While President Donald Trump shakes hands with Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent and the current lifetime president of the Russian Federation, Russian consulates are building a network of militarized youth squads in the United States.
When I returned to the U.S. after a two-year trip to the Commonwealth of Independent States (which happened just before the Maidan in Ukraine), I could not help noticing how this country has changed in a short period.
It was not just the toilet paper in the airports that got significantly thinner, or the people on the streets who got significantly less tolerant. There were radical changes in the society that inevitably reflected onto all aspects of life.
This was happening just before the well-known events in Donbass, when the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine were visited by the “little green men” from Russia. At the same time, you could feel the Kremlin’s increasing influence in the United States. Here and there you could see Russian charity funds, music bands, schools, libraries, sports events, Cossack clubs and even paramilitary groups popping up.
Most of those organizations were directly influenced or sponsored by the Embassy of Russia, Russian consulates or other diplomatic institutions.
All of a sudden, holidays like May 9th, Women’s Day and even Soviet Army Day became extremely popular in the Russian diaspora. Obviously, those holidays have nothing to do with the American culture, but pro-Kremlin activists are trying for some reason to push those half-forgotten Soviet patriotic celebrations onto Americans.
But wait, there is more.
U.S. cities are often visited by members of the Federal Youth Agency of Russia (called the “Rosmolodyozh”), which is one of the Kremlin’s main weapons of patriotic propaganda. They are organizing youth cells and patriotic camps, which are similar to the old Soviet “Young pioneer camps.” They even use the same antiquated symbols. In one of those camps near Seattle last year, I saw a surreal picture: a Russian Orthodox priest in front of a red flag with hammer and sickle. In the evening, he was blessing a youth party with alcohol drinks, and the next morning he was preaching to American teenagers.
Now, we are starting to hear about pro-Russian paramilitary youth boot camps in California. A local Orthodox parish started recruiting children for paramilitary training that included firearms, bows, throwing knives, close-order drills and patriotism lessons. After the drills, the youths can sit around a campfire with a guitar and sing Russian songs.
I have visited one of those camps at Marysville’s Elim recreation center, which belongs to Bethany Slavic Missionary Church in Sacramento. The church pastor there is a refugee from Estonia, Adam Bondaruk, and most of the parishioners are Ukranian.
It is interesting to note that years ago most members of this Pentecostal church were granted asylum in the U.S. because of persecution by the Soviet government and KGB. In Soviet times, many of them were devoted pacifists and refused to serve in the military. But now that they are citizens of the United States, they openly collaborate with Kremlin agents.
For at least two years, a group of Cossacks under the leadership of Stanislav Kholodkov, a former GRU instructor from Kyrgyzia, organized these paramilitary boot camps. With the blessing of Bethany church, the underage army practiced knife throwing, shooting rifles and bows, as well as “Systema” -- a Russian martial art.
In their free time, the children made pyrographic art depicting Soviet tanks, Cross of St. George and Russian military aircraft.
They gathered in the evening at the chapel as Father Pavel, the prior of the Holy Ascension Church of Sacramento, taught them the Gospel.
Cossack Parochial School, whose students comprise most of the attendants at those boot camps, belongs to the Holy Ascension Church in Sacramento, which was founded in 1954.
In 2007, with Putin’s direct involvement, the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad signed the Act of Canonical Communion with the Moscow Patriarchate. This allows visitors from Moscow do as they please in local Orthodox churches without any control whatsoever.
American children are taught lessons about the power of the spirit, as well as the history of Russian weaponry. Photos taken in the Elim camp show M1891 Mosin-Nagant rifles, sabres, shashkas and other weapons of the Russian empire and the Soviet Union. The cadets participate in sports competitions, hiking trips and mountain tours. The kids listen on Sundays to preachers who escaped from the KGB, and the same classroom is taken over by KGB instructors on Mondays.
Those boot camps with clearly Russian names such as “The Scythian” or “Rusichi” have spread across the United States.
