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What the Cossacks Can Do «

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14. The Cossacks can’t shoot anyone, because they aren’t carrying their guns. They can’t whip anyone, because they aren’t carrying their nagaikas, their horsewhips — leather braids as short and thick as a devil’s tail. They can inflict pain, no doubt; strong men need only fists. But they are not in Sochi to beat people up.

The Cossacks are at the Olympics to look like Cossacks. They have funny hats, tall shrubs of black sheep’s wool. Some of them wear gray greatcoats with stiff epaulets and jodhpurs that hang loose around their thighs. They are living anachronisms; they look good in photographs. They are not, says the historian Brian Boeck, there to remind people of pogroms. “The people who are making those decisions have an alternate memory of the past, in which the imperial moment is something to be proud of,” Boeck explained.

Still, they are meant to be menacing. They are there to make people feel their threat.

1 - 13:  Putin, Olympics, history of Russia and the Cossacks .... 

When I hear horsewhips, I think Indiana Jones.

(I love Grantland)

6. The story Putin wants to tell about himself, and by extension about Russia, involves a history that began long before the Soviet Union was formed and involves much more than Moscow. It stretches into Krasnodar, westernmost of the krais, to the edges of Greater Russia, the old czarist empire.

Krasnodar Krai has the kind of eerie landscape that suggests the edges of things — rivers, lowlands, and steppes, and mountains emerging from sea. The mountains have the tumultuous outline of land that, with nowhere to go, rose up. UNESCO has called the Western Caucasus “one of the few large mountain areas of Europe that has not experienced significant human impact.”

Even pictures of the landscape, wild and unconstrained, suggest the history that haunts the place is not of the 20th century but the 19th. One can imagine rounding a bend in the mountains and coming across a man, strangely dressed, riding a horse, casting long shadows in dusty light.

7. The Cossacks used to patrol this land, fierce soldiers on horseback. Just who the Cossacks were, was, and is hard to untangle, and always has been. Historians still debate to what extent they were an ethnic group or primarily a military caste. Their style was wild and their society egalitarian, and they left chaos in their wake. At the same time, they were associated with discipline. They were involved in rebellions against the czar, and yet they became his agents of conquest, increasingly incorporated into the military and Russian state. In 1860, Cossacks in the area where Krasnodar Krai now lies were organized into the Kuban Cossack Host, to settle and defend the Russian frontier in the Caucasus.

The Cossacks were both a manifestation of nationalism and also a distinct people with their own customs, at once manifestly Russian and strange. They became mythic figures, independent, strong, and free, representatives of natural nobility.

They're a rather fascinating people: a throwback to two centuries ago, before the modern Olympics.

And yet:

9. In their roles as the czar’s paramilitary, and as vigilantes, the Cossacks rampaged and spread terror. An American woman who traveled through Eastern Europe in 1815, following the path of Napoleon’s retreating soldiers and the Cossacks who chased them, wrote about seeing the blood drain from women’s faces when the Cossacks were mentioned. The French had been the invaders, and yet it was the Cossacks whom the women feared and hated. “The cruelties, and barbarities, of the Cossacks, seemed to have white washed all other crimes from their minds.” Over hundreds of years, the Cossacks fought Muslims as if it were a birthright. They murdered Jews with indiscriminate ferocity. The pogroms continued until the Russian Revolution. The Cossacks also took part in enforcing the Russian military’s expulsion and eradication of the Circassians from the region, in which hundreds of thousands, and possibly more, died.

Wait.  Did no one think there might be an IMAGE PROBLEM with using PRETEND COSSACKS at the Olympics?

Russian history has Potemkin villages, right?

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