Russians divided over who real members are, and whether romanticised past legitimises current paramilitary activity. The Moscow Times reports

In Moscow, you dont have be to rich to be a Cossack. A fake-fur version of their traditional red papakha hat will set you back about $10( 6.80 ). The full regalia, including the horsemens nagaika leather whip, costs around $100.

But the widespread availability of Cossack garb has come at a price. In mid May, a group of men in papakhas attacked the activist Alexei Navalny and members of his Anti-Corruption Fund at an airport in the seaside town of Anapa.

More than 20 humen splashed different groups with milk and a brawl ensued. In the aftermath of the incident, there was considerable disarray over the hecklers identities even within the Cossack community.

The leader, or ataman, of the local Anapa Cossack group, Valery Plotnikov, denied “the mens” had been part of his 98 -member-strong crew. He told media that real Cossacks has really tried to break up the scrap that had broken out. Another former Cossack ataman, Vladimir Gromov, said the mens attires were nothing to go by. Anyone can buy a papakha at any keepsake stall, he said.

The subsequent disagreement over what constitutes true Cossack identity goes beyond a simple matter of uniform. The attack on peaceful opposition activists has sparked concerns that the Cossacks romanticised past is being used to legitimise the actions of Kremlin-backed paramilitary groups.

With parliamentary elections due to take place in September, its not just opposition-minded Russians who are worried some traditional Cossacks are too.

Film

Film still showing Cossacks throwing milk at opposition leader Alexei Navally at Anapa airport. Photo: Dmitry Slaboda/ AP

Rehabilitation

Cossack culture was all but extinct when President Boris Yeltsin issued a decree encouraging its revival in the 1990 s.

The Cossacks had served tsars for centuries, lending their sabres to help conquer Siberia, the Caucasus and central Asia in return for land and privileges. Loyal to the Romanov dynasty and the Orthodox church, they fought on the losing side against the Red Army in 1917. After suffering defeat, hundreds of thousands of Cossacks were killed and persecuted under the Soviet policy of decossackisation.

Yeltsins decree called for the restoration of Cossacks as an ethno-cultural group. By then, there were very few Cossacks left and the vacuum had been filled with humen of questionable Cossack ancestry.

The median Cossack was a middle-aged man who daydreamed about patriarchal values, unbridled masculinity and the glorious pursuing of imagined ancestors, tells Brian Boeck, a historian at DePaul University who has focused on the Cossacks rehabilitation in the 1990 s.

In subsequent years, the Kremlins return to conservative values and a brand of militant patriotism under President Vladimir Putin has induced the deeply conservative and religion Cossacks a natural friend.

Under Putin, registered Cossack organisations have been put in across the country and championed as a symbol of patriotism.

Bezugly, the Cossack ataman, late last year reportedly presided over the burning of effigies of US president, Barack Obama, and Turkish president, Recep Erdoan, at a rally in support of Putin.

In the leadup to Russias annexation of the Black Sea peninsula Crimea two years ago, Cossacks in black woollen and fur hats stood guard at the Crimean parliament and manned checkpoints across the peninsula. Later, under the direction of Cossack ataman Nikolai Kozitsyn, many of them streamed into eastern Ukraine to fight against Ukrainian government forces.

Increased presence

Inside Russia, Cossack patrols have now become a kind of volunteer morality police. In Krasnodar, the southern region where the attack on Navalny and his team took place, they were even put on the regions payroll in 2012.

Their increased presence was widely seen as an attempt to keep in check an increasing number of migrants in the region bordering the Caucasus region. Even though they had no authority to conduct apprehends or carry pistols, the message was that the Cossack figures alone would provide police with a tool of intimidation less constrained by the burden of public accountability.

What you cant do, the Cossacks can, then-governor Alexander Tkachyov was cited as telling police when he announced the Cossack patrols.

But the allocation of state money into local Cossack organisations has come under attack after the Navalny incident. In 2015, roughly 1bn roubles( 10.2 m) was sidelined for Cossack groups in the Kuban region, the RBC newspaper reported.

Some are now questioning the legitimacy of funding groups with a reputation for close links to local crime. Most of these Cossack squads consist of local offenders, tells commentator Maxim Shevchenko. The kind of riffraff that behave like militias on behalf of local oligarchs. Real Cossacks dont behave in this way.

According to Vladimir Gromov, who served as the ataman of the Kuban Cossack army for 17 years, the Kremlins focus on incorporating the Cossacks into federal structures has overshadowed the traditional culture and spiritual aspects that are central to Cossack identity. There is the government on one side. And Cossackdom on the other. They enter into agreement, fine, he tells. But it shouldnt define Cossackdom.

Gromov quotes a rich culture of sung and social traditions, including respect for women and the elderly, as key Cossack traits.

Russian

Russian Cossacks perform at a depict on the main street in the west Bosnian town of Banja Luka. Photo: Radivoje Pavicic/ AP

Above all, honours and constraint are central to Cossack conduct, tells Gromov, who denounced the Navalny episode. If Navalny is guilty of breaching Russian statute, there are enforcement agencies that can and should prevent crime, he tells. What do the Cossacks have to do with this? But the image that has stayed in peoples heads is that of Cossacks.

Already, Ella Pamfilova, the head of the central electoral commission, has denounced the activities of so-called groups of rhyazhenniye , or fake, Cossack groups. She said there had been an increase in aggressive the behavior of such groups toward ideological foes on the eve of electoral campaigns.

The rhyazhenniye label utilized negatively to describe the individuals who wear a costume that is not their own has been met with resistance among the Cossack community.

One of the reasons for that hatred could be the Cossacks own interest in preserving a degree of obscurity as to who is a real Cossack. In a census conducted in 2002, around 7 million Russians identified themselves as Cossacks, which could be taken as a sign that the Cossack revival initiated in the 1990 s has been successful. But, according to Boeck, the Cossack caste has largely been extinct since the 1920 s.

More individuals who assert Cossack ancestry today remain outside the official Cossack organisations than those embraced by them, Boeck tells. So even the Cossack atamans might not be viewed as real Cossacks by most residents of the region.

According to Gromov, describing groups as rhyazhenniye also does little to explain away the incidental incorrect the behavior of Cossacks. There are good Cossacks and not such good Cossacks, he tells. In that sense, Cossacks are just like any other people.

A version of this article first is available on The Moscow Times

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