Friday, August 24, 2018

Muslim Cossacks Making a Comeback in Middle Volga and North Caucasus

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 24 – Most Russians including the current Russian government and Russian Orthodox Church think that Cossacks are invariably Orthodox Christians. But that is not true: in the past, there have been Muslims, Jews, Lutherans and followers of other faiths Today, in the Middle Volga and North Caucasus, Muslim Cossacks are rapidly increasing in number.

            That should not surprise anyone familiar with the long and extremely complex history of the Cossack people. It will only seem odd to those who accept Hollywood’s version of the Cossacks as true and Putin’s “pseudo-Cossacks” as the real thing, all of whom at least for public consumption are Russian Orthodox. 

            Not surprisingly, given official views and prejudices, the Muslim dimension of the Cossacks is currently given relatively little attention in the media, but there are exceptions. And this week, historian Taras Repin provides a remarkable if brief description of Cossack-Muslims, their past, present and future (

            The relationship of the Cossacks and Islam was so close in the 15th century that some historians believe that Muslims formed the first Cossacks. They certainly were dominant in many of the hosts of that time, Repin says.  Onomastic data show that many Cossack names and terms in the Cossack language are of Turkic origin.

            At the same time, there is some evidence that many Turks after joining Cossack groups converted to Orthodoxy so one should not overestimate the number of Muslims in Cossack hosts more recently.  At the same time, however, censuses conducted in the 19th century show that a significant number of those who identified as Cossacks also practiced Islam.

            According to a study conducted in 1862, approximately 12.8 percent of the Cossacks in the Urals Host were Muslims; and according to other research, Repin continues, “voluntary shifts of Muslims of the North Caucasus, Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan into Cossackry were not a rare phenomenon.”

            North Caucasians were permitted to enroll in Cossack units as of 1733. And they mostly remained Muslim, in some cases dominating Terek units right up to the end of tsarist times. Under Nicholas I, Muslims from the Caucasus and Crimea formed the Caucasus-Mountaineer and Crimean Tatar squadrons on the model of the life guard Cossack units.

            One of the most remarkable units was the Persian Cossack Force. It numbered more than 8,000 personnel in 1920, was officered by Ossetians (among whom were both Muslims and Orthodox Christians). Among the Muslims in this force was the future shah of Iran, Repin continues.

            During the 19th century, the tsarist authorities often took measures to support the needs of Muslim Cossacks. For example, they built mosques. According to data for 1853, there were 114 mosques and 169 imams and mullahs for the religious needs of Muslim Cossacks.  And one partial survey of the Cossack hosts in 1855 identified 18,599 Muslims among them.

            Muslim Cossacks were patriotic, but they found themselves conflicted when the Russian Empire fought a Muslim state as happened during the Crimean War. Some were allowed to emigrate, but most continued to loyally serve the government. That did not help the Muslim Cossacks escape the Soviet de-Cossackization campaigns.

            Since the fall of Soviet power, Repin says, Muslim Cossacks have been growing in number in both the North Caucasus and the Middle Volga. In 2005, for example, a Muslim Cossack company was formed in Perm Oblast (now kray). These Cossacks follow Islamic dietary and other laws, and other Cossacks respect that.

            Without providing any additional details, Repin says that “moves toward the revival of Muslim Cossackry are observed also in the North Caucasus.”

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