Saturday, June 25, 2016

Moscow’s Use of Cossacks Leading North Caucasians to Think about Forming ‘Savage Divisions,’ Rights Activist Warns

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 25 – Valery Khatazhukov, the head of the Kabardino-Balkaria regional human rights defense center, says that Moscow’s support for Cossack units is prompting some in the North Caucasus to think about forming their own ethnically or religiously based police or military units.

            “We consider,” he declared earlier this month in Pyatigorsk “that in Russia there must not be any armed formations and police forces formed on a national or ethnic principle” because “this contradicts the Russian Constitution and really can threaten its territorial integrity” (

            Khatazhukov said that he and his human rights colleagues “consider the Cossacks a historically evolved community with its own original subculture, traditions, and customs. And they have the right to count on state support on issues like the preservation of culture and traditions just as does any people of the North Caucasus.”

            “But we categorically do not agree with the rebirth of the Cossacks as a military stratum and the giving to it of police functions,” the activist says, adding that on this he is certain that he is reflecting not only his own view but that “of many residents of Kabardino-Balkaria and indeed the entire North Caucasus.”

            Prior to 1917, he pointed out, “the Cossacks were a privileged military stratum which had special rights and authority in carrying out the colonial policy of tsarist Russia” and in this regard served as a unique “set of bosses over the mountaineers” of the North Caucasus.

            The revival of the Cossacks in the way that it is taking pace, Khatakhurov said, is prompting many in the North Caucasus to ask a dangerous question: “is the leadership of present-day Russia planning to reject traditional methods of resolving problems in the Caucasus in favor of using the military and punitive methods of tsarist generals?”

            And the raising of that question has prompted others, he continued.  “Recently, among those speaking out against arming the Cossacks one can hear ever more often calls like ‘and why shouldn’t we too restore ‘the savage division’ in which practically all of the peoples of the North Caucasus has their own armed formations?”

            The term ‘savage divisions’ refers to the Caucasian Native Cavalry Division which the Russian Imperial Army created in 1914 to support St. Petersburg’s war effort. Ninety percent of the soldiers were Muslims from various ethnic groups in the North Caucasus, although the officers were in almost all cases ethnic Russians or highly Russified North Caucasians.

            The division’s units were famed for their military prowess and for the fact that unlike many units in the Russian Army, the Savage Division as it was known informally remained loyal to the Provisional Government.  Later some of its component units backed the anti-Bolshevik cause.  For those reasons, the Bolsheviks disbanded it in 1918.

            Discussions about the Savage Division have been appearing in the North Caucasus in recent years, particularly in 2014 when the centenary of that military formation was marked in various cities in that region. (On these discussions and those celebrations, see

            For background see the colorful memoirs of Sergey Kournakoff (Savage Squadrons (Boston, 1935) and the even more colorful novel of Yekaterina Breshko-Breshkovskaya (Dikaya diviziya (Riga, n.d. (1920s)). A complete text of the latter is available online at

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