Stavropol Cossack Remembers the Melodies

MTYelena Gulina standing on the back porch of her home in the village of Novokumsky in the Stavropol region. She sang for several decades in a Cossack choir.
NOVOKUMSKY, Stavropol region -- When Yelena Gulina talks about her childhood, she remembers a close-knit community where everyone went to church, alcoholism and divorce were unknown, and girls wore colorful costumes for Maslenitsa.

But above all, she remembers the songs.

"When we gathered beans, we sang," Gulina, 57, said in a recent interview at her white-brick house in this isolated farming village in the Stavropol region. "When we swept away straw, we sang. When we picked corn, we sang."

Gulina grew up among the Nekrasov Cossacks, an unusual community that left Russia for Turkey in the 18th century and preserved its traditions for more than 200 years before returning to the Soviet Union in 1962.

Now, with the older generation mostly dead and their children largely assimilated into modern Russian life, Gulina is one of the last Nekrasov Cossacks to remember the old days, when they lived on the shores of Lake Manyas in northwest Turkey.

The community's history dates back to the Bulavin Rebellion, an uprising that broke out in 1707 because of Peter the Great's efforts to tighten state control over Cossack communities in southern Russia -- a sort of 18th-century version of President Vladimir Putin's "power vertical."

Alexander Osipovich / MT
A handmade winter top that Gulina's family brought over from Turkey in 1962.
After the revolt was put down in 1709, some of the rebels fled to what is now the Krasnodar region, where they lived in a self-styled republic governed by their ataman, or Cossack leader, Ignat Nekrasov.

The Nekrasov Cossacks also defied the government by adhering to the Old Believer faith. The Old Believers broke off from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1666 after refusing to accept a set of liturgical reforms, and they were persecuted by the tsarist state until the early 20th century, spurring some groups to flee as far away as Alaska, Australia and South America.

In 1740, with the tsar's forces gradually encroaching on their lands in southern Russia, the Nekrasov Cossacks fled to Anatolia and swore allegiance to the Ottoman Empire.

Even as they lived side by side with Muslim Turks, with the men serving in the sultan's army, the Nekrasov Cossacks practiced their Old Believer rites, wore traditional Slavic clothing and spoke an archaic form of Russian that was slowly dying out in Russia itself.

The community was bound together by "Ignat's Commandments," a set of rules that forbade marriage to "unbelievers" and stated that nobody could return to Russia as long as the tsar still ruled. As late as the 1950s, the Nekrasov Cossacks still told stories about "Lord Ignat," Gulina recalled.

They also talked about going home. "Our ancestors always dreamed of returning to Russia," Gulina said.

The first serious discussions about returning to Russia started after the 1905 revolution, when the Russian government granted equal rights to religious minorities, including Old Believers.

Some Nekrasov Cossacks returned to Russia in the 1920s, but most stayed behind for several more decades because of tense Cold War relations between Turkey and the Soviet Union, which thwarted negotiations.

Although the Cossacks were vaguely aware of Soviet atheist policies, there were two main reasons behind their decision to leave Turkey, said Olga Samarina, a researcher who has studied the community.

First, the Cossacks' strict ban on marrying outsiders meant that everyone was related by the mid-20th century, and they faced the danger of inbreeding, she said.

Alexander Osipovich / MT
An icon and Psalter in Gulina's home that her family also brought from Turkey.
"They didn't have problems, but they would have had them soon," said Samarina, who works at the Novokumsky branch of the Stavropol Regional Visual Arts Museum, which has a permanent exhibition devoted to the Nekrasov Cossacks.

The other reason, Samarina said, was that the Cossacks faced assimilation pressures from the modern Turkish republic, which was founded in 1923 on the rubble of the Ottoman Empire. In the 1930s, the government made Cossack children study only Turkish in school, forcing them to study Russian at home.

Gulina, however, said she had friendly relations with her Turkish neighbors and classmates, adding that there was never any strife in her village, which had two churches and a mosque. "Their faith and our faith saved us," she said.

The Cossacks were ultimately given a choice of going to the Soviet Union or the United States. The overwhelming majority decided to return to their ancestral homeland.

