Re-Imagining the Kuban’ Cossack: Politics of Identity in Post-Soviet Russia

The Kuban' Cossacks form a distinct ethnocultural community in the North Caucasus, claiming descent from, on the one hand, Cossacks dispersed from the Zaporozhian Sich, and, on the other, Cossacks from the Caucasian Line. A Kuban' Cossack movement coalesced in the late 1980s around ethnographic and cultural work performed in the previous decade; this movement bears many of the hallmarks of a national movement, and the Kuban' Cossacks can usefully be understood as a nation.

Although scholarly approaches to nationalism have developed over time, no single theory yet provides an overarching framework; post-Modernist approaches, which highlight the arbitrary and constructed nature of narratives underpinning national movements, are, however, persuasive. Famous literary depictions, and one cinematic portrayal, of Cossacks give rise to an exaggerated, unrealistic and, often, unsympathetic image in the wider public's mind. In conjunction with the suppression of public assertions of Kuban' Cossack identity at a time when the Soviet Union was undergoing rapid and coercive modernisation, the Cossack became a fixture of a fantastical past in the popular imagination, not relevant to the modern era. Accordingly, contemporary assertions of Kuban' Cossack identity are not always taken seriously by either popular or academic observers.

More recent scholarship has revealed the enduring power of Soviet nationalities policies, under which language was considered a key marker of national distinction, in shaping the post-Soviet ethno-geographic space. In particular, such work emphasises the importance of ethnically-defined territory and ascribed passport nationality in underpinning post-Soviet claims to nationhood. This thesis questions the explanatory power of these more recent approaches, given the clearly national characteristics of the Kuban' Cossacks, who nonetheless lacked either a separate language, an autonomous territory or an ascribed nationality.

In particular, such scholarship fails to recognise that the weakness of Russian identity in the 1990s, and the underestimation of the necessity of nation-building by the El'tsin administration, were so far-reaching that it was not only nationalities recognised in the Soviet period that loudly asserted their particular national identity against the Russian, but also groups not recognised as such. This important trend, identified and explored here through study of the Kuban' Cossacks, has not previously been fully acknowledged in accounts of nation-building processes in 1990s Russia.