Cossacks using whips to clear members of Pussy Riot off the streets of Sochi? Who are these brutal enforcers?

The militia patrolling the streets of the Winter Olympics host city have a long history

Share

The shocking footage of the brutal treatment meted out to members of Pussy Riot in Sochi today has dramatically changed the image we have of Cossack soldiery. For many, the term Cossack evokes memories of the circus, and stunning displays of horsemanship. Cossack dance troupes have wowed audiences around the world with their brilliance and amazing physical energy.

 A romance attaches to Cossacks – they captured the imagination of Byron and Tennyson – and they are subsequently seen as free spirits, resistant to authority. The word Cosac was originally an old East Slavic word for “free man”. But there is a history of militarism to this people that renders their involvement in the supressing of protesters not entirely unsurprising.

It is generally believed that the Cossacks originated in the Ukraine in the 13th century, emerging as the Turkish Cumans’ power in the region gradually declined. Some historians say that Cossacks were a mixture of Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish and Tatar settlers; others that they were descended from the Cumans. Nevertheless, the practise of initiating outsiders as Cossacks means that they are defined more as more of a social group than an ethnic one.

Cossacks have a long history of serving the Russian state. A largely militaristic society, they were first engaged by Russian rulers to defend against the invading Tatars in the middle ages. Thereafter, they were often at the core of the Russian military, predominantly as cavalry units, where they gained a widespread reputation for their ferocity.

During Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, the Cossacks were integral to slowing his advance. Using light cavalry tactics to harass supplies and communications, this is thought to be one of the first uses of modern guerrilla warfare. Later that century, they took part in one of the more sinister chapters of Russian history, playing a forceful role in the anti-Semitic pogroms, the last of which took place in the early 1900s.

When civil war broke out in 1917 between the Tsar’s White Army and the Bolshevik Red Army, Cossacks fought on both sides. Nevertheless, following his victory, Lenin initiated a policy of “Decossackization”, killing at least 300,000 of the 3m strong Cossack population in just one year. Many more died from famine or starvation in the gulags.

In 1936, the ban on Cossacks entering the Red Army that had been put in place by the Soviet government was lifted, and by the end of the Second World War, 17 Cossack corps had been created. Later reduced to eight, their distinction in battle led to these units being merited as Guards units, formally recognising them as elite.

Yet many had fought on Germany’s side, hoping to be rewarded with an independent Cossack state once the war was over. Following Germany’s defeat, many Cossacks looked to Britain, but in the infamous Betrayal of the Cossacks, they were handed over to the Soviet authorities. Between 40,000 to 50,000 more were subsequently repatriated to the Soviet Union, where many were imprisoned or executed

Nowadays, the Cossacks (formally known as the Registered Cossacks of the Russian Federation) are a paramilitary organisation, whose peacetime duties largely revolve around the conservation, protection and restoration of forests, providing aid during natural disasters and emergencies and educating children on patriotic values. During the Winter Olympics they are acting as an informal police force and adding a decidedly sinister tinge to the term Cossack.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next
...and after (EPA)  

Nepal earthquake: A shocking disaster in one of the most remarkable countries on earth

Anthony Costello
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions