sea Cossack stanitsas only. Correspondingly, the reserve land of the former Line Host was supposed to be reallocated exclusively among stanitsas within the territory of the former Line Host. The Cossack settlements of the mountainous territories beyond the Kuban River, in particular the neediest ones, were to receive vacant forest areas, formerly owned by the state and passed into the Host’s possession in 1889.

This project, which reflected the Host’s adherence to the notion of historical rights of the former hosts over their respective lands, met with objections from the Main Administration of the Cossack Hosts (GUKV), which determined to meet the needs of mountainous stanitsas in fertile soil by providing them with steppe areas of the Black Sea and Line Cossack lands. Thus, the Cossacks of Transkubania had to receive their own shares of lands, once constituting Chernomoria and Linia. The Host, refusing to fully cany out the directive of its superiors, only agreed to make minor concessions and to exempt as little land as possible from the possession of the stanitsas of Chernomoria (calculated 10 desiatinas per soul). It was only the Military Council that resolved the discussion by acknowledging that neither local nor central officials had complete information about the land situation. On October 19, it decreed to grant the acting ataman the right to convoke a “land commission” (zemleustroitel’naia komissiia), which would consist of two deputies from every settlement of the oblast, to resolve the situation on the grassroots level.76

The idea of the commission was not the invention of the Military Council but the result of Mikhailov’s endeavor. It can be assumed that at some point in August or September the head of the oblast or someone from the Host’s administration seized the initiative of convening the assembly to elaborate the mandate and adapted it for another task. It was with this idea in mind that Mikhailov went to Tiflis and, after that, to St. Petersburg to seek permission from his superiors. On September 29, he had a talk with Nicholas II over the issue of the council, and the latter, as the further fate of the initiative suggests, sanctioned the proposition.77 The Rada's case progressed promptly and just twelve days after the Military Council decreed to convene the “commission,” the Emperor approved the decree officially.78

Although it is not possible to trace in detail how the authorities in Tiflis and St. Petersburg addressed the case of the Rada, or who played the pivotal part in permitting the assembly, a semi-official anonymous account, most probably written by Shcherbina, testifies that when Mikhailov requested permission from the Viceroy, the latter expressed his moral support, but did not give his written approval, as he was not willing to assume responsibility for such a risky initiative. Instead, he suggested that Mikhailov seek the Emperor’s permission.79

The viceroy’s endorsement and his apparent personal part in the whole initiative should not be underestimated, for the very idea of the Rada and the principles it was based on well corresponded to the model of rule he adopted during his tenure. Count Illarion Vorontsov-Dashkov’s mission as the head of the Caucasus Viceroyalty, established in early 1905, was to ameliorate social and ethnic tensions that plagued the imperial order in South Caucasia. In striking contrast to the manner of rule practiced by his predecessors and provincial governors elsewhere in the empire, his patterns of governance turned out to be surprisingly liberal-looking and ran counter to the conservative ideologies of the regime.80 Vorontsov-Dashkov’s liberalism, however limited and moderate it was, was a major departure from the previous policy of steadfast Russification and implied considerable toleration of the local cultural diversity and, moreover, the encouragement of the local population’s initiative. In his manifesto to the population of the Caucasus, which declared the principles of the viceroy’s rule for the prospective years, Vorontsov-Dashkov announced his intention to rely on all public forces and, so as to learn more about the needs and aspirations of the local inhabitants, to convoke assemblies of representatives elected from social groups, including nobility, townsfolk, rural communities, and clergymen. Coming together, as the viceroy expected, they would be able to speak out about the most urgent measures they wished him to implement.81

