Saturday, October 27, 2018

When Cossackia Existed -- in Northern Italy

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 27 – There are few subjects that generate such instantaneous mirth among Russian propagandists and many Western students of Russia and the former Soviet space that the reference in the 1959 Congressional resolution establishing the Captive Nations Week in the United States, a resolution that lists Cossackia as a country under Soviet occupation.

            Russian and Western commentators routinely insist that there was no such place, that the Cossacks are two divided among various hosts in widely dispersed regions, and that in any case, they are a stratum among the ethnic Russian nation rather than a national community in their own right.

            But the Cossacks themselves increasingly insist that they are a separate nation and should have their own nation state, although just what its borders might look like is a subject of intense discussion (cf. And they look back to a time when Cossackia existed on the map, albeit not in Russia but in Italy.

            The history of that Cossackia is not well known either in Russia or in the West, but it deserves to be if for now other reasons that it shows that what the US Congress committed Washington to 60 years ago is not some invention but a very real thing that is likely to become more important as Cossack identity strengthens in response to Russian pressure against it.

            Fortuitously, Aleksandr Brazhnik of the Russian 7 portal has now told the story of how a Cossackia was created in Italy and how its denizens came to an inglorious end as a result of Britain’s forced repatriation of the Cossacks to the Soviet Union under the terms of the Yalta agreement (

            When the Germans invaded their former ally the Soviet Union in 1941, they mistreated most of the population there so badly that Hitler’s defeat was almost pre-ordained. But there were exceptions. Among the most prominent was the positive attitude the German army showed to the Cossacks whom the Nazis believed were not Slavs but rather descendants of the Goths.

            The German high command promised to form an independent republic of Cossackia, which was to include the territory of the Don, Kuban, Terek, Astrakhan, Orenburg, Kalmyk, and southern Ural hosts of the Cossacks. As Brazhnik puts it, “the plans of the Nazis were not fated to be achieved, but the Cossacks did establish Cossackia, not in Russia but in the north of Italy.”

            Some Cossack units who had collaborated with the German invaders were sent there in July 1944 to suppress Italian partisans.  They were joined by the Turkic Division commanded by Prince Klych Sultan-Girey which included Circassians, Ossetians and Karachays; and all of these groups were accompanied by family members.

            The Cossacks very much liked the region around Tolmezzo and began to call it Cossackia, the Russian historian says.  They issued their own newspaper Kazachya zemlya, renamed streets and towns according to Cossack traditions, and reportedly lived relatively peacefully with most of the surrounding population.

            In the first months of 1945, the Cossack units were shifted from the German military to the command of the Vlasov forces, the anti-Soviet Russian forces and people whom many of the Cossacks despised.  Following V-E day, 35,000 Cossacks, their wives and children were transferred from Italy to the Austrian city of Lienz.

            On May 11, British forces disarmed the Cossacks and prepared to repatriate up to 60,000 Cossacks and their families to the Soviet Union as the Yalta Conference required. The Cossacks were horrified and tried to resist. A thousand were shot by their captors, 3,000 fled in to the mountains and many others committed suicide rather than go back to the USSR.

            Those that were handed over alive suffered a horrific fate. The NKVD shot some but dispatched thousands more into the GULAG. To this day, the Cossacks remember the Lienz tragedy – they have even erected a monument there – and they remember Cossackia even if it wasn’t in Russia but in Italy and even if it only existed informally and for a few months.

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