Apair ofmodern-day Cossacks begins their patrol at8 p.m. ona cool September evening. They're onthe lookout forlawbreakers: drunks, drug addicts, youths out after curfew — anybody disturbing thepeace inLyublino, aquiet residential district insoutheast Moscow.
Andrei Pichugin andNikolai Vladimirtsev, self-styled descendants ofthe tsar's fearsome horsemen, wear snappy blue uniforms andpolished black shoes. Pichugin periodically doffs apeaked service cap during thethree-hour foot patrol, revealing aglistening crown ofsweat.
Vladimirtsev, 22, is baby-faced andsoft-spoken. His day job is photographer atlocal sports events. Pichugin, 23, short andsquat, is inlaw school. Thetwo met as undergraduates.
"People like toask us, 'Where's your horse? Where's your sword?'" Pichugin says, passing agroup ofteenagers drinking beer onthe hood ofa parked car inan otherwise empty courtyard. One teenager, oblivious toor undeterred bythe Cossacks' red andsilver shoulder patches, gives aderisive whistle.
Themen keep walking. Thehood ofa car is considered "indoors," Vladimirtsev said. It's legal.
Indozens ofcities across Russia, people like Pichugin andVladimirtsev, members ofstate-registered Cossack organizations, are increasingly assuming low-level security functions previously reserved forthe police, typically patrolling after dark andsometimes securing demonstrations.
Themen are unarmed, except foran occasional Cossack saber, andare legally forbidden todo anything except prevent acrime inprogress andalert thepolice. They cannot take suspects intopolice custody, but merely hold them still until thepolice arrive.
Nevertheless, as Cossacks' numbers andambitions grow, they've been raising eyebrows fromlocals andactivists who see inthem therise ofa pro-Kremlin paramilitary force, unbound bylaw, waiting tobe sicced onenemies ofthe state, just like their ancestors were.
Those fears appeared tobe confirmed inAugust, when Krasnodar Governer Alexander Tkachyov announced aplan tohire Cossacks tohelp police target illegal migrants — mostly fromRussia's Muslim southern flank — tocrack down oncrime andmaintain theregion's racial balance.
"We'll squeeze them out, create order, ask fordocuments andenforce immigration rules: 'Where are you from? Why?' etc.," Tkachyov told agathering ofpolice officers. "I'm confident that there's no other option."
Under theplan, Cossack watchmen would receive additional police powers and, forthe first time, asalary.
Thespeech sparked outrage fromrights activists, who accused Tkachyov ofinflaming ethnic tensions. Alexander Sokolov, amember ofthe Public Chamber, asked theprosecutor general tocheck theremarks forevidence ofillegal extremism.
Experts interviewed byThe Moscow Times described theCossack movement as part ofa Kremlin-guided revival that began inthe waning days ofthe Soviet Union andhas continued piecemeal intothe present, with Cossacks coming increasingly under theKremlin's control.
Official estimates ofRussia's Cossack population vary. A2002 nationwide census found 140,000 Cossacks, but thetrue number is currently closer to7 million, according toAlexander Beglov, chairman ofthe presidential council onCossack affairs.
That would make Cossacks thecountry's second largest "ethnic" group behind Russians andahead ofTatars. (Cossacks were listed as asubethnicity ofRussian in2002 anda separate ethnicity inthe 2010 census.)
Since thelate 1980s, thegovernment has co-opted Cossacks, ahistorically separatist ethnicity, byredefining them as asocial group loyal tothe government, said Marina Ryblova, aCossacks expert atthe Russian Academy ofSciences inRostov-on-Don.
Thegovernment defines aCossack as anybody who joins aCossack organization andcarries out government service, andin 1995, it established aregister oforganizations that excluded fringe groups.
"The state's job is tohelp theCossacks, todraw them tomilitary service andmilitary-patriotic education forchildren,"Vladimir Putinwrote inan extensive article onnationalities inRussia during his presidential campaign inFebruary.
