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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

WEIRD MOSCOW




On my way to buy peanuts at the pint-sized shop in the Pravda press building, I bumped into nine Cossacks in full battle garb.


"Could you point us in the direction of Sovietskaya Rossia?" asked a young man who appeared to be wearing two ironing boards over his regular army clothes. Every time he took a step, the boards, which were covered in a rough brown material f something between sackcloth and sandpaper f caught him on the jaw.


"We are looking for the editor," he said.


It turned out that the group had made the 1,200-kilometer journey from the Kuban region at the foot of the Caucasus to join demonstrators at the national day of protest Wednesday.


After their rendezvous with Valentin Chikin, whose paper has long sympathized with the Cossack cause, the band headed off to the Tretyakovskaya metro station to meet other angry troops for the all-day rally.


"The situation in the armed forces today is despicable," said Vyacheslav Podgola, who served in the Russian army for 37 years before he was discharged in April. "We've come to call for Yeltsin to resign."


They made a formidable sight Wednesday among the army of red flags marching toward the Kremlin. Podgola, in a high sheepskin hat, carried a gold saber tucked into his waistband. Sewn neatly onto the front of his jacket were rows of silver-capped glass tubes, like deluxe lipsticks.


"These were where my forefathers kept their bullets," Podgola grinned. "Now I put pickled gherkins in them to take away the taste after vodka shots."


Contrary to popular belief f Krasnoyarsk governor and former paratrooper Alexander Lebed claims he is one-quarter Cossack f the Cossacks are not an ethnic group. Originally semi-independent Tatar groups from the Dnepr region, they took their name from the Turkic "kazak," meaning adventurer or free man.


In the 15th century, they were joined by peasants who had fled from Poland, Lithuania and Muscovy, and they established self-governing military communities in regions all over the Caucasus and even in parts of Siberia. Fearless in battle, the Cossacks revolted whenever their privileges were threatened. Among the famous rebel leaders were Stepan Razin, Kondraty Bulavin and Yemelyan Pugachov.


In Russian literature, possibly the most celebrated Cossack is Gogol's Taras Bulba, who murdered his own son. "I created you, and now I am going to kill you," he said.


By the 19th century, the Russians were using Cossacks to suppress uprisings. Closely allied with the tsar f they served in his personal guard f many joined the White armies during the Russian Civil War from 1918 to 1920. Some 30,000 are believed to have fled abroad to escape the Reds.


Many of the ones that remained were slaughtered by the Communists, who saw them as traitors. It was only when Yeltsin came to power that some of their pre-revolution rights were restored.


"We had so much hope in the beginning," said Podgola, unfurling a banner which read 'Yeltsin is the Enemy of the People.' "But he cheated us just like he cheated everyone else. That's why we're here today."