Keeping the Cossack legend alive - agreed?


The Zaporozhian Cossacks write a letter to the Sultan of Turkey, Ilya Yefimovich Repin, 1880-1891

by Elena Strelnikova

The Cossacks have played an important part at various times in Russian history. Now their ranks are diluted by intermarriage and the admission of non-Cossacks. Elena Strelnikova ponders the attempts to keep Cossack traditions alive in Orenburg, South Russia.

The Orenburg Cossacks  are a very tricky subject, however one approaches them: so many legends, stories and first-hand accounts.  I kept putting off writing about them; now that I have decided to do, thoughts pop into my head, only to disappear not long afterwards. I take refuge in the old trick used by mothers and ask my children. What do they think? 

“It’s a back to front word [in the Rn kazak], academic name palindrome!”  comes the unfaltering answer.  Well done! Obvious why you came first in the city Russian Language competition.  Of course, back to front. Otherwise how would they have fought all those wars and survived the repressions, the political campaigns of terror against the rich peasants (kulaks) and the Cossacks?  Off we go. I seize my daughter under my arm and on the way we scoop up another girl who lives in the same block and we head for the Museum of the Orenburg Cossacks. 

Where do you think this gallery of historic treasures might be?  In the bazaar, of course!  The Cossack Slavyansky [Slavonic] Bazaar, to be more exact, right in the city centre of Orenburg.  People from various city districts like to look in on the bazaar regularly.  My friend, who lives only two steps from the Central Market, actually prefers to spend an extra half hour getting to the bazaar because the meat there is locally sourced, rather than imported from Holland, and the price is reasonable. Here is where Cossacks sell their food direct, with no middlemen. The chicken legs are not American, they come from the district of Sakmara, which is known for its poultry farms; the deli products are local, the price of the sunflower oil has not been hiked by shopkeepers and prices are on the whole acceptable.  After all, what makes us women happy?  Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves.

The Orenburg Cossacks are famed for their agricultural skills. Granny Grunya comes from an old Cossack family who were all farmers.  They sowed, ploughed, installed stoves, built houses, chopped wood and, of course, had their bath-houses.  Every courtyard had a bath-house, which was black with soot and the smoke made your eyes sting. The Cossack man would grunt as he beat himself with the oak switch. “But the Cossacks today are different,” signs Granny Grunya, “all those mixed marriages and the real Cossacks have died out.”

The Cossacks were initially tasked with defending theirvillages from Asiatic raids; today they have to defend their homes from criminals. Picture:

The children and I jump over the puddles, looking for the museum in each section of the bazaar.  We fly into the antiques store.  The Cossacks again!  Tabs from military collars, cap insignia, braids and Cossack uniform with blue piping on the trousers.  Cossacks started wearing dark blue piping after the Pugachev Rebellion in the 18th century. Incidentally, it was this that brought the great Alexander Pushkin to our steppe. He talked to Orenburgers who had witnessed the uprising and then wrote his story “The Captain’s Daughter”. Most of the Orenburg Cossacks didn’t support Pugachev.  They held the siege against him and some of the regiments helped to deal with any insurrection in the Russian army.  Catherine granted the Cossacks the dark blue colour, the symbol of Russian statehood.  Since then the trousers and cap-bands of the Orenburg Cossacks have been dark blue. 

I tear the children away from their contemplation of the shining samovars and badges to drag them on our way.  Hurray!  We’ve found it.  Liudmila, the museum curator, greets us with a smile. “Are you the mother that was asking about the museum on the phone?” I am. How much is the entrance?  Free?  How come?  Entry to Orenburg museums usually costs from 20 to 100 roubles, depending on the exhibition. 

Ataman [Cossack commander] Yury Belkov established this museum based on the collection started by his father. Cossacks had always dreamed of having their own museum, and Belkov founded it without the support of local officials. In the regional museum there is, of course, an area devoted to Orenburg Cossacks and that museum has in store the biggest collection of Cossack women’s dresses, the only one in the world.  But the free Orenburg Cossacks were always their own people, so they should also have a museum of their own.  At first people were very keen:  they brought anything that was a relic of distant ancestors and the room filled up with articles of Cossack life.  Today new exhibits appear sometimes, but people have become more materialistic and want paying for everything.  Ataman Belkov is a businessman, and he will always find the money to pay.  

The children were enchanted with the museum:  so many stuffed animals! Crow, fox, lynx, eagle, quail, marten and three huge bears.  In the Orenburg region you only see bears in the spring, when they are hungry and come over from neighbouring Bashkiria into our woods.  There was an incident five years ago when a bear attacked a loving couple who were wandering around Kuvandyk at night.  It was dark, there were no street lights and the stars were very romantic, when suddenly there was a grunt from behind and a furry paw on the shoulder.  The young people were saved by some passing policemen, but Bruin destroyed quite a few cars that night before he was caught.  When, some 400 years ago the Cossack territory was established in Orenburg, bears were quite possibly roaming freely.

From the very beginning the Cossack’s main work was defending the border territories against Asiatic nomad raids. Every family had to have an extra sword and pike so that, should the enemy appear on the horizon, they could create an impression of massed forces.  Once some Cossacks had gone out to fish for sturgeon – there were fish in the river Ural then (my fisherman husband’s never-to-be-realised dream)! – when the nomads launched a raid.  The Cossack women dressed themselves up as men and defended their stanitsa [big Cossack village]. In today’s Russia the Cossacks have to defend their homes from criminals.  In one stanitsa in the east of our region the policeman was made redundant at the end of the 90s, so the local ruffians immediately got out of hand and started cutting up rough. One of the older men remembered his Cossack past and got his friends together.  They put on their uniforms, each took a Cossack whip and they went to the dance at the local club, which put a stop to the misbehaviour in that particular village!

