ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia: The horse neighs in alarm and springs up on muscular hind legs, spooked by a flare that was suddenly lit right in front of it. Around the animal, Portugal and Morocco fans, some of the thousands streaming into the Moscow stadium for their World Cup group tie, gasp and recoil in shock and anticipation of the danger at hand.
But the rider coolly, calmly brings the panicked horse to heel and swiftly handles both the glowing firework and the antagonist. This is no ordinary policeman or security personnel: The thin red line down the side of his trousers reveals him to be a Cossack.
A centuries-old community, Cossacks were, at the height of their powers, typified by the image of wild, fur-hatted horsemen galloping into battle brandishing sabres and whips. But their modern descendants are known more for their fervently religious, patriotic and conservative stance - advocated via radical and, at times, violent methods.
These have now been thrust into the spotlight with Russia’s decision to have Cossacks provide additional security as it hosts the World Cup, which kicked off last month and reaches its climax this weekend.
“Yes, it can be said the Cossacks have a traditional viewpoint - particularly when it comes to one’s relationship with the motherland - and a traditional attitude to morality,” said Mikhail Anatolevich Bespalov, a commander of the Great Don Army, a Cossack unit in southern Russia’s Rostov-on-Don.
“But at the same time … We know this is a new situation, a new world; there are people with many different attitudes, different ways of life, different nationalities even.
“So we look as tolerantly as possible upon this.”
At the World Cup - which Bespalov observed as having a “big impact” on the Cossacks - more than 800 have been deployed to patrol the streets and related venues within host cities, though without the authority to arrest or fine individuals.
Of these, 230 Cossacks were mobilised for an incident-free total of four group games and one knockout match hosted by Rostov over the past few weeks.
“The visiting people saw our Cossacks welcoming, smiling and embracing them, and they responded in kind. As a result, behaviour was good,” said Bespalov.
“On occasion, the fans even took the word of the Cossacks in a more serious manner than they might just regular policeman,” he claimed, adding that for Rostov, security details were formed in ratios of two Cossacks to one police officer. “Because the Cossacks are a well-known brand of this region and everyone knows them, it gives us added authority.”
RISE, FALL AND RISE
Asked to describe the Cossacks for the uninitiated, Bespalov said: “In the way the samurai were for Japan, Cossacks are for Russia. Tolstoy even said we created and founded Russia.”
As far back as the 1300s, Cossack warriors kept watch over the Russian empire’s borders and were contracted by tsars to both conquer lands and clamp down on minority races and nationalities.
Yet theirs is also a complicated history: A fiercely proud people, the Cossacks rebelled several times against their overlords whenever their self-governing existence was threatened, and at one stage boasted of Mongolian Buddhists in their ranks.
In Rostov, Cossack groups mostly settled in the steppes around the port city’s central artery of the Don River and were as much sailors as fighters.
“They could endure the choppy Black Sea and so reaped the rewards,” said Bespalov. “They became rich by going around the world trading, and also brought back all of the prettiest women from Europe and Asia. That’s why in Rostov now, there are a lot of beautiful women!”
Cossacks also used to be conscripted till 50 years of age, before the Russian revolution of 1917 which ended the tsarist regime and produced the Soviet Union. During this period, hundreds of thousands of Cossacks were executed by the working-class revolutionaries known as Bolsheviks, and an entire culture was as good as buried for decades.
Then came the perestroika reformist movement of the 1980s, and dormant Cossack leaders slowly re-emerged with revivalist ideas that aligned with Moscow’s increasingly miltarist, nationalist slant. Eventually, a 1995 law legalised their existence and registered Cossack units began to spring up across the country - some police auxiliaries funded and trained by the government; others little more than singing, dancing, partying costume clubs.
In 2012, president Vladimir Putin declared it was "the state's task to help the Cossacks in every way" and today, their numbers are estimated at some 180,000 within Russia.
Up to 40,000 reside in Rostov alone although the bulk are voluntary with only 1,500 full-time Cossacks here, said Bespalov.
FROM CONTROVERSY TO CONCESSION?
In recent years however, reports have surfaced of Cossacks operating as private military contractors for president Bashar al-Assad in the ongoing Syrian civil war, as well as fighting alongside separatist rebels in Ukraine, although the Kremlin has denied involvement in both instances.
Around the same time Russia hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and some 400 Cossacks were deployed, just like at this year’s World Cup, as an extra security measure. But they only made headlines after lashing members of Pussy Riot while the punk protest group filmed a music video with the Games as a backdrop.
Bespalov himself has been quoted elsewhere saying: “As a rule, lashing someone with a nagaika (Cossack whip) resolved things better than - I’m sorry to say - any judge.”
Shortly after the Olympics, about 1,000 Cossacks from southern Russia were then sent to aid in their country’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
Domestically, Cossacks were pictured beating up Russian opposition leader Aleksei Navalny and his supporters in Anapa town two years ago. As recently as May, they were also seen unleashing their fists and whips on protesters in Moscow while regular policemen stood by.
Thus far, the World Cup has not seen such displays of force from the Cossacks, who appear to have softened their touch under the keen gaze of a global audience.
Last month, a Cossack leader said his men would merely report to the police incidences of same-sex couples kissing in public. To the Cossacks - who have also previously raided theatres and art galleries for exhibiting “blasphemous” content - LGBT rights are not up for discussion.
Russian law prohibits the public display of LGBT symbols but exceptions have been made this World Cup with officials allowing the rainbow flag to be unfurled at some venues. When told this the Cossack leader, Oleg Barannikov, would only say: “To us, values mean the Orthodox faith and the family come first.”
Bespalov reverted to a similar answer when asked. “Cossacks believe very strongly in the Orthodox religion and this informs our attitudes,” he said plainly. “We have to play a vital role in the education and upbringing of children and young people.
“I would hope that all other, different people who come here can respect the Cossack way of life and viewpoint, as traditional as it may be. Then they can get a full idea of what Russia is like; of the way our people really are.
“Rather than something that has been altered, varnished, or even painted over by others outside of our country.”