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Cossacks Mount Up for a Cultural Comeback

NOVOCHERKASSK, Southern Russia -- The first thing you notice about a Cossack is his eyes. Not the fancy accessories of sword and dagger, sheepskin hat and leather horse whip. They, and the colorful Tsarist uniform, are a rare sight in Novocherkassk, former capital of the Don Cossacks.


But a Cossack often has striking, deep blue eyes. The irises are dark-rimmed, set off by thick black lashes. They tell of a mixed heritage, a combination of Slav with the darker, more Asian Tartar and Turk. The mixture is the essence of a Cossack.


After 70 years of repression by the Communists, Cossacks are now trying to resurrect their pre-revolutionary status as a distinct people. But their nationality is elusive, their origins ill-defined. Their identity comes more from a way of life than ethnicity.


"You have to be born a Cossack," Vassily Olenikov, the longest serving ataman, or village headman, in the Don River region, says firmly. But, silenced by repression during the Soviet period, few parents even dared tell their children about their Cossack origins.


Since the end of Soviet rule, they have made some progress. President Boris Yeltsin has signed several mostly symbolic decrees, recognizing the Cossacks as an "oppressed people" and granting them special rights, including the right to bear arms -- if they get the standard gun permit -- and to serve in a few special Cossack-designated units in the army.


If Cossack claims to number 20 million are even half right, they are a force worth cultivating. Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin recently claimed Cossack ancestry. Alexander Lebed has provided financial support to the Cossack school in Novocherkassk, his home town. Even Boris Berezovsky voiced his support for arming the Cossacks at a rally in Stavropol in January.


But the Cossacks are skeptical of politicians' promises. Nikolai Kozitsyn, the mustachioed ataman of the Great Host of Don Cossacks, one of the main Cossack groups, now wants "historical justice." He says Yeltsin's decrees have changed little, so now he wants autonomy for his region. "We need a federal law and recognition," he said. "We will build what our forefathers had."


In his office in Novocherkassk, hung with a white and gold banner of Jesus Christ and a portrait of one of the Tsars -- as well as photographs of himself with Yeltsin -- Kozitsyn has a fanciful map outlining a kingdom for the Don Cossacks. It encompasses the Donetsk region of Ukraine, part of Russia's Volgograd region and the republic of Kalmykia. The Cossacks were mostly runaway serfs who settled the lands of southern Russia, guarding their frontiers against local tribes. Orthodox by faith and Russian by heritage, the Cossacks often married local women, hence the striking eyes in their descendants.


Traditionally, the Cossacks swore allegiance to the Tsar and provided men for a dozen special Cossack regiments. But their wild spirit, love of freedom and keenness for battle make them more akin to the people of the Caucasus against whom they so often fought, Kosov says.


They adopted many of the local tribes' ways for their own. The ***shashka,*** or curved sabre, they took from the Turks. The ***burka,*** a thick goat-hair cape, they borrowed from the North Caucasian mountain tribes. And their horses were bred from the sturdy nomadic breeds wandering the steppes.


As farmer-soldiers, they lived a life of freedom that separated them from the Russian peasantry. They did not pay taxes and governed themselves, under an elected chief or ataman, literally "father of horsemen."


At the Emperor Alexander III Don Cadet Corps in Novocherkassk, they are trying to resurrect the glorious past. Some 200 boys are studying at the famous Cossack military school, now reopened after more than 60 years.


The boys study Cossack history and traditions, including horsemanship and ballroom dancing, as well as foreign languages and computer science. They wear the imperial crest of Alexander III on the epaulets of their dark blue uniforms.


They are taught by former army officers, all Cossacks. "We are being trained to improve the situation," said Alexei Maslov, 15, whose smart black beret sets off his dark Cossack eyes. "Cossacks will always play a role. Before the revolution they played a big role."


There is something of Tsarist decorum and romance in the air. The headmaster addresses even 11-year-olds in the polite "Vy" form, unheard of in any ordinary Russian school.


But Cossack traditions are not all beautiful. Along with their inherent militarism, they have a history of xenophobia and anti-Semitism. Serving the Tsar, they participated in pogroms against the Jews as well as in defense of the empire.


In recent years Cossack volunteers have gone to fight in Moldova, Abkhazia, Bosnia and Chechnya in the name of protecting Russian or Slav populations. "They were right, you need to help people," said the Olenikov, 70, who served in the Soviet army before becoming ataman of his village, Bolshoi Log.


The Cossacks do not as yet represent any strong or coherent political or military force. They were no match for the Chechens when it came to serious fighting, and their political clout has been hampered by internal splits.


Yet the Cossacks are an energetic bunch and are determined to look out for their own. "Orthodox tradition and faith, and then service" are the most important things to a Cossack, Olenikov says. But land and political recognition, he admits, are more pressing needs.

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