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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cossacks Converge on the Quiet Don

MTA Cossack rider jumping over a human hurdle.
NOVOCHERKASSK, Southern Russia -- An invading French regiment is routed by a Cossack cavalry unit amid deafening cannon fire near the Tuzlovka River, a few kilometers outside Novocherkassk, the historic capital of the Don Cossacks.

After the lopsided battle, combatants from both sides sit down to drink vodka together while cannon smoke still lingers over the steppe.

But this is no mutual epiphany about the brotherhood of man. It is simply the Count Ataman Platov Don Military-Historical Club taking a break from oppressive 30-degree heat after recreating a War of 1812 battle for several hundred spectators.

The mock battle on Saturday -- set to loudspeaker music that included "Glory, Glory Hallelujah," "La Marseillaise" and the theme music for 20th Century Fox -- was one of the highlights of the final day of Novocherkassk's four-day festival commemorating the 250th birthday of Cossack hero Matvei Platov.

Platov, who commanded Cossack troops in the defeat of Napoleon's invading French army in 1812, lived his final years in this town about 30 kilometers northeast of Rostov-on-Don. After his death in 1818, the town erected a monument in his honor.

Cossacks from throughout Russia and abroad traveled to Novocherkassk last week to attend the festival, which kicked off on Wednesday morning with the laying of a wreath at the Platov monument and ended Saturday night with fireworks and a gala concert.

Cossacks, a group of warrior farmers who for centuries defended Russia's borders, were renowned for fanatical devotion to the tsar and the Orthodox Church, as well as for being fierce soldiers with unparalleled skill on horseback.

Napoleon once said he could conquer the entire world with Cossacks in his ranks, a quote oft-repeated by festival speakers and attendees.

The Cossacks suffered heavy persecution under Soviet rule, as a majority of them sided with the White Army in the civil war.

But since the fall of the Soviet Union, a Cossack revival has slowly taken place, and Novocherkassk's Don Cossack Dramatic Theater on Friday was the site of the First International Cossack Congress.

Igor Tabakov / MT

Two participants relaxing on the steppe near Novocherkassk.

Congress attendees included atamans -- or elected Cossack leaders -- from Vladivostok to Kalmykia, and a slightly bored-looking General Gennady Troshev, who in February was appointed by President Vladimir Putin to the post of presidential adviser on Cossacks after having served as commander of the North Caucasus Military District.

Guests also came from other countries, including the United States, Canada and Germany.

For Faina Boldyrev, who came to the congress from Montreal with her husband, Andrei, it was her first time in Russia.

Boldyrev, 54, said her family, which left Russia shortly after the 1917 Revolution and arrived Canada in 1952, never lost its fear of persecution.

She said her father told them they were Kuban Cossacks in order to give them a false lead. Only later did she find out they were Don Cossacks.

"I have a brother who is 78 years old right now, and when I asked him if he wanted to come to this conference, he said, 'No way. They're going to come after me and send me to Siberia,'" Boldyrev said. "He's still scared after all these years."

The Cossacks carry an air of Slavic romanticism, with lively folk music and dancing and their traditional dress -- lambskin hats, tunics and baggy pants tucked into knee-high black boots.

But there is a darker side to Cossack culture, one associated with Jewish pogroms and violent conflicts with neighboring Muslims.

Even in recent years, Cossack gatherings have been rife with ethnic slandering.

Addressing a Cossack congress in Novocherkassk in February 1999, Albert Makashov, a retired general and then a member of the State Duma, did not mix words.

"We will be anti-Semites and must be victorious!" he declared.

But whether it was the understanding that hate-filled diatribes might not sit well with the foreign guests or an honest shift in focus away from ethnic conflicts, the restraint in conversations and formal speeches at the festival was palpable.

Sitting around a table drinking vodka with friends at equestrian games on Saturday, a middle-aged Don Cossack named Vladimir, who declined to give his last name, cut short his friends' conversation about Cossack-Muslim relations, muttering something about foreign journalists being connected to the CIA.

But before Saturday's parade, in a garden cafe near Yermak Square in central Novocherkassk, one ataman managed to squeeze in some Jew-baiting.

"The conspiracy by kikes and Masons is the greatest enemy of Russia," said Viktor Demyanenko, ataman of the Donetsk branch of the Great Don Army. "They have to run the entire world, and they already control almost all of it."

Speakers at Friday's congress stuck primarily to political issues, such as land reform, and kind words, to shouts of "lyubo!" -- the Cossack cry of approval -- from the audience.

The ataman of the Kuban Cossack Army, Vladimir Gromov, demanded that the Russian government return to the Cossacks their original lands, claiming that otherwise the Cossacks "would go the route of the American Indians -- foreigners in our own land."

Not all congress participants -- including Novocherkassk Mayor Anatoly Volkov -- agreed with Gromov's position, but there was more consensus on the importance of reviving educational institutions for Cossack children.

There are currently more than 600,000 registered Cossacks in Russia, 20,000 of whom serve in the military. But Cossack organizations are just beginning to form their own military academies to train their youth in the tradition of their warrior past.

This process has already begun in Novocherkassk, with the re-establishment of the Don Emperor Alexander III Cadet Academy.

Igor Tabakov / MT

Cossack riders performing stunts on horseback at Saturday's show.

The academy was founded in 1883, but in 1920 the entire school was evacuated to Egypt after having fought for the White Army in the civil war. After two years in exile in Egypt, the school was relocated to Yugoslavia, where it continued until 1945.

In 1991, the academy re-formed in Novocherkassk and now has an enrollment of more than 200 boys grades six through 12.

The cadets were a ubiquitous sight at festival events and on the streets of Novocherkassk, fulfilling flag-guard duties at Friday's conference, marching in Saturday's parade in the center of town, and displaying their deftness with a shashka -- the Cossack saber -- before Saturday's battle re-enactment and equestrian contest.

Twenty cadets lined up in front of spectators to rapidly rotate their shashki, which were more than half as tall as many of the cadets.

Only a few nervous audience members moved to the side for a safer observation post.

"I like the speed of it and being able to handle a cold weapon," said cadet Stanislav Lebedinsky, 16, regarded by his peers as the academy's best sword handler. "It's a good thing. It may come in handy on the street.

"It also has to do with tradition," he continued. "The most important weapons for our ancestors were a horse and a sword. We want to be like them."

The horse-as-weapon theme set up the festival's most impressive event, the equestrian show that followed Saturday's battle re-enactment, giving Cossack riders a chance to perform startling stunts in the saddle to more "lyubo!" cheers from the audience.

Spectator Vasily Khopreninov, who described himself as a "pure-blooded Don Cossack," said he was not overly impressed with the show.

Khopreninov, whose best riding days appeared to be behind him, said the riders' exploits were nothing special compared to the abilities of their Cossack forefathers.

"They call what you're seeing out there 'expertise,'" he said, pointing to riders performing a stunt in which they swing themselves under the belly of their horses in full stride and land back in the saddle from the other side.

"Before the Revolution, every ordinary Cossack had to be able to do that before they could even go into the army.

"A Cossack was born on horse, and that's where he died," Khopreninov said, adding that his great-grandmother dismounted to give birth to his grandfather and promptly continued riding after she was finished.