Russia's Holy Warriors

Fervently Orthodox, anti-Islamic, and proudly militaristic, the Cossacks are on the rise in Vladimir Putin's new Russia

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.

My words sparked a voluble reaction from my hosts. "We are not a caste," said Yana Samsonova, a woman in her twenties whose dark eyes, black hair, and fleshy form embody the Cossacks' concept of beauty—decidedly non-Russian and almost Middle Eastern. "You have to be born a Cossack. No matter what I do, I can never become a Chechen. It's the same thing, a matter of blood."

"We accepted the runaway-serf theory to please Russia, the imperial power," Vladimir said. "Look, you don't call a Chukchi 'reindeer herder,' because that's his occupation; he's a Chukchi first. The same with us and soldiering. We are a people, not a profession." He produced a photocopied page from a czarist-era encyclopedia showing Cossacks listed as second (after Russians) among the Slavic peoples of Russia, and another showing that Cossacks wrote "Kazak" ("Cossack" in Russian, a word possibly of Turkic origin) under the heading natsional'nost' ("ethnic group") on government forms in the first years after the 1917 revolution.

This sensitivity originates in the Cossacks' history, which is one of sovereignty and freedom followed by massacre and humiliation. Even as their ranks were swelling, the Cossacks' golden era began slipping away with a job offer from Ivan the Terrible of Muscovy, in 1570. To revive Russia, Ivan hired the Cossacks to defend Russia's southern frontier, paying them in lead, gunpowder, and bread. But as Muscovy grew more powerful, it enserfed ever greater numbers of peasants, entrenching misery throughout its population. In 1670 a Cossack named Stepan Razin raised the banner of revolt from the Caspian to Simbirsk (present-day Ulyanovsk), far beyond the oblast, decrying czarist serfdom as worse than the slavery practiced by "Turks or heathens." The revolt failed, and Razin was executed. In 1707 another Cossack revolt broke out, and in the following year Peter the Great issued what may have been one of the first genocidal orders in history: "Burn [the Cossacks], leaving nothing behind; slaughter the people; strap the ringleaders to the wheel and impale them, for this mob cannot be pacified save by cruelty."

His army razed forty-eight Cossack settlements and killed 7,000 people; but later, fearing Ottoman expansionism, Peter allowed a revival—on the condition that Cossacks accept an ataman, or chieftain, appointed by the czar to rule the oblast. They agreed. Moreover, sensing that they couldn't resist the embrace of a newly powerful Russia, the Cossacks found a role as the czars' most effective shock troops and bodyguards.

In 1919 the advancing Red Army drove abroad tens of thousands of White Army Cossacks, and captured most of the rest. Vladimir showed me a widely circulated 1919 editorial in a Bolshevik paper that read, "One has to notice the similarity between Cossack psychology and certain representatives of the animal kingdom. The Cossacks must be burned up in the flame of social revolution."

Most were. On December 30, 1919, Lenin issued the second order for mass murder in Cossack history, demanding that approximately one million Cossack prisoners be "executed to the last man"—that is, men, women, and children all. Close to two million Cossacks were shot, exiled to Siberia, or stripped of their land and livestock in Stalin's collectivization campaign and reduced to the same Soviet serf status as the rest of the country's peasants. From then on in Russia, as a result of state propaganda, the word "Cossack," whether signifying a people or a caste, became a byword among many non-Cossacks for Orthodox extremism, the reactionary, and the retrograde. Hence the tetchiness of my hosts.

"Democracy was the law of our land," Vladimir said, trying to set the record straight. "This was real democracy, unlike in America, where your Electoral College chooses the leader. The Cossack krug had legislative power: we voted by raising our hands and shouting 'Lyubo!' ["It pleases us!"] or 'Nelyubo!' ["It does not please us!"] for our three officials: the ataman, the scribe, and the treasurer. The greatest disgrace in our eyes was to be a kholop"—a serf or slave.

Irina said, "Cossacks never bowed or curtsied when greeting others; they only nodded their heads. We never knew slavery."

They stood up and raised their glasses, which Vladimir had just refilled, and belted out another song.

Balding and muscular, and in his thirties, Mikhail Bespalov is a Cossack filmmaker and writer from Rostov-on-Don who has risked his life for Russia, first as a commander defending the Supreme Soviet from the Communist coup attempt of August 1991, and later as an officer in the Transdniester and Abkhazia conflicts, fighting in support of Russian minorities who were under assault by ethnic majorities eager to establish sovereignty in their homelands. (The Russians, thanks partly to Cossack intervention, won in both cases—at least unofficially.) Renowned as a Cossack leader, Bespalov traces his roots to a seventeenth-century ataman and the Zaporozhian Cossacks immortalized by Gogol in the novel Taras Bulba.

"If you don't recognize the Cossacks as a people, then we have nothing to discuss," he told me in lieu of a more polite greeting when we met for a talk in the lobby bar of my hotel. He explained what many now consider the most credible theory of the Cossacks' origin: that they were an ancient warrior people of Scythian stock, referred to as the Kossaraka in Greek inscriptions found near the Black Sea; runaway serfs came later, bringing to the Kossaraka Christianity and the Old Russian language from which modern Russian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian developed in the thirteenth century.

Bespalov has a steely smile, literally: he lost his front teeth in the Transdniester war and replaced them with a metal bridge. "The Cossacks were never serfs," he told me, "so we couldn't be driven back into slavery the way the Russians were"—an allusion to the abolition of serfdom in 1861 and the "re-enslavement" following the 1917 revolution. "The Bolsheviks knew they could only give the Cossacks their independence or destroy us to the last man."

Bespalov told me how, in 1991, he had organized the Cossacks' storming of the Communist Party headquarters in Rostov-on-Don, with the aim of seizing documents that would incriminate the outgoing regime in the slaughter of his people. "We put tremendous pressure on the authorities in 1991," he said, referring to those in Moscow who, then as now, viewed the issue of Cossack statehood as long since resolved in the Kremlin's favor. "The 101st Don Division came over to our side. The deputies of our Rostov oblast soviet voted to re-establish the Cossack republic, but it was never implemented."

Bespalov didn't dwell on his own role in these conflicts; always he was just doing his duty, both to Russia and to his Cossack brethren. He lamented the machinations of the Russian secret services, which, he said, had hounded the Cossack movement "out of the sphere of the visible"; but he spoke like a disciplined and capable dissident who—working within the system rather than galloping off wildly like his ancestors in pursuit of unbounded liberty—had ambitions for the future, not complaints about the past.

He looked hard at me. "There could have been another Chechnya here," he said, referring to what might have happened if the Cossacks had decided to press for independence. "So maybe [the Cossack movement's] faltering saved people from—from major disruptions. If the oblast is restored, it will be because people here want it." This seemed a reasonable and responsible approach—an ethnic renaissance is one thing, but a campaign for independence is another.I therefore felt no discomfort in believing him when he told me, smiling steel, "One day we'll have our republic here."

Bespalov's words signaled that at least one radical Cossack has renounced the swashbuckling attitude of his ancestors. This seemed like progress to me—but I did wonder about what lay behind his remark. With the Soviets gone, and with Russia increasingly concerned about the threat from Chechnya and other nearby Islamic regions, could it be that the Cossack militias patrolling the tense, foggy towns of southern Russia now see themselves as returning to their larger and more epic historical struggle?

Jeffrey Tayler is an Atlantic correspondent and the author of three books, including Glory in a Camel's Eye. His fourth book, Angry Wind: Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat, and Camel, will be published in February.

Cossacks honoring their people's service to Russia, Omsk, 1992