National Geographic : 2014 Jan
122 national geographic • January 2014 They performed the violent and difficult work of defending Russia’s outer domain against raiders who rose northward from the lands of Islam. The Kuban Cossacks existed beyond the law, under a code of their own. After the communists came to power, the institution of the Cossacks was abolished, and for many decades this horseman sect was re- pressed. Yet by the time that Putin began skiing down Fedin’s mountains, the Kuban Cossacks had regathered their numbers. They had not only survived but also constituted such a po- litical force that the government recognized the wisdom of embracing their fatherland imagery. “We’ve always been patriots,” Yevgeny Razumov says, his black Cossack uniform dotted with raindrops outside Krasnaya Polyana’s redbrick police station. “And we’re still here.” The Cossacks have returned to the streets— supplementing police foot patrols, breaking up brawls, occasionally starting them, profiling the ethnically non-Russian, looking the part, reviv- ing old rites. There are 25 Cossacks on patrol in Krasnaya Polyana, another 25 in Sochi, and 15 each at the airport and train station. There are 1,500 total in the Krasnodar region. Alexander Tkachev, the governor of the Kras- nodar region and a Cossack himself, dresses in the Cossack uniform from time to time. He is a strong-handed leader, and he has bemoaned an increase in the local Caucasian Muslim population. In a speech in which he ushered the Cossacks back into service, Tkachev said that the neighboring Stavropol region had traditionally acted as an ethnic “filter” for the rest of Russia by assimilating its Caucasian mi- grants, but with growing minority populations, he feared that was no longer feasible. Recalling the old Cossack role, the sect’s status outside of the law, Tkachev said, suggestively, “What you cannot do, a Cossack can.” Critics complain that the Cossacks are a re- actionary force. But the critic isn’t responsible for the safety of others. The Islamist insurgency of the North Caucasus has persisted for 25 years, showing that Russia’s subjugation of these lands remains elusive. A drive to the confluence of the Achipse and Mzymta Rivers in Krasnaya Polyana reveals one more layer of doubt about the placement of these games. The road leads past excavators, trucks, and migrants in hard hats, through a tunnel that drips gray spittle onto the car windshield. At the end of the road two border guards man a checkpoint. In their friendly way they explain that access is pro- hibited. They point up to the mountain, saying, “Abkhazia is over there, three kilometers away.” Abkhazia is a disputed territory that broke away from Georgia in the 1990s. After Russia won a war with Georgia in 2008, it recog- nized the sovereignty of Abkhazia. Only Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru, and Tuvalu likewise recognize the re- gion’s independence, a list that might elicit laughter, except that Abkhazia is no joke. In May 2012 the Federal Secu- rity Service (FSB) discovered several caches of weapons in this territory just over the moun- tains from the great Olympics development. Explosives, grenade launchers, shoulder- mounted missiles. The FSB arrested three sus- pects, alleging that they belonged to a terrorist group called the Caucasus Emirate. In July 2013, Caucasus Emirate leader Doku Umarov urged his followers to prevent the Olympics from taking place. For those who make the North Caucasus one of the world’s most vola- tile regions, disrupting the Olympics would be their own sort of gold medal. With almost fortnightly occurrence, Russia’s special forces and Muslim militants engage in murderous contact across Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetiya, and Kabardino-Balkariya. Each place is within a day’s drive of Adler and Kras- naya Polyana, where it would not be difficult In winter garb, the Cossack stands out: gray jodhpurs, tall black riding boots, brown leather suspenders. It is as though he has arrived from another time.