From the Russian Empire through the Soviet Union to the Russian Federation today, the central government of that country has always viewed Cossacks as part of the Russian nation, something the current rulers are even more interested in maintaining given Russian demographic decline (Nr2.lt, February 27). If the Cossacks are counted as a separate nation, the Russian share of the population would decline by as much as 2 percent. But many Cossacks, especially since the collapse of Soviet power, view themselves as a separate nation and are taking active measures to resist Moscow’s efforts to assimilate them into Russians.
The history of Cossackry in Russia is complicated and has become even more so in recent years. In imperial times, there were 13 Cossack hosts, ranging from those in the Don, Kuban and Terek, which most people are familiar with, to the Transbaikal Cossacks, who were predominantly Buryat and Buddhist. But such ethnic and religious differences were only part of the issue. The first Cossacks emerged as an autonomous movement, but later the Russian government organized Cossack units both to guard the borders of the empire and to suppress popular opposition.
Because of that role, Vladimir Lenin’s government launched a heavy-handed program of “de-cossackization” early on. Soviet rulers worked to suppress Cossack institutions and traditions—except as historical background for novels and films and except when Moscow was desperate for their support, as during World War II.
But the real complexity of the Cossack world emerged in 1991, with the end of Soviet power. The number of surviving Cossacks was small—the overwhelming majority had been killed by the Soviets—but the idea and ideals of Cossackry remained very much alive. Many people with little claim to Cossack roots chose to identify and organize as new Cossack communities throughout the Russian Federation, including in areas where there had never been Cossacks in the past. Indeed, some specialists on Cossacks, like Moscow’s Tatyana Tabolina, estimate that there may be as many as three to five million Cossacks and neo-Cossacks in Russia today (Tatyana Tabolina, Vozrozhedniye Kazachestva, Moscow, 1994, chapter 1).
In some places, officials welcomed this development and even put Cossacks to work as a force to supplement the police. Even in Moscow, the authorities deployed Cossacks to guard a variety of institutions and to provide a show of force (The Moscow Times, December 1, 2015). But the post-Soviet government did this on one condition: that the Cossacks identify as ethnic Russians and give up any hopes of autonomy based on their distinctive ethno-cultural background. In the chaotic 1990s, clashes over these identities arose; but until Moscow began conducting censuses again, in 2002 and 2010, they were relatively unimportant. And with the enumerations showing the share of ethnic Russians falling, Moscow began to more actively oppose Cossack movements (see EDM, July 13, 2016).
Not surprisingly, although not yet garnering much outside attention, Cossacks have responded by organizing movements to demand recognition as a separate nation with its own rights to autonomy and self-rule. Perhaps the most important of these is the “Restored Stanitsas” group. Set up in 2014, it is pursuing three goals, according to its chief chronicler, Aleksandr Dzikovitsky—who incidentally was arrested in Moscow on Sunday, March 26, for taking part in the anti-corruption demonstrations (Nr2.lt, March 26; see EDM, March 27).
In a recent article entitled “The Cossacks in Russia Are Resisting Assimilation,” Dzikovitsky says that his group and others like it among Cossacks across Russia have three demands: first, that Moscow recognize the Cossacks as a separate people and not part of the Russian nation; second, that the Russian state restore the Cossack national-state formations, which the Soviets liquidated in the 1920s; and third, that the central authorities allow the Cossacks to organize their lives in these “historical territories” on the basis of Cossack traditions, rather than according to any cookie-cutter model of Russian administration (Nr2.lt, February 27).
What almost certainly is most offensive to Moscow is that the Cossacks are pursuing these goals under the terms of the Russian law “On the Rehabilitation of Repressed Peoples,” a measure that Moscow has honored more in the breach than in reality. Indeed, the central government has sought to restrict the application of this legislation to cover only those peoples Joseph Stalin deported immediately before and during World War II. Focusing on Lenin’s earlier systemic repression of the Cossacks opens questions that Vladimir Putin’s regime does not want anyone to discuss.
Nonetheless, in areas of Russia far from Moscow, the Cossacks have made progress in organizing their communities, sometimes with the support of sympathetic Russian officials but more often in the face of serious resistance. An institutional network of Cossack organizations now exists, whereby these groups share information and ideas about how to go about this. Dzikovitsky suggests that, in at least some places, this has set the stage for another round of demands by newly energized Cossacks (Nr2.lt, March 23).
But the real crunch is likely to come in 2020, when Russia is scheduled to conduct its next census. If the Cossacks refuse to identify as Russians, they will give encouragement to others, like Siberians and Pomors, to do the same—Moscow does not recognize either of these as distinct ethnic communities. And if the census returns are at all honest, that could mean that the ethnic-Russian share of the country’s population could fall below 75 percent or even lower as non-Russians continue to grow more rapidly than Russians and as some of those Moscow thinks are Russians decide they are something else.