Society

In Putin's Russia, A Modern Return Of The Ultra-Patriotic Cossacks

Once mercenaries for Ivan the Terrible, the Cossacks were known as great fighters before being wiped out by the Bolsheviks. Now, they are on the frontline of a nationalistic revival.

Cossacks from Zheltura
Cossacks from Zheltura
Marie Jégo

VOLGOGRAD – A young regiment is paying its respects to the Russian national flag in the snowy courtyard of the Cossack military academy, in Ioujny, a neighborhood of Volgograd.

The city – formerly known as Stalingrad – is located 966 kilometers (600 miles) southwest of Moscow. The young cadets, all between seven and 17 years old, are wearing fatigues with matching Cossack hats. They are standing at attention.

The instructor screams orders and the little chins turn right, then left and then straight towards the flags, flying in the falling snow – the tricolored Russian flag and the flag of the and the stanista (Cossack settlement) Nedorubovskaia, who runs the military academy. These are the Don Cossacks, mercenaries and adventurers who settled by this river, which they believe is the birthplace of their community. The Don River flows a few kilometers from the school, offering its sandy beaches to swimmers in the summer; its plentiful waters to fishermen, who dig a hole through the ice in the winter.

Everyone’s cheeks are red on this freezing January Saturday. Most of the 320 cadets have the weekend off, and their families are waiting to take them home. It’s a well-deserved break after such a hard week of studies, military exercises, songs, and prayers.

Entering the dining hall is done in an orderly fashion: in rows and with a military step. Not a sound is heard during the meal, which is eaten after a short prayer in front of an icon of the Christ. In the great hall, the “Cossacks Commandments” set the tone: “Love Russia for she is your mother and no one will replace her” or “Those marching against your motherland are your enemies.”

Vladlen – a contraction of Vladimir Lenin – Stratoulat, the academy’s director is in his fifties and feels nothing but pride for his recruits: “We have a 90% success rate at the baccalaureate end of secondary school exam.”

He’s not lying – every student’s grade is posted on the walls of the common room. The curriculum taught here is the same as in the rest of Russia, except for military patriotism, which is an extra class. To shape the “21th century Cossack” (the school slogan) there are also Chinese lessons – even if Volgograd is 5771 kilometers (3586 miles), an eight-hour flight from Beijing.

The academy has an excellent reputation and its campus is clean and modern. There is a large park for sports, horse riding notably – because a Cossack without a horse is not a real Cossack. With this military education, the cadets hope to be recruited by the army, intelligence services or police. And all of this is free. “The only thing they have to provide is their clothes. The families needn’t pay anything, we provide the parade uniforms, schooling, moral education, the roof over their heads and the food,” says head of education Alexander Nikolaevitch, in his blue uniform. Almost everything is paid for by the Volgograd Ministry of Nationalities and Cossacks.

Since the school opened in 2009, it has become a symbol of Cossack revival. Almost a century after being wiped out by the Bolshevik government, these fierce horsemen, who were drafted by Ivan the Terrible to keep the Russian Empire’s borders safe, are back in service.

In the regions of the Don and the Volga, and further down the south near Krasnodar and Rostov, stanitsa are flourishing again. One of the reasons behind this phenomenon is demographics – the declining Russian population is anxious about the Muslim populations of Caucasia, the only ones with a positive growth rate. The Russian Federation – 143 million inhabitants in 2013 – has lost more than five million people since the end of USSR. The Cossacks see themselves as the guardians of the southern steppes, threatened by the Tartar hordes – as they were in the past.

Searching for a “national idea”

There has been a Cossack unit within the Russian army since 2005. Thirty military academies like this one have opened around the country. Sturdy Cossack men in their papakha, the traditional black astrakhan hat, patrol the streets of Moscow and Krasnodar, to maintain order.

They were once an auxiliary division of the Tsar’s army. The Cossacks earned their reputation when they chased Napoleon’s army through Europe. They went all the way to Paris and even camped on the famous Champs-Élysées in 1814. They were also on the front lines of the anti-Semitic pogroms in the Ukraine, Russia and Belarus during the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Russian civil war pitted them against one another, the White against the Red. Isaac Babel, a writer who was executed by the NKVD (Soviet secret police) in 1940, described their unbridled violence and sense of solidarity in his 1926 novel, “Red Cavalry.” This is how he describes the Cossack Prishchepa, a man intent of vengeance after the execution of his parents, their belongings looted by neighbors: “Prishchepa went from one neighbor to another, and the bloody imprint of his boot soles stretched after him. In those huts where the Cossack found things that had belonged to his mother, or a chibouk of his father’s, he left old women nailed to the walls, dogs hung above wells and icons soiled with excrement. The men of the settlement smoked their pipes, morosely following his passage.”

