Staunton, Jan. 24 – On January 24, 1919, the Bolshevik government announced is plans to eliminate the Cossacks, a campaign that cost more than three million of them their lives and pushed them to the margins of society. This year, Putin’s official Cossacks downplayed this anniversary, an action free Cossacks say continues that genocide in the form of ethnocide.
The diversity of Cossack life is so great that many have a hard time accepting the idea that they are one people, but today, there is one basic division, between the several hundred thousand who conform to what the Putin state wants and the several million who don’t and insist both on their diversity and independence from Moscow.
Just over a century ago, the Bolsheviks who like many people then and now viewed the Cossacks as only a military caste which blindly supported the tsarist regime and suppressed any opposition to is launched one of the greatest acts of genocide in the 20th century, the attempted destruction of the Cossacks as a community and social stratum.
Nonetheless, the Cossacks survived -- albeit without much opportunity to develop as a nation. In the last two decades, they have revived; and Vladimir Putin has adopted a different strategy, one of supporting Cossacks who fit his ideas about what Cossacks should be and are prepared to obey his regime’s orders.
These are known as the “registered” Cossacks. They get most of the press, but they are only a small part of Cossackdom in Russia. Most Cossacks are “unregistered” and have goals at odds with those of the state, including in some cases the pursuit of independence. They get little attention both because of past stereotypes and current regime policies.
Increasingly, the Putin regime is defining Cossacks as a group so narrowly that those Cossacks who don’t accept that definition are at risk of another round of “de-Cossackization,” not extermination as was the case in the 1920s but the deprival of their right to define their community and its goals for themselves.
Just how narrow the official definition of Cossacks under Putin has become was reflected in an article by journalist Tatyana Savvateyeva on the Russian nationalist portal Stoletiye entitled “’A Cossack who doesn’t serve the state is not a Cossack’” which contains a most frightening definition of who now is one (stoletie.ru/sozidateli/kazak_bez_sluzhby_ne_kazak_806.htm).
According to her, “all Cossacks must be Orthodox and patriots. A Cossack is not someone who puts on a Cossack uniform but one who follows traditions – and these include the principle that the word of the elder is law … and that a Cossack is at the very first call ready to defend his country.”
There are enormous problems with this definition. First and foremost, not all Cossacks are Orthodox. Some are Muslim, some are Buddhist, and a few even are Jews. Moreover, the real and typically unregistered Cossacks are the ones who know their backgrounds and culture, while it is the registered ones who often are only people who have put on Cossack dress.
And many of the unregistered Cossacks are not prepared to be used as the registered and regime-paid ones are to engage in the suppression of dissent or to fight in wars declared by the Kremlin. Instead, they have their own goals, which include their right to define themselves as a nation and even pursue independence.
Thus, while the Kremlin has mobilized a small fraction of its registered Cossacks to fight in Ukraine, many of the unregistered ones are either neutral or on the side of Ukraine given the historical links between Ukrainians and at least the triune Cossack community of the Don, Kuban and Terek.
For background on the differences between registered and unregistered Cossacks and the reasons for being concerned that Putin’s definition, while supportive of some, is going to be used against those Cossacks who are the bearers of the genuine national traditions of their people but refuse to submit to him, see jamestown.org/program/de-cossackization-modern-day-echoes-of-soviet-crime/, jamestown.org/program/moscow-tightens-control-over-its-cossacks/, jamestown.org/program/putins-pseudo-cossacks-assume-larger-role-but-real-cossacks-refuse-to-go-along/ and jamestown.org/program/cossackia-no-longer-an-impossible-dream/).
The unregistered Cossacks nonetheless continue to speak in defense of their traditions. On this anniversary, one of their number, Grigory Rusin, laid flowers at a monument to the Cossacks in Rostov. Those who came with him, in order to avoid falling victim to official persecution, stood apart.
But Rusin spoke for all of them when he said that “we are carrying out such memorial measures because the genocide which began a century ago is now continuing in the form of ethnocide.” Indeed, he says, “the officially registered structures have been created in order to discredit us, the Cossack people.”
“The Cossacks have their own traditions, culture and customs but we are prohibited from fulfilling them,” he adds (kavkazr.com/a/rodovye-kazaki-kubani-i-dona-proveli-aktsiyu-pamyati-v-chestj-repressirovannyh-predkov-/32237406.html).