If you’re watching the Sochi Olympics coverage, you’ve probably seen them in their tall lambswool hats and long gray overcoats and boots. There are some 1,000 uniformed Cossacks among the 70,000 security officials in Sochi.
Cossacks have a complicated place in Russian history and their presence, both symbolic and serving a real purpose, is picking at old wounds in the region.
Interview Highlights: Shane O’Rourke
On Cossacks killing and expelling Circassians in the late 19th century
“This was the policy of imperial state; it wasn’t Cossacks acting autonomously or on their own initiative. This is what the state decided as part of its security needs, that it needed to control these border areas. And the way it did this, obviously, was to remove populations that it regarded as disloyal or potential security risks. So there’s a long of history of that in the North Caucasus. And of course the Cossacks themselves were victims of that in Soviet times as well when they were deported.”
On the idea Cossacks are the mascot for “conservative, nationalist ideology”
“I think the Cossacks are a symbol of Russian national identity. During Soviet times, they were seen as — the state was very suspicious about the Cossacks; it didn’t allow any sort of public recognition of them or celebration of their identity. But since the end of the Soviet Union, the new Russian state has made a big effort to reclaim them and to publicize them as part of Russian national identity. And so in a sense that’s what’s going on here as well, that they’re part of the identity of the new Russia, that the Russian state wants to show off to the world.”
On what the Cossacks are doing in Sochi for the Olympics
“As far as I can understand it, they seem to be part of the police force there, they’re helping with the security arrangements. But it seems to me that it’s ceremonial, it’s part of the pageantry of the Olympics, that clearly the real security is being handled by other agencies — by the police, the intelligence services, the army — the usual things you would get at the Olympics. And I think the Cossacks are there symbolically as part of the presentation of Russia to the outside world.”
On Cossacks possibly racial profiling at the games
“They are doing a bit of racial profiling there, in the way that they act. They don’t seem to be making any secret of that. The only thing is, I should image all the security services are keeping a very close eye on anyone who appears to come from the North Caucuses. There were the bombs in Volgograd at the beginning of the year and I think that has obviously clearly heightened tensions and fear and concerns of the security in the games.”
- New York Times: The Cossacks Are Back. May the Hills Tremble.
- The Atlantic: Here Come the Cossacks
- The Globe and Mail: Unarmed Cossacks use racial profiling to identify Sochi threats
- Shane O’Rourke, senior lecturer in the history department at University of York in the United Kingdom. He is also the author of the book “The Cossacks.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
And if you're watching Olympic coverage, you've probably see them in their tall, lambswool hats and long gray overcoats and boots - Cossacks, some 1,000 of them, among the 70,000 security officials in Sochi. It's like having a minute man in costume in Boston. Cossacks are part of Russia's past, but also its present. It's a complicated past, and their presence in Sochi is picking at old wounds in the region.
Shane O'Rourke is a senior lecturer in the history department of the University of York, in the U.K. He's also the author of the book "The Cossacks," not to be confused with Tolstoy's novel of 1863. Welcome.
SHANE O'ROURKE: Thank you very much. Thank you for asking me.
YOUNG: Who are the Cossacks?
O'ROURKE: Well, it's quite hard to define them. In my opinion, they were a separate group that emerged in Russia in the 16th century. They were - largely consisted of serfs who fled from serfdom to the frontier lands, and then they lived there by a mixture of banditry and hiring themselves out as soldiers to whoever would pay them, usually the Russian state or the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
YOUNG: Or Czar Sir Alexander II. Tell us about his involvement with the Cossacks in this region, Sochi.
O'ROURKE: Alexander II - during his reign, it was part of the long, ongoing conquest of the North Caucasus. There were lots of campaigns against the peoples of the North Caucasus, as Russia attempted to bring this area under the control of the empire. And of course, the Cossacks were heavily involved in that, particularly Cossacks in the North Caucasus, in the Terek region.
YOUNG: Well, we understand the people that settled in this area, Circassians...
YOUNG: ...were driven out by the czar with the help of the Cossacks, who killed maybe upwards of 400,000 and drove a half-million more from their homes. Some historians call it the first modern genocide, and that's what's leading to some bruised feelings, still, that they are there in Sochi.
O'ROURKE: Yes. That was a brutal war, fought in the 19th century. It did involve ethnic cleansing, what we would today call ethnic cleansing. And the Circassians were driven out, into the Ottoman Empire, from their homes. But this was the policy of the imperial state. It wasn't Cossacks acting autonomously or on their own initiative. This was what the state decided as part of its security needs; that it needed to control these border areas. And the way it did this, obviously, was to remove populations that it regarded as disloyal or potential security risks.
