Russia's Cossacks Ride Back From History As 'Patriots' Once the marauders and cowboys of Russia's wild frontier, the horse-bound warriors are reappearing as a symbol of national pride.
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Russia's Cossacks Ride Back From History As 'Patriots'

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Russia's Cossacks Ride Back From History As 'Patriots'


There was other news from Sochi this weekend that involved the Russian punk band Pussy Riot. The protest rockers were attacked by uniformed Cossacks while they attempted to film a segment for a new video on Sochi's waterfront. About a thousand Cossacks are patrolling the streets of Sochi as part of security for the Olympics. As NPR's Corey Flintoff reports, the Cossacks symbolize the complex and conflicting parts of Russia's heritage.


COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: The contrast couldn't have been greater: Pussy Riot in colorful ski masks and mini dresses and the Cossacks on traditional uniform with black sheepskin hats and riding boots. They knocked band member, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, to the ground, lashed her with a horsewhip and roughed up the other musicians. There was no pretext that the band was violating any laws and there were no charges filled against the Cossack attackers.

The band members did get their revenge though.


FLINTOFF: The Cossack attack figures prominently in their latest video of a song called, "Putin Will Teach You To Love The Motherland."



FLINTOFF: Actually, Cossacks are part of a long tradition in Russian music, but it's mostly like this: A rousing song performed by the Kuban Cossack Choir.


FLINTOFF: Throughout most of the Soviet period, the colorful folksong dance troupes were the only expression of Cossack identity that was permitted. After the revolution in 1917, Cossacks fought on the losing side in the civil war and they were harshly repressed by the Soviets. It was a far cry from the Cossack's origins as marauders and traitors living on the frontier lands of Southern Russia and what's now Ukraine, almost like the cowboys of the wild West.

Russian czars, from Peter the Great to Catherine the Great brought the Cossacks under their control.

BRIAN BOECK: They became border guards and bodyguards; they became mountain men and mounted patrolmen. They were tools of empire. Anywhere that the Russian empire needed to fight, they would send the Cossacks.

FLINTOFF: That's Brian Boeck, a history professor at DePaul University who specializes in the Cossacks. Beck says the Cossacks began reviving themselves as a community almost as soon as the Soviet Union collapsed. Nicolai Kuts is ataman or leader of the Central Sochi Cossack Society.

NICOLAI KUTS: (Speaking in foreign language)

FLINTOFF: Kuts says their regional governor called upon his Cossacks to serve in Sochi alongside police as unarmed support staff with useful local knowledge. Kuts says the Cossack identity is inextricably linked to Russian Orthodox Christianity and that a Cossack soul can only be inherited from Cossack ancestors. After this interview, Kuts took part in the attack on Pussy Riot and later declined our request for a comment.

Brian Boeck says the image of the Cossack in Russia is very different from the image outside the country where Cossacks are associated with leading pogroms against Jews and other minorities.

BOECK: When you tell someone in New York Cossack right away they think of violence and wildness and, you know, fire and destruction and whips and, you know, men on horseback wreaking havoc. When you tell someone in Russia Cossack, they're more likely to think of a kind of proud heritage.

FLINTOFF: And that image, Boeck says, the Russian frontiersman and the patriotic fighter, is someone that President Vladimir Putin and the Cossacks themselves are hoping to cultivate. Both images, Boeck says, are playing to a kind of selective memory about Cossack history. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Sochi.


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