Thursday, July 4, 2019

Putin’s Approach to Cossacks Apes Stalin’s – Attack Real Ones and Create Substitutes

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 2 – Over the last several years, Vladimir Putin has combined attacks on Cossacks as a distinctive national community with support for others, often with no links too that nation, who identify with and support his regime and are prepared to do its bidding (

            That policy like so many other Putin “innovations” has its roots in Stalin’s time when the Soviet dictator after pursuing the extermination of the Cossacks as a social stratum and ethnic community promoted the rise of “Soviet Cossacks,” a deracinated and largely folkloric group which in exchange for even this minimum recognition was ready to support the Soviet system.

            Stalin’s effort like Putin’s combined attacks on the history and traditions of the Cossacks with support for those who dressed up as Cossacks and were prepared to fight for the system. As such it was a clever policy that sowed confusion in the minds of many Cossacks and others about what was going on.

            But both that effort and Putin’s have had the unintended effect of causing those who descend from real Cossacks to seek to recover their past, and it is no surprise that even Stalin’s “Soviet Cossacks” contained within their ranks some who picked up on traditional Cossack interest in autonomy or even independence.

            These parallels are suggested by Aleksandr Dzikovitsky of the All-Cossack Social Center in an article devoted too the appearance of “Soviet Cossacks” in the late 1930s after almost all Cossacks had been killed or deported and Cossack institutions neutered or destroyed (

            During the second half of the 1930s, Dzikovitsky points out, “the Soviet powers sensing the political situation promoted the establishment of a new identity, ‘the Soviet Cossacks,’” after they had succeeded in wiping out almost all real Cossacks. This was not an act of justice but rather a pragmatic move to enlist Cossack symbols to support Stalin.

            “The formation of the new attitude toward the Cossacks was directed at strengthening the social base of the powers that be under conditions of growing tensions internationally and the need to ensure social stability in the North Caucasus region,” he writes.  That included allowing Cossacks to serve in the military again, something they had been denied since the revolution.

            The Soviet Cossacks who did so were even allowed to form their own units, but they were permitted to wear Cossack dress only on parade. While in active service, they were compelled to dress like all other Soviet soldiers. 

            Dzikovitsky makes clear that “the campaign ‘for a Soviet Cossackry’ did not mean the rebirth of the Cossacks as a special social group within Soviet society. Soviet power did not want and could not re-establish the Cossacks as a social stratum for this would contradict its own policy” or give the Cossacks any autonomy.

            In the course of this campaign, the Soviet authorities were highly selective in choosing which Cossacks from the past to celebrate. Those who fought for the regime were praised; those who sought autonomy or even independence like Kondraty Bulavin were either ignored or attacked. Nonetheless, some of the new Cossacks did pick up on such ideas.

            Cossacks in emigration were very clear at the time that what Stalin was doing was not restoring the Cossacks but rather creating something new that only took Cossack decorations but not the Cossack essence and urged those Cossacks still alive in the USSR to have nothing to do with “the Soviet Cossacks.”

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