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Cossack against cossack

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The conflict in south-east Ukraine has divided the Cossacks – one is fighting for Russian unity, and the other for the Ukrainian national myth.

Brother against brother

The civil war in the south-east of Ukraine is in so many ways a repeat of the civil war in the region in the 1920s. But will there come another Mikhail Sholokhov to describe the ideological arguments and break-ups in families, of fathers losing their sons, who are fighting on different sides of the frontline? Just as in 'And Quiet Flows the Don' 90 years ago, when the Cossack community split into 'red' and 'white', now the two camps are 'yellow and blue' and 'Colorado beetles,' i.e. the Ukrainian flag and the ribbons of the order of St George, which are so popular with the supporters of the self-proclaimed Donbas republics.

Who will describe fathers losing their sons because they are fighting on different sides of the frontline?

While Mikhail Gavrilyuk, member of the National Guard and Maidan hero, is setting up a Cossack battalion, and spoiling for a fight with the separatists and terrorists, the Don Cossacks have joined the ranks of the militants under the command of former FSB man Igor Strelkov (Girkin), to defend their homeland from the Kyiv junta.

Risen from the remote past

In the 18th century, Empress Catherine the Great took Cossacks from their homelands into the service of the state, and moved them to the Kuban and the Caucasus. Part of the Zaporozhian Cossacks (who lived beyond the rapids of the River Dnieper) refused to serve the Russian state, and left to join the Crimean Khanate; from there they crossed the Danube. Some Cossacks stayed on the River Don, but Catherine annexed this territory to the Novorossiya (Russian for 'New Russia') province, declaring that 'in the future the very name of Zaporozhian Cossacks is to be eradicated'. But the Russian Empire was in no hurry to eradicate the Cossack community, because the brigand spirit and the bravery of these people were to come in useful for future wars with Turkey and tribes in the Caucasus.

'Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV' by Ilya Repin, 1891 'Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV' by Ilya Repin, 1891. CC

When that Empire collapsed, the Cossacks in the Caucasus and on the Don did not sign up to Soviet ideology: they joined the 'reactionaries' – Krasnov, Shkuro, Denikin and other 'White' generals. As a result, tens of thousands of them were killed or sent to the camps. Only when the USSR itself collapsed could their descendants once more start openly calling themselves Cossacks, whether in Russian (kazak) or in Ukrainian (kozak).

The Cossack renaissance swept through Russia and Ukraine with equal force.

The Cossack renaissance swept through both countries with equal force. Its apologists were united in their desire to rehabilitate the Cossack people, preserving their traditions and bringing up their young in the spirit of patriotism. As early as the 1990s, however, the Luhansk Cossacks suddenly refused to swear loyalty to Ukraine, choosing instead loyalty to Russia, whose empire stretched from Kamchatka in the Far East to the Baltic Sea in the west. The fact that the Don Cossacks are now fighting on the side of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk republics should, therefore, come as no surprise.

The Donbas Cossacks

A Don Cossack guards a checkpoint near the entrance to Luhansk. A Don Cossack guards a checkpoint near the entrance to Luhansk. (c) RIA Novosti/Vitaly BelousovDuring 'Euromaidan' and the coup in Kyiv, most people in south-east Ukraine, including the Cossacks, did not support the insurgents who were throwing Molotov cocktails at Berkut (Ukrainian riot police unit, notorious for violence during Euromaidan), and occupying administrative buildings. To avoid a repetition of such events in the Donbas, the Cossacks set up vigilante patrols to help the police, and stand guard over the administration, which was ruled by the Party of Regions. The chairman of the Council of Atamans (village headmen) at the Union of Cossack Organisations in the Donetsk Region was Vadim Zhmurin; he was also head of the Union of Ukrainian Cossack Organisations. He declared that the country was witnessing 'attempts to organise a coup, one of the badly-managed projects of the Colour Revolutions,' and initiated the establishment of Cossack self-defence units in Donetsk.

