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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cossacks Proud of Liberator Role




Paris, 1814. Mustachioed Cossacks in shaggy fur cloaks, with sabers and long pipes, camp out in the Champs Elys?es, surrounded by sheep and horses and fussed over by French ladies. They cook kasha over bonfires next to Place de la Concorde and bathe their horses in the Seine, as crowds of Parisians stare at them from the Pont Neuf.


France had not yet joined NATO, but there was more than a whiff of nationalist pride and nostalgia hanging over the "Cossacks in Paris" exhibit when it opened last week at the State Historical Museum near the Kremlin.


The exhibit of watercolors by Austrian Georg Emmanuel Opitz, launched Thursday to Cossack singing and dancing, was timed to loosely coincide with the May 9 anniversary of victory in World War II, organizers said. Some took it as an occasion to fume about NATO bombing of Russia's ally Serbia.


On March 19, 1814, after Napoleon's defeat, Russian troops peacefully occupied Paris as part of the anti-Bonaparte coalition and stayed there for two months. The victorious armies, headed by the Russian Emperor Alexander I, marched into the French capital to the Parisians' greetings, "Long live the liberators!"


"These pictures show the spirit of the epoch ? the atmosphere of mutual interest and understanding that reigned then, and the love of peace that has always been part of our attitude to life," museum director Alexander Shkurko said.


But some at the opening viewed the paintings in a more belligerent light. For Vladimir Naumov, deputy chieftain of the Russian Cossack Union, it was a reminder of Russia's military power f for Russians and for "those counting on our weakness."


"This is history but also proof that we are able not only to fight for ourselves, but helped stop the bloody destruction the American fascists are bringing now to Europe," the chieftain, wearing a dark-blue uniform, said in a severe voice. "Serbia is only a prologue to an attack on Russia. We must prevent the bloody madness of the Third World War!"


Naumov said it was essential to remember Russian military triumphs while the country is living through a period of "the greatest troubles in history. Few people remember now that our troops stormed Berlin three times f in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries," he said. "We are descendants of those who fought across Europe to protect it from invaders."


Back in 1814, the Russian soldiers, together with their Prussian and Austrian allies, had finished with fighting and enjoyed the peace and springtime in Paris. The picturesque Cossacks became one of the most curious sights in town. Knowing that two years before Napoleon had left Moscow ravaged and burned to ashes, and having heard wartime propaganda picturing Russians as a horde of wild and ignorant barbarians, the French were intrigued and fascinated by the exotic guests.


And the Cossacks were intrigued by Paris. Opitz's brush captured Cossacks laughing at the statue of Apollo in the Louvre, gambling at the P?lais Royale f where they left much of the money they earned for fighting in the war f and purchasing robes anti-syphilitiques from aging courtesans.


They were said to be responsible for the word bistro, supposed to have been coined from their cries of "bystro, bystro," or "quickly, quickly" directed at French waiters.


"They left quite a bit behind. The bistros and ? a lot of expressions. For instance, we say '? la Cossaque,' which means in a direct, maybe a little bit too natural manner," said Christine Miletitch, a Frenchwoman who organizes guided tours of Moscow, as she looked at a scene of Cossacks chatting up two Parisian ladies in deep-cleavage dresses.