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Sochi: The Return Of The Cossacks

Patriotism over tolerance, says the military-minded ethnic population helping to ensure (though unarmed) Olympic security as Cossacks reassert their historic role.

 Three cossacks at a Stavrapolski Cossack academy in southern Russia
Three cossacks at a Stavrapolski Cossack academy in southern Russia
Marie Jégo

SOCHI — Dressed to the nines in his black-and-red uniform, Valeri Vassilievich Efremov agrees to be photographed in the middle of the Olympic Park — but not to smile. "You know what they say: Smiling is the prerogative of idiots," he says.

As a deputy ataman (leader) of the Kuban Cossacks, Valeri Vassilievich, a former soldier now in his 40s, is not here to jest. He commands 500 men, and is in charge of ensuring the security of the Sochi Olympic Games.

Since January, Cossacks in their papakhas (astrakan hats) and their traditional outfits have been patrolling the streets of Sochi, the Olympic sites, the train stations and the airports. Some factions can also be found at the border with Abkhazia. This Georgian region, which claimed its independence with Moscow's blessing in 2008, remains today a no-man's land where all sorts of trafficking take place.

Unarmed, the Cossacks are assisting the tens of thousands of policemen, soldiers, and agents from the immigration services who have been appointed to watch over the Games, but they're not allowed to patrol on their own.

Their presence draws different reactions from the public, from delight — "Aren't they handsome?" a newsdealer comments — to uncontrollable laughter. "They look like they belong in an operetta," mocks Varlam, a man from Georgia who is working as a driver between Adler and Sochi.

From the Cossack headquarters, located during the Games in a well-tended area of the Olympic Park, vice ataman Efremov is delighted by the resurgence of his community, whose creed he sums up like this: "orthodoxy, patriotism, respect for the traditions." He adds, "We are more patriotic than tolerant."

For him, there's no doubt that "the population would rather have to deal with Cossacks than police officers," since "Cossacks are the people."

According to the official doxa, they are unbeatable at fighting against street crime. "The Russian state needs us," says Efremov. "Our mission is recognized by federal law and our uniform was approved by a presidential ukasedecree."

From the reign of Ivan the Terrible until Stalin's purges, the Cossack army had been in charge of securing the borders of the Russian Empire; and they were only rehabilitated after the fall of the USSR, in 1991.

These last 20 years, in the regions of the rivers Don and Volga and also farther to the south, towards Rostov and Krasnodar — the region where Sochi is located — the stanitsas (Cossack villages) started reappearing, while Cossack schools, where education is free and military discipline is the norm, have enjoyed a growing popularity among parents that were haunted by moral decadence.

Minority rights, Muslim threats

But the Cossack renewal gained even more strength after Vladimir's Putin conservative turn at the beginning of his third term, in May 2012. Three months later, Alexander Tkachyov, the Governor of the Krasnodar region, certified the first Cossack patrols' law enforcement mission. The Governor, who is known for his foul language where the non-Russian minorities who live in the region are concerned (Armenians, Georgians, Abkhazians, Azerbaijanis and many others), is himself of Cossack origins.

To justify his decision, Tkachyov explained that the Russians were "in an uncomfortable position" due to the high number of migrants in the wealthy region, which is also a prized holiday destination among the country's political elite. The Governor, concerned about the well-being of the "majority, Russian population", positioned himself as the defender of those who "after having conquered this fertile and welcoming region are, little by little, losing their position — including Cossacks."

Valeri Vassilievich is more moderate. "It's like the fight between cowboys and Indians in America. It was a civil war. We've also been there."

His ancestors indeed participated in the conquest of the Caucasus region, but that chapter of the country's history is behind them. "People want a normal life." But references to the eradication of the Circassians, the Ubykhs, the Shapsugs and many other ethnic groups from the Caucasus are impossible to find, and local touristic guides describe them as "small peoples," as opposed to the "great people" of Russia.

With the celebrations around the Sochi Games, the resentment of the forgotten peoples is strong. For them, 2014 should mark the 150th anniversary of the forgotten genocide of 1864, during which these populations were either massacred or displaced to the Ottoman Empire. The efforts of the community to have this recognized have so far been in vain.

It is this resentment that Islamist leader Dokka Umarov, dubbed "Russia's Bin Laden", is trying to exploit when he speaks of the Sochi Games as "satanic dances on the bones of our ancestors" in one of his numerous propoganda videos.

The official version of history chose to instead remember the Cossacks, the military victories and the victory parade of the Russian troops in the Krasnaya Polyana valley. The same that has now become a trendy winter sports resort.

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Photo of Tarragona’s “Correfocs” (fire runners) setting off their fireworks amid a cheering crowd gathered for the Santa Tecla Festival in Catalonia, Spain.

Tarragona’s “Correfocs” (fire runners) set off their fireworks amid a cheering crowd gathered for the Santa Tecla Festival in Catalonia, Spain.

Emma Albright, Valeria Berghinz and Anne-Sophie Goninet

👋 Halo!*

Welcome to Monday, where Russia targets the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, Hollywood writers reach a tentative deal with studios, and an Ethiopian athlete shatters the women's marathon world record. Meanwhile, Ukrainian online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda tells the harrowing tale of “Conan”, a Ukrainian special forces operator who got lost at sea and survived 14 hours afloat, dodging Russian patrols, before being rescued.

[*Sundanese, Indonesia]

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