Russia’s War and the Rebirth of the Russian Cossacks

February 5, 2024
  • Richard Arnold
    Political scientist at Muskingum University
Political scientist Richard Arnold writes about the current institutionalization of the Russian Cossacks, who fulfil military, educational and cultural tasks for the Kremlin.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, there were hopes among Cossack activists that the new Russia would see a rebirth of the Russian Cossacks, but it is only now that it is being institutionalized. The Cossacks originated in the lands now being fought over in Ukraine and southwest Russia. Many enlisted in the service of the tsar and formed a conservative domestic constituency. They played an important role in the expansion of the Empire eastward (even into North America) and in the wars against Napoleon.

Cossacks between Ukraine and Russia

In the post-Soviet period, the Cossacks have been foundational to Ukrainian conceptions of nationhood, as well as Russia’s new assertive nationalism. In Russia, the “Cossack rebirth” was promised in the 1990s and partially enacted after about 2005.
The Russia-Ukraine war has become the midwife of a full Cossack rebirth, with the avatar of aggressive militarism personified by them coming forth.
Cossacks marching in Red Square at the 2015 Victory Day Parade. Source: Wiki Commons
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 was set.

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.
Modern Kuban Cossack armed forces patch of the Russian military.
Source: Wiki Commons
Russian Cossacks: Fighting for Empire

The Cossacks’ contribution to Russia’s war in Ukraine is very significant. The total number of Cossacks who have been rotated through the war has risen to 27,000 from just 4,000 in April 2022, with 6,000-7,000 currently on the front line. Estimates based on publicly available sources are inevitably tentative, but the Cossacks appear to be serving in a variety of battalions and brigades, some of which are registered through the Special Combat Army Reserve (BARS), a new organization similar to the US Army Reserve, and others that appear to be shock brigades. As noted above, Cossacks from various voiska (sometimes translated as “army” but better translated as “host”) have the right to serve in eponymous battalions and sometimes in detachments with names conveying historical meaning, such as Tavrida, Fortstadt and Scythian.

It is not just Cossacks from Russia proper who are signing up. The Cossack Dnipro brigade, formed in approximately May 2023 upon an appeal from Voldatsky, ostensibly unites Cossacks from the newly annexed Ukrainian regions, although the list of recruitment offices features just one in Melitopol and others in St Petersburg, Samara and Volgograd.

The Dnipro brigade, together with other volunteers, is reportedly deployed on the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson fronts and is involved in hostilities around the Kinburn Spit, a place of fierce fighting near Mykolaiv in southern Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin has moved to institutionalize Russia’s registered Cossack movement in the annexed territory by establishing a Zaporizhzhia Cossack Host.
Kuban Cossacks. May 1916. Source: Wiki Commons
There are also signs that the Cossacks will be “revived” in the currently occupied part of Kherson Region, although nothing formal seems to have been announced. The Cossack rebirth is also strengthened by discussions around creating a Cossack reserve army. Nevertheless, there is as yet no evidence that the government supports this initiative.

According to some reports, representatives of Cossack societies would conclude contracts with the Ministry of Defense and then join the Cossack register instituted in 1995. This would create a mobilization reserve with an upper limit of 60,000 men of prime military age and in good health. When the abovementioned bill is taken into account as well, the Cossacks could potentially receive tanks and artillery, which would make them into a fully-fledged army.

Speaking further on the matter, Voldatsky recommended that the state provide more “heavy weapons” for Cossack brigades. Indeed, “the allocation of armored vehicles and artillery to the Cossacks – anti-aircraft missile systems, tanks, self-propelled artillery mounts and so on – for use at training grounds is more than expedient, it is necessary and possible.” In this context, it is also worth mentioning a bill debated in the Duma in November 2023 that gave regional governors the right to distribute small arms to members of Cossack formations. There is a natural symmetry between the creation of a Cossack military reserve and training with small arms.

Commandeering the Memory of ‘Decossackization’

Another sign of the rebirth is the coming together of Russian registered and hereditary Cossacks to commemorate the latter’s previous suffering. In 1919, during the Civil War, the Bolshevik authorities issued an order to conduct a “merciless struggle” against the Cossacks, meaning destroying Cossack stanitsas (villages) and removing records related to them. Today, this would be called ethnic cleansing.

Many Cossacks fled the decossackization (razkazachivanie), as it is known, which is why there are now small émigré communities of Cossacks in the US, Canada, the UK, France and even Australia. Hereditary Cossacks who remained in Russia were forbidden to express their identity publicly and suppressed until the end of communism. A 1991 law explicitly mentioned the Cossacks as a “repressed nation” for whom the new Russia would atone, and there was even a supplemental decree related to the Cossacks passed in 1992.

For the Cossacks, the decossackization (or what they refer to as the “genocide of 1919”), and commemorating it annually on January 24, would become the heart of their identity in the new Russia. Yet, logically, the holiday can only have relevance for those with Cossack ancestry and not those who simply put on the uniform. Therefore, the fact that the Kremlin in 2023 and again in 2024 tried to appropriate the holiday suggests an attempt to unite both branches of the movement around this event; even though the term “genocide” used by the Cossacks (see here and here) does not have official backing, it is tolerated by the government.
The 2023 commemoration included ‘memory lessons’ for schoolchildren, organized by educational institutions and Cossack Cadets Corps (known by their Russian acronym of KKK), as well as religious and memorial services held by Patriarch Kirill in Moscow.”
An American Cossack family in the 1950s. Source: Wiki Commons
Likewise, on January 24, 2024, the state-run All-Russian Cossack Host, now under new leadership, took part in a “memorial service to the victims of decossackization policy” for the first time in the six years it has been in existence.

The final issue suggesting a rebirth of the Cossacks is that Cossack memory is being institutionalized throughout Russia. In Moscow, a “Central Museum of the Russian Cossacks” is scheduled top open in April, having been decreed by Putin in 2021. The ataman of the All-Russian Cossack Society, Nikolai Doluda, praised the decision: “the Cossacks made a considerable contribution to the growth of the Russian Empire by adding new lands.” He added that “today a single national idea is being formed in the country, which will contribute to the unification of the multinational Russian people, strengthening the state and ultimately ensuring the country’s national security.”

The notion of Cossacks as an emblem of Russian identity is spreading throughout the nation, with announced openings of the “first Cossack cultural center” in Kamchatka, a Cossack cultural center in Altai and a Cossack museum in Amur. Add to this the Cossacks entrusted with providing security at the New Year festivities in Archangel, the revival of a Cossack Cadets Corps in Orenburg, plans to expand Cossack influence in Yakutia and those of Tatarstan Cossacks to travel to Luhansk.

There are many other instances of regional governments forming connections with local Cossack groups, such as the regional government in Vologda pledging to support the Cossack revival, or the regional administration in Chechnya holding a working meeting on supporting the Cossacks.

The Cossack rebirth is penetrating many aspects of ordinary life in Russia, such as school programs, kindergartens and university courses at the undergraduate and postgraduate levels (indeed, a new association of universities “realizing a Cossack component,” in which a university in Buryatia is involved), as well as KKK organizations, druzhini patrols, museums, statues and the creation of Cossack regional authorities.

The Cossack revival epitomizes and facilitates Russian conservative ideology and militarization. Given their past, the Russian Cossacks are fitting ambassadors of neo-imperial Russia, and they seem to be here to stay.
Share this article
Read More
You consent to processing your personal data and accept our privacy policy