By TOM BELL
KHABAROVSK – It’s just past midnight, Easter Sunday. Six policemen stand at the door of the Khabarovsk Cathedral. The church is full, and.a crowd gathers outside in the cold rain A policeman tells the crowd that nobody else is allowed inside. Some people yell insults at the officers. Others push their way towards the door, only to be pushed back by police. A man dressed in a long black coat, leather boots, and a tall wool hat approaches. Fourteen 12-mm cartridges are strapped across his chest. He carries a saber. The man makes the sign of the cross and bows. The police step aside and allow him through..
The man is a Cossack soldier. Several years ago, police might have arrested him for wearing such a costume. But Cossacks are respectable in the post-Soviet social order now. Before the revolution, Cossacks defended the southern outposts of the Russian empire and served as professional soldiers for the czar. In return, they received farmland and autonomy. They were legendary as fierce horsemen and ruthless fighters. But after the communists came to power, their armies were disbanded and their land confiscated; many who had fought for the White Army in the Civil War were either killed or sent to prison.
Two years ago, the descendants of Ussuriski Cossack troops in the Russian Far East re-establish their army. They fashioned a flag — copied from the flags they saw in old photographs – and took it to the Bishop of Khabarovsk, who blessed it in a televised ceremony. The flag is emblazoned with the face of Saint George, the “Saint of Warriors.”
There are now 12 Cossack armies in Russia. But these modern armies — their ranks filled with middle-aged men — are more like fraternal societies than fighting forces. Still, their leaders are ambitious; they seek to replace the old communist structures in Cossack villages with paramilitary ones. They’ve already begun organizing farmers and selling their produce.
What kind of people lead these so-called armies?
Col. Sergey Kalmeykov, a former chicken farmer and now Ataman of the Ussurisk Cossack Army, sits behind a plywood desk at his army’s headquarters, a one-story brick building in downtown Khabarovsk. He’s dressed in a brown military uniform. He is overweight. His face is fixed in a sneer. Before the interview begins, he nods to his young aide, Misha, who brings him a cigarette. I mention some recent news — that Cossacks in southern Russia have declared self-rule and have risen to the defense of President Yeltsin, offering to form a special presidential guard. I ask the colonel how he views the political situation. “Only through the cross hairs of my gun,” he says.
He refuses to elaborate, except to say he has 15,000 people under his command. (Other sources tell me the figure is more like 500.)
“What kind of weapons do you have?” I ask.
As he ponders his answer, his aide tells him, “Is it possible to answer such questions, sir? Maybe it’s a trick?”
The colonel says, softly, “Shut up, Misha.” Then he tells me he can’t answer my question.
“What do you think of the possibility of civil war?” I ask.
“Of course, this is a real possibility under certain conditions,” he says.
A small, bearded man sitting in the back of the room speaks up: “Why possible?” the man asks. I later learn he’s the chief of the army’s cultural department.
“Because I say it’s possible,” the colonel shouts. “Please, shut up.”
“Why should I shut up? I’m a member of the board?”
“I don’t care if you’re a board member. Just shut up and go away!”
“But Russian people understand that a civil war will lead to the end of everything,” the chief of the cultural department says.
“Stop talking or I’ll throw you out!” the colonel shouts.
The colonel stands up.
The chief of the cultural department runs out of the room.
After the interview, I ask the colonel to pose for a photograph. The aide brings the colonel his saber. “Maybe you should smile for the picture, sir,” the aide suggests. The colonel’s face only grows more severe.