Thursday, May 31, 2018

Genuine Cossacks Welcome Muslims and Buddhists to Their Ranks; Putin’s Neo-Cossacks Don’t

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 31 – Ever since Putin’s thugs, calling themselves Cossacks, beat up and whipped anti-Kremlin demonstrators on May 5, the Russian media has been filled with stories about who and what the Cossacks are, how diverse that human group is, and whether its various parts should be encouraged or suppressed.

            Today, for example, the Moscow mayor’s office announced that it wouldn’t use “Cossacks” to control crowds at the World Cup, something that will go a long way to reassuring people that they won’t be subject to the whipping that Navalny protesters were (

            A second major article on the Takiye dela portal discussed the controversies about whether the Cossacks are a social stratum, state servants or an independent ethnic group or even a nation deserving of autonomy or independence ( But a third, on Radio Svoboda’s IdelReal portal, may be the most important.

            Consisting of an interview with a Cossack leader in Tatarstan, it provides perhaps the best test that can be applied to determine whether a particular group consists of genuine Cossacks who are seeking to revive the traditions of their people or it is merely a state-supported bandits who dress up in Cossack regalia and present themselves as something they’re not.

            Sergey Firsov, a Cossack leader of a community near Naberezhnye Chelny, says that his group welcomes Muslims and Buddhists because both groups have played fundamental roles in Cossack life in the past and no one religion has the right to claim that it has a monopoly on truth (

            Firsov is absolutely correct: Many Cossacks before 1917 were Muslims (in the North Caucasus and Middle Vogla) or Buddhists (in Kalmykia or the Transbaikal), and those who seek to revive Cossack traditions are aware of this and promote it. The author of these lines owns a pamphlet from the 1990s entitled How to Raise Your Transbaikal Cossack as a Buddhist.

            The pro-Putin neo-Cossacks, on the other hand, view themselves as foot soldiers in a battle to promote Russian Orthodox fundamentalism and a narrowly defined Russian nationalism – on this phenomenon, see

            Indeed, while allowing for some exceptions on both sides of this line, the attitudes of Cossacks toward other religions may be the best test available as to whether those calling themselves Cossacks are the real thing or only people dressed up at Russian state expense to beat the Kremlin’s enemies.

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