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
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up