‘Obama, when we reach Kyiv, God willing, we’re going to come visit you in America. And we’ll put an end to all your masonic yid lies,’ Aleksandr Mozhayev threatens in a YouTube message to the American president. Mozhayev, also known as ‘Babai’ (Russian for bogeyman) is a Cossack, and a member of the Novorossiya militia. Mozhayev, a big man just shy of 40, has a long greying beard; and wears fatigues with a St George’s Ribbon on them, black sunglasses, an assault rifle and a striking Kuban Cossack hat, all of which have turned Mozhayev/’Babai’ into ‘the Cossack Che Guevara.’ Like Che Guevara, he yearns to change the whole world, but wants to unite the planet not under the Marxist flag, but a Russian tricolour.
Until the Ukraine crisis, Mozhayev was not a very successful person.
In his native Kuban town of Belorechensk, Babai has a daughter and a new-born son. Until the Ukraine crisis, Mozhayev was not a very successful person. Having earlier served time for selling cannabis, not long before Mozhayev became ‘Babai,’ he had been charged with ‘threatening murder,’ thanks to a run-in with some Korean migrants; he was also 256,000 roubles (£4,300) in debt. From the very beginning of the crisis, Mozhayev went to help in Crimea; then he relocated in Eastern Ukraine, where he became ‘Babai,’ the YouTube speaker of the Donetsk and Luhansk separatists. Now Mozhayev is a hero in his native Belorechensk. Local Cossacks are trying to come up with ways to help Babai solve his problems with his finances and the law.
Aleksandr 'Babai' Mozhayev in a YouTube address to the people of Ukraine. via Youtube
According to the latest reports, Babai has left Eastern Ukraine, attempting to save himself from the attack by government forces, but has indicated in his latest video-message that he plans to gather up his own ‘Cossack regiment’ for continuing military actions.
The Cossack community has proved to be one of the main sources of recruits for pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. With their history, that is not surprising.
The first mention of Cossacks is from the 14th century. The word ‘Cossack (in Russian kazak) is Turkic, and means ‘free person.’ There are a number of theories about the phenomenon of Cossacks, but they all tend to agree that Cossacks are the result of a mix of peoples, living on the Russian borders, including Russian serfs fleeing their feudal masters. Cossacks combined farming and constant participation in military actions (in the overwhelming majority of cases they fought on the side of Russia). Even their communities received the designation voiska meaning an ‘army’ or ‘forces.’ In truth, these structures maintained an element of participatory democracy. The majority of Russian lands were united with the large-scale participation of Cossacks, occasionally fighting, occasionally establishing peaceful relations with local tribes. Cossacks are much like the heroes of American history – the frontiersmen – free adventurers unencumbered by wealth, taming the wild regions of the country. Later, Cossacks braved fighting even in South America. In the Chaco war of 1932-1935, for example, Cossack immigrants fought on the side of Paraguay against Bolivia.
Although the Cossacks were comprised of exiles from the feudal yoke, they continued to associate themselves with Russia. The leaders of a number of peasant-Cossack uprisings in previous centuries, with egalitarian demands, as a rule presented themselves as representatives of a tsarist dynasty. The tsarist government maintained a deliberate policy of including clever and energetic Cossacks in the system of Russian monarchy. By the 20th century, Cossacks were integral to the state machine; they came out as one of the key forces against revolutionaries, which earned them the latter’s hatred. Part of the Cossacks went over to the Bolsheviks in the civil war but after their victory there began a policy of ‘de-Cossackisation’ – the breaking up of their traditional structures of self-government; their resettlement on non-Cossack lands; repression, confiscation of livestock and feed; and limiting their service in the army (removed by Stalin in 1936).
A group of Orenburg Cossacks in 1912. CC Victor Pogadaev
In the Great Patriotic War, Cossacks fought both in the Soviet Army, and in the Wehrmacht. After the war, Cossacks were permitted to hold people’s assemblies and have ethnographic museums, but they still had far fewer opportunities than the other numerous national minorities of the USSR.
Are the Cossacks their own separate people or are they only a phenomenon of the Russian Empire? The question is still not closed. Up to 7m Russians have Cossack roots but according to the 2002 census, 140,000 people list their nationality as ‘Cossack,’ quite a lot considering that ‘Cossack separatism’ as a political force is practically non-existent.
According to the 2002 census, 140,000 people list their nationality as ‘Cossack.’
