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For the Don Cossacks, Russia’s Civil War is not yet over

The commemoration of a massacre of Cossacks by the British Army in Austria 70 years ago has opened a can of worms in their Russian heartland. на русском языке

Svetlana Bolotnikova
18 November 2015

Last month, the Fifth World Congress of Cossacks took place in Novocherkassk, in the heartland of the Don Cossacks in southern Russia. 120 delegates from the Cossack diaspora attended, to discuss the possibility of closer economic links with overseas Cossack communities and offering their members a faster Russian citizenship process.

One prominent figure, however, was missing. The congress took place against the background of official harassment of Vladimir Melikhov, one of the most internationally respected Cossack leaders and the founder of two anti-Bolshevik resistance museums. This summer, the FSB searched Melikhov’s museums and property, seizing cartridges, a number of deactivated rifles and First World War bayonets, as well as several signal rockets.

With one in Podolsk, a town outside of Moscow, and the other in the village of Yelanskaya, in the Cossack heartland, these museums keep the spirit of the pre-revolutionary Cossack nation alive (‘For our faith, our Tsar and our Fatherland’ as the Cossack motto goes).

A brotherhood of opposites

The official reason given for the Melikhov search was to look for evidence relating to criminal charges against Yury Churekov, the chief, or ataman, of an unregistered group called the Caucasus Line Cossack Host. Churekhov was arrested in June for attempting to smuggle arms into Russia via eastern Ukraine.

In 2014, Churekov, together with Sergei Popov, leader and ideologue of the Russian Caucasus Unity movement, fulfilled Melikhov’s long-held ambition of creating a dedicated Cossack political party, which they christened Brotherhood.

Cossacks in the Cuban, 1916. WikiMedia/Unknown/http://graf-sheremetev.livejournal.com. Some rights reserved.Melikhov was made a member of the party’s national council in absentia. His position on the conflict in eastern Ukraine was, however, radically different from that of his associates. While Churekov and Popov supported the separatist forces, Melikhov criticised the presence of Russian volunteers in the Donbas, complaining on his internet forum that the putative creation of a ‘Russian World’ would lead to playing people from different communities off against one another.

‘Melikhov has clearly stated his opposition to the war in Ukraine and the Russian annexation of Crimea,’ said Popov in a statement on the police searches at Melikhov’s homes. ‘My slogan, on the contrary, is “Glory to the Heroes of Novorossiya”, and Churekov has also spoken in support of the annexation of Crimea. We haven’t quarrelled; we just have a difference of opinion on these matters.’

A controversial memorial to a massacre

These searches are not the first time Melikhov has faced harassment from the authorities. On 29 May, he was due to fly to Austria for the opening of a Cossack memorial chapel, but Russian border officials seized his passport and returned it with a page torn out. Other Cossacks planning to travel to Austria were also detained at Rostov-on-Don airport under various pretexts.

Melikhov was closely involved in the building of the chapel in the Austrian town of Lienz, which commemorates the 70th anniversary of an atrocity that took place at the end of the Second World War. Many White Russian émigrés, whose families had fled abroad after the 1917 revolution, fought on the side of Nazi Germany during the war, powered by their dreams of liberating Russia from Communism. These forces included around 80,000 Cossacks, some of whom moved west with the retreating German army in 1943—a natural reaction, given that in 1919 the Bolsheviks had attempted to cleanse the Bolshevik lands of Cossacks in what some term a genocide.

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Vladimir Melikhov at the Anti-Bolshevik Resistance Museum, Podolsk. CC Facebook.After the fall of Berlin in 1945, this Cossack Host, comprising about 20,000 soldiers and 16,000 family members – wives, children, elderly parents – surrendered to the British Army, and were sent to camps around the Austrian town of Lienz. At the end of May, the British began to hand them over for deportation to the USSR, in accordance with agreements at the Yalta and Tehran Conferences, which concluded that all Soviet refugees and prisoners of war be repatriated if found within other Allied-controlled zones. Many of the Cossacks had never been Soviet citizens, and so should not have been subjected to this process—their objections were ignored.

