RADIO / One Steppe at a time

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The Independent Culture
THERE WAS no arguing with the large blonde woman. In imperious Russian, she told him he was going home with her. Seconds later, Peter Conradi found himself on a bus full of Cossack women, thundering across the Steppes while they sang raucous songs in lusty, throaty close harmonies and stamped up and down between the seats. Understandably, Conradi seemed alarmed. His voice dropped to a whisper as he described the antics of his rowdy companions. A little earlier, he had been heard nervously sipping a home-made liqueur and enquiring politely 'Made of apples, you say?' By the time he got to the Cossack settlement, he had recovered his bottle - several bottles, in fact, and was confiding earnestly to his microphone that he had been told it would be insulting not to down each glass of vodka in one. He wasn't about to insult this lot. By now he was audibly losing count.

The Cossacks Ride Again (R3), Tessa Watt's adventurous feature set in the new Russia, sent the bold Conradi into the wild east. It is frontier country, 'soaked with unrusting Cossack blood', where new schools have sprung up teaching traditional Cossack songs, history, horsemanship and, hang on a minute Peter, did you say ballroom dancing? Visions of the Viennese waltz in a thousand sequins rapidly melt. In this place, it must be a strict military two- step. It sounds like Dodge City with a suggestion of the French Foreign Legion and a sinister hint of the Third Reich.

Cossacks were originally nomadic Turkish or Tartar horsemen, roaming gangs of bloodthirsty men, sworn to defend Mother Russia with naked steel and furry hat, celebrating 'the free sky and the eternal feast of the soul'. Purged by Stalin, their culture all but disappeared for decades until their recent renaissance. Now everyone wants to be one, and they're all signing on and scorching about in tunics and tall boots. Some people see them as efficient disciplinarians, others as licentious soldiers. The real worry is the fascist element in their philosophy. The chilling tones of a young, enthusiastic bigot railing against Armenians sounded a tocsin that is heard a thousand miles away in Moscow. There is talk of using Cossacks to settle Siberia, and the Russian army is forming special regiments in an attempt to channel their enthusiasm away from aggressive nationalism. It just might work. For now, Conradi was only able to find one Cossack rider who was actually on a horse, and she was a girl.

Another sturdy woman appeared, this time in gold teeth and a floral dressing-gown. She had no horse, but she showed the awe-struck Conradi her enormous pig, named Masha.

Let us leave him enjoying the feast she offered from her over-filled Lada, still sounding unnerved and slightly hungover, as we travel north and east, to the land where the Cossacks might one day drink, sing and stamp about. Way up here, on the edge of China, the secret police still bang on hotel doors in the afternoon. They woke Kevin Connolly, the BBC's man in Moscow. He had flown through seven time zones in an Aeroflot toast-rack seat, eating roasted boxing-gloves stuffed with chicken bones, and he was exhausted. The policemen wanted to know why he was there. In all its history, nobody had visited voluntarily. He was Komsomolsk's first tourist.

Connolly is an excellent correspondent of remarkable energy. He is soon to leave Russia for the soft life in Paris, but first he is visiting remote districts of the old Soviet Union for a series called Tides of History (R4). He had gone to Komsomolsk to see what the retreating tide of Communism had left stranded. He too was taken over by a forceful woman. Valentina was fiercely permed and hennaed and took him to her allotment in a rural hamlet quaintly called Industrialisation. Poor soul, he was left in her wake as they dug potatoes in parallel rows that seemed to reach halfway to the polar ice- cap. Connolly has something of his friend Conradi's innocent enthusiasm, an appealing characteristic, but he is probably less gullible.

Komsomolsk is unlikely to become a popular tourist destination. It apparently resembles a drab concrete Moscow suburb, dropped from a great height. Valentina was not really interested in the collapse of the USSR. She said that she had several friends called Melsor, a snappy little mnemonic made from the initials of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and the October Revolution. They had only recently rechristened themselves Melor and were unlikely to delete the rest of their names. Connolly glumly resigned himself to paying three times the price for his ticket back to the Moscow fleshpots. The most valuable thing you can buy in Komsomolsk is the fare out.

Our own dear Princess Michael knows what you do about ex-Soviet states and in her case it is the Viennese waltz. Wearing black and gold taffeta, she went to a charity ball in Budapest, reported on the excellent Europe News (R5). She is, it seems, the unlikely role-model for displaced Hungarian aristocrats, and Prince Esterhazy really admires her. Perhaps we could find her a horse and send her off to Siberia. She'd be a perfect mascot for the Cossacks.

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