Freedom in my veins

Historical adventures of democracy in Russia

In XVI century, when Russia was young and vivid country and just got its first despotic ruler, there was plenty of unused space around. Rebel peasants, runaway slaves, thieves, and robbers could escape their fate in central regions and go to the south, to the rich and dangerous no-man-lands near Crimean Khanate. Sick of mandatory work on the ground (and of any work in general), they made their living as raiders, brigands, and soldiers of fortune. These people formed an ethnos named cossacks, which had eventually produced my grand grandmother.

Their military success derived from the self-organisation system: they were divided into closely tied groups electing their own leader, forming large free hosts and taking important decisions collectively. This allowed them to be fast and flexible, the opposite of hulky regular armies.

They were a regular pain in the ass for the growing Russian government with their raids, conflicts and neatly organized rebellions on any occasion. After many attempts to suppress and calm them down by force and gifts, in XIX Moscow came up with a creative solution. Cossacks had officially got large territories of fertile lands and were freed from taxes. In exchange, in any case of an external and especially internal conflict, they ought to serve in the military with their own weapon and support.

Applying self-organisation and unstoppable energy to work on their lands, cossacks quickly grew up in prosperity and from rebels become guardians of the order, respecting nothing and no one apart from Emperor and God.

With this explosive mix of free will, self-confidence and loyalty they rose to be a controversial phenomenon in history, society and culture, and an interesting example of how democracy could fit in the given situation.

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My grand grandmother met my grand grandfather during the World War II. There would be no other occasion — she was from blooming and daring south, he was from the cold unforgiving north. His small ethnic group, pomors, lives by the White Sea and has their share of antique democracy and its adventures, starting in the city of Novgorod.

In the XII century, a city-government called Novgorod was a shining example of democracy. All the questions inside the city walls were solved through the meetings of all the free people. They could choose the head of the city altogether — and then kick him out at any disturbance (which they sure did, may be too often). It was a city of entrepreneurs, merchants, craftsmen, farmers, as well as artists, and soldiers. They worked for their prosperity, protected it fiercely and would not let any politician step between them and their success. It was a republic, protecting interests of their people.

But then it happened — a winner in wars with Sweden, Lithuanian and neighbor competitors, Novgorod couldn’t stand against the growing military power of Moscow. Stripped of all their republican features, lost its most active citizens and the voice, the city could never get back to the former prosperity. Those who disagreed with the existing order had no other option but to take their possessions and head to the empty shores of the White Sea to build their homes and live by what water and forests could give them.

These stubborn, unbent and unbroken, harsh people along with other ethnicities had become the pomors. They built huge and sometimes surprisingly rich homes, excelled in the art of carpentry and lean on nobody but their own selves. The culture this close to the unforgiving sea, taking and giving life as it pleases, and with such background values as hard work and steel principles, had created people and stories with a very peculiar view of the world. Full of this dark and gloomy, yet kind, absurd, subtle, yet easygoing sense of humor, they went through life and its suffering with grace, unbent.

Democracy in ancient Russia had a “sad, but didactic” life. In some way, its story is now a part of my genetic code, and I’m trying to find inspiration in my ancestors’ ways to understand the context and cope with my own challenges. History, more than a content of a study book, is a story of people who had lived through something that formed them, and their children to become a culture code and subconscious way to do things. And it’s important to understand what do you consist of.

Stories from another hemisphere, written under a stripper pen name and in a second language. Because God forbid we make things easier for us.