Russia's Gurkhas: the Cossacks bounce back

Historical Notes

WHEN NATO was busily bombing Kosovo, there were Cossacks queuing up in Moscow and Rostov-on-Don to sign on to fight for the Serbs - their ethnic kin and their fellow Christians. Today, they are volunteering to fight in Chechnia and Daghestan. Indeed, whenever there is trouble brewing on the frontiers of Russia, or for Slavs elsewhere, there are sure to be Cossacks eager to join in the fray. Yet only a few years ago it was generally assumed that the Cossacks were a footnote to history. What accounts for their re-emergence?

For an answer one must look back in history. Descended from the Tartar horsemen who invaded the steppes of Russia with Genghis Khan, the Cossack Hosts have been consistently topped up over the centuries by runaway serfs, disaffected Old Believers and rascals who had fallen foul of central government or local landowners. Once they were accepted into the Cossack community, the rules of the Foreign Legion applied: fierce discipline but no questions asked about the past. Good horsemanship, keen markmanship and a vague adherence to Orthodox Christianity (Jews and Turks were not welcome) were the only recruiting requirements.

At first, the Cossacks were almost wholly predatory: they hijacked passing caravans and raided neighbouring settlements, carrying off women and weapons. But gradually these poachers turned gamekeepers. In the 16th century, Ivan the Terrible started recruiting them to police his frontiers. The Tsar and the Stroganov family sent them into Siberia to conquer new territories and enrich the treasury with bales of rare furs.

They were always awkward servants of the crown, jealous of their privileges and tax immunities. They rebelled repeatedly: Stenka Razin's revolt threatened Moscow; Mazeppa betrayed Peter the Great; Pugachev nearly unseated Catherine the Great. Each time there were reprisals.

The turning-point came with Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812. The Cossacks threw in their lot unequivocally with the Tsar and harassed the invader's retreating army across the snows so effectively that Napoleon described them as "a disgrace to the human species". The British, on the other hand, feted them in Hyde Park. In the following century the Tsars deployed the Cossacks as storm troopers in their campaigns to extend their frontiers in the Caucasus and Central Asia. They were Russia's Gurkhas.

With the first rumblings of the Russian Revolution in 1905, the Tsar switched their role from frontier troops to internal policemen. With their knouts and sabres they slashed their way through strikers and demonstrators. But, when the final crunch of the Revolution came in 1917, they fought on both sides. Lenin branded them as kulaks and starved them out.

Some Cossacks always yearned for an independent Cossack state, and, when Hitler made false promises of this during his invasion of 1941, many defected and fought with the Germans while others remained as Red Army cavalry. Retribution was savage. Those who were captured or handed over by the Allies were executed or sent to Siberia; Cossack communities were decimated, and Cossack horsemanship reduced to a circus act.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cossacks bounced back. They had been put down before and survived. Yeltsin had a soft spot for them, reintroduced Cossack regiments and appeared in Cossack uniform. Cossack clubs - mostly rifle clubs - sprang up. They have not lost their old animosity for the Muslim Chechens, nor their propensity to protect Russia's frontiers bravely while resenting central authority. Even if some of the urban "Asphalt Cossacks" lack the old equestrian skills, it would be an unwise president who wrote them off as an anachronism.

"We are Russians, only more so," one of them said to me recently: I wouldn't quarrel with that. In fact, I wouldn't quarrel with a Cossack at all.

Sir John Ure is the author of `The Cossacks' (Constable, pounds 20)

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own