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18 Jun, 2009 05:35

The Don Cossacks - resurrecting a way of life

Russia’s legendary Don Cossacks have always been known as masters of waging war. And now the young generation of the Southern Rostov region on the Don River is reviving the old-time traditions of their ancestors.

For centuries, the Don Cossacks helped Russia protect its borders and expand its territory all the way to the Far East. Images of Cossacks on horseback abound in history books, and the Cossack community in the South of Russia is eager to revive these traditions.

Student Lyubov Tretyakova lives in Rostov-on-Don.

There was a time when horses were an integral part of Cossack life. However, much of the tradition disappeared during the Soviet Union. But Cossacks haven’t yet lost their taste for horses, and with the revival of Cossack detachments in mounted police, more and more young people are getting on horseback.

Natalia Tikhomirova heads a local mounted police unit. She says her parents – also Cossacks – were shocked by her decision to pursue her career.

"Horses were not part of my parents’ life. When I took up horse riding, their main concern was my safety, but now they’re proud of what I do. It’s a trademark of our culture after all," says Natalia.

At the Cossacks’ oldest Orthodox church in the Rostov region, one of the most-worshipped icons shows Jesus riding into Jerusalem – not on a donkey, but on a horse!

"This is probably the only icon in the world with Jesus on horseback. Cossacks respect Christ so much, they probably just couldn’t put him on a donkey," says Vladimir Voronin, Deputy Commander of the Don Cossack host.

No Cossack would go into battle without getting a blessing in church.

The Cossack army fought in almost all the wars waged by the Russian Empire. After the revolution of 1917, a third of the Don Cossacks – around half a million people – were killed or deported by the Bolsheviks. But now the Cossack host here on the Don is seeing a revival.

"We live in the modern world, we run businesses, and we don't ride around with sabers. But we've kept the Cossack spirit, our Orthodox faith, our love for the Don, and loyalty to Russia," says Vladimir Voronin.

To help keep up this spirit, the host has organized military schools where, as the Cossacks put it, they raise real men. Most of the youngsters, attending such schools, long for a military career.

Asked what their nationality is – they reply Cossack. But they speak Russian, and say they would risk their lives for Russia.

"Yes, Cossack is a nationality. But I believe we’re sometimes more Russians than those who boast about being Russians," says Voronin.

It may be too early for Vladimir’s nephew to learn all the Cossack skills, but the six-year-old already knows that being a Cossack means being a fighter, and loving your country.