So you know, there's a long history of that in the North Caucasus. And of course, the Cossacks themselves were victims of that in Soviet times as well, when they were deported, the Terek Cossacks by the Soviet state.
YOUNG: Well - but then brought back by President Putin.
YOUNG: And some have said that this is, you know, part of the message that he's sending, that it's going to - Russia is going to revert to a conservative, nationalist country and that Cossacks are - as Ellen Barry wrote in The New York Times - kind of the mascot of that thinking. Is that right, do you think?
O'ROURKE: Yes. I think that the Cossacks are a symbol of Russian national identity. During Soviet times, they were seen as - the state was very suspicious about the Cossacks. It didn't allow any sort of public recognition of them or celebration of their identity. But since the end of the Soviet Union, the new Russian state has made a big effort to reclaim them, and to publicize them as part of Russian national identity. And so in a sense, that's what's going on here as well, that they're part of the identity of the new Russia that the Russian state wants to show off to the world.
YOUNG: Well, how tender is that in Sochi? And again, we refer to the Circassians being driven from the region with the help of the Cossacks years ago. But the Circassians, largely Muslim. The Cossacks, Orthodox Christian.
O'ROURKE: They're generally Orthodox Christian, though many of them belonged to dissenting parts of the Orthodox Church. They were old believers. Yes, these ethnic memories are extremely powerful and extremely old. They're very deep, and they're still quite raw, I think. The problem is in the North Caucasus area. Everyone has their sense of victim politic(ph), and legitimately portray themselves as the victims of aggression either by the imperial state, by the Soviet state or by other ethnic groups within the area. So there's plenty of bitterness and anger to go around.
YOUNG: To go around. As you said, the Cossacks played a role in defending the czar and attacking different groups, but then the Bolsheviks nearly obliterated the Cossacks and now, they're back. What are they doing in Sochi?
O'ROURKE: Well, as far as I can understand it, they seem to be part of the police force there. They're helping with the security arrangements. But it seems to me that it's ceremonial. It's part of the pageantry of the Olympics; that clearly, the real security is being handled by other agencies: by the police, the intelligence services, the army - the usual things that you'd get at any Olympics.
And I think the Cossacks are there symbolically as part of, you know, the presentation of Russia to the outside world. And, you know, maybe they will stop a few minor crimes. But in terms of the really serious threats, I'm sure that's being dealt with by other agencies of the Russian state.
YOUNG: Well, we're reading a concern that they might be stopping minorities. Cossacks have been asked, what are you doing working with the police in Sochi? And they've said things like - I'm quoting from The Globe and Mail - we're looking for drunks and chornay - C-H-O-R-N-A-Y; it's the Russian word for blacks.
O'ROURKE: For blacks, yes.
YOUNG: But it's racially charged because that man was referring to people coming in from the Caucasus...
YOUNG: ...Muslims maybe, crossing in from the Caucasus, from the regions that we've heard about that are home to some of these terrorist groups.
YOUNG: And that - pretty charged language.
O'ROURKE: Yes, it is. It's not subtle at all, is it? And they are doing a bit of racial profiling there in the way that they act. You know, they don't seem to be making any secret of that. The only thing is, I should imagine all the security services are keeping a very close eye on anyone who appears to come from the north Caucasus. There were the bombs in Volgograd at the beginning of the year. And I think that has obviously clearly heightened tensions and fear and concerns over the security in the games.
YOUNG: So this is sort of the back story to this - what looks like sort of a quaint nod to the past, you know, when you just see the images. Why are you so taken by the Cossack history?
O'ROURKE: Well, I became interested when I was doing Masters at the university and I was looking for - I was doing it in Russian history and looking for a subject. And that time I read Mikhail Sholokhov's novel of the Cossacks during the Civil War, "Quiet Flows the Don." It really struck me as, you know, very interesting.
And I thought I'd try to find out more about these people and their communities and their way of life because they were so tragic. They always seem to back the wrong horse in many sort of conflict. They were always on the wrong side, either against the imperial state when they led rebellions against it or during the civil war when they fought largely against the Bolsheviks. So you know, maybe their sense of tragedy appeals to me, I think.
YOUNG: Well, and historically they're both on the receiving and the giving end...
YOUNG: ...of tragedy, and now something tourists are taking pictures of at Sochi. Shane O'Rourke on the Cossacks. Shane, thanks so much.
O'ROURKE: It's a pleasure. Thank you for asking me.
YOUNG: Shane O'Rourke, senior lecturer at Britain's University of York. The music, "Cossack's Song" by the Red Army Choir. You're listening to HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COSSACK'S SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.