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Russia: Cossack Revival Gathers Momentum

  • Robert Parsons --> They once formed the elite guard of a succession of Russian tsars and had a reputation as the fiercest soldiers in the imperial armed forces. Now, after decades of repression under communism, the Cossacks are making a comeback. Not only has Russian President Vladimir Putin has called on parliament to pass a bill formalizing the practice of recruiting Cossacks for service in the army, police and border guards, but his own presidential guard now includes two squadrons of Cossack cavalry. RFE/RL reports on a development that is making some Russians feel distinctly uneasy.

Prague, 5 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Are you big, strong, moderately educated, and of distinctly Slavic appearance? Say "yes" and you could be in line for a job. These are just some of the key requirements demanded of the Russian president's newly created elite equestrian guard.

One more is that you have to be a fully registered Cossack.

Not that there has been any shortage of applicants. Twenty-five new recruits to the guard have just taken up residence in their Kremlin quarters -- all of them drawn from the Kuban region of southern Russia, one of the traditional strongholds of the Cossack borderlands.

The creation of the cavalry units coincides with legislation passing through the Duma that would institutionalize the practice, now well established, of recruiting Cossacks to serve in the army and police units -- often in an informal capacity. Cossack vigilante groups have become an established feature of life in southern Russia.

The legislation, though, would take things a stage further by granting registered Cossack organizations the right to select members for service in designated Cossack military units.
"Russia is a country which is still groping painfully for a national project and self-identification as a nation."

Aleksandr Golts, a military expert and deputy editor of "Yezhednevnyi Zhurnal," is among those who give the plans a cautious welcome.

"If our authorities have decided to form special Cossack detachments, it's a brilliant idea and we can only applaud," Golts said. "Look at the British tradition of forming regiments from one place. But we have a lot of examples of inadequate approach of Cossacks, their self-understanding as supermen, and we have a lot of examples of them organizing something like lynch-courts. What we badly need is to put this Cossack movement in some civilized limits."

The sight of Cossack cavalry guards dressed in full military splendor and mounted on horseback can be guaranteed to stir national pride and draw in crowds of admiring tourists. But the question arises: Why is Russia still looking for symbols from its distant past?

"Russia is a country which is still groping painfully for a national project and self-identification as a nation," said Masha Lipman, an analsyt at the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. "If we compare Russia with other postcommunist countries, they opt for Europe as their future. Not Russia; Russia is very uncertain about what its future is about. Having gone astray on its way to find its own identity, it has naturally turned to the past rather than to the future, because the future is so uncertain and the present is so discouraging."

But it is not just the anachronistic nature of the Cossack movement that disturbs critics.

In southern Russia, Cossack paramilitary units have figured prominently in violent campaigns to persecute and expel ethnic minorities and illegal immigrants -- often with tacit official approval.

Edgar Saroyan, a correspondent with the RIA-Novosti news agency in the Northern Caucasus, which includes some of the Cossack territories, said he fears the worst.

"Unfortunately, today's Russian authorities fail to understand one simple thing: What they call the Cossack movement does not really exist because the Cossacks were effectively destroyed by Soviet power in the twenties and thirties," Saroyan said. "Those people who today call themselves Cossacks are mostly people who can't make good use for their lives, among them many with criminal records and ex-Communist Youth league and Communist Party members -- in short, people who are trying by one means or another to into power."

If new legislation were to arm the Cossacks, he said, the North Caucasus, which includes war-torn Chechnya, could be torn by violence.

"As for legislation, according to which they want to arm the Cossacks, the consequences for the North Caucasus would be irreversible," Saroyan said. "Even now, when the Cossacks have no such rights, they are still trying to persecute the indigenous population with their document checks, whips and so on. That's why I think it would be wrong under any circumstances to arm these people. It would lead to real confrontation."

President Putin, however, does not appear to be listening. The rehabilitation of the Cossacks as the armed support of the state continues apace.