Ethnic tensions have a long history in the Caucasian foothills of southwestern Russia. A recent story in the NY Times evokes a group familiar from Russian history that seems to be coming back in that part of Russia, at least in the Stavropol area, namely the Cossacks. The Cossacks are a legendary fighting group (usually pictured on horseback), somewhat akin to the cowboys of the American Wild West, fighting at the frontiers of the expanding Russian empire, including battling the Caucasian tribes. Tolstoy’s Cossacks illustrates that side of their history. In today’s Russia the Cossacks are evoked in support of Russian nationalism; according to the article, “In his third term, President Vladimir V. Putin has offered one clear new direction for the country: the development of a conservative, nationalist ideology. Cossacks have emerged as a kind of mascot, with growing financial and political support.”
Apparently, men in Cossack uniforms are proliferating in Russia. According to the article, “Regional leaders are granting them an increasing role in law enforcement, in some cases explicitly asking them to stem an influx of ethnic minorities, mainly Muslims from the Caucasus, into territory long dominated by Orthodox Slavs.” The newly reinvigorated Cossacks in the Stavropol area (where Tolstoy’s story is set) are running up against the demographic dynamics of the area, namely that Muslims from Caucasian ethnic minorities (Dagastani and Chechens) are increasing, while numbers of ethnic Russians are decreasing. The Cossacks are not universally welcomed in their law enforcement role, as, in contrast to the police, they have no official status and are therefore not bound by the same legal restraints the regular police force faces.