Russians far more imperialist now than they were in Soviet times, Cossack historian says

Russian neo-Cossack paramilitaries pose by a Putin monument in St. Petersburg, Russia

Russian neo-Cossack paramilitaries pose by a Putin monument in St. Petersburg, Russia 

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Russians today are “much more imperialist than they were in the last years of the USSR, Vladimir Melikhov says; and in the pursuit of empire, they are prepared to sacrifice their freedoms, a loss that means that “it is completely possible that the present-day Russian Federation will share the fate of the USSR.”

Vladimir Melikhov

Vladimir Melikhov

But even before that happens, the Cossack historian tells Vyacheslav Puzeyev of the After Empire portal, the attitude of Russians has made absolutely impossible the formation of democratic institutions and federalism for all nations within the country’s borders, including the Cossacks.

“If there are no democratic institutions such as freedom of speech, division of powers or an independent judicial system, how can one speak about any federation?” Melikhov asks. And given their absence, neither the Cossacks nor any other people can hope for a real republic. If the country disintegrates before democracy arrives, “in place of one dictator, there could be 85.”

Consequently, a Cossack Republic for the time being must remain “a project of the future,” he continues. “It will become possible only on the basis of real federalism and stable institutions of self-administration. When power in various regions will belong to their population and not to governors and mayors appointed ‘from above, then real change will occur.”

Melikhov has been persecuted by the Russian government for his efforts in the media and as an organizer of two memorial museums to enlighten the Russian people about the real nature of the Cossacks. The authorities over the course of a decade have brought him to court 500 times in the hopes he will stop.

But Melikhov says he has no plans to do so, adding that the repression he has been subject to in itself shows “what a dictatorship leads to.” The powers that be crack down on him because they see in his work on the history of the Cossacks under the Soviets a reflection of the earlier oppressors of his nation.

Rebellious Cossacks before execution by the Red Army

Rebellious Cossacks before execution by the Red Army

The Soviets committed genocide against the Cossacks, but the post-Soviet regime is seeking to destroy the Cossack tradition by turning everything upside down, presenting Cossacks as the invariable supporters of the Russian state, as simply a social stratum rather than a nation, and as harshly authoritarian rather than freedom loving, the historian says.

They are thus destroying the Cossacks in a new and dangerous way even as they present themselves as supporters of the neo-Cossacks in Russia today, Melikhov says.

Most of these new Cossacks know nothing about the traditions of the real Cossacks but simply have failed at life, want to play act, and to win points from the regime.

Russian neo-Cossack mercenaries in Donbas, Ukraine posing for camera, 2014 (Image: nr2.com.ua)

Russian neo-Cossack mercenaries in Donbas, Ukraine posing for camera, 2014 (Image: nr2.com.ua)

“Historically,” he says, “the Cossacks evolved as a separate ethnic group, quite different from other ethnic groups in the Russian Empire. It had its own democratic institutions … and therefore if one speaks about the rebirth of the Cossacks, one must above all speak about the rebirth of this political culture which arose over centuries.”

Melikhov concludes: “The Cossacks always were independent and self-sufficient in the organization of their own lives and never counted on the powers for assistance. They were masters of their own land, but today few understand these terms,” and the Russian government wants to keep it that way lest the Cossacks become a model for others.

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Edited by: A. N.

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