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Russia

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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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Wagner's MIA Convicts: Where Do Deserting Russian Mercenaries Go?

Tens of thousands of Russian prisoners who've been recruited by the Wagner Group mercenary outfit have escaped from the frontlines after volunteering in exchange for freedom. Some appear to be seeking political asylum in Europe thanks to a "cleared" criminal record.

Picture of a soldier wearing the Wagner Group Logo on their uniform.

Soldier wearing the paramilitary Wagner Group Logo on their uniform.

Source: Sky over Ukraine via Facebook
Anna Akage

Of the about 50,000 Russian convicts who signed up to fight in Ukraine with the Wagner Group, just 10,000 are reportedly still at the front. An unknown number have been killed in action — but among those would-be casualties are also a certain number of coffins that are actually empty.

To hide the number of soldiers who have deserted or defected to Ukraine, Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin is reportedly adding them to the lists of the dead and missing.

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Some Wagner fighters have surrendered through the Ukrainian government's "I Want To Live" hotline, says Olga Romanova, director and founder of the Russia Behind Bars foundation.

"Relatives of the convicts enlisted in the Wagner Group are not allowed to open the coffins," explains Romanova.

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