Siberian Cossacks still excel with spears and sabers

The city Omsk in south-western Siberia is the administrative center for Siberian Cossacks who settled there in the 16th Century. Their military training is a part of a tough rural tradition which has lasted for centuries.

“They start teaching us riding when we turn seven, and trick riding at the age of 13, depending on a child’s abilities,” young Cossack Artyom Pundik says. “As for me, I was very good at riding a horse at 11. As well as that I can handle a spear and a saber.”

Artyom and the others have a demanding daily schedule, and horse riding is the glamorous part. The youngsters of the village built a gym themselves and now they train in it.

They will have much to do to prove themselves as hunters and horsemen, but training together fosters a team spirit that is crucial in this Cossack society.

A team spirit is also necessary for the Cossacks' noblest pursuit, hunting, on the sharp end of which is the beloved fast Russian dog, the Borzoi.

It has been bred to perfection over centuries – and not for any ordinary prey.

“They were selected for their speed and aggression, because they must be able to get the better of a wolf,” Cossack Ataman Grigory Ostapchenko says.

Grigory Ostapchenko is master not just of his hounds, but of the whole Cossack village.

He is called the Ataman, and he has to show skill and leadership – from solving village disputes down to training dogs to catch hares, although he prefers the larger prey.

“In olden times, to get the chance of becoming an ataman, it was considered “prestigious” to bring home a wolf, tied up,” Grigory says.

The Cossacks originally came from lands far to the west, but they proved a useful militia force, conquering and securing Siberia for the Tsars in return for grants of land.

“The idea was to create villages along the country’s border so that people are bound to the land they are living on,” Grigory Ostapchenko says.

The Cossacks' strong independent traditions were disliked by the Communists, and they were suppressed and marginalized throughout that period of Russian history.

Since the end of the Soviet Union, Cossacks have been trying to rebuild their self-sufficient way of life, especially when it comes to resisting the bad habits of the city.

“It’s no easy matter living in the country, of course. But on the other hand, we're protected from the harm of the city – from drugs, alcohol, smoking,” Artyom Pundik says.

Alex Jude, a teacher at Omsk University, says people in the villages in general are more down-to-earth and their lifestyle is healthier compared to city-dwellers.

“People are also closer to each other, they are closer to their communities, because they rely on each other a lot more than, say, in a bigger city,” he said.