The ataman (head) of the Kuban Cossack voisko (army), Nikolay Doluda, reported that a National Guard platoon made up entirely of Cossacks is being created in Krasnodar Krai. This Cossack National Guard platoon will eventually be scaled up to a company, a battalion or even a regiment, Doluda claimed (VK Press, March 1). If the experiment is successful, the Kremlin will finally be able to solve a problem Russian officials have been struggling with continually since the collapse of the Soviet Union: how to include Cossack “communities” in the existing system of power, which still at least has the veneer of democratic form.
In tsarist Russia, the Cossacks were a separate class of peasant-warriors, who even in peacetime maintained a military organization and were ready to go to war with no mobilization period. Cossacks became a symbol of Russian military victories in the 19th century. In the early 20th century, they were used not only on the battlefield, but also to suppress popular protests at home. However, the Cossacks, whom tsars granted land ownership, did not accept Bolshevik power. A counter-revolutionary White movement began in 1918 on their lands. The Communist government responded with mass terror, killing thousands of people. The system of Cossacks self-government was destroyed and their right to land was taken away. Only in 1936 were they allowed to serve in the army again.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, many people began to associate themselves with Cossacks, indicating that their ancestors were members of this group (see EDM, October 7, 2015; July 13, 2016; March 28, 2017). Cossack organizations have emerged in almost all regions of the country—even areas where Cossack communities had never historically settled, such as St. Petersburg, Moscow or Kaliningrad. Most importantly, these people demanded privileges, including permission to carry weapons and wear military uniforms, as well as special priority rights to land in southern Russia, where real estate is especially expensive.
The relationship between the Cossacks and the Russian state has often been contradictory. On the one hand, Russian law emphasizes that “the Cossack society is a voluntary association of citizens of the Russian Federation in the form of a non-profit organization, formed in accordance with federal legislation, entered into the state register of Cossack societies in the Russian Federation” (Minjust.ru, February 19). Thus from a legal point of view, Cossacks are nothing more than one of many non-commercial voluntary associations inside Russia. Formally it should not differ from a registered philatelist or bird-watchers’ association.
But on the other hand, Cossack society is explicitly structured to resemble an army. A Council for Cossack Affairs Under the President exists and coordinates the activities of 11 major regional organizations (troops). The Russian president has given these “troops” emblems and banners. Cossacks have also received uniforms, military ranks as well as special certificates, similar to a state military card. The commander-in-chief assigns the Cossack chiefs the rank of general. Moreover, the representative of the president in the each federal district is allowed to bestow senior officer ranks to local Cossacks. Further centralization of Cossack organizations will be strengthened in the near future. Illustratively, the Kremlin invited the leaders of the Cossacks to unite under an all-Russian Cossack army, and the president will appoint an all-Russian ataman with a standing General Staff (Minjust.ru, February 19).
The Russian state spends considerable funds to maintain so-called Cossack “communities.” In particular, it plans to allocate 765 million rubles ($13.5 million) from the federal budget until 2025 to create “a system of government-public partnerships” with the Russian Cossacks (Kazak-center.ru December 3, 2016). And local Rostov region authorities plan to spend more than two billion rubles ($35 million) for three years (2017–2019) on Cossacks (Vestnik Kavkaza December 1, 2016).
The irony, however, lies in the fact that the Cossack organizations, though structurally built on the army principle, have no obvious or legal links to the regular Russian Armed Forces. The persistent statements of Cossacks leaders that their organizations are preparing young people for service in the Armed Forces remain empty words. In the 1990s, several military units received the name “Cossack.” But in 2010, amidst comprehensive military reform, 13 of those were disbanded. The reason for the disbandment of the “Cossack” military units is clear—few if any “registered Cossacks” actually served in those titular units, or really any other regular military units. According to then-chief of the General Staff, Nikolai Makarov, about 30,000 men of military service age were members of the “Don Army.” But only five hundred of them served in the Russian Armed Forces. The number of men from Cossack societies who served in the regular military’s “Cossack” units “was just over 2 percent” (Nezavisimoye Voennoe Obozreniye, February 19, 2010).
Since the mid-2000s, reports of the formation of “Cossack” units has virtually disappeared from the press. It is obvious that they are still not being manned by registered Russian Cossacks. Therefore, the state has had to support a paramilitary structure. Unlike the Russian tsars of the past, the Kremlin has not been able to encourage the Cossacks to willingly serve in the military. However, Cossacks remain valuable to the Kremlin for their readiness to show “patriotism”: they have been willing to participate in attacks on members of the opposition, such as Alexei Navalny (RBC, May 17, 2016), and Cossacks participated in the annexation of Crimea (UGA, March 18, 2015). Moreover, their regional organizations have recruited volunteers to participate in the wars in Donbas and Syria (RFE/RL, February 22, 2018).
Clearly, Cossacks do not consider it necessary to replenish the Russian Armed Forces. Instead, they have much greater interest in law enforcement, which is paid by local authorities. So in the cities of Krasnodar region, several thousand Cossacks regularly go out on patrol, and are paid about 20,000 rubles ($300) per month. Members of Cossack communities are particularly active in “maintaining order” at shopping centers and markets. This preference strongly suggests they are there to extort money from entrepreneurs for “protection.” In Moscow, Cossacks even signed a contract with district military Commissariats to search for recruits evading their mandatory army service (Newsru.com, March 11, 2015).
And now, finally, the government has managed to combine its political interests with the economic interests of the Cossacks. The Kremlin formed the National Guard to suppress protests in the country (see EDM, April 7, 2016), and Cossack atamans are ready to participate. For many in Russia, the historical associations at work here are clear.