Friday, October 16, 2015

Not All of Russia’s Cossacks are Orthodox; Some are Muslims and Others Buddhists

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 16 – There are few stereotypes more widely shared in Russia and the West than those about the Cossacks who are almost always viewed as being not only firm defenders of the Russian state but of Russian Orthodoxy as well. But such images are  incomplete and thus inaccurate.

            “Traditionally it has been thought that the Cossacks were closely connected only with one religious direction, Orthodox Christianity,” the National Council of Cossacks notes. But “this is not entirely true: there have always been among them followers of other confessions” (

            The number of Muslims –Bashkirs, Tatars, North Caucasus mountaineers, Kazakhs and so on – was quite large in the 19th century, and there were many Buddhists from among the Kalmyks and Buryats by the beginning of the 20th. In addition, there have been followers of animist groups from Siberia, and even Lutherans, Catholics and Jews.

Some may not be surprised by reports about religious and ethnic diversity among Cossacks in the tsarist period given the complexity of their development as a people in various parts of the Russian Embassy, but even those aware of that history may be shocked that Muslim and Buddhist Cossack units are forming in Russia today.

The revival and expansion of Muslim Cossack units is especially noteworthy – indeed, it has been sufficiently large to force the leaders of many of the groups to issue public statements that they are not forming “Muslim armies” as some of their critics fear to be used against the Russian state.

In 1998, a Bashkir Muslim Cossack unit was set up near Chelyabinsk. It brought together approximately 100 descendants of the Bashkir Cossacks of tsarist times and whose ancestors formed a significant portion of the Ural and Orenburg Cossack forces, some of which fought for Kolchak during the Russian Civil War.

Somewhat later, in Perm oblast, there appeared the first Muslim Cossack sotnya – or “unit of 100.” The mufti of the oblast signed an agreement with it and declared that “we want to be an example of how it is possible to serve the Fatherland without violating the spiritual traditions of our ancestors.”

Members of this Cossack community pray to Allah five times a day, observe halal rules in the preparation of food, and maintain the Ramadan fast. And like other Cossack units, it organizes summer youth camps, fights drug abuse, and helps law enforcement agencies to maintain order.

In Orenburg, Muslims make up half of the Cossack community there and receive the patronage of the local mufti as well as the local Orthodox priest. And there have been reports of Muslim Cossacks appearing albeit I relatively small numbers in the North Caucasus over the last 15 years.

Meanwhile, in the Transbaikal, the Cossack revival has involved Buddhist Buryats who formed a significant portion of the Transbaikal Cossacks at the end of the Russian Empire and during the Russian civil war. Pamphlets have even appeared about how to promote the Buddhist faith among newly enrolled Cossacks.


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