Lifestyle & Belief

Russia’s Cossacks return


Cossacks line up for inspection in the southern city of Stavropol. Critics worry the Kremlin will find them difficult to control.


Danil Semyonov

MOSCOW, Russia — Dmitry Nenarokov cherishes traditional values: Family and religion matter most, he says.

Those ideals are now under threat, he believes, from opponents who would supplant them with “foreign” ones — liberalism, materialism and homosexuality — unless, of course, he can help it.

“They don’t understand that we will fight to the end,” he says. “We don’t stop half-way.”

Not the words one would expect from a Russian Orthodox priest. But then, Nenarokov isn’t a typical clergyman.

A slight, whiskered man of middle age, Nenarokov also serves as a chaplain in the Moscow City Cossack Society, where he runs seminars on hand-to-hand combat training, one of the many activities aimed at helping revive the culture of Cossacks — the centuries-old defenders of Russia’s frontiers and, historically, the tsar’s most dedicated and seasoned enforcers of Orthodoxy, autocracy, and empire.

To prepare for battle, Nenarokov, also known as Father Dmitry, conducts weekly sessions in a Soviet-era factory complex outside central Moscow. His students are mostly teenagers bound for state service, either in the military or with the border guards.

“You see?” he says during a Sunday afternoon lesson, demonstrating the best way to dodge a knife attack. “I stepped away from the line of attack and grabbed his other arm.”

The sound of human bodies hitting floor mats echoes through the hall, and the stench of sweat permeates the air.

An ordained clergyman rushing to give knife-fighting lessons after Sunday mass, decked in camouflage and fingerless fight gloves, may seem strange anywhere else in Europe.

Not in Russia, however. This is Cossack country.

Perhaps best defined as somewhere between an ethnic group and a national idea, Cossacks first arose hundreds of years ago mostly from southern Russia and some areas of modern-day Ukraine. Many were escaped serfs and other free men who formed militarized groups.

Twenty years ago, they were struggling to rediscover their identity after seven decades of Soviet oppression. But today, they’re enjoying more prominence than ever, thanks largely to increasing support from the state and a growing ideological rift between Kremlin critics and supporters intensified by the outbreak of the anti-Kremlin protest movement in December 2011.

The Cossacks pride themselves on their warrior tradition. With the Kremlin placing renewed emphasis on conservative and nationalist values since President Vladimir Putin’s reelection last year, they have often appeared on the frontlines of the authorities’ struggle against the urban-based, middle class-backed opposition — and on the side of the conservative majority.

“There’s this understanding of being a ‘clamp,’” Nenarokov says. “We clamp together both society and the state.”

In the past year, Cossacks have been spotted breaking up demonstrations in favor of hot-button liberal issues such as gay rights and the controversial feminist punk group Pussy Riot. They usually do so under the banner of religion and traditionalism, two more issues the Kremlin has recently championed.

Cossacks are also increasingly taking up roles as ordinary civil servants. In the past year and a half, they have organized neighborhood patrols in Moscow and chased away vagrants and illegal traders from the streets, although they're unable to detain anyone, or even check documents.

Some have also enlisted as volunteer firefighters with the Emergency Situations Ministry. Others, such as Nenarokov, run a variety of youth programs aimed at everything from “patriotic education” to military-style training.

In the Cossacks’ ancestral homeland of southern Russia, volunteers have joined forces with regional administrations to run their own law enforcement patrols alongside regular police, a controversial effort to keep peace on the streets in a region fraught with ethnic tensions between Muslims and ethnic Russians.

Viktor Zaplatin, Nenarokov’s superior and the head — or “ataman” — of the Moscow City Cossack Society, says the movement has risen from its Soviet-era ashes to take up its traditional role of “serving the state.”

Gone are the days when Cossacks were reduced to little more than mythical, mustachioed horsemen written into Russians’ collective imagination by the likes of Tolstoy, he says.

“This isn’t about putting on song-and-dance shows or perpetuating folklore,” he says, “but developing the practice of maintaining public order.”

Growing state support has fed the Cossacks’ newfound importance. Those who belong to one of Russia’s 11 federally registered Cossack organizations — including the Central Cossack Army, to which Zaplatin’s group is subordinated — are officially recognized as volunteer civil servants, whose status and activities are regulated to some degree by a federal law signed in 2005.

Last fall, Putin — who’s reportedly an honorary Cossack colonel — signed a strategy for the development of Russian Cossacks until 2020. It’s aimed at setting out economic and logistic terms for even closer cooperation between Cossacks and the government.

In exchange, the Cossacks provide legions of ready-made public service professionals with years of experience. True to the Cossack tradition, many of those who belong to a registered society in Russia have served — or currently serve — in the armed forces or in one of the so-called “security structures,” such as the Interior Ministry.

Nenarokov, who also works as a combat instructor at the Federal Security Service’s FSB Border Guard Academy, estimates that about 40 percent of the military’s officer corps is made up of Cossacks.

“The role of the Cossacks in the near future will be that of a national guard, like the Italian Carabinieri,” he says. “It’ll be more like a national militia, rather than a police force per se.”

As the Cossacks take an increasingly visible role in Russian mainstream society, critics are warning about their reputation as armed, nationalistic militiamen, who in their pre-revolutionary days perpetrated pogroms against Jews and conducted vicious raids on Muslim communities in the Caucasus Mountains.

Their renaissance has coincided with a rise in ultra-nationalism. Nationalist Muscovites have appropriated Unity Day — which Putin instituted as a national holiday in 2005 — to stage the Russian March, when thousands come out to denounce the steady flow of mostly Muslim migrant workers to the capital, often with obscene slogans. Although racist hate crimes have subsided recently, they remain startlingly prevalent.

Masha Lipman, a politics and society expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center think-tank, says the Kremlin has pursued an “ambiguous” ethnic policy: at once playing to nationalist sentiments while also preaching ethnic harmony in an effort to stymie potential conflict.

That’s a dangerous gamble with powerful, and potentially explosive, social forces, she says.

“By empowering the Cossacks, the government is doing exactly that: encouraging action, and not just sentiments,” she said.

And judging by history, taming the Cossacks could be more difficult than the authorities may believe.

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Traditionally, Cossacks were members of autonomous communities who provided muscle in the state’s time of need in exchange for plots of land and the freedom to cultivate it. Their name in Russian, “kazak,” is derived from a Turkic word meaning “free man.”

Their loyalty wasn’t always a given. The tsarist era saw a number of Cossack-led revolts, in which leaders were able to exploit peasants’ grievances for support.

Harvard University historian Serhii Plokhii, author of The Cossack Myth, says that legacy may come back to haunt the Kremlin.

“Certainly, the government has a lot to gain from supporting the Cossacks,” he said. “But on the other hand, what you see is the creation of a self-governing organization that decides on its own what cause to support and what cause not to support.”

Despite the recent registration of the Cossack Party of the Russian Federation, however, Zaplatin plays down Cossack political ambitions. He says their goal remains simple: to serve.

 “And it’s not just words,” he says. “We’ve already demonstrated that.”