Staunton, August 13 – The recent signing of an agreement between the All Cossack Social Center and the Assembly of the Peoples of the North Caucasus, one that treats the Cossacks as a people with national-territorial aspirations, has sparked discussions about the status of the Cossacks and Moscow’s attitudes toward them.
(On the agreement, see windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2019/08/all-cossack-social-center-and-assembly.html and for additional materials published after that article, see voccentr.info/voc-rabochaya-poezdka-na-severnyj-kavkaz/ voccentr.info/intervyu-opublikovannoe-chastichno/. For background on Cossack aspirations, see this author’s “Cossackia: No Longer an Impossible Dream?” Jamestown Eurasia Daily Monitor, February 21, 2019 at jamestown.org/program/cossackia-no-longer-an-impossible-dream/ and the sources cited therein.)
The Kavkaz-Uzel news agency has now published two surveys of expert opinion about the current state of play concerning the status of the Cossacks as well as why and how Russian officials continue to block their claims to nationhood (kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/338918/ and kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/339056/).
The comments the scholars make are important not only for what they say about the Cossacks but also for the insights they offer about how Russian officials and researchers understand ethnicity and what officials can do to manipulate the situation via the census and other means.
Aleksey Gun of the Moscow Institute of Geography says that in his view, “a people [narod] is something more than an ethnos or nation; it is a certain historical community in which people position themselves in common in relation to worldwide processes. But if one speaks specifically about the Cossacks, I would not use the word ‘people.’”
The issue of whether the Cossacks are an ethnic group is a more serious one, he says; but again, in his view, the Cossacks are not one but rather a sub-ethnos of the Russian nation.” They lack too many of the characteristics he believes are needed for this separate status, and Moscow isn’t ready to recognize them as a separate people.
Sergey Abashin, an anthropologist at the European Institute in St. Petersburg, says that the problem is complicated by the fact that some believe that people are members of a group if they believe themselves to be while others insist that they are only if they share a series of characteristics.
“The desire to be recognized as a people existed among the Cossacks at the beginning of the 20th century, but then the Cossacks lacked the political will to achieve that.” Instead, they remained largely a social stratum. “In Soviet times, they were repressed and included in the Russian people,” he says.
According to Abashin, “from time to time, ideas have appeared that the Cossacks are a people, but there is no mobilization, mass support of Cossacks and political will behind such ideas.” And he notes that the number of people identifying as Cossacks in the census fell fro 140,028 in 2002 to 67,573 in 2010.
That reflects several things, he suggests, including assimilation, the inclusion of the category of “Russian Cossacks,” and the actions of census takers who included them as Russians even if they weren’t, all factors that reflect what the powers that be want and work against other non-Russians as well.
Yevgeny Varshaver, a sociologist at the Russian Academy of Economics and State Service, acknowledges that there is little agreement on who constitutes a people and who does not. Instead, many scholars follow the political decisions of the countries in which they live, including Russia.
Eduard Burda, a historian and the author of The Terek Cossack Uprising of 1918, says many Cossacks continue to identify as a separate people but Moscow doesn’t want that to continue because it fears that if the Cossacks identify as a people, they will ultimately make territorial demands.
The government’s “state registry of Cossacks,” he says, has “only one goal,” to undermine the possibility of such an identity. And it has been “successful,” because officials have listed people on it “from the street who have no relationship at all to the people.” Genuine Cossacks, he says, are thus leaving the registry.
Dmitry Uznarodov, a researcher at the Cossack Laboratory of the Russian Academy of Sciences’ Southern Scientific Center, notes that demands for recognition of the Cossacks as a people come not from those on the register but from “unregistered” Cossacks and the regime won’t recognize them.
Andrey Benkov of the Southern Federal University says “for the majority of Cossacks it is not so important whether they are recognized as a people or not. Real Cossacks calls themselves a people.” But if Moscow “officially” declares they aren’t, Cossacks will be angry, so the center should avoid doing that.
Finally, Yury Anchabadze of the Moscow Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology says that he doesn’t see any danger to the state from recognizing the Cossacks as a people as long as they remain a cultural community and do not make political demands. But he believes that at present such recognition is “impossible.”