Cossack Revival in Russia

From the NY Times

STAVROPOL, Russia — Outside this city’s police headquarters on a recent night, a priest in a purple velvet hat and gold stole moved from one man to the next, offering a cross to be kissed and drenching their faces with holy water from a long brush.

And so began another night of law enforcement as Cossacks, the fierce horsemen who once secured the frontier for the Russian empire, marched out to join the police patrolling the city.

In his third term, President Vladimir Putin has offered one clear new direction for the country: the development of a conservative, nationalist ideology. Cossacks have emerged as a kind of mascot, with growing financial and political support.

The Kremlin is dipping into a deep pool of history: Cossacks are revered here for their bravery and pre-modern code of honor, like cowboys in the United States or samurai in Japan. But their legacy is bound up with battle and vigilante-style violence, including campaigns against Turks, Jews and Muslim highlanders.

These days men in Cossack uniforms are making appearances all over Russia, carrying out blustery raids of art exhibits, museums and theaters as standard-bearers for a resurgent church. But here on Russia’s southern flank, the Cossack revival is more than an idea. Regional leaders are granting them an increasing role in law enforcement, in some cases explicitly asking them to stem an influx of ethnic minorities, mainly Muslims from the Caucasus, into territory long dominated by Orthodox Slavs.

“We’ve lived cheek to cheek with them, and sometimes we fought with them, and we probably understand them better than a Russian from Moscow,” said Staff Capt. Vadim Stadnikov, head of security for the Terek Cossack Army, whose office displays a portrait of Czar Nicholas II. “They respect strength here.”

“With police it is a short conversation — you committed a crime, here’s the punishment,” he said. With Cossacks involved, he added, “There is a prophylactic effect, a kind of education. They come here. Take this group of young people. Explain to them the traditions of the Orthodox, Slavic, Cossack people of the city of Stavropol. What our rules are. How we live here.”

A series of violent episodes have underlined the potential for trouble in this incendiary and heavily armed part of Russia. This month, a Cossack chieftain was fatally shot trying to arrest a drunken man who had taken hostages in the neighboring region of Krasnodar. At the chieftain’s funeral, Cossacks in crimson coats, carrying leather whips and sabers, streamed after a riderless horse, a sight that could have dated from the 16th century.

Afterward, a top official said the time had come for the state to allow Cossack patrolmen to carry traumatic guns, nonlethal weapons that can inflict severe injuries at close range — a proposal that has been endorsed by the governors of Krasnodar and Stavropol.

“Some human rights activists, some ill-wishers, talk a lot about whether it’s necessary or not necessary,” Nikolai A. Doluda, chieftain of the Kuban Cossack Army and a deputy to the governor, told Russian television. “This terrible, frightening event underlines the fact that it is necessary.”

Historians still argue about who the Cossacks were — descendants of escaped serfs or Tatar warriors, an ethnic group in their own right or a caste of horsemen. They played a crucial role in colonizing the south for the Russian empire, and later turned on peasant and worker uprisings, defending the czar.

The Bolsheviks nearly obliterated them, deporting tens of thousands in a process they called “de-Cossackization,” but the image of the Cossack, wild and free, was a permanent part of the Russian imagination.

When Tolstoy sat down to write his classic novel “The Cossacks,” he set it near present-day Stavropol, where the Terek River divided the Muslim-populated mountains from the steppes, which were Cossack country. In a scene taught to generations of schoolchildren, a young Cossack spots a Chechen swimming across the Terek disguised as a log and shoots him.

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