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© RIA Novosti. Igor Zarembo

March of the Cossacks

by Anna Arutunyan at 03/12/2012 22:17

Cossack Colonel Igor Gulichev needed just two things to make his day go right: legal authority to detain people, and for the media to leave him alone.

“Maybe you want me to crack a whip, or to cut some heads off ?” he asked a group of about two dozen journalists and cameramen who had accosted his Cossack patrol outside of Moscow’s Belorussky train station last Tuesday. “Cossacks aren’t sadists, we don’t like blood. But we want to defend the fatherland.”

It wasn’t just a matter of dispelling stereotypes, because there is still no consensus about what the Cossacks – a group that is both an ethnicity and a military community – really are. And there’s even less agreement about whether they should be patrolling city streets.

Gulichev and a regiment of about eight uniformed, unarmed Cossacks who had turned up that frosty morning for their first test patrol in Moscow’s Central Administrative District hadn’t counted on a media onslaught. The plan had been to disperse a few unlicensed vendors and see if by their mere presence they could scare off the pickpockets and drunken loiterers who gather near train stations.

The unlicensed vendors peddling t-shirts, dry mushrooms and other goods in a bridge underpass packed their wares and scattered upon sight of the Cossacks. But given the larger and louder crowd of journalists in the Cossacks’ wake, it wasn’t a clean experiment. Marina, a clothes vendor, told The Moscow News she was scared of the Cossacks, but seemed more afraid of the cameramen.

Worse still, the test run got a round of bad publicity. By Tuesday afternoon, the Central District Prefecture distanced itself from the patrol, claiming it was the sole initiative of the Southeastern District Cossacks Society, and that it had not been authorized by local officials or the police. Even the state-controlled NTV channel, notorious for politicized programs casting the opposition in a bleak light, ridiculed the Cossacks’ attempt at law and order: a presenter put on a Darth Vader mask and huffed that he can also walk the streets dressed up however he likes.

Gulichev spent Wednesday morning in meetings with prefecture officials trying to figure out what went wrong. “These are usual bureaucratic games,” he told The Moscow News. “We had agreed our [patrol] with the prefecture and the police. They gave us a bus. There was a plain-clothed police officer [accompanying us].”

According to Central District Prefecture spokesman Pavel Bolshunov, there had been a misunderstanding. “[The Cossack patrol] was a noble intention, but it needed to be authorized,” he told The Moscow News.

Nevertheless, Bolshunov confirmed that Cossacks patrols would be underway in central Moscow by the beginning of 2013 – as soon as they registered their patrols in accordance with the law.

A Cossack for president?

Unlicensed street vendors say they are apprehensive of Cossacks

© RIA Novosti. / Ramil Sitdikov

Unlicensed street vendors say they are apprehensive of Cossacks

For weeks, Russian media have been awash with reports about government attempts to recruit Cossacks to help with law and order, seemingly restoring a symbiotic relationship that goes back to tsarist times. With Cossack groups trying to prevent both the staging of a play about Lolita in St. Petersburg and a Pussy Riot-themed exhibit in Moscow, the reports took on a more ominous twist: Cossack patrols could be as much about attacking religious dissenters as they were about protecting law and order.

“I think city authorities at first seemed eager to use them to [plug a hole in a deficient police force],” gallery owner Marat Guelman, whose gallery was attacked by 10 Cossacks in September for hosting a religious-themed exhibit, told The Moscow News. “But when they saw it was discrediting [them], they backtracked.”

Where is the drive to put the Cossacks back in the Kremlin’s service coming from – the Kremlin, or the Cossacks themselves?

“[The Tuesday patrol] was the initiative of the local ataman [head of a Cossack division],” said Bolshunov, the central prefecture spokesman.

The patrol itself was initially announced by the Southeastern District Prefecture, whose head, Vladimir Zotov, identifies as a Cossack. That is why, according to Gulichev, the district has had daily Cossack patrols for over a year. And that’s also why it’s convenient to have one’s own people in public office, he said.