The mechanism of consultative assemblies composed of people’s representatives to solve pressing social and political problems that state functionaries felt unable to solve on their own was first tested in February 1906. The so-called Armenian-Tatar (Azeri) convention was an attempt by Vorontsov-Dashkov to put an end to the most dramatic conflict in the South Caucasus - massacres between Armenian and Muslim populations sparked during the Revolution - by bringing together representatives of warring parties who would address the issues that ignited the conflict.82 As Kavka: characterized the convention, it was the first time when the “principle of popular representation” was used in the Caucasus on a broad scale, unseen anywhere else in the empire. The “implementation of this principle in practice,” the newspaper declared, was “the main task of our time. One cannot solve pertinent matters of people’s life without letting the people speak out, without listening to them.”83

The overall political enthusiasm throughout the Russian Empire, the emergence of political parties, the electoral process to the State Duma, and the proclamation of civil liberties made the notion of popular representation - and along with it the ideas of autonomism and federalism - the catchwords of the time, especially in the Caucasus.84 Discussions about Georgian autonomy became a recurrent feature of local intellectual life, with speeches and roundtables on this topic gathering hundreds of listeners.85 Kavka:, where reports on these activities were actively published, saw the Armenian-Muslim convention as the model for a possible Georgian assembly drawn from the members of all social groups that would discuss and decide on the nature and extent of Georgian autonomy.86 Others insisted on the necessity to organize a special Caucasus council, or a seim, composed of deputies from all over the Caucasus, functioning as the parliament of the viceroyalty with legislative competence in matters of local significance.87

The Ukrainian public sphere was also swept by the same spirit. Urges to convoke “our own free rada” that would rule the Ukrainians of all classes and estates, permeated the pages of leading periodicals during the Revolution.88 Yet it was Ekaterinodar, not Kiev/Kyiv, where an assembly called Rada opened its sessions in 1906. At the time of its convocation, commentators rightfully noticed that whereas no conventions of representatives of this kind were allowed throughout the empire, especially concerning such acute issues as the land question, Kuban oblast, despite being under martial law, presented a striking exception.89 Fedor Shcherbina claimed credit for the eventual approval of the Rada. In his memoirs, he expressed his confidence that the Emperor was driven by his knowledge of the history of Zaporozhia. Shcherbina assured that Nicholas II had learned about the great “historical significance” of rada as early as his childhood from the book, written and presented to him by Shcherbina in 1888, during his and Alexander’s III visit to Ekaterinodar. But if this testimony reveals us much about the intentions behind the welcoming ceremony of Alexander III, it hardly can be taken for granted with regard to the events that took place 18 years later.90

Whether or not any historical knowledge guided the Tsar and the Military Council, they were doubtlessly guided by purely pragmatic reason - to improve the economic plight of the Cossacks, to relieve real or impeding social tensions that might have been caused by land shortage, and to prevent possible acts of disobedience of Cossack military units. The government, thus, forestalled the Revolution by making a modest, but highly significant revolutionary step toward the needs of the Cossack population. Naturally, it hardly could be possible elsewhere in the empire, while the Kuban region was seen as loyal enough to venture into such a risky experiment. As a result, the imperial government appreciated the Rada’s achievements in the issue of land demarcation. What is more, it allowed the Don Cossacks to solve their respective land question collectively, with the help of the same procedure. In Don, a “Host consultative assembly” convened in 1909 (although Nicholas II permitted its convocation as early as March 1907). As in the Kuban region, its participants and the local public styled it as the restoration of an old tradition, the krug (“circle”). In contrast to the Rada, however, it did not adopt the “historical” name officially, and the usage of the word “Krug” was rather limited to the unofficial sphere.91

The idea of the rada made a spectacular “return” after the Russian Empire ceased to exist, in the wake of the February Revolution of 1917, this time as a revolutionary government of the Kuban region. The recent experience of 1906 offered a ready-to-use template during a new crisis - and a well-remembered name to adopt. Even though debates followed among Black Sea and Line Cossack delegates as to whether the new organ should be called according to a Zaporozhian tradition, or in line with the old Don practice, the krug, the rada was the choice most of the Cossacks opted for.92 In so doing, an invented tradition of 1906, the rada, served as an already established tradition to rely on for the Rada of 1917.

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