Join 3,512 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Who first said "The Cossacks work for the Csar"?
January 19, 2008 1:31 PM   Subscribe

What is the origin of the phrase "The Cossacks work for the Czar"? This guy is fond of the phrase, which seems to mean "there's no point blaming minor political functionaries - they're working on orders, explicit or implied, from the top". It's obviously a quote. But from whom?
posted by bonecrusher to Writing & Language (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
All the Google results refer to Brad DeLong, his followers, or other similar econ-political bloggers. Several even say "... the cossacks work for the czar, as Prof DeLong likes to say" — is it possible it's just an expression he uses rather than a famous quote?
posted by Burger-Eating Invasion Monkey at 2:44 PM on January 19, 2008


Yeah, I'm pretty sure it's not a quote from anybody but him. People do sometimes write their own lines.
posted by languagehat at 2:47 PM on January 19, 2008


It seems the Cossacks were partially responsible for putting the Romanoffs in power, though they claimed no allegiance to the Tsar. That sort of "inside of/outside the lines of the bureaucracy" is what DeLong might be referring to. It's not the best phrase to describe this this kind of intelligence system. I would have used something like "The priests work for the pope", or "The Saudi Princes know where their money comes from".
posted by parmanparman at 3:10 PM on January 19, 2008


It seems the Cossacks were partially responsible for putting the Romanoffs in power

How do you figure? The Cossacks were mostly in the Ottoman Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth; they certainly had nothing whatever to do with the governance of Russia in 1613 (which is when the Romanovs came to power). Mikhail Romanov was elected by a national assembly (zemskii sobor), which as far as I know did not include any Cossacks, who were not considered part of the Russian nation.

And they were not "inside of/outside the lines of the bureaucracy"; after the period of Catherine the Great, who crushed their last futile uprisings, they were a subservient part of the military bureaucracy, used to suppress strikes and urban revolts (and, of course, beat up the Jews from time to time). The Cossacks did work for the tsar, hence the quote.
posted by languagehat at 5:31 PM on January 19, 2008


I'm getting it from the Russian Government Army Museum
posted by parmanparman at 8:42 PM on January 19, 2008


I'm getting it from the Russian Government Army Museum

I think languagehat's right, but I imagine the reference in that text is to something largely symbolic, like officially recognizing Michael's authority--they could have opted to continue the Time of Troubles.

To answer the question, I don't think this quote is from anywhere Russian, since I can't think of a translation that would be phrased identically and yet sound like it came from nineteenth-century Russia (казаки работают на царя, for instance, is far too disrespectful, as if he were a mere boss).
posted by nasreddin at 1:19 AM on January 20, 2008


I'm getting it from the Russian Government Army Museum

Yeesh, that site is ridiculous. That's not history, that's some Cossack Pride guy putting the best gloss he can on the frequently unsavory history of the kazaki. Did you see the part where he claims that they were actually defending the Jews from the naughty low-class pogromists? It was "the radicals and the revolutionary press in Russia and in the countries unfriendly to its government, constantly looking for something to undermine and damage the prestige and good name of the monarchy" who slandered their good name! The Jews gave them scrolls in gratitude! And this is a nice try:

A strange paradox should be noted in the make-up and employment of the Cossacks: on the one hand, they were constantly fighting for the retention of their liberties and privileges, while, on the other, they were blindly carrying out orders directed toward the suppression of the liberties of other peoples.


Sorry, pal, that's no paradox, that's history in action. First they were "fighting for the retention of their liberties and privileges," and then, when they lost that fight, they "were blindly carrying out orders directed toward the suppression of the liberties of other peoples."

In any case, the quote is certainly not from Russian, and I'd bet money it's a creation of Brad DeLong.
posted by languagehat at 6:52 AM on January 20, 2008


I'm not sure I'm convinced - "The Cossacks work for the Czar" seems like a strange phrase for a 40-something American economics professor living in California to coin. And I pictured a Yiddish rather than Russian origin, so it's awkwardness in Russian doesn't convince me either.
posted by bonecrusher at 12:06 PM on January 20, 2008


See this December 2004 post by DeLong for more background:
Blogging from the root cellar as he watches the depredations of the cossacks who are the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Gregory Djerejian closes his eyes and desperately repeats the myth that if only the cossacks weren't misleading the Czar, Batiushka, the Little Father, he would do the right thing and all would be well. George W. Bush needs "better advice on the Iraq war than he is currently getting from the civilian leadership of the Pentagon." Well, Gregory, the cossacks work for and always have worked for the Czar: George W. Bush has the advisors and gets the advice he wants....
If you google "batiushka the little father" you find this quote on someone else's blog:
To this enthusiastic throng, Nicholas II was still Batiushka--the 'Little Father'--who answered to God for their well-being. These lower classes blamed the pain and suffering they had borne for so long on men who had failed to serve the Tsar as they should, and they felt certain that their Batiushka would right the wrongs they suffered if only they could tell him the truth. The masses had believed this for hundreds of years, but that, too, was about to change." --W Bruce Lincoln, Sunlight at Midnight (2000)
bonecrusher: "The Cossacks work for the Czar" seems like a strange phrase for a 40-something American economics professor living in California to coin.

DeLong has a strong interest in history. Another example, comparing the White House to the late Ottoman empire.
posted by russilwvong at 1:41 PM on January 21, 2008


Very interesting, russilwvona—thanks for doing the legwork! It's now clear what's going on; "if the tsar only knew" is a time-honored cliche, but the people who supposedly kept him from "knowing" were the bureaucrats who administered the rickety imperial system—the governors, privy councillors, and so on. I don't know where DeLong came up with the nutty idea that it was the Cossacks (who never got near the tsar), but it's clearly his personal contribution to the meme.
posted by languagehat at 3:08 PM on January 21, 2008


Oops, I mean russilwvong.
posted by languagehat at 3:09 PM on January 21, 2008


No problem! I've read DeLong's blog for several years now.

I don't know where DeLong came up with the nutty idea that it was the Cossacks (who never got near the tsar)--

Actually, I don't think that's DeLong's point at all. The Cossacks are running wild and the peasants cry out, "If only the Czar knew!"--but of course the peasants are wrong, he does know. The Cossacks are conducting pogroms or whatever because that's what the Czar wants. Robert Conquest gives a similar reference in The Great Terror, with a victim of the purges saying, "If only Stalin knew!"
posted by russilwvong at 3:24 PM on January 21, 2008


The Cossacks are running wild and the peasants cry out, "If only the Czar knew!"--but of course the peasants are wrong, he does know. The Cossacks are conducting pogroms or whatever because that's what the Czar wants.

Yes, of course, but it still doesn't make any sense to say "if only the cossacks weren't misleading the Czar." Nobody thought they were.
posted by languagehat at 3:36 PM on January 21, 2008


OK - now I'm convinced. Thanks everyone for an interesting discussion.
posted by bonecrusher at 7:26 AM on January 22, 2008


« Older Why won't the cd player in my ...   |  What do I need to know and do ... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.