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.
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.”