Saturday, December 21, 2019

Ethnic Cossacks and Putin’s ‘Registered’ Cossacks Not the Same Thing, New Study Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, December 19 – Many people believe all Cossacks are like those whom the Putin regime deploys against protesters or in private military companies abroad, but in fact, a new study says, these “registered” Cossacks as they are known and genuine ethnic Cossacks are two very different groups of people.

            The study, carried out in Rostov Oblast by Gleb Golod of MBK news, the 7x7 regional news agency, and historian and Cossack Pavel Gnilorybov, says that Cossacks are extremely diverse and that assuming those who work for the Kremlin define what all the rest are about is a serious mistake (

            “A Cossack by birth and an historian by calling” – trained at Moscow State University – Gnilorybov says Cossacks are distinctive but he does not think they should be called a people. Rather they are “a social-ethnic community.” But at the same time, he insists that there is a big difference between genuine Cossacks with roots and those who register as such with the state.

            He considers that the latter are typically “clowns” because anyone can declare himself a Cossack and get state benefits if he does so. But those people do not become Cossacks by doing so.  What they do manage to do is to give all Cossacks a bad name by their actions, Gnilorybov says.

            In 2012, he says, he participated in a demonstration in support of Pussy Riot, “dressed in a Cossack uniform” in order to show that “there are other Cossacks.” He says he has frequently spoken out in support of the LGBT community as well.  He opposes state registration of nations because an individual should be able to identify in whatever way he or she prefers.

            Gnilorybov also shared a curious story: People in Rostov say that the airport in that oblast was recently named Platov not because of the legendary Cossack ataman from the region but rather because that was Putin’s code name when he worked in the KGB.

            A second Don Cossack, artist and musician Maksim Ilinov, perhaps the most widely known Don Cossack figure in the Russian south, has a different view. He insists that “Cossacks are of course a nationality.” Those who ask about the differences between Cossacks and Russians need to understand that they are like those between a Nogay and an Uzbek.

            Putin says “we are one people,” but if Ukrainians and Belarusians do not feel themselves to be Russian, that must be respected. And the same thing goes for Cossacks.  People have the right to identify themselves as they see fit.  Cossacks include people who are also Russians, Ossetians, and Armenians. 

            “It is long past time to dispel stereotypes about the Cossacks, Ilinov says. Among the worst and most widespread are that “Cossacks are policemen, that they are alcoholics, they are not a people, and they are obscurantists and live in the Middle Ages.” None of these is true, and “one must not think that we are some kind of dark people.”

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