Monday, January 25, 2016

Like Many Other Peoples of Russia, the Cossacks Have Been ‘Rehabilitated Only on Paper’

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 25 – Ninety-seven years ago today, the Soviet state ordered the extermination of the Cossacks, an action that scholars now refer to as a “genocide or a “stratum-ocide” and that Cossack activists say has left an unhealed wound in their ranks because they “have been rehabilitated only on paper.”

            As many as three million Cossacks, including their wives and children, were killed simply because they were Cossacks, an action that has led many to characterize this early Soviet crime as a genocide ( But because the Cossacks at that time were defined as a social stratum rather than an ethnos, many scholars oppose using that term.

            Instead, they advocate calling the destruction of the Cossacks of Rusisa a “stratocide,” or destruction of a stratum (  But however that may be, the Soviets nearly wiped them out, and post-Soviet Russia has not fully rehabilitated them despite Moscow’s promises in the 1990s.

            The Soviets like many others to this day viewed the Cossacks as one of the chief defenders of the tsarist regime and thus as an enemy that had to be destroyed.  And they focused on only the Cossack community in the Don, Kuban and Terek regions of southern Russia as a major threat to the Bolshevik revolution.

            But both these perceptions were wrong or at least seriously incomplete.  Yes, Cossack units supported the tsarist regime and the anti-Bolshevik White movement; but many ordinary Cossacks were on the side of the revolution and fought in the Red Army.  Nonetheless, the 1919 decree lumped all Cossacks together, although in practice distinctions were sometimes made.

            And yes the so-called Triune Cossack lands of the Don, Kuban and Terek hosts were the most numerous and historically resonant of Cossack units, but there were ten other Cossack hosts spread out across the country, some of whom were completely different and even practiced Buddhism or Islam. Again, Moscow did not make distinctions.

            Later during World War II, Stalin drew on Cossack military traditions and permitted some Cossack symbols to reemerge, but throughout the Soviet period, the Cossacks remained under suspicion of being fundamentally on the side of the exploiters and on the side of extreme Russian nationalists.

            When Soviet power collapsed, two things happened. On the one hand, many Cossacks rushed to restore their identities, and others, the so-called “new Cossacks,” often people with no genuine Cossack roots, came to join or compete with them because of the sense that the Cossacks were the bearers of Russian identity and would help Russia recover (

            And on the other, the Russian government formally rehabilitated the Cossacks and promised to restore their rights. But as Cossack leaders today say, those promises have remained on paper, especially those regarding the restoration of Cossack lands (

                Under Putin, the Cossacks have been given some official support – as of today, for example, all Russian courts in Moscow are to be guarded by Cossack units – but this support has come at a steep price for the Cossacks. Only those Cossack organizers that the state agrees to register have any rights or even access to the authorities; the remainder are excluded from that.

                Indeed, in the bitter words of one ataman quoted by “Nezavisimaya gazeta” today, the Cossacks of Russia today are only allowed to act like a “folkloric” group, amusing others but having no real standing.  That has alienated many of them, putting them again at odds with a state that now pretends to speak in their name.

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