Cossacks Vastly More Diverse than Putin Regime Acknowledges

Monday, January 7, 2019

Cossacks Vastly More Diverse than Putin Regime Acknowledges

Paul Goble

Staunton, January 7 – Reflecting its general impulse to homogenize and control all aspects of life in Russia and relying on the ignorance of many in that country and elsewhere about Russian history and Russian realities, the Putin regime has been promoting an image of the Cossacks that is wildly at variance with the rich and diverse tapestry of their national life.

To hear Putin’s propagandists tell it, the Cossacks are all Orthodox, all Russian, and all dedicated servants of the Russian state.  While all of these things are true of some Cossacks, none is true for all of them, as Yaroslav Butakov points out in a new article about “Cossacks You’ve Never Heard About” (

And while even this historian’s listing of what will strike many as “bizarre” is far from complete, it shows that the Cossacks have played and continue to play a more diverse and syncretic role in Russian life, one that would have been far less important if the Soviets had succeeded with their “de-Cossackization” effort or if Putin succeeds with his Procrustean one.

Butakov discusses ten Cossack hosts few have heard of and two more “extravagant” projects to set up even more.  The first of these is the Mershchersky Cossacks who emerged in the 15th century in the Ryazan area and included numerous representatives of various Finno-Ugric peoples, including Finns and Maris.

The second is the Bashkir-Meshcher host, which included Muslim Bashkirs, Tatars and Kyrgyz-Kaysaks, a group that emerged at the end of the 18th century and was suppressed in 1864 by being combined into the Orenburg Cossacks, many of whom remained Muslims instead of converting to Orthodox Christianity.

The third is the Volga Host, organized in the early 18th century to defend against the Nogays but disbanded after many of its members took part in the Pugachev’s uprising in 1773-1775. The fourth are the Kalmyk Host which was made up of Buddhists. It existed from the 18th century until 1842, but even after it was disbanded, many Buddhists remained in Cossack units.

The fifth is the Greek-Albanian Host, organized during the Russian wars with the Ottoman Empire and consisting of both Christians and Muslims.  It was disbanded after many of its members simply walked away from Russian service to engage in what had been their traditional form of economic activity, trade.

The sixth Cossack host on this list is the Crimean Tatar force. After occupying Crimea in 1783, Catherine the Great created a new Cossack force consisting of Muslim Tatars from that peninsula.  Paul I disbanded it, but it reappeared in 1827 as the Life Guard Crimean Tatar Squadron.

The seventh was the Bug Host, a structure formed during the Russo-Turkish war of 1768-1774 and consisting of a variety of non-Russian and non-Orthodox peoples – Moldovans, Vlahs, Greeks, Serbs and Bulgars.  The eighth was the Danube Host which was formed a little later but on the same basis.

The ninth was the Azov Host was formed by refugees from the Ottoman Empire in 1825 as an attack force. And the tenth, the last of these to be formed, was the Euphrates Host. Created in 1916 by Grand Duke Nikolay Nikolayevich, it consisted of both Cossacks from Russia proper and local people from the Middle East.

Butakov notes that at the end of the 19th century, military strategists in Russia made plans to create Cossack hosts abroad in Manchuria and Eastern Turkestan again consisting of a mix of Cossacks and local people, most of whom were Muslims or animist. But the revolution intervened and these plans were never carried out.

Posted by paul goble at 4:04 AM

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