The return of the Cossacks

Issue 

By Irina Glushchenko

MOSCOW — Late at night in a town in southern Russia, two youths are breaking into a car. Suddenly they are disturbed. They take to their heels, but are run down; they gasp with fear, because the squad of men in peaked caps, knee-boots and military-style tunics who have captured them are not members of the police. The would-be thieves are quickly stripped to the waist and held stretched out over a car bonnet. From behind his belt one of their captors pulls out a heavy leather whip ...

Across a broad area centred on Rostov Province, the streets in urban centres of southern Russia are more and more often patrolled not by the grey-uniformed militia, but by self-appointed vigilantes meting out harsh summary justice. Seventy years after their organisations were suppressed by the Soviet government, the Cossacks are reasserting their identity.

Often, their aim is not to supplement the local authorities but to replace them. And increasing numbers of Cossacks are becoming involved in armed violence — for which there are ample opportunities along the frontiers of Russia and the Ukraine.

Who are the Cossacks? Not a nationality, but descendants of a tsarist-era warrior caste. Ethnically they are Russians, the descendants of runaway serfs who settled hundreds of years ago on the steppe lands of southern Russia and in Siberia.

For centuries Cossack farmers were Russia's only legal smallholders, their freedom tolerated by the tsars in exchange for periods of service as mounted shock troops operating first against raiding steppe nomads, and later against workers, Jews and other "suspect" elements of the Russian population.

That, at least, is the historical definition. But there are many young Russians with little or no Cossack ancestry who are fascinated by the thought of sewing a stripe down their trousers and taking to the streets as defenders of "authentic Russian values".

The Cossacks began to rediscover their heritage during the perestroika period. Some of them pulled faded Cossack garb out of family trunks, while others donned newly made uniforms. To the dismay of other citizens, they began wielding their traditional whips.

As time went on, Cossack formations began playing an increasing role in local life, especially in their traditional heartland, the River Don region. Cossacks volunteered to "maintain order" at meetings and demonstrations, and to watch over cars and other property. Claiming authority to prevent Russians from going hungry, they held up consignments of foodstuffs being exported from southern Russia to Transcaucasia.

At times their relations with local authorities settled into an uneasy truce, but in many cases Cossacks became involved in clashes with the police.

In the city of Stavropol in the North Caucasus, around 30 court cases are in progress in connection with illegal acts by local Cossacks. In Krasnodar, a civil court action has been brought demanding an end to the activity of the Kuban Cossack forces.

As Nezavisimaya Gazeta reported recently, "The forces are accused ... of seizing the building of the regional and city Councils of Veterans; of demolishing a monument to Lenin; of issuing calls for the overthrow of the Soviet of People's Deputies ... The forces have ceased displaying the characteristics of a civic body, taking on those of a paramilitary organisation."

According to Cossack leaders, more than a million people have now enlisted in the movement, which Russian leaders have treated with respectful care and, at times, encouragement.

The government last year made little effort to stop Cossack volunteers pouring into Moldova to help defend Russian-speaking separatists in the Dnestr region. Cossacks have also been involved in the fighting in the Georgian region of Abkhazia, and some have reportedly ventured further abroad to fight with their "Slav brothers", the Serbs of Bosnia.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin has actively courted Cossack support. In March he issued a decree which

spoke favourably of restoring certain Cossack privileges, and which granted a demand by Cossacks for the right to create border guard formations in the army.

This decree drew sharp criticism in the Russian parliament. The chair of the Council of Nationalities of the Supreme Soviet, R. Abdulatipov, warned that it would bring civil war in the Caucasus one step closer. "In a form which is insulting in the first place to the Cossacks themselves", Moscow News quoted Abdulatipov as saying, "the president's decree declares this social group to be a police force. The fragile peace between the Cossacks and the mountain nationalities is in danger of being shattered."

The decree had no sooner been signed than the situation in Rostov Province grew more acute. "The Don Cossacks are no longer hiding their aims: to take power in their own name, and to establish Cossack autonomy in the Don region within the boundaries of 1919", Rossiyskaya Gazeta wrote in March.

Granting Cossack organisations control over their former territories would, of course, violate the rights of large numbers of residents who do not belong to the Cossack movement or identify with its traditions. "Cossack rule ... is incompatible with the rule of law, and lays the basis for discrimination against the non-Cossack minority", argues Oleg Orlov, a member of the Committee on Human Rights of the Russian Federation.

Yeltsin's decree was blocked by the Congress of People's Deputies. However, the Cossack movement has continued its fight. In April the local authorities in Rostov Province signed an agreement with Cossack leaders under which traditional privileges will gradually be restored.