The Kremlin’s ‘Holy War’ and Its Cossack Crusaders
Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 17
Western analysts have recently devoted much attention to the religious dimension of Russia’s war against Ukraine and the true measure of influence that Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church wields over President Vladimir Putin (see EDM, January 25). Moscow’s proposed unilateral ceasefire on January 6, the traditional date of Christmas in the Julian calendar used by the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches, may partly be read as a confirmation of the central role religion plays in the ongoing conflict (Mk.ru, January 6). Ostensibly, at least, the Russian side called for a ceasefire to afford soldiers on both sides “the opportunity to attend [religious] services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day” (Kremlin.ru, January 5). It may be that the seemingly antiquated religious element of the ceasefire was in fact a fig leaf to cover Russia’s desire to pause combat operations to regather its troops and replenish its heavily decimated manpower, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy alleged (Pravda.com.ua, January 5). Yet, even if this was the case, it remains significant that religious considerations formed the core of the Russian proposal.
Another feature seemingly belonging to an earlier era is the presence of Cossack warriors among the Russian forces fighting in Ukraine who resemble nothing so much as the Crusaders or Teutonic Knights. The number of Cossacks fighting in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, which is being fought over historically Cossack lands, has been increasing since the start of the invasion and now stands at 15,500 according to Cossack sources (Vsko.ru, December 31, 2022). This is nearly seven times more than expert estimates of the number of Chechen Kadyrovtsy and is second only to the 50,000 units from the Wagner Group (40,000 being early-release prisoners and the other 10,000 being contractors) reportedly fighting in Ukraine (see EDM, September 6, 2022; Kyiv Independent, January 20). It is somewhat surprising, then, that the Cossack presence in Ukraine has not attracted more discussion in the Western media.
Regardless, the religious element of Russia’s war is clearly crucial for those Cossacks loyal to the Kremlin. For instance, Don Cossacks were recently blessed by an Orthodox priest in a scene belonging to a bygone era. Indeed, “volunteers swore upon the Gospel to serve the Orthodox faith, the Don and the Fatherland. The military priest of the All-Great Don Host (Voiska), the abbot of the Ascension Cathedral of Novocherkassk, Archpriest Georgy Smorkalov, blessed the volunteers who took the decision to become Cossacks and lend a hand to the warriors performing military missions in the combat zone. He stressed the importance for every Orthodox Christian to remain true to their word, despite any external circumstances. Since October 2022, more than 100 have been mobilized from Rostov Oblast and other regions of Russia have joined the All-Great Don Host” (Vsko.ru, January 1). The religious sanction for the war may strike analysts as incidental, especially in light of the reported human rights abuses being carried out by Russian troops in places like Bucha, but it should not be discounted (Ukrinform, December 15, 2022). If nothing else, it underlines the fundamentally emotional stakes at play for the Russians, as well as for Putin himself.
Moreover, clearly the entire social Cossack world is currently being re-ordered (or re-enchanted) along the lines of religious understandings. For example, Nikolai Doluda, the ataman of the All-Russian Cossack Society, gave thanks to Cossack women on “the Day of the Cossack Mother, [which] has been celebrated on the great Orthodox feast of the Entry of the Most Holy Virgin into the Temple. The Mother of God has long been considered the patroness of women and motherhood. To Her, the mother’s heart rushes in prayer for her child and receives solace.” Doluda, continuing with the religious theme, also declared, “A Cossack mother, before all else, is responsible before God for the moral purity and spiritual strength of her children. It is the mother who establishes in her children cultural values, attitudes to the world, to good and to evil. … Hard work, respect for elders, rejection of laziness and mismanagement has been throughout time and remains an unwritten law of Cossack life” (Vsko.ru, December 3, 2022). The increasing emphasis on the role of the Cossacks in re-ordering social life and the creation of yet another host in Russia imply that the Cossacks will be instrumental in enforcing religious norms on the Russian people (see EDM, January 9).
Furthermore, the connection to Christian Orthodoxy, the dominant religion in Russia, helps to make sense of the significant social support for the war effort. In November 2022, it was reported that as many as 75 percent of those Russians surveyed expressed support for the war, a figure that suggests the broad influence of religious narratives on Russian society (DonPress.com, November 20, 2022). Granted, significant social pressures encourage Russians not to oppose the war, coming from a sense of patriotic duty and an unhealthy does of propaganda. Even so, if the percentage is accurate, or even close to the real figure, this level of support is surprisingly high. Thus, if this hypothesis is correct, then the image of those Cossacks loyal to Moscow as “Orthodox Crusaders” acquires even greater significance.
Ultimately, such analysis implies that a ceasefire, let alone peace, will be hard to achieve. Even if the conflict becomes “frozen,” the fault line between Western and Eastern Christianity (to use Samuel Huntington’s term) may become somewhat similar to the religious tones of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.