Some Cossack communities have restored pre-Communist 'cultural traditions', such as public floggings of rapists and drunkards. Others have turned into hotbeds of Russian chauvinism and anti-Semitism. True to their heritage as defenders of Russia's frontiers, the Cossacks advocate military action to protect Russian minorities in border areas and in non-Russian republics, and to keep alive the national spirit.
Take Pyotr Fedosov, the ataman (chieftain) of the Stavropol Union of Cossacks in southern Russia, and a self-styled Cossack ideologist. The newspaper Moskovskiye Novosti quoted him this week as saying: 'Like no other community, the Cossacks have preserved in themselves most fully the gene of Russianness, the psycho-physical potential of a great people whose genetic fund has been mercilessly destroyed throughout this troubled century. In the Cossacks, the healthy part of the downtrodden Russian people has resisted its perdition, the abomination of desolation, and the slide into historical oblivion.'
Mr Fedosov considers himself a moderate and criticises fellow Cossacks who want to expel all 'aliens' from Stavropol. Other Cossacks are more brazen. In nearby Mineralniye Vodi, they are clamouring for the deportation of Armenians who flocked into the area after the 1988 earthquake in Armenia or who are refugees from the war with Azerbaijan.
In Moldova, where Cossack volunteers are fighting alongside ethnic Slavs against the Romanian majority, anti-Semitism appears rife. It is common to hear rank- and-file Cossacks there express the view that Boris Yeltsin's reformist government in Moscow is part of a Jewish conspiracy. 'Anti- Semitism is a very serious disease that has infected the Cossacks,' said Valery Shukov, the editor of the Cossack newspaper Stanitsa.
He believes it is particularly strong in the Don and Kuban regions of the northern Caucasus. Interestingly, the Don Cossack ataman, Sergei Meshcheryakov, is a former Communist official whose father was a party district first secretary. In the Kuban, meanwhile, the local Cossack council recently issued a pamphlet falsely giving Mr Yeltsin's patronymic (middle name) as 'Moiseyevich', which implies that his father was Jewish.
All this would be less significant if the Cossacks lacked friends in high places. In fact, however, their brand of militant Russian nationalism blends conveniently with the philosophy of several senior politicians in Moscow, such as Mr Yeltsin's Vice-President, Alexander Rutskoi.
He told a council of atamans last August that Russia must redress the injustices of the early Communist period, when Bolshevik forces killed hundreds of thousands of Cossacks for opposing the 1917 Revolution and Cossack communities were stripped of their land and rights of self-government. Without Cossacks, Mr Rutskoi declared, 'we shall fail to revive the Russian state and Russian power'.
Last week Pavel Grachev, the Defence Minister, visited the northern Caucasus to discuss integrating Cossack military units into the Russian army. The idea seems to have Mr Yeltsin's backing, and the Moldovan conflict gives a foretaste of what it could mean in practice.
It matters little to the Cossacks that Moldova is, in legal terms, an independent state with a right to expect that armed outsiders cannot simply cross its borders at will. For the Cossacks, the crucial point is that a Russian minority lives there and appears to be in danger. They are determined to uphold Russian power in areas that the tsars conquered in previous centuries and which, with the demise of the Soviet Union, are slipping out of Russian influence.
That means anywhere from the self-proclaimed Chechen republic, in the northern Caucasus, to the Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan, which has a large Russian minority. The Cossacks are active even in the Russian Far East, where they are campaigning to hold on to the Kurile islands, occupied by the Soviet army in 1945 and claimed by Japan.
'Cossacks and military service go together like a horse and carriage,' observed Yury Averyanov, an ethnologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences. 'In the contemporary period, the Cossack movement has come a long way, from a gaggle of folk dance groups to a political force.'
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