Staunton, May 9 – In the 1990s, many clever Russians observed that democratization [demokratizatiya] is to democracy [demokratiya] what a water pipe [kanal] is to sewage lines [kanalizatsiya], things ostensibly and superficially similar but in fact radically different in their content and meaning.
Now, Dmitry Temerev, a Don Cossack, has employed the same analogy to distinguish between Putin’s thugs who claimed to be “Cossacks” and real Cossacks. “The Cossacks are a people who live on the historical territories and after three waves of genocide have been made into a national minority” (facebook.com/avraham.shmulevich/posts/10215865902781409).
The people who joined the state-organized thugs who attacked the demonstrators on Saturday and whom Putin and his followers insist on calling “Cossacks” are nothing more than the dregs of society who have gone to stores, purchased Cossack regalia and imagined that by putting on such clothes and using whips they become Cossacks.
“Between these two categories of citizens of the Russian Federation, there is no connection,” Temerev says. And Putinist propaganda about the Cossacks is simply false: the Cossacks did not always and everywhere serve the Russian state; instead, they fought for independence and many fled the country in the face of Soviet genocide.
After the Russian state conquered the Cossacks of the Don in 1708, Russian forces killed approximately half of all the Don Cossacks and exiled others, hardly an indication that the Cossacks were loyalists. A century later they were forcibly enrolled as a social stratum in the tsarist system. They remained so for 82 years, “not the most significant period” of their history.
Following the Bolshevik revolution, the Cossacks sought to recreate their own state, cooperated in part with the White forces, and were the victims of the first Soviet-era genocide when Lenin decreed that they were to be destroyed. The second wave of such destruction occurred “under the cover of collectivization,” Temerev continues.
Not surprisingly, some Cossacks fought for the Germans during World War II, while others fought in the ranks of the Red Army. But by the end of that conflict, they had been reduced to a shadow of their former selves, continued to be discriminated against, and looked forward to a day when they could recover.
Unfortunately, even as the genuine Cossacks sought to recover their national patrimony, others in society began to identify as Cossacks even though they shared none of the past. That includes the pseudo-Cossacks Putin has used against the demonstrators. As real Cossacks know, there was never such an organization as the Moscow Cossacks before 1991.
The modern history of Russian Cossackry is even more ramified than Temerev outlines. Historian Nikolay Syromyatnikov reports that the 1897 all-Russian census counted approximately three million Cossacks who were organized into 11 Cossack hosts. They formed 2.3 percent of the empire’s population (russian7.ru/post/kazachi-voyska-kotorye-bolshe-vsego-p/).
By the time of the revolution, their numbers had grown to an estimated four to six million organized not in 11 but 13 hosts from European Russia to the Pacific. During the Civil War, some tried to restore a Cossack state; others fought for the Whites; and still others fought for the Reds despite the latter’s suspiciousness and then outright antagonism.
The Bolsheviks ordered that not only Cossacks who served in the White Armies were to be executed when captured but that all of their family members, including women and children, were to be killed as well and that all of their property was to be confiscated and distributed to the Russian peasantry.
More than half of the Don and Urals Cossack hosts were destroyed; other hosts saw their populations decline by 20 percent or more. At the end of the Civil War, an estimated 300,000 Cossacks emigrated; and by the end of the 1920s, some 200,000 more of them had left the Soviet Union.
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