On a freezing afternoon in Moscow, two men in sheepskin hats and blue uniforms step into the cold without so much as a shiver.
“For us, this is normal weather,” says Vladimir Samokhvalov, shrugging off the minus-8 temperature even as icy droplets form on the lower edges of his mustache. “When Hitler was attacking Moscow, the temperature was minus 40.”
The two men are Cossacks, the fierce warriors of Russian lore who were, among other things, noted supporters of Slavic hegemony and czarist rule. Later, in the Soviet era, they suffered mass deportations, deaths, and famine. In President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Cossacks are being repurposed as enforcers of neighborhood law and order and, more broadly, as embodiments a xenophobic brand of patriotism. And they are about to get an international audience: During the Sochi Olympics, which begin Feb. 7, more than 800 Cossacks will be patrolling the city, including the Olympic Village, around the clock.
Vladimir Samokhvalov, with the beard, and Igor Petrunin, at left, stand guard outside Lyublino station. Photo by Alec Luhn.
Cossack justice already exists in Moscow: Samokhvalov and his companion, Igor Petrunin, keep a volunteer watch over the neighborhood of Lyublino in southeast Moscow, several days a week as members of the local Southeast District Cossack Organization. Samokhvalov says his secret for withstanding the cold is a high-calorie breakfast of salo—salted pig fat—and potatoes, but his companion, Igor Petrunin, suggests the pair is simply hardened to the deep freeze. For Cossack patrolmen, bitter cold comes with the job.
Residents and shopkeepers in Lyublino credit the Cossacks with the decline of illegal street merchants. They’ve also put a stop to double parking or people pulling their cars onto sidewalks. But rising cooperation between these groups and state law enforcement has raised concern among human rights activists about vigilante justice.
Cossacks have earned a reputation as a ‘morality police’, conducting raids on art exhibits and breaking up LGBT rallies
Cossacks have earned a reputation as a conservative “morality police”—a term embraced by many of these bearded patrolmen—conducting raids on art exhibits they consider indecent and breaking up LGBT rallies. Other members of the Southeast District Cossack Organization even staged an “operation” with a pro-Kremlin television channel to catch U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul when he met with a local human rights activist. The Cossack who organized the ambush, Vasily Solovyov, said it was to smear McFaul for talking with the “lying leaders” of Russia’s political opposition.