Today, 426 registered Cossack organizations have acombined 936,000 members, according tothe Federal Drug Control Service, which conducts anti-drug operations with 100 ofthem. Atthe top ofthe hierarchy are 11 organizations, known misleadingly as "armies," that bring together smaller regional andlocal groups.
"There are people dressed inCossack uniforms, but there aren't any Cossack armies, as inreal military organizations," Rublyova said.
Thefunctions ofthe Cossack organizations range fromsponsoring local sporting events andparticipating inVictory Day parades toorganizing patriotic andspiritual programs. There are also 30 schools forCossack cadets, which prepare children formilitary service.
Thelocal Cossack society insoutheast Moscow that counts Pichugin andVladimirtsevas members is part ofthe Central Cossack Army, which has thedistinction ofbeing theonly army whose leader, or ataman, is not also astate official.
Theother atamans include aState Duma deputy, adeputy governor andtwo high-ranking regional advisers. Bylaw, atamans are approved bythe president, who also presides over thepresidential council onCossack affairs. Council members include major Cossack leaders andkey state officials such as Deputy Prime MinisterDmitry Rogozin, who oversees thedefense industry.
Hour three ofthe patrol. No trouble so far; theplaygrounds are empty anddark. Pichugin points tohis old school, asquat, geometric structure that looks like afailed game ofTetris. He pops intothree grocery stores, hunting fora 1-liter bottle ofCoca-Cola.
ForPichugin andVladimirtsev, thehorseless horsemen ofLyublino, being aCossack is about patriotism. "A Cossack is anupstanding person who loves his motherland," Pichugin says. "A patriot loves his motherland inwords only, but aCossack does inhis actions. Always inhis actions.
"We want tochange something with own hands. Forour apartment building, forour own region," he says. "We want kids togrow up playing sports instead ofdrinking."
Themen say they're satisfied with thegovernment ofVladimir Putin andhave no problem with opposition protests as long as protesters follow thelaw. "People have thefreedom toexpress themselves," Pichugin says.
Areporter broaches thesubject ofPussy Riot, thepunk band that made international headlines when three members were jailed foran anti-Putin performance ina Moscow church.
Pichugin chuckles. "They shouldn't have sent Pussy Riot toprison. They should have lowered their trousers andtaken aswitch totheir backsides. That's theCossack way."
He looks both ways andcrosses thestreet, now illuminated bystreetlamps alone.
InKrasnodar, acity inthe heart ofCossack country 1,200 kilometers south ofMoscow, Maxim Petrenko sees illegal migrants selling drugs tochildren, girls smoking cigarettes, theoccasional "depraved" rock-and-roll concert, anda new, unofficial marriage registry forgays — andhe doesn't like it.
Petrenko, alocal nationalist leader, said influence fromthe West andmigrants fromthe East are weakening Slavs' grip onthe Kuban, theCossacks' homeland, which includes theKrasnodar, Adygea andKarachay-Cherkessia regions andparts ofthe Stavropol region.
He said it's about control, not racism, which he renounces. "Every nation should have aterritory where its interests come first. … Russians should feel that they are themasters oftheir land," he said bytelephone, echoing comments made byGovernor Tkachyov.
Petrenko thinks that theCossack "moral police" are theanswer. Regular police are bound byregulations andrules ofconduct that limit their authority tothe letter ofthe law, he said.
"I can grab arude man byhis little elbow andtake him outside fora Cossack chat, without violence, just lay things out forhim. … Apolice officer will say, 'What's going on? There's nothing inthe law about how he should act,'" Petrenko said.
OnSept. 1, their first day onthe job, Cossack watchmen inthe city ofKrasnodar detained more than 100 "lawbreakers," including three people wanted bythe police, andreturned 35 minors out past curfew totheir families, thelocal Yuga.ru news portal reported.
