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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Champion of the Cossacks

The news reports sounded surprising: The Cossacks had declared self-rule in their homeland on the Don River in southern Russia and had offered to form a presidential guard to support Boris Yeltsin. Knowing little about the Cossacks, other than that they had defended the borders of the Russian Empire and were feared and loathed by the Jews of Russia and Poland, I sought out someone who could tell me more.


Vitaly Tarasenko is the director of "Free Kuban", a documentary film about the history of the Cossacks and their current revival. In the basement office of his independent film company, he explained why he was drawn to making a film about the Cossacks.


"I could have chosen another topic that would have made me more money or helped my career", said Tarasenko, 46, who has made scores of documentary and feature films. "But this was more interesting to me. The Cossack ethos consists of three things: belief in the Czar, belief in God, and service to the motherland. It's a concentration of everything that's good in Slavic life".


Since the days when Cossacks defended Russia from raids by Mongols and Tatars and were rewarded for their service with land and autonomy, Cossack regiments have entranced people with their boldness and freedom. Tolstoy wrote about their primitive energy and strength; the Jewish writer Isaac Babel rode with a Cossack regiment in 1920 and chronicled their exploits in stories expressing a mixture of horror and awe.


The Cossacks fought with the czarist White Army against the Bolsheviks. In the years following the revolution, Cossack life was repressed by the Soviet government.


The Cossack tradition is now undergoing a significant revival. Since 1990, more than a million young men have registered in about a dozen Cossack regiments. Volunteer regiments already have been lighting non-Russians in ethnic conflicts in Moldova and the Caucasus Mountains.


Last month, Yeltsin signed a decree urging local officials to give greater autonomy to Cossacks, whom he authorized to "maintain law and order". The decree, being challenged by parliament, also includes measures to set up Cossack units in Russia's armed forces.


But Tarasenko said the Cossack movement is not as a cohesive as it seems.


"There are white Cossacks and red Cossacks. Some vote for Yeltsin, others support the Communist regime", he said. "It is difficult to understand a majority or a minority right now".


Many of today's Cossacks have little understanding of "genuine Cossack ideals", Tarasenko said.


"A lot of these young men are playing", he said. "They don't know the source of what they are doing and they don't know what the ideals are. They need to know the history. The older generation is afraid that the young ones don't have the soul, the memory of the past, and respect for the Cossack way of life".


Tarasenko does not portray this disarray in his film, which was sponsored by Kuban Bank. His film presents what he sees as the pure Cossack tradition and history. He hopes that the film, by showing the honorable qualities of Cossack life, might help people find answers for the chaos of contemporary Russia.


"Art today should be positive", he said. "It should show people a way out. We're all soiled with tragedy and unhappiness. People want to find some kind of exit".


His film does not discuss the violent anti-Semitism associated with Cossacks; Tarasenko does not think the Cossacks were racist or anti-Semitic.


"As far as I know, a real Cossack is not a bandit or a robber", he said.


In a country whose history shows a tendency to intellectualize problems rather than act upon them, it is not surprising that the Cossack movement would have such allure. The Cossacks embody a life of power and freedom, a life of living by one's own beliefs and outside the restrictions created by government. But a nostalgia that doesn't include all the complexities of the past, or even an accurate understanding of the past, is a dangerous thing.


If, indeed, these young Cossacks are "playing a game", as Tarasenko said, it is troubling to think that they are being given more independence and power. and it is even more troubling that Yeltsin is embracing this chaotic movement, apparently for political gain.