Friday, August 14, 2020

Russian Cossacks Gelded and Not

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 11 – In the Russian Federation, there are two groups of people who are referred to as “Cossacks.” The first consists of 3 million-5 million people who trace their ancestors to the 13 Cossack hosts of the imperial period and celebrate their tradition as free men. According to many scholars, their collective name in fact refers to that tradition.

These Cossacks consider themselves a distinctive ethnic group with their own culture and language,  they live under leaders (atamans) whom they have elected for themselves, and they support freedom and independence for themselves and others rather than being agents of the state to suppress those values (

The second (and much smaller) group, perhaps no more than 100,000 in total, have no link to these Cossack traditions besides the name they claim and the fancy uniforms they wear. They take money and orders from the Kremlin, and are little more than armed thugs now routinely used as irregular forces against protesters (

But because of the power of the Kremlin and its propaganda machine, these pseudo-Cossacks receive far more attention in the media, and their activities overshadow for many the actions and attitudes of the real Cossacks and reinforce Hollywood-promoted stereotypes about Cossacks drawn from the end of the Russian Empire.

This week was no exception. On the one hand, Vladimir Putin’s approval of a state policy on the Cossacks for the next decade, one that further integrates his Cossacks into the force structures of the country and provides those who agree to cooperate in this way with special subsidies and other benefits (

But on the other, the All-Cossack Public Center released a statement denouncing Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s usurpation of power and abuse of the rights of the Belarusian people. It declared that the Cossacks of Russia take no position on who should replace him but that the people of Belarus should have that right rather than their ruler continue to rule by force.

Not surprisingly, the Putin action has been widely covered in the Russian media, while the Cossack declaration has appeared only on social media and by electronic mail.  But it is virtually certain that the declaration in support of democracy in Belarus reflects Cossack attitudes far more than Putin’s plans to use them against democracy in Russia.

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