A real chance for Cossack separatism appeared in 1991, when discussions were held on the creation of a Cossack republic in the southern regions, as part of the Union State, which could have quickly led to the appearance of an independent ‘Cossackia.’ But the local elites did not consider this arrangement beneficial for themselves. Quasi-Cossack structures existed in Ichkeria [the Turkic name for an area roughly equivalent to the Republic of Chechya today]; and the famous militant website Kavkaz Centre also put out propaganda on Cossack separatism. A separate country ‘Cossackia’ is mentioned in a 1959 Cold War law in America on the regular holding of ‘Captive Nations Week’ – in support of peoples who were subjugated by the ‘imperialistic policies of communist Russia.’ Cossackia is mentioned along with Armenia, Estonia, Poland, Albania, North Korea and others.
In contemporary Russia, political parties periodically appear that announce that they represent the Cossack community – both pro-Kremlin and oppositionist, but they are entirely marginal. Not one of them could successfully take part in Russian politics.
The rebirth of the Cossack community started with perestroika, as part of the general dismissal by Russians of Soviet values, and attempts to set a new course. A particularly tumultuous process took place in the southern regions of Russia (Stavropol, Krasnodarsk, Rostov and Voronezh regions as well as the North Caucasus). Part of this was connected with the fact that many Cossack descendants live in these regions; and the occasionally aggressive expression of nationalism among the non-Slavic peoples of the region. Cossacks speak about a so-called Terek Cossack Genocide – acts of violence, resettlement and theft of belongings from Cossacks in Chechnya and Ingushetia at the start of the 1990s.
A Cossack and police officer patrol the streets of Sochi during the 2014 Winter Olympics. (c) RIA Novosti/Maksim Bogodvid
Some Cossacks today copy the appearance of their ancestors at the start of the 20th century, but there are many who consider them to be playing at ‘fancy dress,’ for their exotic, militarised uniforms. In Cossack areas it is still considered acceptable by a significant portion of the population to take a whip to people who have committed a transgression, although the majority of Russians consider it barbaric.
Some of the suspects in the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 are Cossacks belonging to Mykola Kozitsyn. He figures in recordings that the Ukrainian SBU calls ‘wiretaps of terrorists about the shot-down plane.’ Hetman Kozitsyn ended up on the latest EU list of sanctioned individuals, for the seizure of OSCE observers. Since the early 1990s he has headed the Regional Cossack Council of the Donetsk Force. This is a ‘non-registered’ informal Cossack organisation. In Eastern Ukraine Kozitsyn may have up to four thousand Cossack fighters. He has fought in Yugoslavia, Abkhazia and Transnistria. During the Chechen war, Kozitsyn attracted criticism for attempting to establish independent links between Chechens and Cossacks. Before becoming a Cossack leader, he worked as a prison officer.
When Cossacks manhandled members of Pussy Riot, staging an action in Sochi during the Olympics, it looked so ridiculous that many who saw the video were convinced that Pussy Riot had paid the Cossacks to take part in a sort of art project. Attacks by Cossacks on exhibitions of modern art, and attempts to use the Cossacks against oppositionists have also led to irritation among Muscovites. At the same time, in some cases the police have put a stop to their taking the law into their own hands, other times they do not intervene – depending on the political situation.
When Cossack patrols were introduced in Moscow, St Petersburg or other ‘non-Cossack’ cities, it led to fits of laughter.
When Cossack patrols were introduced in Moscow, St Petersburg or other ‘non-Cossack’ cities, to help the police, it led to fits of laughter among the urbanites, who perceived them as an aggressive circus. And, in reality, Cossack patrols are rarely encountered in Moscow or St Petersburg’s streets. However, judging by a bill currently being discussed in the State Duma, it is possible that attacking a Cossack patrol could soon be considered the same as violence against a police officer.
Official Cossack patrols appeared on Russian streets thanks to the state recognition of Cossack society. This began in the 1990s, but especially increased under Vladimir Putin. Cossack society ‘is part of our culture, Russian culture, moreover not simply part of our culture, but a very important part of our culture. I mean not only Cossack songs and dances; I mean also their well-known tradition of patriotism. And this is not an archaism. Patriotism is today very important for advancing the idea of statehood and the formation of our people in general. In this sense, Cossacks play a unique and overall positive role,’ said the Russian president in 2013. The result of this state support is that Cossack organisations now number hundreds of thousands of Russians, and billions of roubles have been spent on Cossack projects. Cultural centres, schoolbooks, martial arts and firearms clubs, militarised formations – all this to spread ideas of loyalty useful to the Kremlin.