Much has been written about Cossack organizations fighting in Ukraine (see EDM, July 25, June 28, April 25, March 30, March 2) and fulfilling ideological roles in Russian society (see EDM, May 10). However, the influence of Cossack groups on Russian education has seemingly been neglected. Education policy is a crucial field for the long-term stability and survivability of any regime, as it is a critical area in which children become citizens and identity is formed (Ernest Gellner, Nationalism, 1983). In Russia, Cossack organizations play an important role in both educating youth in the values of patriotism and preparing them for military service. This is achieved through a variety of venues.
First, some institutions in Russia have explicit connections to the Cossacks. In Krasnodar alone, for instance, “17 Cossack kindergartens, 62 Cossack schools, seven Cossack cadet corps and 27 representative offices in professional educational organizations” have been built. Aside from providing standard education, children wear Cossack uniforms and are checked daily for their correct appearance. Flag-raising ceremonies are a common fixture. And, “at the beginning of the lesson, the ataman [Cossack chieftain] of the class is required to report to the teacher about the readiness of students for the lesson and once again … focuses the attention of students on discipline and the need to approach with responsibility the main business of their school life—studying” (VSKO, September 24, 2020).
Children are further instructed in the traditions of the Cossack family, mutual respect, competitive sports and quizzes on Cossack knowledge. Competition with other schools incentivizes students to fully apply themselves— for instance, “pupils of the Cossack class of the MoBY secondary school … represented the Ussuri host at the all-Russian stage of the military-sports games Cossack Spolokh and Spartakiad” (Kazaki-ussuri.ru, November 3, 2021).
Second, existing and specialist schools in Russia sometimes have Cossack-themed classes, which are less intense but more pervasive than entirely Cossack-themed schools. In Orenburg, the first Cossack classes were introduced in 2006. By 2018, 782 students were attending 40 Cossack classes in Orenburg city alone (Mediaurok.com, December 12, 2018).
Some universities also have a purported “Cossack” affiliation, including Platov South-Russian State Polytechnic University in Rostov and Razumovsky Cossack University in Moscow. The Chekhov Institute in Taganrog is even apparently developing a Cossack-centered master’s program. Nonetheless, the importance of a Cossack association seems to be nominal, leading to complaints from Cossack activists (Kazak-center.ru, August 5, 2019).
Third, “Cossack cadets corps” work to produce a new ideological vanguard and prepare students for military service. Cossack corpuses were first recreated in Rostov and Krasnodar regions in 1993–1994 on the basis of a presidential decree (Kadetkorp.ru, accessed August 4). Now, “more than 6,000 pupils study in 28 Cossack cadet corps” (VSKO, September 21, 2021).
The institutionalization of more Cossack cadet corps is a key part of the central government–administered Program for the Development of the Cossacks to 2030. New corps are being created “from scratch,” such as one “near the village of Yessentukskaya in the Stavropol territory” (VSKO, December 13, 2021). Corps compete against each other to be the “best Cossack corpus”—a practice that developed first regionally and later at the national level. The 2021 competition in Samar tested participants through “written exams on the events of the Great Patriotic War, manufactureres of Soviet and Russian small arms, insignia of military ranks and presentations of social projects” (VSKO, September 21, 2021).
Cossack educational institutions may have started in the south, but they have quickly spread to other regions as well. In Irkutsk, for instance, the “first Cossack cadet corps” was opened in January 1999 by order of the governor and specifically for “orphans or children left without parental care” (Irkutkadet.ru, accessed August 4). In Novosibirsk, the Siberian Cossacks invited regional Minister of Education Sergey Fedorchuk to visit the institution (VSKO, May 18, 2021). In Astrakhan, a Cossack cadet corps was created on March 31, 2013 (Astrkazakkorpus.ru, accessed August 4). A report on the Orenburg Cossacks’ website mentions cadet corps in the regions of Sverdlovsk, Khanty-Mansiysk, Yamal-Nenets, Chelyabinsk and Kurgan (Ataman.ovko.ru, May 15, 2011).
In recent years, the Kremlin has placed the Cossack movement under more direct control, as well as the Cossack youth movement. Indeed, “the birth of the union of Cossack youth took place before the eyes of representatives of 75 regions” in Russia. The video conference (due to coronavirus restrictions) was an opportunity to celebrate the movement’s creation and the importance of youth policy to the future of the regime.
As Ataman Nikolai Doluda put it, “In Cossack classes, schools, cadet corps, the personality is being formed, and the character being hardened.” Along with general education subjects, pupils master comprehensive knowledge about the Cossacks, their history, the fate of the people and cultural traditions. At the end of schooling, the students’ personalities have been altogether molded (Kazaki-ussuri.ru, October 15, 2020). Other regimes have used youth movements to generate support among the populace, most notably the ultranationalist Interwar regimes. It is no surprise, then, that some see striking similarities in Cossack educational policy indoctrination and structures to those of the Hitlerjugend (Hitler Youth).