Vienna, June 4 – President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Aleksii II praised Russia’s Cossacks past and present as defenders of the nation and its values, the latest effort by each of these leaders to build authority by drawing on traditionalist symbols but one over parts of which they could find it difficult to maintain control.
On Friday, some 1100 Cossacks from 12 of the Cossack “forces” assembled in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior for the Third Great Cossack Krug (“Circle”), the highest decision-making body of the now more than two million Cossacks of the Russian Federation (http://www.rusk.ru/newsdata.php?idar=171713).
The session opened with messages from both Putin and Aleksii II. Putin said that “the Cossacks had always in faith and truth had heroically fought for the freedom and independence of the Fatherland, worked in a self-sacrificing manner, and made an important contribution to the spiritual-patriotic training of the rising generation.”
The Russian president made two other points. On the one hand, he said that he considers it “important that the current generation of Cossacks preserve in a holy way and multiply the richest traditions of their forefathers and strive to effectively participate in the life of the country and society.”
And on the other, he indicated that he considers the rebirth of the Cossack community in Russia as a special category of state employees and as representatives of a “unique” and valued culture. Not surprisingly, news services reported, the assembled Cossacks responded enthusiastically to Putin’s remarks.
The patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church for his part said that “Always, at all times of the existence of our Fatherland, the Cossack community guarded the peace and stability of the people of Russia, finding its strength and courage in the treasure house of Orthodoxy.”
The Church in turn, Aleksii continued, “recognizing the importance of military service, blesses the glorious achievements of its true sons who have not shied away from shedding their blood and even life itself on the fields of battle.” And he suggested that Cossacks today can play a similar role as “bearers of traditional Christian moral values.”
The krug also cheered his words. But many who know something about the Cossacks are certain to be troubled, not only because these statements are inaccurate – many Cossacks are not Christians, for example – but also because they have a record of dealing often brutally with those they view as the domestic enemies of the state.
And that raises an even more disturbing danger, one that seems even more likely on the basis of two other developments last week: Putin and the patriarch may be quite happy to try to exploit these symbols of Russia’s past, but in so doing, they may set in train forces that they will not easily be able to control.
The day before the krug assembled, the apparatus of the Russian Orthodox Church assembled a roundtable at which participants called for dropping all Soviet-era names from streets and other locations and also changing other names that may now be politically incorrect (http://www.pravay.ru/news/12411?print=1).
At this session, Valentin Lebedev, the head of the nationalist Union of Orthodox Citizens, called for changing the name of the Voiekovskaya metro station on the July 17 anniversary of the murder of the Imperial Family because “the name of the tsar killer Voyekov ought to disappear from the map of Russia.”
In doing so, he was repeating a proposal that many Russians have made over the past two decades and one that the Kremlin today could perhaps live with, despite the opposition of many on the left. But other participants at the session made proposals that could cause the Russian government difficulties.
On the one hand, some proposed renaming Moscow’s Tallinn Street “Kolyvanskaya,” an adjective derived from an earlier Russian name of the Estonian capital. And on the other, others suggested that there should be no memorialization in Russian toponymy of former President Boris Yeltsin.
Stage-managing such popular anger is likely to be far more difficult than creating conditions under which it emerges in the first place, a reality that may give some Russian officials pause in this area. But there was another development last week that seems far more likely to have both those consequences.
As “Kommersant” reported on Friday, the Kremlin with “the full support of the Russian Orthodox Church” plans to create “a so-called Orthodox corps” within the “Nashi” organization to give lessons in Orthodox Christianity in the schools and “defend the church” (http://www.kommersant.ru/doc.html?DocID=770546&IssueId=36293).
This new group is to be formed in June, the paper said, and already several commentators have suggested that this new grouping will be used as “an instrument of political struggle” and castigated it as “speculation on faith with the goal of winning authority.”
Its supporters see no problem with that. Deacon Andrei Kurayev, a professor at the Moscow Spiritual Academy, told “Kommersant” that “it is necessary that a taste for social-political life be developed among Orthodox young people,” who the outspoken churchman said need to learn how to react to events in a useful way.
His last remark, the newspaper suggested, represented an implicit criticism of the actions of the Union of Orthodox Banner Carriers, whose members participated in the violent dispersal of gay parades in Russia in 2006 and 2007. But nothing Kurayev said indicated just how the new Nashi group would restrain them.
Another backer of the group saw even more expansive possibilities. Kirill Frolov, who heads the Moscow Section of the Union of Orthodox Citizens, said he was confident that the new Orthodox corps would take “an active part in actions and pickets organized” by his group.
That is precisely what those opposed to Nashi fear, but it is possible that this creature at some point could turn on its backers as well – or at the very least prove beyond their capacity to control.