Slavic Sacramento has acquired photographs depicting well-trained soldiers in Russian uniforms carrying assault rifles in an Oregon forest. One of the photos shows a tent marked as “Headquarters.” In the next photo, American children are practicing Russian hand-to-hand combat. The campsite is decorated with flags of the Russian Federation and the VDV (Russian Airborne Troops). One of the pine trees is adorned by the VDV coat of arms with the motto: “Nobody but us!”
In the photos, 14- to 18-year-old teenagers all dressed in current-issue Russian army uniforms line up near the “Headquarters” tent.
What is this -- an innocent game, or recruiting would-be saboteurs among the local population?
Whatever it is, it is done in accordance with the old Soviet intelligence textbooks -- using local residents as a network of agents inside enemy territory who are ready, if necessary, at the first call of the headquarters to cut wires, turn signs in freeways, blow up infrastructure, etc.
Russian Cossacks roam free not just in American churches and forests. It seems that they have managed to integrate into California’s education system. In some local schools, they organize patriotic military games, fighting demonstrations and Cossack concerts.
One of those schools is Community Outreach Academy, which hosts a karate school led by Stanislav Kholodkov, who claims to hold a title of the Master of Sport of the USSR and the 10th dan in karate.
For the past few years, the paramilitary games of the California Cossacks were actively supported by the upper-rank diplomats of the Consulate General of Russia in San Francisco and the Russian Embassy in Washington. The Cossacks readily give interviews to the media and pose for souvenir photos.
Some main outlets of Cossack propaganda are the local newspaper called Diaspora and the New Russian Radio. Photos published in the Diaspora show American children in Russian military uniforms in front of the flag of California as well as Russian and Cossack flags.
The irony is that the Community Outreach Academy is situated pretty much on the site of the former McClellan Air Force Base, where during the Cold War American bombers were maintained between missions to Vietnam and Afghanistan.
Another charter school called Futures High School -- most of whose students are children of Russian immigrants -- also lets young Cossacks use its sports facilities.
Khalit Aysin, vice consul of Russia in San Francisco, praises people like Kholodkov for “preserving the Cossack spirit” and “passing Cossack culture, history and traditions to their children and grandchildren.”
Natalia Owen, former honorary consul of Russia, believes “Cossacks are a strong Russian diaspora in America, they are the glory and the pride of the Russian people.”
Archbishop Kyrill of San Francisco also blesses the Cossacks’ activities.
One leader of the Cossack movement on the West Coast is ataman Stanislav Kholodkov. The media report that he served in Soviet Spetsnaz in Afghanistan and was the first commander of the Scorpion squad -- the elite military formation of Kyrgyzia that reports directly to the country’s president.
Kholodkov frequents military bases in former USSR countries and participates in international Cossack gatherings. He is often seen in a company of Russian diplomats at public events. One of the favorite places for Cossacks is Fort Ross, a former territory of the Russian empire. They are often invited there to participate in Russian cultural events.
In his 2010 bankrupcy petition, Kholodkov mentioned that between 2008 and 2010 he was employed by Gateway Community Charters (which includes Community Outreach Academy and Futures High School). In that period, he received more than $107,000 in salary from California’s public school system.
Stanislav Kholodkov is chief of staff of the Supreme Ataman on the West Coast and is the leader of the Cossacks National Union.
Igor Baboshkin, president of Russian Americans Counsil in New York, claims in a study that Kholodkov obtained the title of ataman and the 10th dan in karate fraudulently, although this is a subject for a separate investigation.
Despite claims that the Russian boot camps’ only goals are “sport and patriotism,” many diaspora members and Americans suspect that those camps serve as a cover for a wide network of Kremlin agents in the United States.
Russian diplomats openly admit that the Cossacks’ international activities are indeed coordinated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the United States, they are directly contolled by Russian Consulates.
While any community organization in Russia financed by a foreign country would be automatically outlawed, the United States has dozens of pro-Russian nonprofits that appear to only report to Kremlin.
