Moscow Views Cossacks as Both Opportunity and Threat

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 16 Issue: 12

On May 29, the well-known Cossack ataman Yuri Churekov was arrested in Stavropol region. Investigators suspect Churekov of illegal arms operations. Reportedly, on April 28, Churekov and another individual sold two Kalashnikov automatic rifles to undercover government agents in the city of Goryachevodsk, Churekov’s hometown. When the police stopped the ataman’s car near the city of Stavropol, they allegedly found three Kalashnikovs and a dozen hand grenades. Churekov presumably obtained the cache of weapons in eastern Ukraine and intended to resell them in Russia (TASS, June 3). According to the newspaper Kommersant, Churekov had a dozen Kalashnikovs in his car and regularly visited eastern Ukraine, where weapons are quite cheap (Kommersant, June 2).

Churekov’s supporters, however, assert that he is being persecuted by the government for his political views, which often contradict official Russian policies. The opposition Cossack ataman is one of the best known Cossack leaders in southern Russia. Churekov has been politically active since the 1990s. Cossack groups under his command have repeatedly protested against government actions and did not succumb to Moscow’s pressure to unite all the Cossacks under a single commander. Churekov left the government-sponsored “registered” Cossack forces to found his own Cossack organization. He has had a tendency to be a right-wing Russian nationalist, arguing for a more robust response to what he has called “the Islamic threat” from the populations of the North Caucasus, who happen to also be Russian citizens. However, the side of his public activities that probably most troubled Moscow was seeking protection of the rights of Cossacks. In 2010, Churekov became one of the founders of the movement Russian Unity of the Caucasus (REKA). In 2011, he founded a new organization, Kavkazskaya Kazachya Liniya (Caucasus Cossack Line), which has its central office in the city of Pyatigorsk, Stavropol region. Unlike many other Cossack organizations, Churekov’s organization was focused on securing the rebirth of the Cossack nation (, June 4).

While Moscow undoubtedly wants to use the Cossacks for various political ends, it certainly does not want the Cossacks to become an autonomous political force (see EDM, June 1). For that reason, popular and charismatic Cossack leaders who speak and act against Moscow’s policies are quickly taken down. Churekov is not the only example. Vladimir Melikhov, another Cossack leader from the Rostov region, reported last month that government agents had prevented him from leaving Russia. Melikhov planned to attend the opening of a memorial to the repressed Cossacks in Lienz, Austria. In 1945, the Western powers handed over scores of Cossacks to Joseph Stalin’s regime, after which they were shot dead. Melikhov reported that border guards at a Moscow airport cut a page out of his passport and rendered his travel document invalid. Two other Cossack leaders from Rostov who planned to attend the same ceremony were also reportedly detained by the police and prevented from leaving Russia (Facebook, May 29). Apparently, the history of the Soviet authorities’ repression against the Cossacks is not something the Russian authorities would like them to remember now.

The opposition of Cossack leaders like Yuri Churekov to the Russian government is fairly mild. In fact, like other moderate opposition figures in Russia, the Cossack opposition figures in most cases are opposed to the Russian bureaucratic apparatus but profess loyalty to the president of Russia. Churekov, for example, reportedly proposed granting the status of Russia’s Emperor to Vladimir Putin in 2014. However, Churekov’s organization Kazachya Kavkazskaya Liniya is built on the premise of “not serving the state, but proclaiming the rebirth of the free Cossacks as a nation.” In Moscow’s eyes, this latter proposition trumps the loyalty to President Putin that Cossacks are quick to declare. Interestingly, Churekov also planned to visit the memorial ceremony in Lienz, so his arrest may be linked to Moscow’s displeasure with bringing up the Soviet repression of the Cossacks in an international forum. Both Melikhov and Churekov are known as “Cossack separatists”—leaders who regard the Cossacks as a separate nation—so it is hardly a coincidence that both encountered problems with law enforcement agencies on the same day, May 29 (Kavkazskaya Politika, June 3).

Since Cossacks have participated in various armed conflicts in the Caucasus and more recently the conflict in Ukraine, they often have weapons. Moreover, even when they are arrested, they are normally not severely punished by the government (, June 4). The exception to this is when the government is seeking to remove an unwanted Cossack leader.

The paradox of the situation is that Moscow wants the Cossacks to be strong and defend Russia’s interests in the North Caucasus as ethnic Russians increasingly leave the region. At the same time, however, Moscow wants the Cossack leaders to be acquiescent and obedient to the government. In Moscow’s view, proponents of a Cossack identity that is separate from the ethnic Russian identity threaten the unity of the ethnic Russian nation and the Russian state itself. So while pliant Cossack forces are supported and even valued by the Russian government, independent Cossack leaders are held back and suppressed. Because the most charismatic and strongest Cossack leaders are replaced with figures who are obedient to Moscow but unpopular among Cossacks, no robust Cossack force exists to defend Moscow’s interests in the North Caucasus.