Jun 24 2013
The once-feared tsarist horsemen have a new role as the country’s most controversial civil servants. As traditional Russian values come under threat from opponents who would supplant them with ‘foreign/Muslim’ ones, the fighting Cossack culture is enjoying more prominence than ever, thanks largely to increasing support from the state and a growing ideological rift between Kremlin critics and supporters.
Global Post The Cossacks pride themselves on their warrior tradition. With the Kremlin placing renewed emphasis on conservative and nationalist values since President Vladimir Putin’s reelection last year, they have often appeared on the frontlines of the authorities’ struggle against the urban-based, middle class-backed opposition — and on the side of the conservative majority.
Cossacks are also increasingly taking up roles as ordinary civil servants. In the past year and a half, they have organized neighborhood patrols in Moscow and chased away vagrants and illegal traders from the streets, although they’re unable to detain anyone, or even check documents. (What they really need to chase away are swarms of muslims praying in streets of Moscow like this)
Some have also enlisted as volunteer firefighters with the Emergency Situations Ministry. Others run a variety of youth programs aimed at everything from “patriotic education” to military-style training.
In the Cossacks’ ancestral homeland of southern Russia, volunteers have joined forces with regional administrations to run their own law enforcement patrols alongside regular police, a controversial effort to keep peace on the streets in a region fraught with ethnic tensions between Muslims and ethnic Russians.
Viktor Zaplatin, Nenarokov’s superior and the head — or “ataman” — of the Moscow City Cossack Society, says the movement has risen from its Soviet-era ashes to take up its traditional role of “serving the state.” Gone are the days when Cossacks were reduced to little more than mythical, mustachioed horsemen written into Russians’ collective imagination by the likes of Tolstoy, he says. “This isn’t about putting on song-and-dance shows or perpetuating folklore,” he says, “but developing the practice of maintaining public order.”
Growing state support has fed the Cossacks’ newfound importance. Those who belong to one of Russia’s 11 federally registered Cossack organizations — including the Central Cossack Army, to which Zaplatin’s group is subordinated — are officially recognized as volunteer civil servants, whose status and activities are regulated to some degree by a federal law signed in 2005.
Their renaissance has coincided with a rise in ultra-nationalism. Nationalist Muscovites have appropriated Unity Day — which Putin instituted as a national holiday in 2005 — to stage the Russian March, when thousands come out to denounce the steady flow of mostly Muslim migrant workers to the capital, often with obscene slogans. Although racist hate crimes have subsided recently, they remain startlingly prevalent.
Last fall, Putin — who’s reportedly an honorary Cossack colonel — signed a strategy for the development of Russian Cossacks until 2020. It’s aimed at setting out economic and logistic terms for even closer cooperation between Cossacks and the government.
In exchange, the Cossacks provide legions of ready-made public service professionals with years of experience. True to the Cossack tradition, many of those who belong to a registered society in Russia have served — or currently serve — in the armed forces or in one of the so-called “security structures,” such as the Interior Ministry. About 40 percent of the military’s officer corps is made up of Cossacks.
“The role of the Cossacks in the near future will be that of a national guard, like the Italian Carabinieri,” he says. “It’ll be more like a national militia, rather than a police force per se.”
As the Cossacks take an increasingly visible role in Russian mainstream society, critics are warning about their reputation as armed, nationalistic militiamen, who in their pre-revolutionary days perpetrated pogroms against Jews and conducted vicious raids on Muslim communities in the Caucasus Mountains.