Themayor immediately announced plans toboost their numbers from150 to250 inOctober. Under his plan, which will cost theregion about 650 million rubles ($20.5 million) per year, Cossack patrollers will receive amonthly salary of20,000 to25,000 rubles ($635 to$780), about thesalary ofa police officer, Tkachyov said.
Semyon Simonov, who monitors migrants' rights forwatchdog Memorial inSochi, described Tkachyov's proposal as adangerous populist ploy.
"Maybe after thefloods inKrymsk, it was anattempt toimprove his image among people who are upset about immigration," he said. "Tkachyov is that kind ofperson. This is his essence. He's made similar declarations before, such as saying that certain last names should be illegal."
Cossacks are themain nationalist force inthe Krasnodar region andhave held that status foryears, Simonov said. Inthe mid-2000s, they helped authorities evict thousands ofMuslim Meskhetian Turks, many ofwhom resettled inthe United States as refugees.
Simonov said it's not uncommon forlocal Cossacks tohold anti-Roma andanti-Semitic views.
"I think bringing people with these convictions tomaintain public order is generally dangerous andcould become areason foran interethnic conflict," he said bytelephone. "Nationalists are getting ready tojoin these units andparticipate inraids."
Ironically, thegovernment's demand forlaborers tobuild infrastructure forthe 2014 Winter Olympics has been asignificant draw formigrants, Simonov said.
Petrenko, thelocal nationalist leader, is anassistant toLiberal Democratic Party heavyweight andDuma Deputy Vladimir Ovsyannikov andis himself running fora seat inthe regional legislature.
Pichugin points toa wide gap inthe skyline, interrupted bybillowing smokestacks, rotund storage tanks andtangles ofpipes. That's thelargest oil refinery inMoscow, he says. It fuels theentire city.
They walk toa cluster ofhigh-rise apartments onthe edge oftown, through aswamp that Vladimirtsev calls "a forest." Theair smells like rotten eggs andcar exhaust.
"That's Lyublino smelling like Lyublino," Pichugin jokes.
ForCossack leaders, political conservatism trumps Cossack ancestry when it comes todetermining who's aCossack andwho's just wearing asheepskin hat inpublic.
"The government sees Cossacks, first andforemost, as agroup inclined toward patriotism," said Olga Rvacheva, who studies modern Cossacks atthe Russian Academy ofSciences.
Beglov, thechairman ofthe presidential council onCossack affairs, said inan interview with Ekho Moskvy radio last year that aCossack is anybody who feels like aCossack andfollows "centuries-old" rules andtraditions.
"Orthodox Christianity is one ofthe signs ofa true Cossack," he said, adding that Cossacks have "always supported thelaws ofthe state, thefatherland andthe Orthodox Church."
Patriarch Kirill told thepresidential council in2009 that Cossacks have always kept alive theflame ofpatriotism, faith inthe church anda readiness tosacrifice themselves fortheir values.
Pichugin andVladimirtsev, theLyublino watchmen, are therefore Cossacks byBeglov's definition. Pichugin's closest Cossack relative is anancestor who fought inthe Russo-Turkish war ofthe late 1870s. Vladimirtsev's grandfather had Cossack blood.
Thetraditions were lost during theSoviet era, they said, so they're starting fromscratch, learning towield theCossack saber, or shashka, inthe hope ofresurrecting anidea oftrue Russianness that seems more desirable than any modern alternative.
TheOrthodox Church andCossacks, "manly men standing guard onfrontiers," are symbols ofauthentic "Russianness" that have been used toreconstruct Russia's post-Soviet national identity, said Shane O'Rourke, aprofessor atthe University ofYork andauthor of"The Cossacks," ahistory ofthe military caste.
But theidea that Cossacks have always been loyal defenders ofchurch andstate, as officials often claim, is alie, he said.
"All thegreat rebellions against theRussian state before 1905 were led byCossacks. That's what made theCossacks dangerous," he said.
