Publication: Prism Volume: 3 Issue: 7

Are the Cossacks a real force in Russian politics today?

By Vasily Andreev

One of the most unexpected results of Mikhail Gorbachev’s liberalization of Soviet society was the resurgence of Cossack communities in Russia and other parts of the Soviet Union. In 1990, the Cossacks were officially permitted to gather for the first time since the early years of Soviet power. Today they are found all over the former Soviet Union. The Russian government, which has made a determined effort to co-opt the movement, estimates their present number at some 3.5 to 4 million able-bodied men (this at a time when the number of men serving in the Russian armed forces is put at a maximum of 1.7 million). Some writers estimate that the total number of people claiming Cossack roots may be as high as 25 million.

A Union of Cossacks was set up in Moscow in June 1990 and declared its intention of uniting all Cossacks. Since then, however, wide divisions have appeared between Cossack organizations in Russia. This article, the first in a series on the status of Cossacks in present-day Russia, focuses on the various Cossack organizations now active in Russia. — The Editor

The revival of the Cossacks, who were subjected to harsh repression by the Soviet authorities from the 1920s through the 1940s, began only at the end of the 1980s, when accusations that they had been involved in "anti-Soviet" and antigovernment activity were dropped.

That was when the mass revival of Cossack organizations began. These may be divided into two types — revived "hosts" and "inter-host" (all-Cossack) organizations. The re-creation of the Cossack Hosts, among which the largest are once again the Don, Kuban, Terek and Orenburg Hosts, is little more than a tribute to historical tradition. These hosts unite the Cossack population living compactly in a single region. Unlike their analogues in pre-revolutionary Russia, they do not represent military-administrative units and do not enjoy the privileges Cossacks had in pre-revolutionary times. The Hosts are divided into districts as they were before the Revolution, but different districts of the same Host are now likely to be collective members of different all-Cossack organizations.

The inter-host organizations may be divided into all-Russian or all-republican (within the framework of the CIS), and local organizations uniting Cossacks in various "non-Cossack" regions, i.e., Cossack zemlyachestva.*

In total (counting territorial organizations) there are today more than 200 Cossack organizations in Russia, nine in Ukraine, five in Moldova, six in Kazakstan, and one each in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Latvia. In the CIS countries and the Baltic states, only the largest organizations, with close ties with Russian Cossacks, were counted.

In most cases, Cossack organizations are relatively apolitical. Only the large all-Russian and inter-republican organizations (descriptions of which follow below) have any definite political weight.

In 1989-91, when the bitter struggle between the Union center (headed by Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev) and the Russian democrats (led by Boris Yeltsin) was its height, both sides sought the support of the Cossacks, seeing them as potential allies. The Union center, was initially successful in this "fight for the Cossacks."

The first large Cossack organization — the Union of Cossacks — was created at a founding circle (congress) on June 28-30, 1990 (though it was officially registered only in 1992). The union immediately found itself under the control of the CPSU. The union’s leaders were, for the most part, members of the mid-level party and state nomenklatura. The ataman (leader) of the Union, Aleksandr Martynov, was a member of the CPSU and director of a Moscow automobile factory. His deputies were Gary Nemchenko, also a party member; Mikhail Sholokhov, an MVD colonel and son of the world-famous writer; Gennady Kochetkov, a KGB officer; Vladimir Bogachev, a lieutenant general and deputy commander of the Far East Military District. Valery Latynin, who stated in his first televised interview that "the aims of the Union of Cossacks completely coincide with those of the CPSU and the Communist Party of the RSFSR," became the deputy ataman. The Union of Cossacks also enjoyed significant support from the central government and local party organs.

In 1991, on the eve of the first presidential elections in Russia, the leaders of the Union of Cossacks called on members to vote for Nikolai Ryzhkov. Several union activists supported the August 1991 coup. Martynov called on his subordinates to "keep calm"; afterwards, this was characterized by Martynov’s opponents as "a cowardly wait-and-see non-interference policy."

The failure of the putsch plunged the Union of Cossacks into a crisis linked with the collapse of the CPSU, which had supported it. A significant number of union members went over to "white," anti-Communist Cossack organizations, and union leaders who had compromised themselves were forced to resign. Among these leaders were Sholokhov and Nemchenko.

S. Meshcheryakov, who was vehemently anti-Communist, replaced Sholokhov as one of the supreme ataman’s deputies. Next, Meshcheryakov tried to force Martynov to resign; when this attempt failed, Meshcheryakov abandoned the union to set up the Union of Cossack Republics of Southern Russia. The latter, in spite of Meshcheryakov’s popularity and the large number of members with which it started, quickly lost its influence. The reason for this was that Meshcheryakov’s separatist sentiments did not suit many Cossacks. At present, the Union of Cossack Republics of Southern Russia and its leader hardly show themselves any more on the country’s political scene.

