Last year I joined Russian police officers and Cossack militiamen as they carried out a joint patrol in the Cossack capital of Novocherkassk, on the Don River, in southern Russia. In a clunky gray Interior Ministry van with tinted windows and oversize tires, we made our way through the center of town, bouncing and roaring through thick fog and along cratered blacktop. Probing the murk ahead of us, our headlights revealed glimpses of wintry desolation: wooden huts, squat and weathered and sunken in snow; skeletal tree branches glazed with hoarfrost; and bundled-up pedestrians traipsing sullenly through the slush, some of them already staggering from early-evening libations. In the front seat ahead of me sat two fur-hatted policemen in gray parkas, armed with Kalashnikovs; beside me were four unarmed, camouflaged Cossack militiamen.
I was not at ease. It was January 13 (New Year's Eve by the Julian calendar), and security was heavy throughout the city. Novocherkassk is 375 miles to the northwest of Chechnya (practically a border town, given the size of the country), and during the past decade secessionist Muslim rebels have taken to crossing into nearby towns in the southern provinces of European Russia—where historically Christian Europe has abutted the Caucasian realms of Islam—to blow up buses, trains, and markets; the rebels' seizure of a school in Beslan was the latest and most shocking episode in this conflict. Indeed, these attacks represent an important reversion to what was the norm in the region for centuries before the Soviet era: violence between Russia's two dominant religious groups.
"We Cossacks are Christians," said Valerii Alyokhin, a jovial, brawny Cossack first lieutenant whose round white face ended at the black knit cap covering his brow. "So we'll never be friends with Muslims—never. We won't let them build mosques here." Novocherkassk, like most towns in the south, has a Muslim minority made up of people from the Caucasus. For Alyokhin, the war in Chechnya was only the latest manifestation of an age-old Muslim campaign aimed at dismembering Russia, whose territorial integrity, he said, it was the Cossacks' sacred duty to protect. "Though it was hidden in Soviet days," he continued, "we've always lived with this religious tension—with this state of semi-war with the Muslims that you Americans only discovered after September 11. We long ago learned what you're just learning now: never flirt with those who despise you for your religion." He alluded to a poster we had seen at police headquarters showing Russia's Most Wanted: all were Muslims associated with the Chechen conflict. Almost all were swarthy, too; in Russia as in the West, trouble between Muslims and Christians involves elements of racism. Alyokhin wasn't shy about admitting this. "We warned the chernozhopy [black asses] here that we'll respond in kind to any attacks on Russians," he said. "If they dared try anything, we would leave no chernozhopa untouched."
Crude words, these—but nothing in the Cossacks' past, as either slaughterers or slaughtered, has favored subtlety. Legendary for both their equestrian skills and their martial talents, the Cossacks galloped into Russian history in the fifteenth century. By settling and defending the steppes south of Russia, they helped the resurgent forces of Muscovy begin to break free of the Tatar-Mongolian rule, under which Russians had languished since 1240. But the probable homeland of the first Cossacks was a sea of undulating feather-grass steppe surrounding the lower meanderings of the Don and Volga Rivers. Military organization and discipline allowed the Cossacks to survive unrelenting assaults from an array of fearsome nomads now long vanished, from Turks, and from raiders based in the Crimean and Astrakhan Tatar khanates—Muslim states that eventually fell to expanding Muscovy. The Cossacks defined themselves and their homeland in military terms. They called their country Oblast' Voiska Donskogo ("Province of the Don Host," or army), and all men served as irregulars (though with rank) who were called to battle when the need arose. They ruled themselves democratically, electing chieftains in rowdy, informal village assemblies known as krugi ("circles"). In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Cossacks' golden era, the oblast, whose borders encompassed what are now the Volgograd and Rostov regions, enjoyed diplomatic recognition from Russia and also Persia.
Early on, Cossacks earned a reputation as anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic fanatics—in addition, of course, to being implacable foes of the region's Muslims. A people of mixed ethnic roots, bound as much by a fervent Orthodox Christian faith as by a spirited animus against Islam, Cossacks frequently pillaged their non-Orthodox neighbors, killing men, carrying off women, and seizing whatever loot they could stuff into their saddlebags. In pre-Soviet Russia (whose history from the rise of Muscovy onward was marked by tyranny, serfdom, and oppression, to say nothing of timid, even groveling deference toward despotic rulers) Cossacks held themselves above others as vol'nye, "free," but in a defiant sense of the word that approaches "willful" or "domineering." A love of liberty seemed to define their identity—even if that liberty often amounted to the bloody plunder of those around them.
Mostly hostile to communism, the Cossacks suffered widespread repression during Soviet days, but they launched a successful revival under Boris Yeltsin. Since 1991 twelve Cossack academies have opened across Russia to educate the young. Cossack units have been formed in the Russian army. Cossack troops have guarded Orthodox churches and monasteries, patrolled Novocherkassk and other "border" towns, and helped Russian police officers conduct searches during terrorism alerts. Some Cossacks, I had heard, were even calling for the re-establishment of the Oblast' Voiska Donskogo, which the Bolsheviks abolished after coming to power. Because President Vladimir Putin has vowed repeatedly to revive Russia and fight Chechen separatists, the Cossacks may now have a better chance than at any other time since the 1917 revolution to return to prominence in Russian national life.
A few days before going on patrol I had accepted an invitation to dine at the home of Irina Firsova, the genial director of a five-member Cossack musical ensemble called Rodnik ("The Source"). On a snowy evening, in the homey glow of low-wattage yellow bulbs, I sat with Irina, her husband, Vladimir, and her fellow Rodnik members around a kitchen table covered with sausage, cheese, salted cucumbers, mushrooms, and, of course, bottles of vodka.
Vladimir, a portly man in his fifties with a defiantly high shock of white hair, poured us all hundred-gram shots of vodka and asked everyone to stand. We did, and raised our glasses. The ensemble welcomed me with a song as deafening as it was spirited—to which I could imagine men in conical fur hats hurling aside tables and performing the famous, tendon-tearing Cossack squat-and-kick dance called the kazachok. After the song they shouted, "Na zdorov'ye! Na slavu!" ("To health! To glory!"), and we gulped down our vodka.
Seated again, I mentioned that I had read much about the Cossacks' military prowess—words I intended as a compliment. I told them that during my years as a graduate student in Russian history, in the mid-1980s, I was taught that the first Cossacks were serfs who escaped bondage in northern and central Russia during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, fled south, and established themselves in a remote frontier zone, which the Kremlin allowed them to occupy as long as they functioned as a sort of military caste that kept the Turks and other Muslim peoples at bay. This is a theory still widely held in Russia. Today the Cossack academies, which are funded by the state, teach cadets not to work for the rebirth of the Oblast' Voiska Donskogo but to serve Russia with honor as members of this military caste.