“We want Cossack representatives in municipal, regional and federal government… to represent Cossack interests. That’s our aim,” Gulichev said.

He mentioned that the Cossack Party of the Russian Federation was registered at a founding congress Nov. 24 – precisely for those aims. “Maybe someday the head of the government could become a Cossack, I don’t exclude that possibility,” he added with a smile.

‘Symbol of power’

Some describe being a Cossack as a ‘state of the soul’

© RIA Novosti. / Gennnady Svetlanov

Some describe being a Cossack as a ‘state of the soul’

Inside Gulichev’s headquarters in Lyublino, Ataman Sergei Shishkin, who is Gulichev’s boss, proudly displays a decorative, gem-studded mace hanging on his wall. “It’s a symbol of power,” Shishkin said.

“The saber, [portrait of President Vladimir] Putin, the mace and an icon,” he proudly listed the objects on his wall.

Gulichev, who described being a Cossack as “a state of the soul,” said service to the state was how Russia’s 850,000 (according to government estimates) Cossacks identified their work.

“The whole reason for organizing is to serve the government. That’s how Cossacks became Cossacks – they served the tsar!” he said.

The Cossacks’ actual origins, which go back five or six centuries, are somewhat murkier. “There are three possible explanations for where the Cossacks come from,” said Vladislav Otroshenko, a novelist who has written extensively about the Cossacks and comes from a Cossack background. “They can be seen as an ethnos, a sub-ethnos, or as a military estate, like the samurais.”

According to one theory, some of the original Cossacks were freed – or escaped – serfs. Gulichev prefers another theory, one that claims the Cossacks were what remained of the Golden Horde.

The Cossacks’ allegiance to the tsar was ultimately established following a brutal suppression of a Cossack rebellion by Peter the Great. In late tsarist Russia, according to Otroshenko, the tsar’s direct heir was considered to be the chief ataman.

Tsarist traditions

Rostov region Cossacks show off their acrobatic skills

© RIA Novosti. / Sergey Pivovarov

Rostov region Cossacks show off their acrobatic skills

The Kremlin has made dramatic overtures toward restoring these traditions. Putin accepted the title of Cossack colonel in 2005. Last year, then-President Dmitry Medvedev passed a law paving the way for an all-Russian Cossack Society, whose ataman appointments would be confirmed directly by the president. This, according to Otroshenko, would bring the practice in line with tsarist traditions.

For Gulichev, such laws are not enough. “As always, everything’s there on paper. But it’s just not coming into force.”

Last week, he and his colleagues complained to journalists that they didn’t have the legal ability to check people’s documents and to take them to police stations.

But that kind of power would pose a slew of ethical and legal problems, critics say.

“If the Cossacks are an ethnos, then how can they patrol other ethnic groups?” Otroshenko said. “If they are a military estate, then why do they need to patrol in peacetime?”

Gulichev suggested that the police weren’t coping with their tasks, hence the need for Cossack intervention.

“There is a problem,” Guelman said, “and that is that there is no local police… The Cossacks could start doing what the police can’t.”

Tragic history

There is another problem – the Cossacks’ relationship with the government, for all its closeness, has been precarious. Two of the most notorious rebellions in Russian history – Stepan Razin’s rebellion in 1670 and the Pugachev Rebellion in 1774 – were led by Cossacks.

During Tuesday’s patrol, an old woman passed the group of Cossacks and said, “You should solve your problems down in Kushchyovka.” She was referring to a town in the Krasnodar region, traditionally inhabited by Cossacks, where, in November 2010, 12 people were massacred by a criminal gang that had enjoyed the protection of local officials.

“That’s easy to say, fight the bandits,” Gulichev said. “The Cossacks couldn’t do anything, because the authorities were [covering for the criminals]. The Cossacks never went against the authorities. Well, they did – [Yemelian] Pugachev, Razin – but we know how that ended. They paid a horrible price.”

According to Guelman, that price is paid when history is resurrected. “The past is not dangerous when it’s in the past,” he said. “The past becomes dangerous when it tries to take the place of the future.”

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