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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016


GUDAUTA, Abkhazia - Volary Tushkmann has never sat astride a horse and never marched in a cossack parade He owns no flashy cossack military clothes - just a pair of unwashed, camouflage fatigues recycled from his days in the Soviet Army.

Tushkmann, 28, introduces himself as a cossack, although it is clear that he has little idea of what that means in the modern world. But he has discovered and embraced one of the most celebrated traditions of the cossack. Tushkmann, though he doesn't admit it, is a mercenary.

"If I were a mercenary would my pockets be empty? " he asked recently in Abkhazia, where he has been fighting for three months on the side of the Abkhazian rebels. He turned out his pockets as proof of his poverty.

Empty pockets or not, Tushkmann represents a dark side of the heralded return of the cossacks, the romantic horseman who for centuries defended Russia's borders in exchange for freedom from the Tsar. The cossack movement, which springs from the Don region of southern Russia, has provided both a means and a rationale for young men who fancy strapping on an AK-47 machine gun and trying their hands at war. Cossack mercenaries can now be found fighting in wars in Abkhazia, Moldova, Tajikistan and the former Yugoslavia.

"Cossacks fight for what they believe is right", said Ataman Vasily Kaledin in an interview during a recent cossack festival near Volgograd. Bearing the ancient cossack title of ataman, Kaledin is both a general and spiritual leader of the Don Cossacks, the largest cossack group. "This is a source of cossack pride".

These days, cossack pride - when it comes to war - comes cheap.

Take Tushkmann. Three months ago, the handsome, blond young man was just an ordinary, engineering school dropout in Orenberg, in southern Central Russia. Then the Cossack Armed Forces was founded in Orenberg, following the formation of The Union of Cossacks in Siberia. In Moscow, another group founded the Union of Cossack Armed Forces of Russia.

Word got around that mercenaries were needed in Abkhazia, Moldova and elsewhere.

"No one needed to recruit me", Tushkmann said. "Everyone knew the facts". He, along with three friends, went to the office of the Cossack Armed Forces in Orenberg and signed a document making him a pripisnoi, or registered, cossack.

In the converted hotel that acts as the cossack headquarters in the Abkhazian interim capital of Gudauta, more than half of the 40 cossack soldiers stationed there recently were pripisnye cossacks.

Cossack leaders are sensitive to this portrayal of their organizations as recruiting centers for mercenaries.

"The Abkhazians sent us a letter requesting help", said Kaledin". All we did was inform people of the need".

Is "informing members" tantamount to mounting a cossack militia? Kaledin says no, insisting that each fighter's decision to go to war is a personal one.

At cossack headquarters in Gudauta, officers told a different story. "In truth, they usually don't arrive alone", said Nikolai Petrov, 43, an Abkhazian commander whose job it is to organize arriving cossack troops. "They come in groups of four, sometimes more".

The key to understanding why young cossacks have been lured so easily into distant wars lies not in Abkhazia, but about 500 kilometers to the north, in the city of Novocherkassk. A city of 200, 000, the old Don Cossack capital is now the cradle of cossack rebirth.

Cossacks eased into existence during the late 1400s as former serfs, thieves and malcontents fled expanding Muscovy, the predecessor of the modern Russian state.

They lived as free men of the south, guarding Russia's southern borders from Turkish, Tartar, Genoese, Persian and Caucasian assaults.

Later, they were employed as mercenaries in the Russian army. It was largely through their efforts in Siberia, Central Asia and the Caucasus that Russia grew to be the largest empire on earth.

Following several cossack-led revolts - the last in the late 18th century led by Yemelyan Pugachov - Catherine the Great brought the cossacks under Russian rule, though they continued to live tax free in exchange for military service. Cossacks were traditionally feared and loathed by Jews, as the cossacks were associated with pogroms.

After the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, the cossacks declared independence and were not defeated until 1923 with the end of the civil war.

The Soviet Union pursued a brutal policy of suppressing cossack culture that included executions, exile and imprisonment.

But with the increased freedoms that began under Mikhail Gorbachev, a cossack revival began that is now a true force to be reckoned with in national politics.

"We are not a dual power structure", said Dmitry Rubenov, chairman of the Committee of Cossacks, headquartered in Rostov on Don "We are a power base that whoever serves here must take into consideration".

The cossacks are a natural ally for President Boris Yeltsin. Mainstream cossack groups back a platform based on private land ownership, religious freedom, more local autonomy for the Don region, a market economy and a strong Russian presidency. Yeltsin has been quick - opponents say reckless - to bring cossacks into the national political arena.

"Russia cannot be whole without the return of the cossacks", President Boris Yeltsin said last year.

Later, Yeltsin issued a controversial decree giving cossacks the right to form their own military regiment. The move was blocked by the Russian parliament and is now awaiting review by the constitutional court.

Meanwhile, cossack atamans are going ahead with the training of the first volunteers for the military regiment.

But the entire revival is undercut by the sticky problem of deciding who today is a true cossack.

"They must be able to show that they are a cossack in their soul", said Kaledin.

Some cossacks object to this policy of open membership, but Kaledin points out that this melting-pot approach is also part of cossack heritage.

But along with the dances, folk songs, traditional dress and political clout, is a tradition of mercenariness. Even the most harmless cossack festivals involve weapons, military uniforms and wartime discipline. Cossacks say it is simply impossible to separate cossack culture from war.

"A cossack is a warrior", said Alexander Rebrov, curator of the Museum of Cossack Culture in Novocherkassk. "His life is founded on that. From the age of seven to 70, he makes war. It is who he is".

The young men's romantic notions about war under the cossack banner are evident in their stories.

"With just a knife, I opened the armored personnel carrier, killed the driver and captured the vehicle", boasted a 32-year-old cossack mercenary and father of two who served for two months in Moldova fighting on the side of the local Russian population there. "It's the first armored personnel carrier of the cossack army".

Such stories are typical.

"If we see unfairness then we must fight", said Yury Grayev, 23, a cossack who has been fighting in Abkhazia for two months. "That's what being a cossack is".

The issue of salary is one of the most closely held secrets of cossack mercenaries. By Western standards, the amount is small. At the high end, some whisper of payments of $50 per month while others, like Tushkmann, insist they fight for a small ruble stipend that is no higher than their fellow Abkhazian soldiers. The cossack fighters, it seems, are soldiers of fortune - but without the fortune.

The effect that these cossack mercenaries are having in the outcome of the various conflicts - in Abkhazia, soldiers estimate about 200 cossacks are fighting - is probably small.

"They come without weapons, without money", said commander Petrov. "But I only look for one thing courage. They are excellent fighters".

Cossacks learn quickly that the dances and the parades lead nowhere, but the call to arms is a concept that can be put into practice.

"My wife and parents were against me coming here", said Tushkmann, who has two children at home in Orenberg. "They couldn't understand. But this is a righteous cause. Defending weak people is a cossack's duty".