The British first assembled some 1,500 officers, ostensibly for discussions, but in fact to be handed over to the NKVD. Soon after, British troops began rounding up all and sundry and cramming them into trucks, refusing to allow them to finish a religious service being held at the time.

The Cossacks resisted and, in the ensuing clash, people were crushed underfoot and beaten with clubs and rifle-butts; children were separated from their mothers, and some who tried to flee across a river were drowned. Others still took to the forest, but were hunted down and handed over to the NKVD. In the end, many hundreds were killed: 300 lie buried in the cemetery at Lienz today.

Of those deported, many never reached the USSR, as they were tortured and murdered by Red Army troops on the way. And anyone who did make it alive was immediately sent to the Gulag. Knowing that this would be their fate, some committed suicide before they could be deported.

Historians estimate the number of Russians forcibly repatriated by the British and American authorities to the Soviet Union at roughly 2.5 million, although the Allies were well aware of what would happen to them there.

Major General Vyacheslav Haumenko, the first historian of Lienz and other similar atrocities, called his work on the subject The Great Betrayal. Nikolai Tolstoy came to a similar conclusion in Victims of Yalta, his work on the subject that came out in 1977 (published in the USA as The Secret Betrayal), and which listed by name the British officers and officials who carried out these inhuman actions, condoned by international agreements.

However, although members of the Russian Orthodox Church have been celebrating requiem masses in Lienz each year, the building of the memorial chapel and its opening on the 70th anniversary of the massacre has evidently annoyed the FSB, who have seemingly taken offence at the revelations regarding the behaviour of their Soviet predecessors.

Two versions of history

Ever since he created a memorial to Don Cossacks’ struggle against the Bolsheviks’ in the village of Yelanskaya, Vladimir Melikhov has been accused of glorifying ‘Nazi hangers-on’ and falsifying history, although the opposite is true.

He collects letters, documents and photographs attesting to the persecutions of Cossacks in 1919, and explains why the Cossacks hated communism to the extent that they collaborated with the Nazis.

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Ataman Pyotr Krasnov. CC humus.livejournal.com.

Vladimir Melikhov has been accused of glorifying ‘Nazi hangers-on’ and falsifying history

At his estate in Yelanskaya, Melikhov has also erected a monument to Pyotr Krasnov, the ataman of the Great Don Cossack Host who emigrated to Europe during the Civil War of 1917-1922, later fighting in Hitler’s forces in 1941-1945. Krasnov was handed over at Lienz, tried on his return to the Soviet Union and hanged. Because of his collaboration with the Nazis, the ataman was refused posthumous rehabilitation, although post-Soviet Russian law has restored the good name of the Cossacks in general.

Oleg Shevtsov, coordinator of the White Cause centre, believes, however, that members of the White movement do not require rehabilitation. ‘They were people who fought for Russian statehood, and they are Russian heroes,’ Shevtsov says.

‘Now, unfortunately, they’re busy putting up monuments to Stalin, which for me is a negative trend that shows a deep malaise in Russian society. The peoples of Russia suffered a terrible catastrophe in the 20th century. In the first 35 years of Soviet power, more than 50 million people were murdered, if you count those that died in the Second World War. That is a national catastrophe. The Soviet regime killed people on the grounds of their social class – they didn’t recognise the class system. The German invasion in 1941 gave a lot of people the chance to start fighting the regime. Historians believe 1.3 million Soviet citizens joined the German army – they were conscious enemies of the Soviet state.’

Russia took over as successor to the USSR without repudiating the crimes of the Communist regime. Perhaps that is why enemies of Communism are still seen as enemies of Russia here. Russians have been offered a reconciliatory version of history that says that both sides in the Civil War had valid arguments. ‘But can there be reconciliation between executioners and their victims?’ asks historian Kirill Aleksandrov, who has studied the circumstances of another famous Nazi defector, General Andrei Vlasov. ‘And is the Civil War even over?’

