Image credit: Alexander Mozhaev, by Maxim Dondyuk. Via time.com
Even before I came to Russia, my interest in the Cossacks of contemporary Russia was focused on their role as an imagined community: a socially-constructed community, as identified by Benedict Anderson in Imagined Nations.
In this case, the current Cossack identity is being consciously created in part by people who are descended from the traditional Cossack communities, but in rather larger part by people who perhaps had some Cossack relatives, without ever having been a part of Cossack culture themselves – and to an even larger extent by people who simply wish they could be a part of that culture, even though they have no connection to it.
The first question to ask about this is which Cossacks they want to be. As I’ve noted before, the Cossacks were very different things at different times in their history.
In terms of my own interests, driven by concerns about the decline of the oil-dependent Western economy, the retreat of the state from most social areas, and the ever-clearer inevitability that communities will have to organise, and fend for, themselves, the earlier incarnations of the Cossacks are perhaps more relevant. This was when they were independent communities, free of government control.
In later times, they were a settled community of frontier fighters: armed groups directed by the Tsar to live with their families in certain places in order to guard against parties likely to pose a threat to the Russian state. (At various times, this might have been the Poles, the Turks, the Chechens, the Circassians, the Persians, and the Chinese). This is still interesting to me. The bit that’s different, that in later times the Cossacks were agents of the Russian state, is precisely what attracts many participants to today’s revival.
While I’ve been writing this, someone else has written on a very closely related topic, which is worth reading before you go any further here: Murphy’s Law: A Cossack Too Far.
The Cossacks formed a distinct group within the Russian Empire; unlike the majority of the Empire’s population, they were free – when most were serfs, the property of their noble masters. The Cossack communities had a distinct community and culture, their own ways of dressing, and dancing. Ultimately, however, the Cossacks only existed because they were bound to provide military service, in return for their freedom in other matters. To be a Cossack meant to fight. That goes right the way back to their pre-Imperial existence, in the Ukraine and elsewhere. Cossack culture was a martial culture; a fighting culture. Laura J. Olsen reports a Cossack joke:
A Cossack is lying in the yard while his wife bustles about, mending the fence and seeing to the animals and the garden. He just lies there and lies there while she toils and labours. His neighbour peeks his head over and sees the Cossack lying in the yard, and says ‘Grisha!’ – ‘What? – ‘What are you doing lying in the yard while your wife is working?’ – ‘Well, what if war suddenly comes and I’m tired!’
So who are the Cossacks, today? After punitive de-Cossackisation campaigns in the early years of the revolution, the remaining Cossacks were redefined as a cultural group, with varying degrees of tolerance at different times. The martial Cossack culture remained alive; there were Cossack detachments on both sides in the Great Patriotic War.
Then came the long post-war years, and I really don’t know at this point to what extent there was any military activity in a Cossack sense. No doubt, young men from Cossack communities would have been drafted to serve in the armed forces of the USSR, but they weren’t serving as Cossacks. There was nothing, as far as I know, that maintained the role of Cossacks as a fighting community in any real sense.
After the fall of the USSR, Cossack culture revived, but really only in a ‘cultural’ sense: dancers, choirs, re-enactors. As various bush wars kicked off, small groups of Cossacks went to fight in the former Yugoslavia, and other areas where Slavs or other Orthodox Christians were felt to be threatened, but these were pretty small numbers, fighting in very limited actions. Back at home, Cossacks returned to state service. They formed militia groups, and accompanied the ‘real’ police on patrols in certain areas. They formed border patrols. They opened academies, and schools teaching traditional skills, and schools teaching martial arts.
The article I linked to above outlines these very clearly. These are the trappings of traditional Cossack culture, though. To be a Cossack meant, in the past, to go to war.
In this sense, the ongoing conflict in the eastern Ukraine seems to me to be something of a watershed. For the first time since the Second World War, large numbers of Cossacks are fighting, in substantial Cossack units rather than as hangers-on to other groups. What does this mean for the Cossack revival?
In Time magazine, I read this: Meet the Pro-Russian Separatists of Eastern Ukraine
According to his passport, which he showed to TIME, Mozhaev hails from the town of Belorechensk in the southern Russian region of Krasnodar, the traditional stomping ground of the Cossacks, the warrior clan into which he was born.
[T]housands of state-sponsored Russian Cossacks were then streaming into Crimea to aid the Russian troops with that invasion. For most of March, Mozhaev says, he was there along with some of the men from his Cossack battalion, the Wolves’ Hundred, helping in the siege of a Ukrainian military base near the city of Bakhchysarai and guarding a local TV tower. In late March, after Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula, “we were sitting around down there and wondering what to do next,” he says. “So we decided to go conquer some more historically Russian lands.”
Not all of these Cossacks are Russian; others come from Ukraine: Armed Cossacks Flock to Crimea to Help Russian Annexation Bid
I decided to go through some of the main pro-rebel blogs, to find out what they had to say about the Cossacks fighting in support of the Novorossiyan Armed Forces. These blogs are:
- The Vineyard of the Saker
- Fort Russ
Militiaman with the call name “Artem”:
There are many Militia fighters in LNR who consider themselves communists and internationalists. I would also note the role of the “Workers’ Front of Lugansk” (formerly the regional committee of the Communist Party), whose members refused to obey “the official leadership of the Party” and openly declared for the Republic. Therefore they renamed. There are also anarcho-communists who were upset that their “brothers” in Kiev colluded with neo-Nazis, and excitedly began to help them kill our compatriots. Many are not in any organization, but simply positioning themselves as communists and internationalists. Here it is such a mixed pot that no one even thinks of who belongs to what organization. Communist – and be done with it. There is no nationalism here in the LNR, none. Don Cossacks perfectly interact with the Communists. Most of the Cossacks I have met are more like those of the Cossacks who fought for the Don Soviet Republic. Only they remember the Russian tricolor, which had the inscription “Antifa” (smiles). This episode explains a lot. People rose up against the threat of Ukrainian nationalism, and sought allies against armed radicals. Russia has always been a “mother” here, anyway. Therefore the flag of Russia was raised. But the anti-fascist label symbolizes another side, the inner essence of the peoples of Donbass – not any form of nationalism but internationalism and anti-fascism.
