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Sep 20, 2015 | 13:00 GMT

9 mins read

Russia Again Cautiously Embraces the Cossacks

Pro-Russia Cossack rebels guard a checkpoint in Perevalsk, Ukraine, Feb. 20.
(Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images)

Over the past two weeks, the Russian government has dispatched more than 124,000 Interior Ministry troops across the country in an attempt to prevent or react to possible protests during regional elections. Among the forces deployed are more than 3,000 volunteer Russian Cossacks.

This is not the first time the brazenly independent Russian Cossack brigades have made their presence known in recent years. The Kremlin used various Cossack forces for security in the Volga region and during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Cossack security units have also surfaced in Syria and Ukraine, though not entirely under Kremlin control. The Russian government's use of the Cossacks stems from the Kremlin's long tradition of honoring their usefulness as a military force in the borderlands, though Moscow's ability to keep the Cossacks in check has been frequently tested.

Historically, Cossacks are known as fierce fighters and respected for their bravery. Most Russians idealize their independent nature and resistance to Kremlin rule, unlike most other separatist or autonomous groups across the former Soviet Union. Cossack valor is often depicted in Russian literature, in works such as Leo Tolstoy's The Cossacks and Mikhail Sholokhov's And Quiet Flows the Don. However, throughout history, the Cossacks' loyalty to centralized power in Russia has never been a sure thing. Thus, the Kremlin repeatedly struggles over whether to embrace the Cossacks as an entity, or attempt to assimilate them into the Russian population.

Examining Cossack Culture

The origin and makeup of the Cossack people is disputed, though the word "Cossack" is likely derived from the Turkic root for "adventurer" or "free man" — both fitting descriptions. The group is at times defined as a distinct ethnic population within the Eastern Slavs and at other times as a military caste. The Russian Cossacks migrated into the Volga region in the 15th century as peasants fleeing serfdom in southeastern Europe. Europe still has large Cossack populations, particularly in Ukraine, although they each act differently. The Russian Cossacks desired autonomy and settled on the fringe of the Russian Empire and the Northern Caucasus — areas dominated by Muslim communities.

Cossacks perform a traditional dance involving daggers thrown from the mouth to stick in the floor in Holland Park, London, in December 1925.

Cossacks perform a traditional dance involving daggers thrown from the mouth to stick in the floor in Holland Park, London, in December 1925.

(Brooke/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Though ethnic Slavs, the Cossacks looked distinctly different from the Russians. They carried unique swords and whips and wore tall sheepskin hats, silver earrings and legendary Cherkeska coats. The Cherkeska was created when Cossacks sewed holes for firearms and knives into their coats, to be ready for battle at any time.

Cossacks were deeply superstitious about their dress and appearance. Each Cossack grew a single long lock of hair — a forelock — on the left side of his head. This was to sweep away the devil from his left shoulder (an angel was believed to sit on a Cossack's right shoulder). There is a Cossack saying: "A Cossack is not a Cossack without his forelock." It is also believed among Cossacks that once dead, a Cossack goes straight to hell for spending his life killing his enemies, but God knows that Cossacks only kill out of love for their homeland and will pull a Cossack out of Hell by his forelock.

The Cossacks were a warrior people, but the Russians viewed them as honorable, unlike the perception of their Chechen neighbors. This was likely because the Cossacks are Orthodox Christian, whereas the Chechens are Muslim. In Tolstoy's book, The Cossacks, there is a passage where a young Cossack soldier, Lukashka, kills a Chechen but shows a glimmer of his humanity after the act:

"'He too was a man,' Lukashka said, evidently admiring the dead Chechen. A fellow Cossack replies, 'Yes, but if it had been up to him, he wouldn't have shown you any mercy.'"

The Cossacks, too, have a code of honor. For example, it is forbidden to take anything from a fallen soldier. It is seen as ignoble to remove clothing or possessions from the dead. Military service was also seen a part of their faith. Religion factors heavily when it comes to a Cossack's duty as a soldier. In The Cossacks, the protagonist, Dmitri Olenin, spies a Chechen disguised as a log in a river.

"'Yes, it's a Chechen all right!' he thought with a surge of joy and, rising to his knees, once more took aim and peered at his target, just visible at the end of his long rifle. 'In the name of the Father and the Son,' he said, in the Cossack way he had learnt in his earliest years, and pulled the trigger."

Cossacks in Imperial Russia

The Russian Empire embraced the Cossack people as a natural buffer between Muslims and the Orthodox empire. Most famously, Cossack villages in the Volga region became military outposts to defend the Russian heartland from Chechen fighters. However, the Cossacks also bucked against the empire, leading two major revolutions in the 18th century.

After the empire quashed the uprisings, the Cossacks were transformed into a special military caste within the imperial forces. The Cossack brigades were considered some of Russia's most elite and were constantly used in military campaigns to expand the empire into the Caucasus, Siberia and Central Asia. They were also used as paramilitary forces to drive out (or kill) Muslims and Jews in the empire. Cossacks reportedly led the genocide against the Circassians in the late 19th century. Yet, they not only fought under the empire's command, but also frequently acted on their own and were branded as vigilantes. Rumors abound that Napoleon's military feared going up against Russia's Cossacks, and Napoleon himself is credited with saying, "Cossacks are the best light troops among all that exist. If I had them in my army, I would go through all the world with them."

