Monday, August 15, 2016

Atamanshchina-Lite Spreads to a Russian Region

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 15 – Last month, several commentators pointed out that the pro-Moscow occupation forces in Ukraine’s Donbass were exhibiting some of the characteristics of the atmanshchina during the civil war, including rapid degeneration into brutality and theft, that are alienating the population and leading to the decay of the official power structures there.

            (For discussions of their analyses and the original meaning of the atamanshchina as a phenomenon of the Russian Civil War following the 1917 revolution, see  and

            Now, another Russian analyst has suggested that a similar kind of atamanschina is emerging among the Cossack and neo-Cossack forces in the North Caucasus, the result of the weakness of Russian state power there and the ability of the Cossacks or at least their self-proclaimed leaders to impose their will on the population.

            And while the phenomenon there does not bear all the features of the atamanshchina in the Donbass or in the Civil War period – it might be best to call it “atamanschina-lite” – its appearance now highlights the degradation of state institutions under Vladimir Putin and the ways in which those prepared to use force, however illegitimate, often can get their way.

            In a brief article for the Kavkazskaya politika portal, Anton Chablin considers “why the leadership of the Terek Cossack host isn’t interested in resolving the land question in Stavropol” but instead is engaged in what he calls “Makhnovshchina,” a reference to Nestor Makhno, an ataman in Ukraine in the civil war (

            Recently a group of Cossacks in the Levokumya region of Stavropol kray decided to try to take control of unused land there and develop it for agriculture. But they found themselves opposed by officials and by their own atamans who preferred to keep the land off the books and therefore untaxed.

            The atamans have been able to do this, Chablin says, because for almost a year, that district has remained “without a legitimate head.” A year ago, the former head was dismissed and placed under house arrest. His deputy is acting but cannot control the situation, and there is now as far as land is concerned “a complete mess” that the atamans are exploiting.

            One Cossack leader but himself not an ataman Yevgeny Katsubin said his group wanted to establish a legitimate agriculture facility to give Cossacks work and to ensure that the laws were obeyed. But he said he was blocked in doing so because of the powers that be by the Terek Cossack host which suggested such moves would trigger “some inter-ethnic conflict.”

            The reasons for that, Chablin says, were suggested earlier by Maksim Shevhchenko, a member of the Presidential Human Rights Council and the editor in chief of Kavkazskaya politika. His words, although pronounced in May 2013, the political analyst says, remain true to this day.

            “The so-called atamans, under the cover of the so-called Cossacks have received for their own use by law about the rights of the Cossacks an enormous quantity of land. And these atamans” violating all the rules that exist for the use of such land given the weakness of the authorities “have become millionaires. They have simply privatized the land.”

            That is not the same kind of atamanshchina on view in the Donbass, but it is one that carries with it a threat to the integrity of the Russian political system at least in those areas where state institutions are relatively weak and Cossack leaders relatively strong. And it may ultimately force the Kremlin to revisit its support for the Cossacks leaders.

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