Staunton, May 7 – All too many Russian and foreign media outlets are describing the people who attacked demonstrators in Russian cities this weekend as Cossacks because that is how those dressed as Cossacks want to be described and how the Kremlin finds it useful to distance itself from those doing its dirty work.
But Vladimir Melikhov, a prominent Russian historian of the Cossacks, points out that these have nothing to do with Cossacks and that what has occurred is “a primitive provocation which shames the Cossacks” even as it helps the Kremlin to repress any criticism of the regime (afterempire.info/2018/05/07/kazaki5may/).
This use of pseudo-Cossacks by the Russian powers that be, however, has even larger implications than that. As Russian commentator Igor Yakovenko argues, the use of such people is part of an effort by the Kremlin to restore an officially stratified society and thus accelerates the collapse of the state and the country (afterempire.info/2018/05/07/kazaki-razval/).
What happened on Saturday was an attack by “armed bandits” whose actions were backed by the state on “peaceful citizens,” a move the regime made to defend itself but that in fact will undermine its authority and even power still further, Yakovenko says.
“The bandits” involved in this case styled themselves as the Central Cossack Host, a “laughable” NGO supported by the Moscow government to combat demonstrations. Before 1917, there was no Central Cossack Host, he notes, and its nominal “ataman,” retired FSB lieutenant general Ivan Kuzmich, shows what this detachment really is about.
It is an indication, Yakovenko says, “about the seriousness of plans of the leadership of Moscow and Russia regarding the bandits dressed in Cossack uniforms.” The Cossacks are first and foremost a social stratum, although many real Cossacks describe themselves as a separate ethno-social group ore even nation. But for the Russian government, they are a stratum.
Such social arrangements are “a sign of a medieval society,” Yakovenko says; and that is why in one of its first actions, the Soviet government in November 1917 abolished such “strata.” As a result of that decree and the murderous de-Cossackization effort of the communists, Cossackry was reduced “for almost eight decades” to a matter of history and folklore.
But in the 1990s, Boris Yeltsin began the process of restoring the Cossacks to “quasi-stratum status” by registering almost anyone as a Cossack who made such a claim and using them as adjuncts to the police. Many signed up; few in fact had any knowledge of or background as Cossacks.
Giving these “Cossacks” a quasi-stratum status, however, had far-reaching consequences because it opened the door to creating a society in which everyone would have to be a member of a social stratum with distinct laws and social and political opportunities, Yakovenko says. And it led some to talk about the FSB officers as “’a new nobility’” for the Putin system.
What happened on Saturday thus should be viewed as a crossing of the Rubicon “in relations between the powers and part of society,” the Russian commentator continues, for that reason and because “the police having handed over to bandits the right to use force have reduced themselves to the status of bandits not only morally but formally legally as well.”
By including the bandits in the process of dispersing protesters as it has, the Putin regime has thus “launched the breakup of the Russian Federation,” Yakovenko says, because “when a state gives bandits the right to force, it disappears. Not immediately and most likely via blood but inevitably.”