Cossacks on the march in Russia, circa 1914.

Cossacks on the march in Russia, circa 1914.

(HULTON ARCHIVE/Getty Images)

During the Russian Revolution, the Cossacks started off on the side of the czar's White Army, but eventually they switched allegiance and supported the Red Army and Bolsheviks instead. Famously, three Cossack brigades were stationed in St. Petersburg — then the capital of Russia — to defend the czar's supporters. However, the Cossacks began defecting, leading the White Army forces to label them traitors.

Repression Under Soviet Rule

The start of the Soviet period was bleak for the Cossacks. Immediately after the defeat of the White Army, the Soviets launched a "de-Cossackization" program. In 1919, tens of thousands of Cossacks were massacred, and the remaining Cossacks were divided among different regions. However, the very next year, the Soviets rallied those Cossacks loyal to the Bolsheviks during the revolution and renamed their brigade the Red Cossacks. The Red Cossacks were used in Eastern Europe both to spread communism and to carry out pogroms against the Jews.

The Soviet government documented the Red Cossacks' triumphs in the media, romanticizing their exploits. Jewish Soviet reporter Isaac Babel traveled with the Red Cossacks during their Polish campaign. He wrote that the Cossacks were "skilled and fearless horsemen astride their thundering mounts. Inexplicable beauty, an awesome force advancing... red flags, a powerful, well-knit body of men, confident commanders, calm and experienced eyes. They eat together, sleep together, a splendid silent companionship... they sing songs that sound like church music in lusty voices, their devotion to horses, beside each man a little heap — saddle, bridle, ornamental saber, greatcoat."

However, the Soviets' love of the Cossacks was short-lived; just after the Polish campaigns of the 1920s, the group was banned from the Red Army. This lasted until the late 1930s, and the outbreak of World War II. The Cossack brigades were again resurrected to fight the Nazis. Seventeen Cossack corps were formed to serve in the Red Army. These units even received their own place in the 1945 Victory Day parade on Red Square. However, the Nazis also formed their own Cossack units, made up of those Cossacks who fled repression by the government of Josef Stalin. For the remainder of the Soviet period, Moscow cracked down on Cossack identity. In 1962, the Cossacks in Novocherkassk attempted an uprising against Moscow that was quickly quashed, leaving 26 dead, mostly Cossacks.

The Cossacks in Post-Soviet Russia

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cossack identity experienced a resurgence, and the group called for a Cossack autonomous republic known as "Wild Field." The independence movement fizzled, however, when the Russian military moved into southern Russia to put down the other separatist and autonomous movements that had erupted. The Cossacks who served in the Soviet military began to join in campaigns in Transdniestria, Georgia and Chechnya in the early 1990s. The Cossacks organized both as paramilitary forces under the Russian army and as vigilante groups.

Cossacks stand near the "Monument To A Mariner and A Soldier" in Sevastopol during the first anniversary celebrations of the Russian annexation of Crimea.

Cossacks stand near the "Monument To A Mariner and A Soldier" in Sevastopol during the first anniversary celebrations of the Russian annexation of Crimea.

(ALEXANDER AKSAKOV/Getty Images)

The Cossacks received a boost from the Kremlin when Vladimir Putin came to power. Putin promoted Cossack bravery, Orthodox faith and loyalty to the Russian state. In the past decade, Cossack dress, music and dance have become popular once again in the Volga region.

The Kremlin is once more embracing the Cossacks as a fighting force. Under Putin, 11 Cossack military elements — ranging in size from a few hundred to 1,000 — were federally registered. From the Volga region to Moscow and St. Petersburg, the Cossacks have organized into units with the stated mission of maintaining public order. Their organizations are seen as highly xenophobic at a time when xenophobia is on the rise across Russia. In 2012, the governor of Krasnodar Krai, Aleksandr Tkachev, said, "What you can't do, the Cossacks can." The Russian state revived the mythology of the Cossacks seen in Russia literature — fierce but honorable warriors. Russian military analyst Mark Galeotti describes modern Cossacks as "a cross between Renaissance festival reenactors and war enthusiasts." At the 2014 Olympics, the Cossack patrols wore traditional outfits and not only bolstered security at the games but also served as a major tourist attraction.

However, as before, there are cases where the Kremlin cannot fully control the Cossacks or their fervor. A mercenary-for-hire group operating in Syria in 2013 had an entire Cossack unit, which the Federal Security Services (FSB) cracked down on. Like the Chechens, Cossacks have been volunteering in eastern Ukraine for the past year to support the pro-Russia separatists. Though the Cossacks originally fought in Ukraine under the Kremlin's aegis, in May the Cossacks and pro-Russia separatists turned on one another after the Cossacks reportedly established control over three Ukrainian towns in Luhansk and proclaimed them Cossack republics. After months of fighting, there are reports that Russian forces and pro-Russia separatists have mostly driven the Cossacks from eastern Ukraine.

Like many of the various ethnic and demographic groups in Russia, the Cossacks will continue to be useful to the Kremlin, until they seek independence from Russian control. 

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