On January 24, 1919, the Bolshevik government launched a drive to exterminate the leadership of the Cossacks in Russia, viewing them as ineluctably hostile to the revolution. The original order was secret and specified that Bolsheviks should go after the atamans and other leaders of the Cossacks; but as the campaign spread, it was not so limited. Both Communist activists and Red Army soldiers engaged in one of history’s most thorough exterminations of a people. Tens of thousands of Cossacks were murdered, and many more had their homes and traditional way of life destroyed, a situation that did not end with the conclusion of the Russian Civil War but continued until World War II, when Joseph Stalin, desperate to mobilize all elements he could against Nazi Germany, created the first Soviet Cossack units.
These special military units did not outlast the war, however, and discrimination against the Cossacks continued, with Soviet officials refusing to allow them to maintain their own communities and insisting that they be counted as ethnic Russians in censuses. In recent years, Vladimir Putin has sought to take control of the Cossack “brand”; he has tried to utilize those who agree to work for him to help suppress opposition movements. Yet this cooperation with the state comes at the price of those “favored” Cossack groups dropping any pretensions to being a separate nation instead of simply a social stratum within the Russian one. However, because of the Soviet liquidation of the Cossacks a century ago and because many Cossacks are not willing to accept Putin’s position, the deeply and increasingly divided contemporary Cossacks remain a serious problem for the regime.
In the Russian Federation today, there exist two groups of people referred to as “Cossacks.” The first consists of approximately 3 million–5 million people who trace their ancestors to the 13 Cossack hosts of the imperial period and celebrate their tradition as free men. According to many scholars, their collective name in fact refers to that tradition. These Cossacks generally consider themselves a distinctive ethnic group with their own culture and language, and they live under leaders (atamans), whom they have elected for themselves. Members of the second (and much smaller) group, perhaps no more than 100,000 in total, have no link to these Cossack traditions besides the name they claim and the fancy uniforms they wear. They take money and orders from the Kremlin; in many cases, they are little more than armed enforcers, routinely used as irregular forces against protesters. Unlike the first group, they have been stripped of any freedom to choose their atamans or the rules their communities must live by (see EDM, August 9, 2018 and July 18, 2019).
The anniversary of the January 1919 “de-Cossackization” decree is ever more important to the independent Cossacks and increasingly corrosive of Putin’s efforts to take exclusive control over that community. This year is especially important for at least three reasons:
First, the Kremlin has tightened its command over the “officially registered Cossacks,” thus sending a strong message to them about where things are headed. This has alienated many of them, while ensuring that those who do not join Putin’s pseudo-Cossacks will become more demanding (see EDM, January 22, 2021).
Second, Moscow is seeking to ensure that the Cossacks are counted as ethnic Russians during the 2021 census (delayed from 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic) rather than as a separate nation with its own rights. This sets the stage for yet more disputes about the status of the community after the results are released (see EDM, March 28, 2017; Yandex Zen, January 25, 2021).
And third, the Cossacks, who came relatively late to the internet, are now “very online,” using both social media and webpages to describe what they assert remains a largely “forgotten genocide.” Moreover, they insist that Cossacks and all people of good will must remember what happened, including the mass murders of men, mass rapes of women, and mass starvation of Cossacks in all age groups in what was, they assert, the first “ethnic cleansing” of the Soviet period (Facebook.com, , January 23). These bloggers and online personalities are urging both Cossacks and others to remember because, in their words, “the fate of the Cossacks is the fate of Russia”—a fate that may be linked to regular Russians but is wholly separate from the personal fortunes of the isolated current ruler in the Kremlin (Kavkaz Segodnya, January 22).
Recent events in Krasnodar (historically, Kuban) have shown just how extensively tensions among and concerning the Cossacks are now surfacing. On January 23, during the Russian opposition’s pro–Alexei Navalny protests and just one day before the anniversary of the Soviet de-Cossackization decree, someone defaced a local statue honoring a Cossack that had been erected earlier. The act of vandalism sparked a debate over whether this was a provocation by officials seeking to divide the protesters or whether it was intended to force the authorities to define their position on the Cossacks, “registered” or not. Lawyers for the Cossacks have brought suit in a regional court to try to find out. But what is already clear from the media coverage of the incident is that no court session is going to calm the situation or allow Moscow to continue to act as if it has all the Cossacks in its pocket (Kavkazr.com, January 26; Kuban24.tv, Slavakubani.ru, January 23).
At a minimum, more Cossacks are now going to be asking whether they can trust a regime that has still not consistently denounced the 1919 decree and could decide they must declare themselves Cossacks by nationality in the upcoming census. Some of them, in becoming more nationally self-conscious, may even seek the restoration of their national territories, something that could destabilize the already tense North Caucasus, or even demand that they be given a state either within or beyond the borders of the Russian Federation (see EDM, February 21, 2019).