The Return of the Cossacks: Russia's Warrior Clan Wants Its Old Country Back

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Gleb Garanich / Reuters

Teenagers undergo training at a military boot camp, run by local Cossack organisations and set up in the mountains of Crimea near the town of Bakhchisarai, Ukraine, August 4, 2011.

Not too many warrior nations have survived into the modern age. The Vikings are gone. The Spartans are long gone, and the Mongol hordes have not been too productive (or rather, destructive) since around the 13th century. So if your national pastime is war, it seems to follow that you will eventually lose one too many, and for the rest of the peace-loving world, that is probably a good thing. The one exception, at least in Europe, would seem to be the Cossacks — the war-obsessed people of Slavs from southern Russia who have been fighting since the 17th century in the name of the Tsar, the Motherland or the Russian Orthodox Church. They are still going strong.

Last week, in a remote valley in southern Ukraine, General Viktor Vodolatsky, a former plumber and the leader of the modern Cossacks, arrived to inspect his newest batch of troops. Most of them were younger than 15, some as young as 8 years old. But they looked fearsome enough, and were it not for their blond hair and distinctly Slavic features, these few dozen boys in fatigues could have passed for child soldiers geared up to fight somewhere in Africa. Even the youngest ones had hunting knives dangling from their belts, a few held rifles, and one boy proudly gripped a mock Kalashnikov with a grenade launcher fixed to the barrel. Over their heads, the Russian flag flew alongside the Ukrainian. Vodolatsky smiled.

As both a Cossack and a member of parliament for the United Russia party, which is chaired by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Vodolatsky has taken on a new crusade of a typically Cossack stripe. He wants to extend Russia's hegemony (once again) across the Slavic world, in particular to Ukraine and Belarus. Over the past eight years, he and his lieutenants have pounded this vision of a "united Slavic state" into the heads of the roughly 1,500 new cadets they have trained at their camp in the Crimean peninsula, where Ukraine's most active Cossack groups are based.

Their latest graduates — some of them Cossacks by birth, others newly initiated — took in their commander's speech on Aug. 10 with all the requisite decorum. "The unification of the Slavic state is the guarantee of our future," Vodolatsky told them. "And the children who stand beneath these Cossack banners are ideologically pure, physically strong and secure in their faith. Now you must serve as an example to the youth in whatever town you come from."

Although the bombast of it all did look at times cartoonish (even some of the boys seemed less impressed with Vodolatsky than with a dead snake they found crushed beneath their tent), the Ukrainian authorities are not laughing. They have found themselves at the receiving end of the Cossacks' new offensive, and they have had to start fighting back. Last year, the organizer of the camp, Sergei Yurchenko, who is a city councilman and Vodolatsky's envoy in the Crimea, faced charges for training armed insurgents. (Those charges, which Yurchenko denies, were later dropped for lack of evidence: police found only pellet guns and blanks when they raided the camp in search of weapons. "We hid the live ammo," Yurchenko tells TIME, admitting that they fire live weapons at the camp.)

But the catch-the-Cossack game has only escalated since then, just as relations between Moscow and Kiev have once again started to falter. To the disappointment of many officials in Moscow, Ukraine's ostensibly pro-Russian President, Viktor Yanukovych, has not turned out to be the Kremlin lackey many expected him to be. After taking office in February last year, he did relieve some of the animosity caused by the Orange Revolution of 2004, when Ukraine veered sharply away from Russia's political orbit. Three weeks after his inauguration, for instance, he allowed Vodolatsky back into the country (the previous administration had deemed him persona non grata in 2009 for holding Cossack rallies in the Crimea). More importantly, after a political battle that saw brawls and food fights break out in the hall of parliament, Yanukovych extended Russia's lease on a naval base in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol in the Crimea.

But the honeymoon began to fizzle after that. No less than his predecessors from the Orange Revolution, Yanukovych has proven a stern defender of his country's sovereignty, often to Moscow's chagrin. He has rebuffed invitations to form a union government, a union parliament or a customs union with Russia and other ex-Soviet states, and during his latest meeting with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev on Aug. 11, he again declined to integrate his country's energy systems with Russia. For the Cossacks, it has thus become clear that a "Slavic union" is no closer to include Ukraine than it was after the Orange Revolution. As a result, their campaigns have gotten increasingly shrill in recent months and have started turning violent.

In July, they clashed for the first time with Ukrainian police in the city of Feodosiya. That conflict began when a local Cossack commander, Konstantin Borayev, decided to put up an 8-m-tall Russian Orthodox cross at the entrance to the city without permission from the government. The idea, Borayev told TIME at his clubhouse for local Cossack boys, was to present the authorities with a dilemma. If they removed the cross, police would inflame the Russian Orthodox community. If they did nothing, they would be seen as bending to the Cossacks' demands. "We held the high ground either way," he says. For two months, the Cossacks guarded the cross day and night until finally, on the morning of July 1, a brigade of riot police moved in before dawn, ripped the cross from the ground and sawed it in half, separating the crucifix from its enormous metal base.

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