Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Putin Already Deploying His ‘Cossacks’ in Non-Russian Republics

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 23 – Before the 1917 revolution, Nicholas II used Cossack units to attack political opponents and ethnic and religious minorities, driving the two together and making his overthrow all the more likely. Now, Vladimir Putin appears set to repeat the tsar’s mistake, moving from attacking protesters with his “Cossacks” to undermining non-Russian nations.

            Putin’s move in fact may be even more dangerous to his position that Nicholas II’s was to his because unlike the Cossacks of later imperial times who were under effective military control, the neo-Cossack bandits Putin is using are ideologically hostile to dissent and minorities as such. (See

            Putin’s use of such groups against protesters on May 5 in Moscow has been well-documented (, but developments that will allow him to use these groups elsewhere have not (cf.

            Now, however, thanks to a report by Ilnar Garifullin of Radio Liberty’s Tatar-Bashkir Service, there is more evidence available on “’Cossackization’” in the non-Russian republics of the Middle Volga, a development that could set the stage for more Kremlin-sponsored but uncontrolled violence there (

            He points out that there is a Kazan link even to the Moscow events because a company there gave 1.7 million rubles (30,000 US dollars) to the shadowy Central Cossack Host that took part in the March 5 mayhem.  But he provides disturbing information about the appearance and growth of “Cossack” villages and units in the Middle Volga.

            The Cossack rebirth at the end of the 1980s involved both real Cossacks and those who wanted to participate in a militarized movement.  The former would like to see their regions returned to them or even to gain independence, things Moscow opposes; but the latter have proved to be extremely useful to the powers that be.

            Many of them have been profoundly affected by the propaganda of Orthodox autocracy and conservative values and are thus quite prepared to be foot soldiers in the campaign against modernity, urban values and non-Orthodox peoples and nations, Garifullin continues.  The regime uses them to suggest that “’Orthodox society’” is behind its repressive policies.

            “It is well known that among the Cossacks in tsarist times there were many Tatar Muslims (the Orenburg Cossacks) and also Buddhists (the Kalmyks).” That is a part of the history of the Cossacks Putin’s “Cossacks” don’t talk about because it is inconsistent with their “Black Hundreds” views.

            Neo-Cossack communities, supported by grants from the Russian Presidential Administration, have appeared in various parts of the Middle Volga, Garifullin says. Often they are used as supplements to the police; but they are also being used to try to halt the de-Russification of the area as ethnic Russians move out.

            The support of the neo-Cossacks for Orthodoxy and imperial traditions is, the analyst says, “an element of cultural policy, a unique ‘soft force’ in this case, judging from everything which serves as an attempt to maintain the status quo” of Russian dominance even as ethnic Russians lose their share of the population.

            The introduction of these “Cossacks” in places where Cossacks never existed before thus represents int eh first instance “an ethno-cultural factor” designed to undermine and threaten the non-Russians even as it encourages the ethnic Russians to remain where they are. But such efforts carry with them real risks, Garifullin says, including violent clashes with the non-Russian nations.

            On the one hand, many in the region are asking if “the Cossacks” are allowed to arm themselves and push their religion and nation, “why shouldn’t representatives of other confessions not be allowed to do the same?” Why shouldn’t the Tatars and Bashkirs be allowed to restore the regiments they made famous a century ago?

            And on the other, he concludes, “the intensification of propaganda of one religious may promote radicalization” not only among members of that religion but in response among those who are of a different faith. Thus, “’Cossackization’” Putin-style could end by triggering an outburst of Islamist radicalism in the Middle Volga.

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