The coup was successful, President Yanukovych fled in disgrace and the Party of Regions lost its power. The Cossacks defending the old order were faced with the choice of sticking to their previous position or, like the officials, just switching political sides. In May, Vadym Zhmurin was already calling for a 'strong, rich and independent Ukraine' and the 'Donbas Cossacks' website was open in its support for the new government.

The Cossacks defending the old order could either maintain their previous position or, like the officials, just switch political sides

Most of the Cossacks at that time only wanted federalisation, but by the middle of spring it was quite clear that Kyiv had no interest in negotiating, intending only to disarm the leaders in the south-east one by one. At that point, people who had long since become reconciled to being part of Ukraine, adopted a more radical position and set up the militia. Initially there were almost no Russian volunteers, leading Igor Samus, founder of a sports centre teaching Cossack martial arts in Donetsk, to say that they had been betrayed by the Russian Cossacks.

By then, the Ukrainian press was already saying that the Great Host of Don Cossacks was actively involved in events in the south-east. But its ataman, Mykola Kozitsyn, explained that it was an international organisation uniting Cossacks on both sides of the border, and that there were enough opponents of the Kyiv coup inside Ukraine. '70% of people from the south-east consider themselves Cossacks,' he said, without giving a precise figure for the number of his troops.

Later, Kozitsyn openly announced the recruitment of volunteers from Russia into the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics' militias, but the purely Cossack units were not a good fit in the separatist army. Igor Strelkov, the Novorossiya Armed Forces commander, in his blog about the conflict, was sharply critical of the Cossack general 'sitting things out in Antratsyt [town in Luhansk region]' and the ordinary Cossacks who had, according to him, abandoned their battle positions. Kozitsyn regarded this attack on him and his Cossacks as an act of provocation initiated by his opponents in the information war.

Russian and Ukrainian Cossacks

'Cossack, who are you with - us or them?' Russian Civil War poster by Dmitry Moor, 1920. 'Cossack, who are you with - us or them?' Russian Civil War poster by Dmitry Moor, 1920. Photo CCAt the same time, however, most of the Cossack organisations (and there are more than 50 in Ukraine) still support the territorial integrity of their state.

Some do this with an eye on government funding, others out of deep personal conviction. Unlike the Don Cossacks, they regard themselves as descendants not of the Cossacks who served the Russian Empire, but of the Free Cossacks from the Zaporozhian Sich (army) – on whom, of course, the Ukrainian national myth is based.

These Cossacks are not much in sympathy with the people who have come to power in Kyiv. Confectionery magnate, President Petro Poroshenko clearly does not subscribe to the ideal of Cossack self-rule by the communities. His new government has not yet removed this form of popular power from the constitution; and the Cossacks believe that it will save Ukraine, when the whole of the capitalist world collapses.

At the same time, however, most of the Cossack organisations still support the territorial integrity of their state

The current president suits them only because he represents a united Ukraine, the ideal to which purely Ukrainian Cossacks wholeheartedly subscribe. 'Ukraine is the Zaporozhian Sich, it's the land of the Free Cossacks,' said Sergei Shcherbakov, ataman of the [river] Bug Cossack Army. 'History shows that the Don Cossacks fought with the Russian armies to destroy the Sich, the cradle of the Free Cossacks, so their part in the war against Ukraine is really the Russian empire fighting the Free Cossacks.'

In his view, the difference between Russian and Ukrainian Cossacks lies in their mission. 'Ukrainian Cossacks were always on the side of the people, and very often headed popular uprisings against the government of the time, whether in Poland or in Russia. That's why they were called the "knights of the people." Russian Cossacks used whips to disperse their own people in the name of the tsar and the fatherland, thus taking the place of the police,' he explains.

President Poroshenko does not subscribe to the ideal of Cossack self-rule

Genuine Ukrainian Cossacks, in his words, are 'guardians of their land and family' and they 'support their country.' For him, Cossacks include all ethnic Ukrainian-Russians, descendants of one of the Slav tribes.

