Saturday, November 10, 2012

Window on Eurasia: ‘From the First,’ Russian Security Agencies Have Controlled Neo-Cossack Movement, Analyst Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 10 – Since its emergence at the end of perestroika, the neo-Cossack movement in Russia appears to have “been under the direct control” first of the KGB and then the FSB, a pattern that gives special meaning to Vladimir Putin’s promulgation of a state policy for the development of the Cossacks over the next decade, according to a Russian analyst.

            In an article for the news agency, Dmitry Kovalyev says that Putin’s action has its roots in the developments of the years 1989-1990. “Apparently, from the very first years, the Cossack movement was under the direct control of the KGB-FSB” and for the most intriguing of reasons (

            According to Kovalyev, the reason Soviet and then Russian security agencies did so was because “up to now ‘Cossackiya,’ an old dream of emgre nationalists, figures in the American law about captive nations, Public Law 86-90, Captive Nations Week Resolution,” and therefore the Cossack activists deserved close watching lest they mount another secessionist challenge.

            This outcome reflects the complicated history of the Cossacks as a people or social stratum and the emergence of “two Cossackries” in post-Soviet Russia, the one rooted in the history of the 11 Cossack voiskas of Imperial Russia and the other – often called “masked” –which has arisen in Russian cities since 1989.

            During the Russian Civil War, Kovalyev observes, Cossack leaders inevitably clashed with the Soviet system, but even then, this clash took two forms. On the one hand, most Cossack leaders backed the White Russian movement, but on the other, a certain number of Cossacks wanted to create what they called “a Finland in the Don.”

            Both projects failed, but they represented a sufficient challenge to the new Soviet government, that Moscow conducted some of its more intense repressions against the Cossack, repressions that the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn described as “one of the firt genocides on the Earth.”

            Some Cossack leaders went into emigration where they were viewed with deep suspicion not only because of their own uncritical support of the tsarist order before 1917 but also because a few of them coopered with the Germans against the Soviets during World War II. At the end of the war, they were seized by the Soviet army and then executed.

            Descendents of the traditional Cossack communities continue to exist in Russia, Kovalyev notes, but most of them are deeply conservative and show more interest in maintaining their communal traditions rather than in pursuing a political agenda or cooperating with the new Russian government as their forefathers had done with the tsars.

            There are even a few of them in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities, Kovalyev continues, but there is a second group of Cossacks, which emerged as a result of “the unbelieavable perturbations” of the early 1990s and which gave birth to “the pseudo-patriotic and pseudo-Cossack movements” which have attracted occasional media attention.

            “No small role in their appearance,” Kovalyev says, “was played by the mass of those leaving military service as a result of the downsizing of the army.  Accustomed to uniforms, obedience, and wearing shoulderboards, [many of] these people quickly shifted over into the Cossacks.” They are now grouped under “the so-called Central Cossack Voiska.”

            At least some of these neo-Cossacks, the journalist continues, seek to “work with state structures [like the Presidential Council for the Affairs of the Cossacks, now headed by Aleksandr Beglov] and the Russian Orthodox Church which has created a Synod Committee for Cooperation with the Cossacks.”   

             Under Russian law, Cossacks have the same rights to join state institutions as other Russians, but now Vladimir Putin has indicated that he is open to a more corporate status for the Cossacks, one that might allow them, under the control of the intelligence services, to play a bigger role.

            As Kovalyev observes, Putin “who has called the Cossacks ‘a special caste’ and ‘a special subculture in the good sense of this word,’ declared during the last electoral campaign that ‘the state has supported and undoubtedly will support the Cossacks,’” a promise he now appears to be making good on.

            On October 15, Putin signed a Strategy for the Development of the Russian Cossacks Up to 2020, a document which treats the Cossacks as a social collective and seeks to use them to promote economic development as well as law and order in the areas where the Cossacks now operate (

            Just what that may mean in fact is far from clear, Kovalyev says, but he points to two straws in the wind that may presage greater activism especially among the neo-Cossacks in the coming years.  In Krasnodar, Cossack druzhinniki have been successfully supporting the police for the last few months, identifying more than 1300 administrative violations and one crime.

            And in St. Petersburg, the leader of the neo-Cossack Community there, Dmitry Karpushin, has attracted attention for his opposition to the showing of “Lolita” in the northern capital and his widely reported statement that “Russians are speaking out against the United States of America.”  

            If participation in law enforcement, admittedly defined according to their own lights, is a longstanding Cossack tradition, this new role of the Cossacks suggests, given Kovalyev’s references to the security agencies, that Putin and those around him may want to use the neo-Cossacks to advance positions in a way that allows the Kremlin to disown them if need be.

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