In the early 1930s, the Bolsheviks crushed these “Centaur-men” into oblivion. They were easy to draft but so retrograde, so different from the “new man” they wanted to see emerge. Like the Dekulakization, the Soviet campaign to rid Russia of kulaks, rich peasants, there was a Decossackization campaign. Stalin’s 1941-1945 “patriotic war” sounded the return of the Cossack cavalry, with some units defecting to the German Wehrmacht armed forces. After the war, the Cossack units were released from the Soviet Army.

They attempted a discreet return in the 1990s, after the Perestroika era, when Russia embraced the tsarist values promoted by Vladimir Putin. After two “Putinistic” – a kind of paternalism without ideology – presidential mandates, Russia went looking for a “national idea,” a notion Boris Yeltsin, the first post-communism president, had started pursuing in 1996.

These last 20 years, Russians leaders have been searching for this “national idea.” After communism had been killed off, the country something new to rally behind. So for his third mandate in May 2012, Vladimir Putin adopted the ideological doctrine of Tsar Nicolas I: “Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality.”

This suited perfectly the Cossacks, which have always considered themselves as the defenders of patriotic values. The Russian president’s portrait is in every classroom, next to the flag and the lyrics to the national anthem. “Vladimir Putin is the great ataman –Cossack chieftain – of Russia,” says Director Vladlen Stratoulat.

According to this former air force pilot, himself an ataman, the return of traditional values, “spirituality, moral values, patriotism,” is a godsend for Russia – weakened by the chaos created by the fall of the USSR. “The children are better off here than staring at a computer screen. Some of them came from difficult families, alcoholic or irresponsible parents, that’s why they are better off here,” concludes the ataman.

Russian lesson for 11th graders: the teacher, wearing high heels and a short, tight, skirt, teaches them how to study a text. The students – two girls and fourteen boys – answer using generic, repetitive terms. Where will they live later? Everyone gives the same answer: “On Volgograd’s sacred ground.” Most of them want to join the army or the police after high school. When asked about what his future job will be, a student answers “patriot.”

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Queen Elizabeth II with UK PM Boris Johnson at a reception at Windsor Castle yesterday

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Hej!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where chaos hits Syria, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is accused of crimes against humanity and a social media giant plans to rebrand itself. For Spanish daily La Razon, reporter Paco Rodríguez takes us to the devastated town of Belchite, where visitors are reporting paranormal phenomenons.

[*Danish]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Syrian violence erupts: Army shelling on residential areas of the rebel-held region of northwestern Syria killed 13 people, with school children among the victims. The attack occurred shortly after a bombing killed at least 14 military personnel in Damascus. In central Syria, a blast inside an ammunition depot kills five soldiers.

• Renewed Ethiopia air raids on capital of embattled Tigray region: Ethiopian federal government forces have launched its second air strike this week on the capital of the northern Tigray. The air raids mark a sharp escalation in the near-year-old conflict between the government forces and the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) that killed thousands and displaced over 2 million people.

• Bolsonaro accused of crimes against humanity: A leaked draft government report concludes that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should be charged with crimes against humanity, forging documents and incitement to crime, following his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic. The report blames Bolsonaro's administration for more than half of Brazil's 600,000 coronavirus deaths.

• Kidnappers in Haiti demand $17 million to free a missionary group: A Haitian gang that kidnapped 17 members of a Christian aid group, including five children, demanded $1million ransom per person. Most of those being held are Americans; one is Canadian.

• Putin bows out of COP26 in Glasgow: Russian President Vladimir Putin will not fly to Glasgow to attend the COP26 climate summit. A setback for host Britain's hopes of getting support from major powers for a more radical plan to tackle climate change.

• Queen Elizabeth II cancels trip over health concerns: The 95-year-old British monarch has cancelled a visit to Northern Ireland after she was advised by her doctors to rest for the next few days. Buckingham Palace assured the queen, who attended public events yesterday, was "in good spirits."

