One of the most interesting aspects of the Global Partners program in Russia was encountering one of the best known of Russia’s 120 minority groups―the Cossacks. Who has not heard of the Don Cossacks choir? Our encounter was with Cossacks slightly farther south, in the Kuban.
The Cossacks went from the Ukraine to the Kuban in 1793. They found this land east of the Black Sea to be everything that a horse culture could want―an immensely large and fertile plain, with abundant rain, wide rivers and lakes. Today it resembles central Kansas, right down to the immense wheat fields.
The Cossacks were the children of “across the border”, which is what U Kraine met―outside Russia. Their ancestors were peasants looking for freedom, and runaway serfs. Once it had been too dangerous to live on the steppe, where Tatars would carry off anyone they met to the slave markets of the south. But in the 1600s the Tatar khanates had been brought down; thereafter, the Tatar raids were occasional, not continual. The Cossacks developed the military skills and cohesion to fend them off; and to keep the tsars at a distance, too.
The Cossacks were a brotherhood. In principle, the only true Cossacks were single young men who lived communally, sharing everything. But in practice one by one they married and became individual farmers. Their sons would join the Cossack brotherhood, until they, too, decided there was more to life that riding, drinking, singing and making war. They may not have been a full member of the brotherhood thereafter, but they were still Cossack in culture: they rode, drank, sang and fought.
Thus arose the stereotype Cossack―a sturdy fellow, not well educated, but robust, enthusiastic, religious, proud and free. Laws were meant for others. Cossacks had only customs, and they judged their own people by their own rules.
Today Cossacks are 18-27% of the Kuban population, the exact count depending on how you count the offspring of mixed marriages. Their small houses are everywhere, whitewashed with light blue trim and surrounded by a small garden. The houses are truly small, often less than 600 square feet; but that is larger than the traditional two-room house, one of which is really a foyer with room to store shoes and coats, and the other dominated by the huge oven. There was barely room for the table and a couple chairs, a chest and a few icons.
Cossacks were fervently Orthodox. In 1794 they built a cathedral in 1794, which we dutifully visited, and they dotted the countryside with small churches, which we also stopped at for blessings, food, drink and entertainment (a lot of each, in fact). Faced as they were by Moslem enemies to the south, the Cossacks’ religious faith helped them see the tsar as the “little father” who sustained the Church, warded off their enemies and employed their young men in elite cavalry units.
Three times we were entertained with Cossack music. We admired not only the musical skill and enthusiasm of the singers, but also their ability to perform in heavy traditional clothing in steaming summer weather. Russians love music, but they especially love lively Cossack tunes. As best we could tell, Russians turn into Cossacks when they sing. But not when they listen. I visited several music stores, trying to buy a CD, and my host family tried, too. But although the stores and the sidewalk vendors had everything you could want in current popular American music (reputedly mostly pirated), they had no Cossack music. What this means merits further investigation.
Cossack girls also prefer handsome young men over geezers. Each time a group performed the cheek-kissing wedding party song, they choose the same young man from our party. What his pregnant wife at home might think of the pictures we were taking gave us opportunities for joking at his expense.