For the past five years, while his teenage peers were spending their free time at the mall or cinema, Timofei Shevchenko has been living the life of his 19th century warrior ancestors.
On his days off, the burly 23 year-old marches with scores of other young men down Krasnodar’s main boulevard in the traditional Cossack dress of jodhpurs, cavalry boots and woollen papakha caps, slicing figure eights through the air with sabres. Summers are spent in the countryside, perfecting the bareback riding style of his forebears, and on shooting expeditions, where he has learnt to use weapons ranging from sniper rifles to modern-day Kalashnikovs. “My heart, my soul, everything is pulled towards this,” Mr Shevchenko says of his Cossack heritage. Now, thanks to Krasnodar’s governor and a push for tighter security ahead of next year’s Sochi Winter Olympics it is also his full-time job.
Romanticised by writers such as Alexander Pushkin and suppressed by the Soviets, the Cossacks – a nomadic military people descended from the Tatars – have resumed their historic role of military service in Krasnodar, the prosperous southern region next to Russia’s restive Caucasus. The revival coincides with a surge of Russian nationalism and xenophobia as migration rises from nearby Muslim republics.
Last year, Krasnodar’s governor Alexander Tkachev, a descendant of the Cossacks himself, put 1,000 of his fellow Cossacks on the government’s payroll with the task of patrolling the region’s cities for illegal migrants, hooligans and drunks. The Cossacks make up just a fraction of Krasnodar’s total police, but as the region prepares for the Winter Olympics early next year they are playing an increasingly visible role and supporting an overworked force.
Krasnodar’s government has allocated Rb650m ($20m) of this year’s annual budget to the Cossack programme, less than 1 per cent of the total budget but 65 times what it will spend on the region’s nursery schools. The money is spent on training and paying the Cossacks, who are sent on to the streets in twos or threes together with a local policeman following a 72-hour training course and medical and psychological examinations.
While they do not have the right to arrest people, they are allowed two weapons: an air pistol and its 19th century counterpart, a whip. “One has to defend oneself,” says Konstantin Perenizhko, the deputy ataman, or chief, for the region’s Cossacks.
The Cossacks patrol Krasnodar’s streets in 19th century military garb, a throwback to the days of Imperial Russia when the Cossacks provided military service to the Tsar and received compensation in return. “To give our children the opportunity to go to Cossack-inspired schools, where they do Cossack sports and learn the Cossack culture, we need money. So in modern times we need to live under the same conditions our ancestors lived under and request money from the government,” says Mr Perenizhko. “We’ve returned to the historical precedent.”
The rise of the Cossacks across Russia comes as Vladimir Putin, in his third term as president, has overseen a broad shift towards conservative values and a rise in nationalist rhetoric. In Krasnodar – the only region where Cossack patrolmen are paid by the government – the situation is particularly acute due to rising tensions between the region’s ethnic Russians and migrants from the surrounding Caucasus region. As construction work for the Olympics gets under way, Krasnodar has attracted labourers from the republics of Dagestan, Ingushetia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. More than 700,000 migrants came to the region of 5.2m people last year, a figure expected to rise by 25 per cent in 2013, according to the federal migration service.
Locals fear the new arrivals will steal their jobs and there have been violent clashes with immigrants. “The Kuban Cossacks have appeared because the authorities don’t have the strength to keep order and in particular to combat Caucasian migration,” says Alexei Malashenko, an expert on the Caucasus at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, a think-tank. “There are two options: either they [Cossacks] can stabilise the situation, or they will shake it up.”
Yuri Soloviev, a former factory worker with gold teeth, patrols central Krasnodar, not far from the city’s main square, where a giant billboard proclaiming “Glory to the Cossacks!” hangs. A Cossack by marriage, not ancestry – “You have to be Cossack in your soul” – Mr Soloviev says the local population views the Cossacks as a new kind of moral arbiter. “People are starting to approach the Cossacks now and not the police. They are starting to have more trust in us than them,” he says. This partly reflects a history of police corruption. “There are a lot of people coming from other countries, other regions now. It’s bad,” he adds.
Hussein, a manual labourer from Uzbekistan working on Olympic building projects in Sochi said that he and his fellow migrant workers, have all had run-ins with local Cossack groups. “They are aggressive. They always ask for our documents,” he said. However Hussein noted that their power was limited. “We know that they have no power to arrest or detain without police supervision.”
While some believe the Cossack patrols could stop after the Olympics or the Krasnodar governor’s departure from office, others, such as Mr Perezhniko, believe the Cossack culture – with its emphasis on Russian nationalism – could help fill Russia’s ideological vacuum of the post-Soviet period. “While the Russian people were working on saving other [republics’] cultures during the Soviet period, the Russian people lost their own culture,” Mr Perenizhko says, arguing that modern-day Russian popular culture is a “cheap imitation” of trends popularised in the west. “If the government doesn’t lend its help to this problem in the near future, Russian culture could be lost forever.”
This message has been embraced by members of the younger Cossack generation, such as Mr Shevchenko, who has plastered his social networking page with photos of Cossack hunting trips, equestrian shows and parades, and adopted a Cossack folk song as his ringtone. “In America there are cowboys. Here we have the Cossacks,” he grins.
Additional reporting by Charles Clover in Sochi
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