ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia (AP) — Russia plans to deploy thousands of Cossacks to guard the World Cup, but the traditional paramilitary groups face criticism for their strident nationalism and attacks on protesters.
During a parade Tuesday under the hot sun of southern Russia, a politician and a police chief lectured assembled Cossacks on how to “keep order” and remain polite with foreign fans, before a priest sprinkled their ranks with holy water. They’ll patrol alongside police during the World Cup in Rostov-on-Don, two Cossacks to each cop.
“They are taught in the art of war from childhood, they obey their elders and serve the motherland,” Cossack elder Igor Barannikov told The Associated Press. During the World Cup, “we will help in any way to prevent any attempt at destabilization.”
Authorities hope Cossacks will protect fans while adding local color. Some will wear traditional fur hats, and a group of stunt riders will perform on horseback. Cossacks generally can’t arrest or fine people, but some are notorious for using excessive force.
Men in Cossack uniforms used their fists and traditional whips to attack Russians protesting against President Vladimir Putin last month in central Moscow. Police did little to stop them. At the Sochi Olympics in 2014, Cossacks whipped members of the punk protest group Pussy Riot.
Barannikov said his Cossacks would be tolerant of outsiders.
“We are happy to welcome everyone here regardless of their ethnic background and faith, regardless of their gender,” he said. “We are happy for all our guests and we ask them to respect and keep to the traditions of the region and the country they are visiting.”
Cossacks are often hostile to LGBT rights. Barannikov told Radio Free Europe this week that his Cossacks would report same-sex couples to police if they saw them kissing during the World Cup. His group didn’t respond to AP requests to clarify the comments.
Cossacks were historically a mix between colonists and a military caste on the Russian Empire’s south and eastern frontiers. After decades of Soviet persecution, groups claiming to be Cossacks have multiplied under Putin, often with government funding.
While some Cossacks trace their ancestry back to the paramilitary groups broken up by the Soviet Union after the Russian Civil War, others have more tenuous links. Recent years have seen government-backed “Cossack” groups spring up in World Cup host cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, far from traditional heartlands. Some have gone to fight with Russia-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine.
Cossacks’ legal status varies. Some groups are official police auxiliaries but others are essentially costumed social clubs. There’s little oversight for Cossacks who work with police if they face accusations of using excessive force, typically against migrants or opposition activists.
Modern Cossacks’ image as Christian warriors fighting for a strong Russian state isn’t always backed up by history.
Cossacks crushed protests against the czars in the early 20th century, but led several earlier rebellions when they felt their autonomy was under threat.
They sometimes allied with Muslim ethnic groups against czarist forces, while many Kalmyks — members of an ethnically Mongolian minority who mostly follow Buddhism — lived as Cossacks and were widely accepted as such until the 20th century.
In Rostov-on-Don, Cossack official Sergei Strogonov said his patrolmen are learning English phrases to talk with fans.
“We’re preparing for it so we don’t end up humiliating ourselves. We’re learning standard phrases of greeting so that the Cossack patrol can sort things out and provide the necessary help to any foreign citizen,” he said. “We want our foreign guests to have only positive memories of us both as a people and as patriots of our country, and as people who love order.”
Ellingworth reported from Moscow.