The Cossacks of Sofievka stanitsa. Ataman Ivan Zhabin’s hardline no-alcohol policyin the village has inspired a mix of fear and admiration from his fellow cossacks (Zhabin in centre)

The local authorities and the population started believing in the Cossacks and treating them seriously. Sometimes they even managed to find the money to pay them to keep law and order, which is what the Cossacks have wanted to do for the last 20 years. The security guards at the Slavyansky Bazaar are Cossacks and there was a time when they used to protect dachas from thieves.  But it’s frequently the Cossacks themselves who set up the burglaries.   They’re very keen on their little drink, which is often the ruin of them. 

At first sight the ataman of Sofievka stanitsa, Cossack colonel Ivan Zhabin, looks like a normal village head. But Ataman Zhabin is one of kind, inspiring a mixture of fear and admiration from his villagers. The story goes that he beat his villagers’ drunkenness out of them with whips. Russians are, after all, used to being beaten and, as a method, it kind of works.  If it’s the ataman whipping you, then it’s done without anger, to teach you a lesson.  According to the old Cossack tradition, a Cossack who’s been whipped has to do up his trousers and say “Thank you, dear villagers, for the lesson you’ve taught me!”  This has probably been dreamt up in Sofievka as a nice story, a kind of Cossack PR.  But it is true to say that drunkenness has virtually disappeared, the birth rate has gone up and the organic Sofievka sausage is famous far and wide.

One of my colleagues told me about a visit she made to another Cossack, Mikhail Golodnikov.  When she got there she found only kvass [fermented drink made from rye bread] on the table.  She asked why and was told that it was there to show you can have a good time without spirits. Which they did. 

Anyone who wants to deal with drink or drugs problems comes to see Golodnikov at his farm.  He’s already helped more than 500 people back to a healthy way of life. Work made a man out a monkey and a person out of a drug addict or an alcoholic.  On his farm Golodnikov has cattle, pigs and horses (can’t be a Cossack without a horse!).  He has 2,500 hectares to farm, as well as thinking about the fish in the lake. New arrivals are not forced to join the Cossacks, but after a few months of work many actually take the initiative. No one is kept there against his will, but afterwards people keep going to see Golodnikov.  It obviously helps to keep up the morale.

At the beginning of the 20th century the Orenburg Cossack Army had 630,000 Cossacks and was the third largest, after the Don and Kuban Armies.  The literacy rate was 86.8% and Ataman Dutov was considered the most educated ataman in Russia.  His grave was found in China recently by some Cossacks. Konstantin Artyemyev, a journalist who has written a book about Dutov, believes his remains should be brought back to his homeland and a monument erected in honour of him. He also suggested that the street named after the revolutionary Volodarsky (who knew nothing about Orenburg) could be re-named Dutov Street. The authorities are keeping quiet on the subject, but one well-known lawyer, whose office is in that street, said he would have nothing against a name change, except that it would be expensive.  Well, fair enough… memory costs money.

Joining the Cossacks: three nominations, a year on probation and complex
initiation rituals involving swords, squats, spitting and shouting “agreed!”

Once a week my father and brothers would go to study”, remembers Granny Grunya. “One week it was theory and the next week practice, with the horses”. Now our local Cossacks take classes on Cossack subjects in our schools, quite like the Little Octobrists and the Young Pioneers in Soviet days. These classes may not be very different from ordinary classes, but they do focus attention on Cossack holidays and songs. Children can join the Cossacks too, though this is very disapproved of by the descendants of Cossack families, who consider it a circus.

All over Russia Cossacks are very keen on these show initiation rites: when a well-known person is handed a sword and glass of vodka, the cry goes up “Ye-e-s, agreed!” Children aren’t given a drink, of course, but when they are accepted into the Cossack ranks, it makes the elders smile.  Traditionally three members have to speak up for a candidate, who then spends a year on probation.  After that, in the Cossack Circle he has to spit three times over his left shoulder, turn round five times, squat down and jump up as he turns, shouting “Agreed!”  The same response echoes as a shout three times from everyone else – and you’re a Cossack.  A funny ritual for elderly gents.  But they believe in it completely.

“On Saturdays we have a tea-drinking ritual when the Cossacks gather to discuss the problems of the day”, the museum curator is finishing her tale. “Cossacks are friends” is the conclusion of my daughter’s friend.  “Not so friendly” says one ataman sadly when we talk to him.  “It’s the same as it always was. In the Civil War we were fighting on different sides.  Today it’s all muddle and confusion”.

A colleague of mine, whose wife is from an old Cossack family, concurs: “My son’s proud of his Cossack roots, but he won’t join the associations. He says they’re a bit trivial. Orenburg Cossacks are always bickering among themselves; everyone wants to be the ataman of atamans and tries to hog the limelight.  Splits have even led to court cases”.

On the whole the locals regard these men with amusement, not as defenders, warriors and managers, but more as mummers. 

In a word, eccentrics. “Mummy, I’ve remembered!  I do know a Cossack.  The whole class went to visit him”.  My daughter is, of course, referring to Grandfather Mastryukov from Vyazovka, who built a submarine and a merry-go-round out of materials he found on the rubbish dump.  Children go to visit him all the time. I always think he could do with some financial help: he’s old and his pension doesn’t even cover his costs.  We shouldn’t simply subject him to the dictum of Orenburg’s most famous Cossack, Viktor Chernomyrdin, “wanting the best”, but seeing things “turn out as they always have done.”

Piece originally published at OD Russia | 

About the Author:

Elena Strelnikova is a journalist based in Orenburg (Southern Russia).