By 1992, the leadership of the Union of Cossacks had officially renounced Marxist ideology and its alliance with the Communists, yet many Cossacks continued to see it as a pro-Communist organization. Martynov complained on numerous occasions that accusations of his ties with the Communists were being spread by "enemies of the Cossacks" to discredit the union and the Cossack movement as a whole.

Representatives of the Union of Cossacks participated in the work of the Congress of the Civic and Patriotic Forces of Russia which took place in Moscow on February 8-9, 1992, and two of the organization’s leaders became members of the Central Council of the Russian National Assembly which was formed at the congress.

Although a significant number of the union’s rank-and-file members continue to adhere to Communist ideology, "anti-Zionist" and "anti-Masonic" ideas, in the spirit of the notorious Pamyat organization, are also widespread in the Union of Cossacks. Since the collapse of the USSR and the ban on the CPSU, these ideas have become dominant among the union’s members. The main propagator of anti-semitic views in the union is Gorbachev’s one-time aide, lawyer Yuri Galushko, who later became an assistant to Martynov.

On March 1, 1992, the Union of Cossacks signed the United Opposition’s political declaration entitled "Justice. Nationalism. A Strong State. Patriotism," which was published on March 10, 1992 in the newspaper Sovetskaya Rossiya. Many parties and movements of a communo-patriotic orientation joined the United Opposition along with the Union of Cossacks, including Sergei Baburin’s Union of the Peoples of Russia, Aleksandr Sterligov’s Russian National Assembly, V. Ivanov’s Russian Party of National Revival, Viktor Anpilov’s Russian Communist Workers’ Party, Nikolai Lysenko’s National-Republican Party of Russia, and others. In July 1992, the United Opposition demanded that the government resign and that President Yeltsin reject any additional powers and "any intervention in the economy."

During the course of 1993, the leaders of the Union of Cossacks, without changing their oppositionist views, gradually moved towards cooperation with the Russian government, which itself was taking measures to attract the Cossacks into government service. During the constitutional crisis in the spring and summer of 1993, the Union’s leadership supported some of President Yeltsin’s actions. In particular, they announced the Cossacks’ readiness to secure martial law or a state of emergency in the country, if they were needed.

At the end of September 1993, after Yeltsin had dissolved the Supreme Soviet and the Congress of People’s Deputies, the board of the Union of Cossacks issued a statement in which it described the situation in the country as "economic collapse" caused by a "poorly-thought-out" reform policy. The statement contained a call for early simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections, under the control of the Constitutional Court.

The Union of Cossacks did not officially support either side in the armed confrontation of October 1993, although there are unconfirmed reports that some members of the union participated in the defense of the Moscow White House.

On the eve of the elections to the State Duma in December 1993, the union joined the "Otechestvo" [Fatherland] voting bloc, which also included the Socialist Workers’ Party (Lyudmila Vartazarova) and the Union for the Revival of Russia (Dmitri Rogozin, now the leader of the Congress of Russian Communities). The bloc failed to collect the 100,000 signatures necessary for registration, and did not participate in the elections of December 12, 1993.

In April 1994, Martynov, as authorized by the board of the Union of Cossacks, signed the Social Accord Agreement, together with the leaders of most of Russia’s political parties, parliamentary fractions, trade unions, representatives of Federation subjects and religious denominations.

In June 1995, Martynov and Mikhail Lapshin, the leader of the Agrarian Party of Russia, agreed that the Union would join the Agrarians voting bloc, which was being created at the time. But later, Martynov leaned towards supporting the pro-government "Russia is Our Home" bloc. The most likely explanation for the Union’s reorientation is that Russian premier Viktor Chernomyrdin promised to allow Martynov to participate directly in drafting legislation on state support of the Cossacks.

Martynov’s decision to join the "party of power" provoked protests from many Cossack leaders, who tried to have him removed from his post as supreme ataman at a congress of the Union of Cossacks in early 1996. Their attempts to overthrow Martynov failed, however.

In the 1996 presidential elections, Martynov did not officially support any of the main presidential candidates. Tacitly, however, he supported Yeltsin’s candidacy.

At present, the Union of Cossacks, in spite of the existence of several competing organizations, remains the largest Russian Cossack organization. The union’s leadership has close ties with the government but also maintains contacts with the opposition, "balancing" between them. The Union of Cossacks has 125 branches in Russia and about 30 in the other CIS countries.

