Tatarstani Cossacks Enter Government Service

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 127

Cossacks helping patrol Sevastopol (Source: UNIAN)

Although not commonly associated with the Cossacks, the city of Kazan (in the ethnic republic of Tatarstan, historically a Muslim region) played host, in mid-June, to a meeting of the regional coordination center for Cossack revival. The meeting was attended by the Cossack Party of the Russian Federation, the Union of Cossack Soldiers From Russia and Abroad, and the Kazan Cossack Society. As the ataman (leader) of the Cossack Society in Kazan, 38-year old sales representative Eugene Trenin, explained in an interview to the Kazan Evening Post that there are an estimated 250 “ethnic Cossacks” living in Tatarstan but many more amateurs, who look on the Cossacks as a cultural movement. The Kazan Cossacks are a part of the Volga Cossack Host and are in the process of seeking registration with the authorities in order to provide service to the state. “Service” can mean anything from fighting forest fires to maintaining public order, according to Trenin. In autumn, Kazan will host a series of seminars to increase awareness of Cossack traditions and the basics of martial arts (Kazan Evening Post, June 18). The Cossacks are officially coordinated through a department of the Russian Orthodox Church, although priests and atamans in both Moscow and Kazan told the author on numerous occasions throughout June 2015 that it was possible to be a Muslim Cossack as well.

Cossacks first came to Tatarstan following the conquest of Kazan by Ivan the Terrible, and they lived there performed the duties of irregular troops. The descendants of those resettled Cossacks remobilized in the early post-Soviet period as a reaction to mounting Tatar nationalism. Fearing a repeat of the kind of ethnic cleansing witnessed in the former Yugoslavia, Cossacks gathered weapons and prepared to fight (Author’s interview notes, June 2015). In recent years, there have been some low-simmering tensions in the Republic of Tatarstan, such as a spate of arson attacks on a number of local churches (, November 30, 2013; see EDM, February 19, 2014), but this is all a far cry from the widespread fears of the 1990s. Still, Cossacks have begun to guard Russian Orthodox Churches in and around the city of Chistopol (, December 12, 2013).

Now, two recent developments hint at a seemingly increasing threat of radical Islam to Russian society. First, the influence of the Islamic State is growing in the North Caucasus. According to some reports, the Islamic State now has greater influence amongst the rebels than the Caucasus Emirate (see EDM, January 8). Second, news regularly emerges about Russian citizens joining the Islamic State of their own volition, such as 19-year old Russian student Varvara Karaulova, who was captured in Syria trying to join this extremist organization (see EDM, June 12). The authorities are, therefore, likely at least partially concerned by the prospect of militant Islamists gaining ground in the Volga republics. The presence of a Cossack social movement in the Republic of Tatarstan, on the other hand, could be used as a means to try to resist any such radical sentiments, should they emerge.

On a national level, the quasi-official Cossack social movement (distinct from the disputed ethnic label of “Cossack”—see EDM, June 10) may just as easily provide the regime with an additional means of ensuring stability in the Russian Federation. Indeed, the new conservatism of the Vladimir Putin regime arguably exhibits two major social pillars: first, the Russian Orthodox Church (see Hot Issue, August 8, 2014), and second, the Cossacks (see EDM, June 1). But following a series of scandals involving priests in the city of Kazan and homosexual activity with young choirboys (, December 15, 2013), the Church has lost a great deal of its moral authority in Russia. This means the Cossacks are emerging as the popular face of the regime and the image of conservativism in Russian society.

The Cossacks are famously loyal to the Russian state, including President Putin (see EDM, June 1), and see providing order as one of the ways in which they may be most useful. The law “about the participation of citizens in public order” came into force on July 2, 2014, and gave pro-Kremlin youth groups, such as Nashi, and the Cossacks the right to patrol cities throughout the Russian Federation. Notably, Cossack groups patrolled the streets in Sochi during the 2014 Winter Olympics (see EDM, January 29). The druzhiniki practice of citizen policing has precursors in the Soviet period, when similar patrols would assist the Communist authorities. Under the law, citizen patrols may order offenders to cease illegal activity, protect the scenes of accidents, assist the police, and use force through procedures established by law. Members of citizen patrols are not, however, allowed to check papers or detain civilians they suspect of a crime.

While laws about social groups assisting the police have existed for as many as 20 years in particular regions of the Russian Federation, the national July 2014 legislation replaces the patchwork quilt of such regional laws (, July 9, 2014). For example, Cossacks began patrolling the streets of Moscow in November 2012, with the chief of the department of Cossack Affairs for Moscow, Leonid Makurov, promising to create groups of about 50 Cossacks for each administrative region of the capital (, November 26, 2012). This summer, Cossacks will patrol Moscow beaches and parks, including Kuzmensky, Tsartsino, Sokolniki and Kolomeskie parks (Vzglyad, May 20). Cossacks are also helping to maintain order through street patrols in the new federal city of Sevastopol, which was illegally annexed from Ukraine last year (, April 16). The recent meeting in Kazan that brought Cossacks into state service in the Republic of Tatarstan should, therefore, be understood in light of developments concerning the national movement as a whole.