Nikolai Kozitsyn, chief of the Great Host of Don Cossacks, comes rushing into his second-story office in downtown Novocherkassk, apologizing for the informality of his navy blue sweat pants and flip-flops.
"I've been taking care of my horses," he explains.
Of course. What else would a Cossack leader be doing on a Thursday afternoon?
Kozitsyn's military greatcoat, festooned with rows of medals from the various campaigns he's taken part in, hangs to the right of his desk. He's a major general, a knight of the Order of Malta, a veteran of a clandestine Russian mission in Chechnya. On the wall behind him hang ceremonial swords and pistols -- gifts from other Cossack leaders -- a Cossack banner, a portrait of 19th-century Cossack hero Matvei Platov and photos of himself with various world leaders. On his desk sit a Russian flag and a gilt-framed icon of Mary.
Since his 1991 election as ataman, or leader, of the Don Cossacks, the largest of Russia's 12 recognized Cossack groups, Kozitsyn has been interviewed by many media outlets, and has become a well-known proponent of Cossack nationalism and restored militarism.
Cossacks are an ethnic nationality, like Armenians, Georgians, and -- in the former Soviet Union -- Jews. One is born a Cossack, but one can also marry into the group. It's relatively easy to claim Cossack identity; one need only dig up a Cossack ancestor.
And although a minority of the Don Region's population is technically Cossack, Kozitsyn says, affection for the swashbuckling, leather-booted, horse-riding warrior caste is on the rise nationwide.
"Everyone in Russia wants to be a Cossack," he declares. "It's become fashionable."
"Nikolai Ivanovich is a great friend of the Jews," says Anatoly Iasenik, chair of the Jewish community of Novocherkassk, who has arranged this meeting with a hasty phone call.
It's a surreal scene: a Jewish reporter being introduced to the head of the Don Cossacks by the chairman of the local Jewish community. My grandmother, a survivor of the Kiev pogroms, would have plotzed.
Cossacks are first mentioned in the 15th century as freedom-loving ex-serfs, Tatars and descendants of Scythian warriors living on the open plains of southern Ukraine and Russia's Don River basin. The Don Cossacks had their own independent republic for most of the 17th century, and in 1835 reached an agreement with the Russian czar, according to which they would provide him with highly trained soldiers in return for land and special privileges.
By the beginning of the 20th century, half the Don Basin population was Cossack. Considered mercenaries for the czarist order, Cossacks fought the Bolsheviks in Russia's Civil War, and were officially suppressed in 1919 by the new Soviet state. Those who could, fled abroad; many of those who remained behind were killed, their property confiscated by Soviets. It was only with the fall of the USSR in 1991 that Cossacks were officially "revived," permitted to reopen their schools, wear their uniforms and practice their traditions of horsemanship, sword fighting and going to church.
An extensive exhibition on Cossack life is mounted in Rostov's city museum. Along with documentation of what's described as the Soviet genocide against the Cossacks are several displays suggesting good relations with local Jews. Kozitsyn says the Don Cossacks "understand" Russian Jews, because both groups suffered the same oppression under Soviet rule. He neglects to mention the historic animosity between Cossack and Jew in the Russian Pale of Settlement, nor does he bring up those who welcomed the Nazi invaders in 1941 as "liberators" from their communist overlords.
The museum's senior curator, Margarita Sokolova, says foreign Jews mistakenly lump all Cossacks together, when in fact it was the Ukrainian Cossacks, not those along the Don River, that persecuted Jews.
"No more than 100 Don Cossacks took part in the 1905 pogroms," she insists. "They were ordered to by their officers."
Jews and Don Cossacks had historically fine relations, Sokolova adds. She is herself the product of such relations: her father is Cossack and her mother is Jewish. "Many Cossack mothers preferred that their children marry Jews rather than ethnic Ukrainians," she notes.
Sokolova is putting a more pleasant spin on Cossack-Jewish relations than that chronicled by the local and national media. FSU Monitor, for example, documents dozens of instances of Cossack violence against Jews and other immigrants, who have poured across Russia's southern borders to escape ethnic violence in Chechnya, Georgia and Dagestan since 1992. That reaction is generally understood as xenophobia, or an anti-Muslim sentiment that is at least as strong as the group's anti-Semitism.
Cossack patrols man the streets of Rostov, Azov, Stavropol and other South Russian cities, recreating their historic role as protectors of the regime. Kozitsyn wants to strengthen Cossack culture and get his message out to the world. Six Cossack cadet schools have opened in the Don region, teaching several hundred young Cossack boys about their military heritage, and Cossack cultural festivals mark the yearly calendar.
As far as relations with the Jews are concerned, he says, "These questions have to be discussed between our communities, together. National questions should depend on people, not governments."
Noting that he "had a lot of Jewish teachers" growing up, the Don Cossack ataman nods sagely and intones. "There are no bad people, only bad leaders."
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