The defenders of the Slavic land carry on their historical legacy in St Petersburg
Cossacks are often depicted as folkloric figures belonging to Russia’s military past, like the protagonists of the famous painting Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks by Ilya Repin. The canvas is displayed in the Russian Museum of St Petersburg and pictures a slew of rambunctious warriors gathered around a table in the middle of a military camp.
Today, a similar gathering is taking place in the hotel Rus located in the centre of St Petersburg. A Cossack non-profit organisation called The Northern Slavic Stanitsa is holding one of its routine meetings.
The scene resembles Repin’s romantic representation with a modern peculiarity. In the place of a military camp, the meeting is held in a small conference room, crowded with men in their 30s wearing camouflage uniforms. Some of them are carrying firearms. The emblem of the organisation hangs on the wall and displays the black, yellow and white background which clearly mimics the Russian Imperial banner.
The Northern Slavic Staniza is one of several Cossack paramilitary organisations regulated by the federal law, On State Service of the Russian Cossacks. Vladimir Bakin, 35, is the leader of the group, or the ataman as they are referred to in the Cossack tradition. He can trace his Cossack ancestry to the Tsarist era, when Cossack communities were protecting the Russian Empire from external as well as internal threats.
Vladimir is deeply critical of how the Cossack’s identity has been evolving in recent years: “Nowadays many people call themselves Cossacks just because they claim to be Cossacks’ descendants and go around wearing traditional costumes. That is not the essence of being a Cossack, it is just a game, a sterile historical reconstruction,” states the ataman.
He founded The Nordic Slavic Stanitsa in order to restore Cossacks’ reputation and their active role in society. Since its foundation in 2008, Vladimir’s organisation is regularly cooperating with the St Petersburg municipal police in securing public order in the northern capital. Typical targets of the Cossacks vigilantism are illegal alcohol sales and unlicensed street trading. Cossacks also cooperate with the police in identifying and raiding illegal immigrants’ homes.
Vladimir is proud to highlight an increased degree of acknowledgement that the organisation enjoys among official law enforcement institutions. “The police is not just allowing us to help, they are looking forward to cooperate with us.”
The headquarters of the Nordic Slavic Stanitsa is located somewhere in the Krasnogvardeysky district of St Petersburg. The ataman prefers not to reveal the exact address: “The location is not a secret, but it’s not public either, just members are supposed to know where it is”.
The organisation provides military training for all its members. Courses take place every week and encompass several disciplines like mixed martial arts, military strategy, and survival in extreme environmental conditions. Shooting practise is conducted with hunting firearms in conformity with the weapon legislation. Vladimir points out that every Russian citizen has the right to own a firearm after receiving the appropriate license.
The Cossack military tradition has been passed on through generations, from father to son. That is why military patriotic education of youngsters is also at the centre of Vladimir’s group activity. According to the Cossack traditions, children should learn to love their motherland and be prepared to defend it.
“Cossacks have always been the guardians of ancestral tradition, a barrier between common people and the forces of evil. They always acted as defenders of the people, knights of goodness. They didn’t only take part in many wars, they were also victorious in many of them. Napoleon himself learned to respect the Cossacks,” Vladimir says.
Even though The Nordic Slavic Stanitsa welcomes every Russian citizen in its ranks who proves himself worthy, a few exceptions apply. Muslims are not accepted because they are considered too culturally distant, and even though women are allowed to take part in some of the activities, the organisation format is clearly male-oriented.
According to Vladimir, the contemporary Cossack is “a good family man, a patriot aware of his role, his mission and duty in this country, a man who knows exactly the reason why he exists.”
Currently, the organisation counts around 50 active members, the majority of whom have already received advanced military training while serving in the Russian army. Many of them have been fighting in eastern Ukraine as volunteers on the side of the pro-Russian separatists.
As defenders of the motherland, the Cossacks are very much aware of the escalating confrontation between Russia and the west. “We are guardians of the State we were born in. We are guarantors of stability and we will not allow any Maidans, coups, or other intrigues planned by western puppeteers to happen in Russia,” states ataman Vladimir.