Pro-Putin Cossacks Whip Protesters, Then Get Flogged as Punishment

The men in military fatigues who charged at protesters in Moscow, thrashing them with leather whips, have apparently been beaten by their comrades-in-arms after an outcry about their actions being unpunished.

The group, who identify themselves as Cossacks—a loose network of conservative communities who venerate militaristic groups of the past—assaulted activists who marched against Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month. While around 600 protesters were arrested in Moscow, the fate and exact identity of the Kremlin-loyal men swinging leather whips at them was unclear.

A member of the community now said that Cossacks in Moscow are also investigating who among them hit protesters.

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"We had a meeting," Vassily Yaschikov, a Cossack blogger, told BFM radio. "We gathered, we drew conclusions, we got to the bottom of what could have led to this."

Yashchikov blamed "provocateurs" for prompting the Cossacks to start beating protesters, but he assured the broadcaster that the assailants had gotten their just desserts.

"Notwithstanding that, we punished those who swung the nagaiki," he said, using the Russian term for the Cossack leather whip. "We punished them with our Cossack customs and traditions. We flogged them. They got the nagaika so they know better next time."

The Kremlin's human rights consultant Maxim Shevchenko told the Kommersant newspaper earlier this month that he was investigating who these self-styled Cossacks were, but has provided no updates on bringing the group to justice.

Groups often linked to Cossacks pleaded ignorance as to the men's identity, as did the Russian National Guard and police present at the protest. The nationalist National Liberation Movement, whose flags flew as the Cossacks flogged activists, also said that the attack was "not our method."

The newspaper noted that if the men were truly strangers, it was "curious" authorities took no interest in the men attacking the very activists police were detaining for participating in an unsanctioned rally, when the Cossacks were arguably guilty of charges at least as serious.

A group who identify themselves as Cossacks scuffle with opposition supporters during an unauthorized anti-Putin rally called by opposition leader Alexei Navalny, two days ahead of Vladimir Putin’s inauguration for a fourth Kremlin term, in Moscow, on May 5. Maxim Zmeyev/AFP/Getty Images

Human rights groups again criticized the government for refusing to permit the peaceful rally and arresting its leader, Alexei Navalny, but the arrival of the Cossacks caused even more alarm, according to Amnesty International.

"What is worse is the total police inaction, which allowed the beating of protesters by unknown men in Moscow. On what grounds people in 'Cossack' uniforms were allowed to use force remains a question," Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty's deputy director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said.

"Authorities should immediately release all peaceful protesters arrested and launch an independent, thorough and effective investigation of the use of force by police, and attacks on the protesters by the 'Cossacks' with the inaction of the police."

Cossack communities are often fiercely loyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin, as one group based outside St. Petersburg showed by commissioning a bust of his head in the style of a Roman emperor.

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There are a handful of paramilitary Cossack groups who are also affiliated with the Russian military, helping to chase down conscripts and assisting Russian law enforcement.

The beatings in Moscow this month sparked particular concern, as some witnesses claimed the whip-cracking enforcers were members of the Central Cossack Troops—a vigilante group affiliated with Moscow City Council. In approximately a month, Cossack units will be helping police the hosting of the World Cup.

The group has since issued an official statement denying that the men who attacked protesters were linked to them.