Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

What Does It Mean to Be A Cossack?

It was the Russian Orthodox holiday, Teroitsy, and several hundred Don Cossacks had gathered in the city of Byely Akeletzy on a grassy hillside overlooking the northern Donetsk River, to mark the occasion with trademark Cossack flair.

It was a magical scene. Cossacks in blue costumes. Cossacks on horseback. Young and old Cossacks. Cossacks with enormous waxed moustaches. Drunken Cossacks. Cossacks in sheepskin hats. Cossacks praying. Cossacks singing. Cossacks cooking shashlik. Cossacks playing the trumpet.

Photographers here had entered photography heaven, snapping the colorfully outfitted Cossacks. They darted about in a frenzy, their shutters clicking like crickets on a summer night.

I had come to the small industrial town by car two-and-one-half hours from Rostov-on-Don, located 1, 100 kilometers south of Moscow, on the advice of a Cossack officer I had met in the street the day before. I had asked him: "What does it mean, today, to be a Cossack? "

He smiled, and told me to go to the festival.

In some ways, the revival of the Cossacks has been more difficult than for other nationalities in Russia and the former Soviet Union. The Cossacks are essentially Russian, descended from fleeing Russian serfs, although Cossack historians emphasize the links to previous horsemen of the region, such as the Alans and the Scythyans. The Cossacks have no language or appearance to set them apart from ordinary Russians, and therefore, any Russian can declare himself a Cossack.

Alhough Cossacks have a rich culture of dance, music, dress, poetry and art, their life was foremost that of warriors trained to fight from the age of seven. How does that fit into their modern role? At the festival, I cornered the ataman, or chief, of the Don Cossacks, Victor Kaledin, and asked him what being a Cossack meant to him personalty.

"It is happiness", he said. "It is life. It is something that comes from the soul".

That didn't help me much. It was not a uniformed Cossack, but Alexander Rebrov, curator of the Cossack museum in Novocherkassk, who gave me the best insight into Kazazhestvo, or 'Cossackness', in today's world.

"It is a way of life; discipline, honor, faith and freedom", he said. "Without this, it is all just a game of dress-up".

Rebrov, 30, grew up with stories of the heroic Cossacks from his great-grandmother, a Cossack still alive at the age of 104.

"A tragedy of the Cossacks is that they were cut off from their soul", said Rebrov. "Without this, what is a person? "

"A thief, a bandit, a speculator. If you cut the root of a tree, it will no longer grow. It was the same with us. To watch Kazazhestvo grow again, is for me, most dear", he said.