ASTANA – To this day, Kazakhstan has numerous descendants of Cossacks who became part and parcel of the multi-ethnic fabric of the country’s society. They mostly hail from those who began to come to these lands some three centuries ago as the Russian Empire expanded into the vast Eurasian expanse.
“The Siberian Cossacks first appeared on the territory of Kazakhstan some 300 years ago,” Yury Kashenkov, chairman of the public association Akmola Cossack Community, said. “They guarded the caravan routes from robbers. In 1830, Fyodor Shubin’s detachment arrived here [to today’s Astana] and started to construct buildings and the town.”
“I am a descendant of Cossacks who migrated to these lands during Peter the Great’s period. Our settlements were located in these lands [including] our fortress. I am the 12th or 15th generation now and I am not even sure,” Kashenkov told The Astana Times in an exclusive interview.
The town of Akmolinsk was founded in 1830. Colonel Shubin, the hero of the 1812 Battle of Borodino was considered by many to be the founder of the town and he certainly couldn’t have foreseen that 170 years later his military outpost would become the capital of modern, prosperous Kazakhstan. The outpost guarded the trade routes and fenced off robbers and looters from the modern territories of Uzbekistan and Shubin did everything in his power to arrange the fort properly.
“[However] Cossacks have settled in the territories of today’s Kazakhstan since the times of Peter the Great,” Kashenkov continued. “They chose these territories because all the safe routes led to these steppes, which they guarded by themselves” Kashenkov said. “They were involved in trading and some even were among famous merchants. [Cossacks] were involved in construction, et cetera and were also heavily involved in various revolutions and wars such as the battle against Napoleon, the civil war in the Tsarist period of early 19th century and the repressions of well-off peasants in 1929-1932.”
Because of military traditions, Cossacks were drafted to many conflicts like Russia’s wars of the 18th through 20th centuries, including the Great Northern War, Seven Years’ War, Crimean War, Caucasus War, Russo-Persian Wars, numerous Russo-Turkish Wars and the First World War. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Tsarist regime extensively used Cossacks to perform police service, both to prevent pogroms and to suppress the revolutionary movement, especially in 1905-1917. They also served as border guards on national and internal ethnic borders, as was the case in the Caucasus War.
“We try to stick to our traditions; we have preserved the dances and costumes. The youth have to solemnly swear, traditionally in a church, when coming of age and joining the militaristic discipline. We start training our children when they’re eight. We teach them basic etiquette and physical training. In school we help them study and we also instill patriotism in them. As for the military service, we have our own martial art ‘Cossack Spas.’ From eight to 18 years, children learn to wrestle and the skills of self-defence. But it’s not for everybody. People have different talents; some are prone to fast-learning, some are not. Numerous Cossacks go to serve in special forces; they are happily taken there. In general, Cossacks are known for strong friendship bonds from early childhood,” he added. “To become an Ataman (an official Supreme Cossack military rank), young Cossacks need to have integrity, know the etiquette and need to be highly disciplined.”
“As one of the Atamans, I am a member of the Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan (APK),” Kashenkov said. “Our community centre is involved in the APK events; we have dancing troupes and singing ensembles. We also have our own national daily, ‘Circle of Cossacks.’”
Kashenkov explained that descendants of the Cossacks in Kazakhstan today come from different so-called cohorts, including the Siberian Cossack cohort. Besides the Siberian Cossacks there are Semirechinsk Cossacks, mostly living in the Almaty region and throughout the country, as well as descendants of the Orenburg and Uralsk cohorts.
“The Assembly of the People of Kazakhstan is a good institution because it can serve as a platform to resolve inter-ethnic disputes should such arise. We jointly discuss such questions. Also, we have a direct connection with the top officials and have privileges if something needs to be discussed. It gives us good connections,” he concluded.