Growing Presence of Cossacks in 2021; Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 12

By: Richard Arnold

The role of Cossack organizations in Russian life will likely grow in 2021, as last month’s Presidential Council for Cossack Affairs (PCCA) meeting demonstrated. The council’s deputy chairman and presidential adviser, Anatoliy Seryshev, outlined concrete steps in the 2021–2030 strategy to develop Cossack formations after the meeting. Among the important tasks for 2021 are drafting a bill regarding Cossacks’ service, the consolidation of Cossack societies and public organizations, attracting young people to Cossack formations and forming a personnel reserve of the All-Russian Cossack Society (Kremlin.ru, December 8, 2020). The Cossacks remain an important force in Russian society, with around 180,000 people registered as such and about 2,000 civic organizations. Officially, there are 12 “hosts” (regional formations) and 9,500 Cossacks are engaged in protecting public order—around 900 are helping secure Russia’s borders and nearly 2,000 are prepared to serve in the event of ecological catastrophe. The ministry of defense has discussed the idea of paying Cossacks who serve in the military and has ordered compensation for those injured in the line of duty (Rossiiskaya Gazeta.ru, December 8, 2020).

Although there are people with Cossack heritage in Russia, most members of Cossack organizations are not necessarily their descendants: one evidently becomes a Cossack by donning the uniform. Thus, the interpretation of what it means to be a Cossack is very diverse. Given that such diversity presents a challenge to the control of the Cossack movement, part of the plan for developing the Cossacks from 2021–2030 is through education. At the PCCA meeting, Russian Education and Science Minister, Valery Falkov, discussed the “preparation of a unified concept of instruction in history,” including a series of all-Russian conferences on Cossack history. These conferences would also include the participation of Cossacks (Kremlin.ru, August 27, 2020).

A later statement on the ministry of science’s website detailed that it has planned “13 scientific studies and seven all-Russian scientific and practical conferences. The subject of these conferences would cover a wide range of issues, including the concepts of the Cossacks’ origin, the first reference to the Cossacks, the life and customs of the first Cossacks and the development of Siberia. The statement also outlines that the Center for Military History of Russia at the Russian Academy of Sciences will have a special sector dedicated to Russian Cossack history. Such questions are important for the future preparation of youth cadres at “Cossack schools and other educational organizations [as well as] the need to update the experience of regional universities and develop an action plan for 2021–2023” (Minobrnauki.gov.ru, December 4, 2020). From being a onetime fringe movement mostly confined to Russia’s south in the 1990s, the state-organized Cossacks seem to be expanding their role. As Russia’s state-organized Cossack troops are ultra-loyal, this could suggest nervousness on the regime’s part, fearing potential insurrection in the future.

The Cossacks provide one example of such a role in recently-annexed Crimea, where some analysts see them as part of the “militarization of children and young people” (see EDM, January 6, 2021). In 2021, a “special intensive school for Cossack cadets” will be opening in the Black Sea region of Crimea. Anton Sirotkin, ataman of the Black Sea Cossack host, declared that the school’s purpose would be to teach Cossacks’ history based on Christian Orthodoxy, horse riding, and the handling of light weapons. The Crimean authorities also announced the establishment of a military-patriotic center in the Saky district, where children will receive instruction from Cossacks. A state institution called “Cossacks of Crimea” was established in October 2020. The deputy chairperson of the Russian government of Crimea, Elena Romanovskaya, emphasized that it would conduct cultural events and military training. According to the Crimean authorities, there are around 5,000 Cossacks on the peninsula. However, it is not clear how many identify themselves as “ethnic” Cossacks compared to those who impersonate Cossack customs. While Crimea was historically a place of Cossack settlement, the Russian state has recently developed imitations of Cossack groups who assist in providing public security and public order.

Sergei Akimov, leader of the public organization Crimean Cossacks, believes that the militarization of the Cossacks by the Russian authorities is unnatural and that the movement in Crimea is in decline. “Let them create these Cossack classes, but these are children who just wear uniforms and do not understand anything,” he said. “There were cadets corps in Ukraine in Simferopol and Alushta, but both disappeared with Russia’s arrival. Now hundreds of millions are allocated for this purpose.” The article continues to suggest that such monies serve to hire the unemployed and create a force loyal to the state (ru.krymr.com, December 22, 2020). The institutionalization of Cossack troops in Crimea arguably foreshadows the rebirth of genuine Cossack identity throughout the Russian Federation and hints at the authorities’ trepidation about potential protests in the year ahead.

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