Thursday, August 28, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Buddhist Cossacks to Restore Tsarist-Era Unit to Fight in Ukraine

Paul Goble


            Staunton, August 28 – The traditionally Buddhist Kalmyks and ethnic Russians living among them have already sent numerous volunteers to fight for pro-Moscow groups in Ukraine, but now they propose to create an international Dzhungarian Regiment within the National Cossack Guard.


            As Kalmyk political expert Sanal Kuvakov told “Nezavisimaya gazeta’s” Andrey Serenko, the tsarist-era “80th Dzhungarian Kalmyk Regiment is well-known in Kalmyk history. It was one of the most capable military formations in which Kalmyk-Cossacks [ever] served” (


            “In 1920, fighters of the Dzhungarian Regiment under the commander of Colonel Tepkin stopped the First Cavalry Army of Budyonny which was attacking Novorossiisk and thereby gave units of the White Army and refugees to evacuate to Crimea and then to save themselves in emigration,” Kuvakov said.


            As Serenko makes clear, Cossacks both Buddhist and Russian from Kalmykia and both descendants of Cossacks and people who now say they are Cossacks have been fighting for the Russian-orchestrated Donetsk and Luhansk “republics” in Ukraine for some time, and at one level, restoring the Dzhungarian Regiment is simply a logical next step in that process.


            But there are three reasons why this development is more noteworthy than that summary might suggest. First, it highlights something Moscow and especially the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church doesn’t like to talk about: many Cossacks have roots outside of Russian Orthodoxy.


            Buddhists were prominent among them. Not only was there the Buddhist Cossack unit Kuvakov talks about, but the Trans-Baikal Cossacks were predominantly Buddhist at the end of Russian Imperial times. Over the last two decades, their leaders have sought to restore this proud religious tradition.


            Second, by invoking the name Dzhungarian, the Kalmyk Buddhist Cossacks are restoring something with far broader and deeper resonance than many may suspect. Dzhungaria was a region between Russia and China that was famously surveyed by a tsarist colonel who later became the first commander of the White Army in South Russia: Lavr Kornilov.


            Restoring that name suggests that the Buddhist Cossacks of Kalmykia see themselves as part of this broader tradition and thus are prepared to challenge the widely accepted view promoted by the Kremlin that the Cossacks are defenders of Orthodox Russia.  They may be defenders of the empire but not of Orthodoxy.


            And third, the restoration of this Buddhist Cossack unit casts doubt on the assumptions many in the West make about Cossacks as well. They embrace a far more diverse group of people than most who derive their perceptions of that community more from Hollywood than from reality currently think.


            The 13 different Cossack hosts, the various religious and ethnic traditions they represent, and the differences not only between hereditary Cossacks and neo-Cossacks but also between Cossacks who are organizing themselves and Cossacks being organized by the Russian authorities need to be recognized.


            Promoting such a recognition could in fact be the Dzhungarian Regiment’s most important contribution, far greater than anything its members may in fact do in support of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.





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