Miusinsk, through which the mechanized convoys of the junta slipped unhindered, was hardly defended at all, and in Krasnyi Luch some of the Cossacks abandoned their positions. This gave rise to a palpable threat of Novorossiya being split in two and of the militia grouping located in the area of Torez-Snezhnoye-Saur-Mogila being eliminated.
The rest of the evening was spent with me serving as involuntary audience for Cossack songs, clinking of glasses and some choice swearing. But the swearing and cursing was not the worst thing that I had to hear. A Cossack—fighter in the so-called ‘Wolf Hundred’, named “Pinocchio,” as he introduced himself—began telling his story about the sweepstakes organized in their unit; a competition of sorts—for chopping off the heads of Ukrainian POWs. The winner was to receive a BMW X6. “…I have two weeks—one head is cut off, the second not quite off yet, it was dark. When you cut a Ukie’s head off, at first he whimpers in pure Russian “mother”, “mommy” he pleads, and only then starts to gurgle and wheeze. Note, not “Mamo” in Ukrainian but in Russian: “Mamochka… ”
All the stories were accompanied by copious libations, laughter, and very “colourful” details. For example, I learned that after the defeat of a Ukrainian division, enterprising Cossacks collected all the weapons from the dead Ukrainians and “hid them, covered, in one place.” “When it gets quieter, we’ll come back to raise some cash,” said the Cossack.
Those Cossacks should of course just be executed. Altought I assume they were not actually part of Novorossiya but just som semi-rebel-bandits thing.
Moral legmitecy is very important, especially for a state like Novorossiya that rises up against injustice. Novorossiya cannot afford to have such psychopaths in its ranks.
“But why don’t you go, why don’t you flee?” Irina shakes her head, resigned, obstinate. “This is our land.” “But how can you survive here?” “The Cossacks bring us food when they have any.When they don’t have enough, they scant their own, for us. All this area is defended by the Cossack National Guard of the Don. “Only they think of us. Europe arms the Ukrainian Army that is bombing us. Why?”
Roman smiles again saluting us with a raised fist. “No Pasaran!” – the salute of the Republicans of Spain, which, among the Cossacks, has gained a new life, and a new context and has become common.
“The Cossacks took the route Lugansk-Lisichansk under control — earlier they fired on ukrop positions near Nizhnee and Toshkovka (not in the villages, but the block posts on the outskirts).
“We remind that in Bakhmutka the Cossacks of Paul Dremov blocked and were storming the four National Guard block posts for several days. Reinforcements of Ukrainian troops sent a few times suffered heavy losses.”
“Ukrainian forces are withdrawing from Dzerzhinsk. Cossacks and Prizrak in LPR are attacking Popasnaya and Troitskaya. They are creating an encirclement.
The area was deserted except for packs of stray dogs; we fed them and let them help us keep watch; when artillery started, they ducked into shelter with us. After a few days of this, our base and the factory next to it were completely leveled. You’d have thought it was a film about the Apocalypse.
Later we were joined by the Cossacks from the Don, and we left to establish a base southwest of Donetsk at Novy-Svet. The villagers brought us food every day, mostly fish they had caught, and they gave us information about the Ukrainians. The Ukrainians bombed the town with phosphorous bombs — you’d see them burning through the night.
THE VINEYARD OF THE SAKER
[Formerly prominent Donetsk leader] Strelkov with Cossacks in Crimea
Notice that Ischenko also speaks some nonsense, for example when he praises Cossack units and their commanders when, in reality, Cossack forces are, by and large, 2nd rate and are not trusted with any critical sectors.
What does all of this tell us? These clips are taken from pro-rebel blogs, about Cossack forces who have been fighting alongide, or as part of, the forces of the Lugansk and Donetsk republics.
In one respect, there’s simply nothing new here. It tells us that in a chaotic, anarchic zone of conflict all kinds of people turn up. Some are motivated by lofty ideals, perhaps loftier than are appreciated by comrades who are fighting to defend their homes:
“[W]e decided to go conquer some more historically Russian lands.”
Others are motivated by selfish motives. This covers individuals (the murderous thieves referred to in one article), and the official (such as the Crimean Cossacks):
“That means state recognition, it means training for our cadets,” Cherkashin explained to his Cossack commanders, who are known as atamans. “It’s status. You understand? It’s all about finances!” At this, the group of men looked around at one another and grumbled in approval.
In between are the majority, perhaps, who decided to join the fight simply because they believed it was the right thing to do. All the indications are that, as would be expected from people who were essentially un- or poorly-trained civilians, they initially weren’t very good. Over time, they seem to have improved significantly in their effectiveness, becoming battle-hardened.
I don’t know where this will lead. However, these Cossack volunteers will eventually go back to their homes, taking their experience with them. Perhaps for the first time since the Second World War, the Cossack communities and organizations will have significant numbers of veterans amongst them; I emphasize ‘significant’, since it seems that unlike the conflicts in Chechnya and elsewhere, there have been large numbers of combatants fighting together for an extended period. I wonder to what extent ‘Cossack’ culture – the songs and dances – went with them into this conflict, and how they will feed their experiences back in to their communities. It’s going to be a fascinating area for future research.