Gulina, who was 12 when she left Turkey, said most members of the community were excited about their new lives, but she also recalled mothers crying at the graves of their dead children. "That was awful," she said.

In September 1962, a ship bearing 1,000 Nekrasov Cossacks left Istanbul. When they docked in Novorossiisk, the community's bearded ataman, Vasily Sanichev, fell down to his knees and kissed the ground.

The Soviet government settled the newcomers in two villages in the Stavropol region, Novokumsky and Kumskaya Dolina, where the local collective farms needed labor.

A clash of cultures was inevitable. The children of the Cossacks showed up at their first day in school dressed in their traditional clothing -- a moment captured in a photograph at the Novokumsky museum.

Alexander Osipovich / MT
Geese wandering across a road in Novokumsky, one of two villages where the Nekrasov Cossacks settled in 1962.
"They didn't have anything else," Samarina said. "Later they made money and bought new clothes. At first people laughed at them, because from a contemporary person's point of view the clothing they wore was very bright and old-fashioned."

The Cossacks also stood out because of their language, which was centuries away from the modern Russian spoken by their Soviet neighbors. "Cosmos, pioneer, president, revolution -- we didn't know these words, of course," Gulina said.

Folklorists and linguists saw the community as a living time capsule in which ancient traditions of Russian village life had been preserved.

For instance, the Cossack women covered their heads after marriage, as Gulina still does today. "Ever since my wedding, I've never uncovered my head," she said, wearing a colorful shawl.

Samarina said the custom had nothing to do with the veils worn by Muslim women. "This is a Russian pagan tradition," she said.

The community's religious traditions inevitably collided with Soviet atheism. While the Cossacks were allowed to build churches and practice their Old Believer faith, their children gradually grew away from their parents' beliefs, in part because of the influence of Soviet schools. Gulina recalled teachers taking away children's crosses, which they had always worn in Turkey.

Nowadays, it is mostly elderly people who go to church and follow the Old Believers' elaborate rules about fasting and praying.

"The children will come on Easter, and there won't be any room to stand in the church," Gulina said. "But on other days it's just us."

Along with other abandoned traditions, the Cossacks of Novokumsky no longer have an ataman. The last one died in 2006 and was not replaced. "It had become a purely symbolic role," Samarina said, adding that there was still an ataman in Kumskaya Dolina, the other village settled by Nekrasov Cossacks.

Modern life brought its advantages, of course. In Turkey, the Cossacks did not have electricity, but in the Soviet Union they got things like televisions and cars. At the collective farms where the Soviets assigned them, they earned a reputation as hard workers, and many of their children got higher educations.

On a darker note, many of the Cossacks succumbed to alcoholism, which Gulina said was nearly nonexistent in the old days. And it didn't help that their collective farms specialized in grapes and wine. "Many people died, especially the men," Gulina said.

Out of the 1,000 Cossacks who arrived in 1962, only about 160 are still alive today, Samarina said. Many of their children and grandchildren have left for cities around Russia, drawn by the greater economic opportunities of urban life.

In Gulina's eyes, it is those opportunities that justify the community's fateful decision to leave Turkey.

"Nobody regretted it," she said. "Of course, there we all lived together and went to church services. But life is easier here. There nobody got pensions. Here if you work for a while you get a pension."

If there is one thing that Gulina seems to regret, it is the fate of the Cossacks' music.

Gulina has sung for several decades in the Nekrasov Cossack Ensemble, a choir that started when a local, non-Cossack woman with a musical education overheard her neighbors singing and decided to learn more about their songs.

Since then, the choir has performed at the Moscow Conservatory, toured Turkey and the United States, and recorded several albums of songs that the Nekrasov Cossacks passed down from generation to generation.

But now the choir is touring less, and some members have died. "Some of the fire has gone out, along with the old ones who remembered all the songs," Gulina said.

It is a far cry from the 1960s, when the newly arrived Cossacks sang their traditional songs while working in the vineyards, Gulina said.

But today she is the only one of the original 1,000 who still works at the collective farm near Novokumsky.

"Now it's just me," she said. "Who am I going to sing with?"