Furthermore, while Cossacks were exceptionally loyal andlethal against foreign enemies, many rebelled when asked toattack anti-government protesters in1905.
Cossacks' ethnic purity andhistorical loyalty tothe Orthodox Church also appear tobe politically motivated inventions. Cossacks often mixed with thepeople they were supposed tobe fighting; many were Old Believers, andsome were even Buddhists, O'Rourke said.
Thevery word "Cossack" is aTurkish word meaning awarrior or brigand, he said.
None ofthis stops some modern-day nationalists, often less affable than Pichugin andVladimirtsev, fromtaking up theCossack banner indefense ofthe Kremlin andthe Orthodox Church.
Men inCossack uniform were spotted atpro-Putin events fromMoscow toVladivostok inthe run-up toMarch elections. InApril, agroup ofthem pounced onpro-Pussy Riot demonstrators inKrasnodar, seizing posters andtearing them toshreds.
"We must show how we feel about these morons' pranks," said Nikolai Doluda, ataman ofthe Donskoi Army anddeputy governor ofKrasnodar, referring toPussy Riot's February performance inMoscow's Christ theSavior Cathedral.
InUkraine, Cossack activists recently nailed shut thedoor tothe office ofFemen, thefeminist group known fortopless protests against theOrthodox Church, theUkrainian government andother causes. Onanother occasion, Cossacks provoked abloody melee with riot police who prevented them fromraising alarge cross, without permission, onthe outskirts ofFeodosia, inCrimea.
"Aggressive nationalism inCossack circles is avery complicated question. There's no way around it," said Sergei Balakleyev, editor-in-chief ofthe magazine Kazaki v Edinstve (Cossacks United). "There have been excesses, unworthy behavior, inmy personal opinion."
Nationalist Cossack groups tend not toregister with thegovernment or theUnion ofRussia Cossacks, andBalakleyev refused toestimate their numbers, arguing that thevast majority ofCossacks are mainstream patriots, eager todefend their land, faith andfamily.
Some Cossacks believe that Cossack watchmen might become part ofa new government security agency or replace thepolice entirely.
"People trust us more than they trust thepolice," said Igor Gulichev, aCossack colonel insoutheast Moscow. "They give us tips that they wouldn't give thepolice, who we all know suffer fromcorruption. I wouldn't rule out taking their place one day."
Even some top officials inthe troubled North Caucasus, thesite ofa simmering Islamist insurgency, have proposed forming irregular armed units tofight militants, said Alexei Vlasov, head ofthe Post-Soviet Studies Center atMoscow State University.
Officially, there are no plans toreplace thepolice with Cossacks, andearlier this month, aMoscow police spokesman dismissed aloaded suggestion bythe ataman ofthe Central Cossack Army that thepolice might be incapable ofmaintaining order.
"Cossacks who want totake part insecuring our streets can join thepolice force," thespokesman said, adding that Cossack recruits would have toundergo training andpass tests forphysical andmental fitness, just like everybody else.
Experts also doubted that Cossack units would have thestrength or theinclination toface down mass opposition protests anytime soon.
"I assure you that they can't disperse acrowd intheir current form," said Ryblova, ofthe Russian Academy ofSciences. "They're extremely few innumber, they don't have weapons, they're poorly trained, andif you were toattack them, they wouldn't be able todefend themselves."
Vlasov said nobody was trying touse Cossack watchmen tosuppress demonstrations.
"I see them, above all, as part ofa fight against petty criminal elements anda way ofpreventing young people frombrawling," he said.
Pichugin takes agulp ofCoca-Cola, then he andVladimirtsev turn thecorner andmake forthe metro station, chatting animatedly.
Thepatrol was aquiet one, not asingle lawbreaker apprehended, but themen don't seem disappointed as it comes toa close. They've taken their communities intotheir own hands. They've done their duty as men. Andin their eyes, they've done their duty as Cossacks.