Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Cossacks Look Back to 1932 Émigré Constitutional Project for Free Cossackia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 31 – The late Russian émigré writer Roman Gul entitled his study of Russian culture, Odvukon, a Cossack term for someone who rides two horses at the same time, to call attention to the ways in which the Russian emigration and Russian culture at home interacted to the extent possible.

            Now, this Cossack term is being recovered by Cossacks in the Russian Federation who, given the new possibilities for studying the émigré past, are focusing on the ways in which the Cossack emigration advanced ideas about Cossack autonomy, federalism, democracy, and even independence.

And just as many in the last decades of the Soviet Union relied on what was called the exposure of “bourgeois falsifications” to learn about things the CPSU did not want them to know, so too now groups the Putin regime is seeking to marginalize are turning to articles critical of their émigré counterparts in the past to get ideas from the past for the future.

            A recent paper by a student at the Moscow State Law University that criticizes Cossack émigré thinking in the 1920s and later about the possibility of creating an independent Cossack state is now being read by Cossacks inside the current borders of the Russian Federation almost as a guidebook on how to pursue such a project.

            The idea that the Cossacks could have a country of their own has long been dismissed in Russia and the West as impossible. Indeed, the reference to Cossackia in the 1959 US Congress Captive Nation Week resolution is one of the bases many have employed to dismiss that entire document. (For background on this, see jamestown.org/program/cossackia-no-longer-an-impossible-dream/.)

            But the way in which Cossack emigres wrestled with this question almost a century ago suggests how those pursuing such a dream now might go forward as their predecessors dealt with such questions as the diversity of the Cossack hosts, their geographic dispersion, and the lack of Cossack homogeneity even in areas they define as their own.

            In an essay entitled “The Union Constitution of Cossackia in the Plans of the Cossack Emigration, Fyodor Popov describes the thinking of Cossacks in the West about a future state and the various sources from which their ideas came.  Cossacks in Russia are now discussing his report (facebook.com/groups/471477107025889/permalink/679611242879140/).

            Those who fled Soviet Russia and formed the Cossack diaspora were divided between those who favored independence, those who favored a single autonomy, and those who favored separate and multiple autonomies. (“Cossackia or Separate Cossack States?” (in Russian), Volnoye Kazachestvo, 83 (June 25, 1931): 4-9.).

            In 1927, Popov writes, members of the Cossack intelligentsia in Prague formed the Union of the Free Cossacks. It was dominated by Don Cossacks but included representatives of other hosts as well and was strongly influenced by Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Siberian emigrations there as well as by historian and legal theorist Sergey Svatikov.

            Collectively, the group drafted a Constitution of Cossackia, which was published in a series of issues of Volnoye Kazachestvo in 1932.  It is highly detailed, calls for seven Cossack territories – the Don, Kuban, Terek, Ural, Asrakhan, Orenburg and Kalmyk – each of which was to govern itself and together form a central Cossack government.

            That government, according to the document, was to consist of both a parliament and an ataman president, elected for a five-year term and acting according to powers delegated from the seven Cossack territories to interact with foreign countries including the Soviet Union or some future Russia.

            According to Popov, even a brief survey of this project shows that this draft was “a carefully developed document, in which its creators, led by the constitutional-legal experience of those times, attempted to take into consideration all sides of the life of a hypothetical Cossack state.”

            The Russian scholar says that this document informed the thinking of Cossacks during World War II and the Cold War as well. What he doesn’t say but what his article in fact is helping to lay the groundwork for is that this long ago draft constitution may very well become the basis for independent-minded Cossacks today. 

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