In 2015, Igor Baboshkin sent Congress a packet of evidence against the “Fifth column” in the U.S. He claims the Russian Embassy is organizing a pro-Russian political movement in the U.S. by artfully playing on the immigrants’ patriotic feelings.
In an interview for Slavic Sacramento, Baboshkin complained that U.S. authorities are not doing anything to identify and detain Russian spies. But this is not exactly so: then-President Barack Obama in 2016 expelled 35 Russian diplomats, including employees of the Consulate General in San Francisco, citing their ties with the Russian military intelligence. Two Russian facilities in New York and Maryland, presumably used for espionage, were closed. And economic sanctions against Russia were reinforced.
At the same time, the U.S. government took certain measures to counteract Kremlin propaganda in America.
Since the annexation of Crimea and the sanctions against Russia, the activity of pro-Russian groups in the U.S. has slowed down. But many Americans still fear that, in the case of a military conflict, those guys might choose the tricolor flag they have known since childhood.
In July, the Miami Herald published an article about a Russian bikers club called Spetsnaz funded by Russian oligarchs, government officials and intelligence officers. One of the club founders was Igor Zorin, whose company operates government radio broadcast networks. Zorin spends money earned in government contracts on real estate in Sunny Isles Beach.
Most club members are retired intelligence officers, and even the club’s badge copies the FSB coat of arms. The club has close ties with the Kremlin-sponsored Night Wolves bike club. Club members have concealed carry permits, and some have connections in U.S. law enforcement.
Similar tendencies are observed in many European countries. German journalist Boris Reitschuster said the Kremlin has created a whole network of militarized cells that could be put in use at any moment. He claims these groups are formed around military schools that teach “Systema” -- a martial art used by Russian special forces. “Systema” instructors maintain active contacts with Russian security companies and members of the Night Wolves patriotic bike club.
Russian military schools exist in Germany, the Czech Republic, Switzerland and many other Western countries. Reitschuster reports those battle groups are Putin’s main argument in the secret war against Europe.
An interesting situation with Russian-speaking immigrants exists in Spain, where, according to Deutsche Welle, the Russian Embassy tries to put all community activities in the diaspora under its control.
The attempts to politicize the community organizations became one of the reasons of the discord between the Russian diaspora and the embassy.
While in the past the Russian Embassy only issued “recommendations,” it has recently been trying to control the entire public life of its former compatriots.
The community activists are certain that the embassy’s actions is not someone’s personal initiative, but a “symptom of the overall tendency that dominates today’s Russia.”
Return California and Alaska to Russia?
Just a few days ago, the United States welcomed the new Russian ambassador -- a high-ranking government official and a “skillful negotiator”, Anatoliy Antonov, who was awarded a medal “For the Return of Crimea.”
Meanwhile Ukrainian media described one of the training camps in Crimea called “The Battle Dwarves.” The children are taught hand-to-hand combat, firearm maintenance, shooting, river crossing, mountain climbing and other skills by experienced veteran instructors.
One small detail: immediately after the annexation of Crimea, a memorial plaque was installed in one of its towns, Yevpatoria. The plaque bears a message to the future generations of Russians: “We returned the Crimea, you are to return Alaska!”
The Russian Cossacks almost unanimously support Putin and his domestic and foreign policies, and some of the Cossack atamans have requested financial aid for the revival of Russian culture in the U.S. The Russian media report this “would help prepare for a referendum on possible secession from the United States of America.” These statements were made at the same time when the “little green men” entered the Crimea.
Some Cossack activists, such as the “Ibris” Orthodox Cossack Union from St. Petersburg, went even further -- they demanded that the U.S. government return the “historically Russian” Alaska and California.
I must say that I personally know here in California some people who feel nostalgia for the USSR. They, too, believe California and Alaska should be returned to Russia. At the same time, they enjoy all the benefits of U.S. citizenship, including free social aid. And, yes, most of them voted for Trump.
Can you imagine American special forces or Boy Scout clubs operating in Russian schools and churches, teaching young Russians Jiu-Jitsu and Navy SEAL tactics? What do you think the Russian authorities would do in this situation?