Staunton, April 5 – Sergey Sipulin, a 42-year-old lawyer, has succeeded in having a court in Krasnodar overturn a decision by registration officials against his being allowed to change his official registration from being a Russian to being a Cossack, “a case for emulation,” Cossack leaders say.
According to the Russian Constitution, a citizen has an absolute right to declare any nationality or none at all in official documents – there no longer is a nationality line in passports -- but unfortunately, reflecting Kremlin policy, many officials in registration offices refuse to allow people to make a free choice. And few who are rejected turn to the courts.
Sipulin is an exception. He tells Yevgeny Rozhansky of Krasnodar’s VKPress news portal, that there should not be any problem. But there often is. Citizens have the right to make such changes on the basis of their own declarations, and officials are required to register them (vkpress.ru/projects/kazachiy-blog/natsionalnost-kazak-sud-priznal-pravo-na-samoopredlenie/?id=129709).
The state registry office rejected his application because, it said, “the nationality ‘Cossack’ has not been confirmed by anything.” And so he turned to the courts, believing that under the Constitution as confirmed in rules governing the last census in 2010, his rights were being violated.
The court ruled in his favor and has directed the registry to change Sipulin’s nationality to Cossack. He said that having that nationality listed in his documents was important so as not to “lose his Cossack identity.”
What is “curious,” VKPress’s Rozhansky says, is that Cossacks don’t have to provide any documentation to make this claim. The situation is different with regard to Russian Germans or Jews because having those nationalities gives the bearers the right to emigrate more easily than would otherwise be the case.
Sipulin has no plans to move. His family has deep roots in the Don Cossack host, including not only his ancestors but his wife as well. And he is a devout follower of the Russian Orthodox Church. He has three children but wants more, declaring that in a normal Cossack family, there are typically “no fewer than ten.”
The newly recognized Cossack is currently wrapping up his legal practice and plans to resettle in rural areas where he says he and his family will be peasants like Cossacks in the past and “not farmers,” interested only in profit. Senior Cossack leaders support him in this just as they have his court case and say others should emulate what he has done.
If they do, this could matter profoundly to Moscow. In the relatively freer 2002 Russian census, 140,000 people declared their nationality to be Cossack. In 2010, when Putin was beginning to push Russian identity, only 67,000 did, a trend that allowed the Kremlin to boost the number of ethnic Russians.
Given that there are an estimated three million people in the Russian Federation who identify as Cossacks, a shift by a significant portion of them in the direction of Cossack identity would cut into the Russian number and create other problems for Moscow, including the likelihood that Cossack communities would demand restoration of their rights and territories.
As a result, this decision of a Krasnodar court could mark a watershed for Cossacks and for Russians – as well as becoming a model for others, including Circassians, who want to declare identities they value but that Moscow officials do not want them to have lest it challenge existing arrangements in the country.