“Even the SS were afraid of the Cossacks.” That phrase has stuck in my mind for decades, since childhood conversation shed a little light into the native culture and war-time history of my friend’s Grandfather. For some reason, I filed those words away – saving them for a time when I knew they would prove useful, or perhaps I just happened to remember a statement from a moment of chance – take your pick.
Who could the SS possibly be frightened of? Being brutal, uncompromising amphetamine-fueled harbingers of fear and death themselves? The Cossacks sounded fearsome, mysterious and far away – in many respects they still do, although a little more light has been shed on their existence – well, a little. I’m still one of the many outsiders – glancing in, quizzically; reading the documentation without really knowing the culture.
They are still around and you probably saw them on the Western news, in fact, delivered into your front room from Sochi’s 2014 Olympics. No, they weren’t participating – this was one of their less glorious moments: beating the band Pussy Riot live on camera, when the latter launched into a punk protest song at the event – flash-mob style. In case you don’t already know, Pussy Riot consists largely of 20/30-something females. Excuse my (apparently) antiquated views concerning the treatment of women, but it’s uncomfortably viewing.
Historically the Russian Cossacks served the Tsar and fiercely defended both culture and tradition. So they would argue that they were doing the same here I assume? I’m grasping, frankly, to understand what mechanism renders the whipping of unarmed and unarmoured women acceptable (whatever they are singing about) – and I’m struggling. Is Putin now the Russian Tsar by default, following historical tradition? It’s all a bit of a mystery, when viewed from outside.
We don’t really “get it” here in our sacrilegious West, where vehement criticism of both Church and state is routine. Thank goodness though, considering the nonsense that we routinely endure – but I digress. By contrast, If you attack either institution (even if you consider them separate) in Russia, you will quickly receive a very rude awakening, at least, and very possibly something a great deal worse. The same goes if you appear to threaten long-held traditions, also.
There are not just “Cossacks”, as in one single body of people – incidentally. That’s the first important factor that you may not have considered (and why would you?). Also, there are not only Russian Cossacks; the Ukrainian Cossack tradition is (and always has been) a powerful one; underscored and emphasised today by the war with Russia in the East, and remains an issue of national pride.
Historically, Russian Cossacks were identified by region, with the most numerous “Don” Cossacks holding 800 km of territory along the Don river, since the 15th century. Many other host territories under various regional ownerships became established over the next 400 years, until Communism officially superseded any prior land claims and amalgamated all under the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Having said that, it’s completely unfeasible to imagine Cossacks genuinely relinquishing anything of their traditional cultural heritage/identity at heart; whoever is in control of the country as a whole. Not a chance.
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