Sunday, June 9, 2019

Cossacks Must Revive Their National Language as They Seek Autonomy or Independence, Dzikhovsky Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 6 – Russian officials and most Russian scholars have long insisted that the Cossacks are not a nation but a sub-group of the Russian ethnos, a position they have been able to maintain because of the diversity of Cossack hosts culturally and because almost all Cossacks as a result of military service and Soviet policies use Russian as their language.

            But an increasing number of Cossack activists insist that the Cossacks are a nation with the same rights as any other and that their national language, while suppressed at present, is Cossack, a tongue with deep roots in Turkic languages and one that  they are confident can be revived in a post-imperial setting just as regional languages have come back in Europe.

            Aleksandr Dzhikovsky is among them. The leader of the All-Cossack Social Center points out that “the ancient Cossack language was preserved in the Don as late as the beginning of the 20th century,” largely among women who remained at home even as Cossack men who served in the Russian army gave it up for Russian (

            That language, as readers of Leo Tolstoy’s Cossacks should remember, he continues, was so different from Russian lexically and grammatically that one young Cossack was proud of the fact that he could communicate easily with those who speak Crimean Tatar.  A dictionary of Cossack compiled in 2003 confirms this.

            Its 18,000 words are mostly not from Russian but from Karachayevo-Balkar, Karaim, Kumyk, Karakalpak, Bashkirt, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Turkmen and Turkish, Dzhikhovsky continues. And the grammar of that language is the grammar of the Codex Cumanicus, which is to be found in a library in Venice  (

            Reviving this language is not only possible but necessary, he argues, in order to strengthen the Cossack nation and help it take its place among the other nations of the world.  It won’t be easy or quick and it will require state support, but it is an entirely doable process over a generation or so.

            Dzhikovsky argues that in this regard, the Cossacks fit into the paradigm suggested by Siberian regionalist Yaroslav Zolotaryev who has argued that after Russia ceases to be an empire, either because it disintegrates or becomes a genuine federation, people will speak “regional languages plus English” (

            As Zolotaryev puts it to Dzhikovsky’s clear agreement, this does not represent any denial of “the great Russian culture.” Just as he does not deny “the great Roman” one. After all, while a student, “we read Cicero and Vergil, but to be sure, already not so much in the original.”  Cossacks will adopt the same approach to Russian, the Cossack activist says.

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