Vladimir Melikhov more than anyone feels the effect of the growing split in society. ‘One part of the population has swallowed all the propaganda and has quite openly and aggressively begun to confront the other part in their own country. It’s the first stage of civil conflict and it’s growing apace,’ he predicts.

Meanwhile, after the police searches, Melikhov decided to remove that part of his museum exhibition that covered the part played by Cossacks in Hitler’s forces during the Second World War. ‘There will just be a “blank page”, and anyone who is interested can study the subject for themselves. That way, my remaining museum staff won’t be harassed any further,’ he writes.

However, Andrei Venkov, a historian of the Cossacks and author of books about both White and Red generals, doesn’t see this page of history as a blank one. ‘There are ten times as many accounts of the Cossacks who fought for Hitler than there are of the Cossacks who found in the Red Army,’ he says. ‘There was a study by Gennady Voskoboinikov, Cossacks and Cavalry in the Great Patriotic War, for example, but books like this are few and far between. There’s an enormous imbalance that needs righting, to give the other side of the story.’

Sergei Popov, who replaced Yuri Churekov as ataman of the Caucasus Line Cossack Host, may be far from sharing Melikhov’s views on the Ukrainian crisis and General Krasnov, but he still acknowledges Melikhov’s contribution to the Cossack cause. ‘Some people buy yachts,’ Popov says, ‘but he opened a Cossack museum. They immediately started trying to discredit him, and put him behind bars. Certain circles—those that want to wipe our brains free of any knowledge of history—want to get rid of him, so they play dirty with him from time to time. Planting cartridges on him was a real dirty trick.’

At the same time, Popov thinks that there may be more obvious reasons for the harassment Melikhov suffered this summer.

‘They spoiled his passport because of his anti-Russian position on Ukraine; they didn’t want him enlisting support abroad. And nobody was really worried about Churekov and his contraband AK-47s. They just needed some pretext to sting him. Why? It’s very simple: on 14 October, the Fifth Cossack Congress was to open in Novocherkassk, with Cossacks arriving from all over the world. And the last time, in 2012, Cossacks from the Diaspora listened to the official speeches and then went off to stay with Melikhov in Yelanskaya, where they discussed all their real concerns.’

This year, the organisers were obviously intent on excluding Melikhov from contact with the foreign delegates, and not one Cossack who attended the opening of the chapel at Lienz was invited to the Congress. Furthermore, a detailed account of Churekov and Melikhov’s supposed links with criticism of the commemoration of ‘Nazi collaborators’ appeared on an internet site closely associated with Viktor Vodolatsky, deputy chair of the World Congress of Cossacks’ governing council, a former ataman and deputy of the Russian State Duma.

These accusations included a statement that the memorial service at Lienz was led by priests who refused re-unification with the Russian Orthodox Church. This turned out to be false information, as the Archbishop of Berlin, Germany and Great Britain of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia chaired the commission on re-unification, and the Archbishop of Geneva and Western Europe Mikhail Donskov is a member of the ROC’s Holy Synod. The Orthodox church, unlike those who have been trying to discredit Melikhov, has recognised those who died at Lienz as martyrs.

The Russian embassy in Prague has also recently received an online petition in support of Melikhov, collected on the Change.org site. Its authors demand an end to his harassment, which they describe as ‘a flagrant infringement of human rights and an affront to the feelings of believers who were prevented from going to Lienz to honour the memory of the fallen Cossacks’.

The petition is unlikely to have any effect: as the saying goes, ‘The victors are never judged’. Judging them would just lead to seeing themselves as the defeated. Any commemoration of the Whites, especially those who fought together with the Nazis, is seen as casting aspersions on the Reds and their descendents. The victors of these two wars are still fighting their corners for their version of history.

Meanwhile, Yuri Churekov is still in pre-trial detention and Vladimir Melikhov is still waiting to hear whether he faces charges over the cartridges found in his museum.

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