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 ukase decree."

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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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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