Russian cossacks patrol near a train station in central Moscow. Photo by Reuters
By tradition, Cossacks protected Russia's borderlands, but
descendants of the Tsarist warrior caste have patrolled a
patch of central Moscow as part of a resurgence encouraged by
President Vladimir Putin.
A handful of men in high lambswool hats and epaulettes paced
a slushy square around a major railway station, looking for
illegal trade and other infractions in what they called a
trial run for further patrols in the heart of the Russian
While a few venders in a chilly underpass left when Cossacks
approached, the patrol - unarmed and outnumbered by
journalists - was uneventful for a group with a reputation as
whip-wielding horseback warriors protecting frontiers from
But it was a sign of a Cossack revival that plays into
Putin's calls for patriotism and his praise of Russian
traditions - and which critics say aggravates the ethnic
tension the president has struggled to keep under control.
"Our aim is very clear: we want there to be law and order in
the capital, for people to live and work honestly and for
crime to be punished," said Vladimir Timofeyev, who
identified himself as a "Cossack colonel" and wore a green
Moscow's central district administration and the Cossack
affairs department released a statement saying Tuesday's
patrol was the "personal initiative" of a Cossack leader. It
also said Cossack patrols could begin on a official basis
early next year.
The Cossacks cannot make arrests or check documents. They
receive free public transport but no pay, city officials
Claiming descent from nomads and fugitives from serfdom who
served tsars with their swords and lived in relative freedom
on Russia's edges, Cossacks are symbols of Russian
Their past is also coloured by anti-Jewish pogroms in the
tsarist era, and their nationalism is a volatile additive to
tension between ethnic Russians and minorities in cities such
as Moscow, where many migrants are Muslims from the North
Caucasus and ex-Soviet republics in Central Asia.
"They will bring order and it's nice to look at them,"
Tatyana, a teacher who declined to give her last name, said
as she entered the train station. "You remember the past, and
it's all coming back - it's great."
Cossacks faced systematic killings and deportation at the
hands of the communists following the Russian revolution, and
have enjoyed a resurgence since the 1991 Soviet collapse.
PRAISE FROM PUTIN
Putin praised the Cossacks in an article published during his
campaign for the March 2012 presidential election.
"The state's task is to help the Cossacks in every way, to
attract them into military service and into the military and
patriotic upbringing of young people," Putin said.
The use of Cossack patrols has been on the rise in recent
months, both in outlying areas of Moscow as well as their
historic heartland in the southern Russian steppe, adjacent
to the heavily Muslim regions of the North Caucasus.
As many as 1000 Cossacks took to patrolling streets in parts
of the Krasnodar region, which borders the North Caucasus and
includes Sochi, the host city of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
The Krasnodar patrols, created by regional governor Alexander
Tkachev, help police intervene against crimes and check
documents, but media speculated that could lead to racial
profiling for migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Cossacks announced plans for patrols around churches in
southeastern Moscow after punk group Pussy Riot belted out a
vulgarity-laced "punk protest" in the capital's main Russian
Orthodox cathedral, Christ the Saviour.
The head of the church, Patriarch Kirill, has told believers
that Pussy Riot was part of an organised attack on Russia's
main faith and what he called the moral foundations of the
COSSACKS VERSUS PUSSY RIOT
Cossacks blocked the entrance to a Moscow art gallery
exhibiting art depicting Pussy Riot last month, leading to a
standoff with riot police called in to disperse them.
"This is not the first time that Cossacks are emerging as a
conservative force ready to punish or warn those who from
their point of view are acting improperly," said Maria
Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Lipman said the higher Cossack profile was a product of a
growing Kremlin reliance on conservative forces, such as the
Russian Orthodox Church, to counter mostly liberal opponents
who staged the biggest protests of Putin's 13-year rule over
the past year, drawing demonstrators from the urban middle
"Because the protesters were modernised urbanites, the
response was found in conservative morals and the government
has shifted to a conservative stance," Lipman said, adding
that this "deepens divisions in Russian society that have
been latent up to this point."
Vladimir Morozov, a pensioner on his way in from the Moscow
suburbs, agreed. He said Cossack patrols were "set against
Pussy Riot" and could only increase ethnic tension.
"It's just support for Putin," he said.
Art student Nadezhda Irchishina saw no harm in the patrols -
but little help, either.
"I think it's just for show," she said. "Crimes will simply
be committed out of their line of sight."
Moscow police declined to comment on the Cossack patrols.
The Cossacks on patrol in Moscow said they are limited to
verbal persuasion and summoning the police if they see a
crime, but they hope that will change.
"When it is all legalised, we will have different powers,"
Gennady Tyshkov, a retired police officer in a crisp uniform,
said with a smile.