'As for Poroshenko, he was elected by Ukrainians; Cossacks respect the choice of their own people,' adds Sergei Shcherbakov. 'We are under no illusion that the government will do anything to aid the development of Cossacks for whom the ideal of self-rule is of paramount importance because it depends entirely on the people – only they should have any influence on the politics of their country.'

True Cossacks

True Cossacks consider that the historical concept of 'Free Cossacks' no longer exists in 21st century Ukraine, where very few can boast documents confirming their Cossack descent. The ostentatious efforts to put the whole population into Cossack sharovary (baggy trousers) relate to the artificial formation of a Ukrainian nation trying to find its roots in the Zaporozhian Cossacks. 'The Cossacks of the 16th – 18th centuries bear no relation at all to today's self-proclaimed Cossacks,' as the ataman of the Kyiv organisation 'True Cossacks,' Aleksei Selivanov has said. He had to leave Kyiv because his life was in danger. in the spring he was kidnapped and brutally beaten by Ukrainian neo-Nazis. In addition, the Ukrainian Security Service now suspects him of being involved in financing terrorists when he was adviser to the ex-minister of finance. He apparently paid over money to some non-existent terrorists by way of tenders with which, in actual fact ,he had no business.

Ostentatious efforts to put everyone into Cossack sharovary relate to the artificial formation of a nation trying to find its roots

The ataman stressed that Cossacks have never ever called themselves Ukrainians. 'Several Ukrainian nationalists equate Ukrainians with Cossacks, although there is not one historical document to back this up,' he adds. In today's Ukraine one has only to cut one's hair in an oseledets and grow a moustache, to be a 'Cossack;' you don't even have to put on sharovary.

True Cossacks have no need of make-up or dressing up to feel that they are Cossacks. It was these Cossacks, the basis of society in south-east Ukraine, that Kozitsyn was talking about. Furthermore, it is completely clear that Cossacks in the Donbas and in Russia are one people, an ethnic sub-group of the Russian people (including Little Russians – the old name for Ukrainians – and Belarusians). 'What is now called the Ukrainian nation is often people with surnames like Turchinov or Avakov. They are political Ukrainians, but it is not at all clear to which ethnic group they belong,' he says.

Protester in Cossack dress on the Maidan in support of EU association. Kyiv, August 2013 Protester in Cossack dress on the Maidan in support of EU association. Kyiv, August 2013. (c) RIA Novosti/Iliya Pitalev

Aleksey Selivanov does not approve of the desire of some Russian Cossacks to confront the Russians, thus forcing official recognition that they are a separate people. 'I consider that the Cossacks are, of course, a people, but not a separate people i.e. a nation. If we start saying that, then we turn into political Ukrainians, who will then be set against the Russians by some foreign monster, which is what's happening now in Ukraine.'

If one asks the ataman of 'True Cossacks' whether the kinship between the Don Cossacks on both sides of the border was behind the formation of the separatist movement in south-east Ukraine, he replies, 'It's not about Cossack autonomy. It's about the physical preservation of people who identify themselves as Russians. They could have lived in Ukraine, which treated them fairly tolerantly. The children were brainwashed with a distorted history, which instilled in them a hatred for Russians. Many people didn't like that, but people found their own ways of dealing with these questions. But Ukraine was carrying out fairly gentle Ukrainisation. Now the state openly gives weapons to extremist militants, so people don't want to live there any more. They might be Cossacks, miners, have surnames ending in –ko or –ov, roots in the Don region, or the Dnieper. But they all understand that they are part of the Russian world, of a grand, authentic civilisation. They don't want the state to turn their children into little zombies who shout anti-Russian slogans; and that is why they have taken up arms.'

About the author

Svetlana Bolotnikova is a Russian journalist and correspondent for KavPolit, an online publication specialising in political developments in the Caucasus. 


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