After “neo-Cossacks” brutally whipped anti-Kremlin demonstrators at the May 5 “He Is Not Our Tsar” protests, in downtown Moscow (see EDM, May 14), concerns in Russia have been mounting that the authorities will similarly employ such quasi-paramilitary forces to maintain order at the World Cup, this summer. Cossacks assisted with security at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, which took place in one of their “ancestral” regions, Krasnodar Krai; and they infamously assaulted the Russian punk group Pussy Riot (see Commentaries, February 24 2014). With a tradition of providing military service to the state, various Cossack groups have formed patrols that maintain order on the streets of many Russian cities, both in their supposedly “ancestral” lands and in other regions.
In their “ancestral” regions, Cossacks are already being actively enlisted by the authorities into security structures for the World Cup, which will take place between June 14 and July 15. In Rostov, Cossacks will provide support to the regular police. First Deputy Ataman (chieftain) Mikhail Bespalov told the media that “we are training 200 druzhiniki [civic patrol assistants] who will work with the police, and volunteer Cossacks will be involved. Plus, [there will be] 100 uniformed cavalrymen. We will have more than 300 [Cossack security personnel] in total.” Nor are the Cossacks in Rostov limited to maintaining order: they are there to represent “the quiet Don,” “provide first aid” to fans, and have “even started to learn foreign languages” (Currenttime.tv, May 2). In Krasnodar Krai, where matches will be played in Sochi, the Cossacks are scheduled to be part of the entertainment. Before the first march in the local Fisht stadium, the Cossack host’s honor guard and brass band will perform. Such cultural programs are part of the Kremlin’s attempt to portray the Cossacks as the indigenous population of the region, in place of the non-Slavic Circassians (Sochi-informburo.ru, May 29). The Kuban Cossacks regularly patrol the streets of Krasnodar, and more than 600 assisted with security at last year’s Confederations Cup (RIA Novosti, June 26, 2017). It would also be surprising if the Cossacks do not provide security in the southern city of Volgograd, as well.
In non-ancestral territories, Cossacks will also be called on by the relevant authorities. In Kaliningrad, for instance Cossacks will patrol the streets and assist police in the maintenance of order. The ataman of the Baltic Cossack division, Maxim Buga, stressed that the Cossacks would act within the law, adding, “In the event some kind of conflict should arise, we will try to solve it peacefully. If there is an active threat to health, no one should suffer” (Klops.ru, February 2, 2018). Furthermore, Cossacks will patrol the streets of the host city of Samara during the World Cup to promote security and safety (Novaya Gazeta, May 31). In cities that are not hosting any matches but will be involved in the World Cup in other ways, the Cossacks are playing a role, too. In Kaluga, for instance, where the Senegal team has its training grounds, Cossacks will help ensure security; the regional governor, Anatoly Artamonov, has pledged to “actively coordinate with the work of the Cossacks” (Eg.ru, April 18). In Yekaterinburg, Cossack heritage will be featured as a symbol of the city during the World Cup—the Aramilskii spit, an ancient area of Urals Cossack settlement, is being heavily promoted as a tourist attraction (Momenty.org, April 23). Thus, both Cossacks and the Cossack image will be ever-present.
One potential source of concern—aside from the political implications of the authorities relying on quasi-paramilitary forces to maintain order (see above)—is the association of some Cossacks with far-right political causes and sentiments. For example, on May 1, a group of Cossacks, along with individuals from the Moscow-backed separatist Ukrainian region of the Luhansk “People’s Republic” and members of the overtly racist SERB movement, attacked the human rights watchdog Sakharov Center, in Moscow, as it held an art festival (Sova-center.ru, May 1). Likewise, neo-Cossacks were among the participants at the November 4, 2016, “For Russian Solidarity” meeting, held under the umbrella of the annual extreme-right “Russian March” initiative (Sova-center.ru, March 23, 2017). And certain Cossack organizations in Russia’s southern region of Krasnodar have even more explicit links with White Power groups—some of the very people they would presumably be protecting foreign spectators from during the World Cup (see EDM, April 24, 2018).
Recent events, like the whipping of opposition protesters, in Moscow, on May 5, have naturally focused public opinion on the role played by Cossacks in Russian society. But longstanding associations of certain Cossack organizations with fringe radical groupings should also give observers reason to question the appropriateness of using them to provide security. A few local officials are responding. In reaction to the events of May 5—and acting out of a presumed desire not to see similar kinds of attacks carried out on tourists and soccer fans—the Moscow mayor’s office pledged, on May 31, that “During the matches of the 2018 World Cup in Moscow, Cossack societies (and other Cossack organizations) will not be involved in the protection of public order.” Reportedly, the Central Cossack host was called into the mayor’s office for a meeting, where its members were informed that their services would not be required to help ensure security (Novaya Gazeta, May 31). In relation to the Cossacks, then, clearly some are starting to echo Roman poet Juvenal’s question: “Who will guard the guards themselves?”