Cossack battalions are fighting at the front. An estimated 27,000
Cossacks having rotated through service. They are also delivering humanitarian aid to fighters and civilians alike. The rebirth is reflected by several developments.
First, a new bill
that could be submitted by March 2024 to Russia’s Duma is designed to give the Cossacks “a single strict hierarchy, [and they] will be able to count on state support and funding from the budget.”
Viktor Voldatsky, first deputy of the Duma Committee on the CIS, who has been very involved with the Union of Cossack Warriors of Russia and Abroad (SKVRiZ), said in an interview in November 2023
that “one of our main tasks now is to unite [the Cossacks] and to eliminate the artificial division that was introduced back in the 1990s.” A rejuvenated and unified Russian Cossack movement is indeed emerging from the war.
Voldatsky was referring to the basic distinction between “hereditary” or “public” Cossacks and the “registered” or “service” variety. The “hereditary” Cossacks claim descent from Cossack forefathers and conceive of the group as an ethnicity.
On the other hand, the “registered” Cossacks claim that all one needs to be a Cossack is the right clothes (such as a long, quasi-military mountain coat and a papakha, or woolly mountain hat) and service to the state (such as soldiering in the military or helping with public order). In the past, this has led to some friction between the two groups, where hereditary Cossacks claim their identity is being commandeered by the inauthentic and “cosplay” (riazheny
). But the war is diminishing the distinction. As Vitaly Kuznetsov, the newly-elected chief Ataman (leader) of the All-Russian Cossack Society (Russian acronym is VsKO) put it
, “I always said that on the front lines there are no registered and public… the priority is the unification of the Cossacks.”
Wars and other cataclysmic events often play an outsized role in the formation of identities, so in some respects, changes ongoing with the Russian Cossacks are unsurprising. Indeed, Voldatsky noted
that “today in the special military operation, directly on the line of contact, the [Cossack battalions] Don, Terek, Yenisei, Siberian [named after four of the 13 regional Cossack hosts, which may be viewed here
] and others are operating... When they get out there, their mentality changes, their attitude to what is happening both inside Russia and abroad.”
Combat is especially poignant for those who claim Cossack identity (and not just in Russia – the Cossack myth is strong in the Ukrainian army, too), as the Dnieper River (or Dnipro, in Ukrainian) island of Khortytsia and the surrounding area has special meaning as the birthplace of the Cossacks, where Nikolai Gogol’s famous novel Taras Bulba
Bringing such lands into Russia plays some role in the Cossack rebirth. At a special “great circle [meeting]” in Moscow in November 2023, SKVRiZ Ataman Nikolai Dyakonov told those assembled
that “for us, it is not simply a military operation, but a holy war” and that “our Cossacks are defending the land watered by the blood of their ancestors.”
Of course, he did not address the at least equally strong Ukrainian claim of descent from the Cossacks. There is another Cossack “great circle” planned in Moscow for February 28, an event that is sure to deliver further information supporting the story of a Cossack rebirth.