• A new name for Facebook? According to a report by The Verge website, Mark Zuckerberg's social media giant is planning on changing the company's name next week, to reflect its focus on building the "metaverse," a virtual reality version of the internet.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Oil price rise causes earthquake," titles Portuguese daily Jornal I as surging demand coupled with supply shortage have driven oil prices to seven-year highs at more than $80 per barrel.

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

98

For the first time women judges have been appointed to Egypt's State Council, one of the country's main judicial bodies. The council's chief judge, Mohammed Hossam el-Din, welcomed the 98 new judges in a celebratory event in Cairo. Since its inception in 1946, the State Council has been exclusively male and until now actively rejected female applicants.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Spanish civil war town now a paranormal attraction

Ghosts from Spain's murderous 1930s civil war are said to roam the ruins of Belchite outside Zaragoza. Tourists are intrigued and can book a special visit to the town, reports Paco Rodríguez in Madrid-based daily La Razon.

🏚️ Between August 24 and September 6, 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, more than 5,000 people died in 14 days of intense fighting in Belchite in north-eastern Spain, and the town was flattened. The fighting began on the outskirts and ended in house-to-house fighting. Almost half the town's 3,100 residents died in the struggle. The war annihilated centuries of village history. The town was never rebuilt, though a Pueblo Nuevo (or new town) was built by the old one.

😱 Belchite became an open-air museum of the horror of the civil war of 1936-39, which left 300,000 dead and wounds that have yet to heal or, for some today, mustn't. For many locals, the battle of Belchite has yet to end, judging by reports of paranormal incidents. Some insist they have heard the screams of falling soldiers, while others say the Count of Belchite wanders the streets, unable to find a resting place after his corpse was exhumed.

🎟️ Ordinary visitors have encountered unusual situations. Currently, you can only visit Belchite at set times every day, with prior booking. More daring visitors can also visit at 10 p.m. on weekends. Your ticket does not include a guaranteed paranormal experience, but many visitors insist strange things have happened to them. These include sudden changes of temperature or the strange feeling of being observed from a street corner or a window. Furthermore, such phenomena increase as evening falls, as if night brought the devastated town to life.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

We still cling to the past because back then we had security, which is the main thing that's missing in Libya today.

— Fethi al-Ahmar, an engineer living in the Libyan desert town Bani Walid, told AFP, as the country today marks the 10-year anniversary of the death of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The leader who had reigned for 42 years over Libya was toppled in a revolt inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings and later killed by rebels. Some hope the presidential elections set in December can help the country turn the page on a decade of chaos and instability.

🇮🇷🎓  IN OTHER NEWS

Iran to offer Master's and PhD in morality enforcement

Iran will create new "master's and doctorate" programs to train state morality agents checking on people's public conduct and attire, according to several Persian-language news sources.

Mehran Samadi, a senior official of the Headquarters to Enjoin Virtues and Proscribe Vices (Amr-e be ma'ruf va nahy az monkar) said "anyone who wants to enjoin virtues must have the knowledge," the London-based broadcaster Iran International reported, citing reports from Iran.

The morality patrols, in force since the 1979 revolution, tend to focus mostly on young people and women, particularly the public appearance for the latter. Loose headscarves will send women straight to a police station, often in humiliating conditions. Five years ago, the regime announced a new force of some 7,000 additional agents checking on women's hijabs and other standards of dress and behavior.

Last week, for example, Tehran police revealed that they had "disciplined" agents who had been filmed forcefully shoving a girl into a van. Such incidents may increase under the new, conservative president, Ibrahim Raisi.

Speaking about the new academic discipline, Samadi said morals go "much further than headscarves and modesty," and those earning graduate degrees would teach agents "what the priorities are."

Iran's Islamic regime, under the guidance of Shia jurists, continuously fine tunes notions of "proper" conduct — and calibrates its own, interventionist authority. More recently the traffic police chief said women were not allowed to ride motorbikes, and "would be stopped," Prague-based Radio Farda reported.

Days before, a cleric in the holy city of Qom in central Iran insisted that people must be vaccinated by a medic of the same sex "as often as possible," and if not, there should be no pictures of mixed-sex vaccinations.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Thoughts on Facebook's new name? Zuckerverse? Tell us how the news look in your corner of the world: Drop us a note at info@worldcrunch.com!

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