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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Proud Cossacks Seek New Role in Market Economy

At the Danilovsky market Thursday, two bulky young men in army fatigues, one with pilot sunglasses and another with a black beret, strolled among tables overflowing with fruit and vegetables from as far away as Uzbekistan, Moldova and Azerbaijan.

Unarmed, the men were simply checking scales with a standard 500 gram weight, but their job was to look after the market's safety as well.

They could have belonged to any of the growing number of private security services in Moscow, but they had one peculiarity: They were both Cossacks, and whenever they needed to do more than check the scales, they could call in an army of brethren to impose order.

The men were working for a new security service of the Cossacks' Union, Druzhina, which operates at some of the city's food markets, banks and monasteries.

Their appearance as self-styled Guardian Angels highlights a new sense of self-awareness among the Cossacks, long suppressed by the Soviet government and struggling to rid themselves of the image as the scourge of Russian Jews.

The Cossacks have been seeking to find a special role in modern Russian society, in keeping with their special status in tsarist times as guards of the royal family and an elite fighting force within the Russian Army.

President Boris Yeltsin last year restored Cossacks their pre-revolutionary rights to set up separate armed units under the oversight of the Defense, Security and Interior ministries. According to Vladimir Naumov, first deputy head of the Cossack Union, Cossack brigades are already patrolling several Russian border posts.

Naumov said the Cossacks first volunteered to guard church relics in 1992, then expanded to protecting Patriarch Alexy II and several prominent monasteries.

Now the Cossacks have gone commercial, offering their services to Moscow's burgeoning private banks and commercial firms. As they are banned from bearing arms, they shun their traditional dress because that would require carrying a sword, Naumov said.

Naumov said that Druzhina, named after a historical term for "militia," was also set up to battle for a share in the city's profitable produce market.

"The Cossack peoples are one of the main producers of food in Russia," Naumov said. "But the markets have been taken over by the mafia. Retailers and traders don't let Cossacks have a piece of the market."

Sergei Smagin, deputy director of the Danilovsky market and himself a Cossack, said Druzhina had helped him push most of the Azeri traders out of the market. Some of the Azeri traders had run a brisk narcotics and weapons trade, buying off local police and pushing out more honest traders, he said.

"It was total anarchy," he said. "Now that's no longer the case."

Azeri traders at the market denied the charges, insisting they were merely targets of ethnic hatred and violent competition.

"We're black and they're Russian," said one man who only identified himself as Mohammed. "They don't like us."

One woman, selling peppers, said the guards had charged her a 25,000 ruble ($11) fee, even though she had already paid the market. "They're just a second racket," she said angrily.