Cossacks in Ukraine and Russia are not the unquestioning soldiers of empire and repression that Moscow, Hollywood and the Western media routinely portray them as being. Certainly, some of the neo-Cossacks that President Vladimir Putin has created to more or less surreptitiously carry out the Kremlin’s agenda at home and abroad do fit that model. But the overwhelming majority, who outnumber these “official” Cossacks by more than four to one (Kaluga24.tv, March 18, 2019), want freedom for themselves and respect the freedom of others, choosing to defend Ukraine rather that help Putin dismember it (Rufabula.com, June 4, 2014; Krymr.com, June 5, 2018; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, June 5, 2014 and June 5, 2018).
This should come as no surprise: Many Cossacks have long had close links with Ukrainians given that their largest host lives astride the Russian-Ukrainian border. In Russia’s Kuban region, for example, Ukrainian was, in early Soviet times, the official language; and many Kuban Cossacks still speak it and thus are still part of the extended Ukrainian cultural community. Such cultural links are even stronger among most Cossacks living in Ukraine itself, with many identifying with the Ukrainian nation or even believing that most Ukrainians are Cossacks (Svobodnaya Pressa, May 11, 2017; Russian7.ru, April 17, 2018; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, May 14, 2017 and April 17, 2018).
The Cossacks in Ukraine, who are concentrated in the south and east and number upwards of a million, are among those most likely to identify themselves not as Russian Orthodox but as “just Orthodox.” Such a characterization serves as a means for the Ukrainian Cossacks to stress their own nationhood. Moreover, that self-identity idiosyncrasy becomes an important “halfway house” toward making the transition to the autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The Universal Patriarch in Constantinople officially granted a tomos of autocephaly (independence) to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church earlier this year. Though the exact numbers of Ukraine’s Cossacks who reject the “Russian Orthodox” label are unknown, the trend is clear—especially now that more than 500 parishes of the Moscow Patriarchate–linked Church in Ukraine have changed sides (Dsnews.ua, June 1, 2017; UNIAN, March 19, 2019).
To the extent it continues, this development will help Kyiv in its drive to build a national church and solidify the country’s independence. However, an even more important echo of Ukrainian autocephaly is now sounding within the borders of the Russian Federation, where the All-Cossack Social Center has formed its own Cossack Orthodox Apostolic Church and announced that it will seek a grant of autocephaly from the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople just as Kyiv has.
That may strike many as unthinkable: it certainly is for Putin partisans. But it has deep and completely understandable roots in the Soviet past. The Kremlin’s propaganda notwithstanding, Orthodoxy in Russia today is, if anything, even more divided than Orthodoxy in Ukraine. In the Russian Federation, there exist, of course, the officially supported but hollow Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and the largely tolerated and much more committed Old Believer communities. But there is also a popular and semi-underground “catacomb church,” which rejects the Soviet-captured and Kremlin-supported official Orthodox structure. The catacomb church is subject to increasing attack—and that has widespread support among Cossacks (Ostrova.org, accessed March 19; Windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com, March 11).
Behind this link up of the catacomb church and Cossacks in Russia is the rejection by the latter of the Moscow Patriarchate’s notion that Orthodox believers are “slaves of God.” Cossacks have never been anyone’s “slaves,” the organizers say; and they point to the existence of a separate and distinct Cossack church since the 18th century, when Russian rulers “completely destroyed the sovereignty of this special people,” Artur Priymak of NG Religii says (NG Religii, December 18, 2018).
Members of the Cossack church, the journalist continues, view Ivan Mazepa as a hero, want to canonize Bohdan Khmelnitsky, and insist on the rehabilitation of Grigory Semenov, Gerasim Vdovenko, Petr and Semen Krasnov, Andrey Shkuro, Gelmut von Pannwitz and “many other Cossack heroes killed by the Bolsheviks.” Its leaders expect to receive autocephaly from Constantinople Patriarch Bartholemew “on the model of Ukraine.” According to Priymak, the leaders of this church movement say that “the main population of Ukraine consists of ethnic Cossacks… [and the] Cossack church will not interfere in Ukrainian affairs.” The Cossacks of the Russian Federation are now ready “to conclude an alliance with any political force that calls for the recognition of the rights of the Cossack people,” a nation some estimate to include as many as five million in all. That makes the Cossacks the third largest nation in Russia, after the ethnic Russians and the Tatars (NG Religii, December 18, 2018).
The Cossack church does not yet have its own building, given Russian government opposition to it. But it has announced plans to build one in Podolsk “not far from the private Museum of the Anti-Bolshevik Resistance,” which is largely devoted to the efforts of the Cossacks to defeat Joseph Stalin during World War II, Priymak writes. For many in Russia and the West, this may seem an ethnographic curiosity, amusing but not terribly important. However, it is anything but. This is almost certainly the most likely and powerful way that the independence of the Ukrainian Church will undermine the unity of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate within the Russian Federation.
Were this independent Cossack church to legally take shape, it would deprive the Moscow Patriarchate of hundreds if not thousands of parishes, in addition to those the Russian Church is currently losing in Ukraine. Moreover, it would give Ukraine a powerful ally within Russia, one that would make it more difficult for the Kremlin to continue its aggression against Ukraine and its repression at home. And it would give Cossack nationalism a boost.
For all those reasons, Moscow is certain to crack down on the Russian Cossacks’ catacomb church. Yet, the consequences may go against the Russian authorities’ intent: The catacomb church will simply go more deeply underground, and its Cossack adherents will see this as yet another manifestation of the liquidation of their ancestors that Moscow conducted in the first decades of Soviet power. That will further raise “non-official” Russian Cossacks’ interest in developments in Kyiv (and vice versa) as well as provide one more reason to look to the Ukrainian model for the future.