The idea behind the creation of the Union of Cossacks was to unite all the Cossack organizations which existed in 1990 into one organization under party and government control. But the unfeasibility of this became clear immediately, since far from all Cossacks agreed to recognize the leading role of the CPSU in the Cossack movement. The Cossack zemlyachestvo* in Moscow, led by Ataman Georgi Kokunko, became the main center of opposition.

Kokunko was one of the organizers of the Union of the Cossack Hosts of Russia (SKVR), set up at a founding circle in Moscow on July 20-21, 1991. The SKVR was envisaged by its founders as an alternative to Martynov’s pro-Communist Union of Cossacks. One of the Don atamans, E. Yefremov, became the leader of the SKVR (its "chief of staff"), while the aforementioned Kokunko became his deputy.

The SKVR’s political program included the restoration of the traditional model of Cossack self-government in accordance with the laws of the Russian Empire, and the creation of Cossack units in the Russian armed forces. During the May-June 1991 presidential campaign, the SKVR’s leadership endorsed Boris Yeltsin’s candidacy. During the August 1991 putsch, the Union’s members supported the Russian president. There have been no significant changes in the SKVR’s pro-Yeltsin orientation since then.

In 1992, A. Vetrov, the ataman of the Yenisei Host, became the leader of the SKVR. In June 1993, he was replaced by V. Kaledin, the ataman of the Don Cossack Host. A short time later, in July of that year, Vetrov became one of the founders of a new Cossack organization — the Union of the Cossack Hosts of Russia and Abroad (SKVRiZ). Some Cossacks recognized it as the SKVR’s rightful successor, while others did not. Kokunko, one of the SKVR’s founders, argues that the organization simply ceased to exist. One of the Don atamans, V. Ratiev, was elected supreme ataman of the SKVRiZ.

In August 1993, when Yeltsin’s quarrel with the Russian parliament was approaching its climax, the SKVRiZ’s leadership issued a statement condemning the activities of the legislative and executive branches alike. The SKVRiZ accused both sides of acting in such a way as to put the cohesion of the Russian state at risk.

During Yeltsin’s October 1993 showdown with the Russian parliament, the SKVRiZ formally remained neutral. Some members supported the president, while others came out in support of the Supreme Soviet which Yeltsin had dissolved.

On the eve of the December 12, 1993 elections, the SKVRiZ leadership supported Lev Ubozhko’s uninfluential Conservative Party, which proved unable to achieve registration as a voting bloc. After that, Ratiev called on his supporters to support the Democratic Party of Russia.

In April 1994, representatives of the SKVRiZ, like those of its main competitor, the Union of Cossacks, signed the Social Accord Agreement.

In the 1995 Duma elections and the 1996 presidential elections, Ratiev endorsed the KPRF and its leader, Gennady Zyuganov. On the whole, however, his organization did not play an active role in either campaign.

The SKVRiZ has a total of 15 large collective members in Russia and the CIS countries.

Beginning in 1994, the SKVRiZ’s influence began to drop noticeably. Several large collective members dropped out of it. In particular, a number of Cossacks left to form the Union of Cossack Formations [SKF] led by A. Demin. But the new organization could not withstand the competition from the Union of Cossacks and the SKVRiZ. At the present time, the SKF does not play a large role in either the Cossack movement or the political life of the country as a whole.

At present, therefore, two main organizations in Russia claim to unite all the Cossacks both within Russia and within the CIS — the Union of Cossacks and the Union of the Cossack Hosts of Russia and Abroad. The leaders of both organizations take rather cautious political positions, striving to maintain contacts with both government and opposition. At the same time, members of both unions hold a wide variety of political views — from democratic to pro-fascist.

It is accordingly impossible to say that Russia’s Cossacks as a whole have a definite political orientation — the spectrum of views among the Cossacks is too broad. In the last presidential elections, for example, the main candidates — Boris Yeltsin, Gennady Zyuganov and Aleksandr Lebed — were all supported by several dozen Cossack organizations. Far fewer organizations supported Vladimir Zhirinovsky, however.

The Cossacks’ main political demands remain unchanging: the creation of Cossack military units in the Russian army, and the restoration of the self-government, rights and privileges that the Cossacks lost after the October Revolution.


* A zemlyachestvo [pl. zemlyachestva] is a friendly society of people who originally came from the same, usually rural, district.

Translated by Mark Eckert

Vasily Andreev is a journalist specializing in radical national movements.