MOSCOW (Reuters) - By tradition, Cossacks protected Russia’s borderlands, but on Tuesday descendants of the Tsarist warrior caste patrolled a patch of central Moscow as part of a resurgence encouraged by President Vladimir Putin.
A handful of men in high lambswool hats and epaulettes paced a slushy square around a major railway station, looking for illegal trade and other infractions in what they called a trial run for further patrols in the heart of the Russian capital.
While a few venders in a chilly underpass left when Cossacks approached, the patrol - unarmed and outnumbered by journalists - was uneventful for a group with a reputation as whip-wielding horseback warriors protecting frontiers from foreign threats.
But it was a sign of a Cossack revival that plays into Putin’s calls for patriotism and his praise of Russian traditions - and which critics say aggravates the ethnic tension the president has struggled to keep under control.
“Our aim is very clear: we want there to be law and order in the capital, for people to live and work honestly and for crime to be punished,” said Vladimir Timofeyev, who identified himself as a “Cossack colonel” and wore a green camouflage coat.
Moscow’s central district administration and the Cossack affairs department released a statement saying Tuesday’s patrol was the “personal initiative” of a Cossack leader. It also said Cossack patrols could begin on a official basis early next year.
The Cossacks cannot make arrests or check documents. They receive free public transport but no pay, city officials said.
Claiming descent from nomads and fugitives from serfdom who served tsars with their swords and lived in relative freedom on Russia’s edges, Cossacks are symbols of Russian patriotism.
Their past is also colored by anti-Jewish pogroms in the tsarist era, and their nationalism is a volatile additive to tension between ethnic Russians and minorities in cities such as Moscow, where many migrants are Muslims from the North Caucasus and ex-Soviet republics in Central Asia.
“They will bring order and it’s nice to look at them,” Tatyana, a teacher who declined to give her last name, said as she entered the train station. “You remember the past, and it’s all coming back - it’s great.”
Cossacks faced systematic killings and deportation at the hands of the communists following the Russian revolution, and have enjoyed a resurgence since the 1991 Soviet collapse.
Putin praised the Cossacks in an article published during his campaign for the March 2012 presidential election.
“The state’s task is to help the Cossacks in every way, to attract them into military service and into the military and patriotic upbringing of young people,” Putin said.
The use of Cossack patrols has been on the rise in recent months, both in outlying areas of Moscow as well as their historic heartland in the southern Russian steppe, adjacent to the heavily Muslim regions of the North Caucasus.
As many as 1,000 Cossacks took to patrolling streets in parts of the Krasnodar region, which borders the North Caucasus and includes Sochi, the host city of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
The Krasnodar patrols, created by regional governor Alexander Tkachev, help police intervene against crimes and check documents, but media speculated that could lead to racial profiling for migrants from the Caucasus and Central Asia.
Cossacks announced plans for patrols around churches in southeastern Moscow after punk group Pussy Riot belted out a vulgarity-laced “punk protest” in the capital’s main Russian Orthodox cathedral, Christ the Saviour.
The head of the church, Patriarch Kirill, has told believers that Pussy Riot was part of an organized attack on Russia’s main faith and what he called the moral foundations of the country.
Cossacks blocked the entrance to a Moscow art gallery exhibiting art depicting Pussy Riot last month, leading to a standoff with riot police called in to disperse them.
“This is not the first time that Cossacks are emerging as a conservative force ready to punish or warn those who from their point of view are acting improperly,” said Maria Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
Lipman said the higher Cossack profile was a product of a growing Kremlin reliance on conservative forces, such as the Russian Orthodox Church, to counter mostly liberal opponents who staged the biggest protests of Putin’s 13-year rule over the past year, drawing demonstrators from the urban middle class.
“Because the protesters were modernized urbanites, the response was found in conservative morals and the government has shifted to a conservative stance,” Lipman said, adding that this “deepens divisions in Russian society that have been latent up to this point.”
Vladimir Morozov, a pensioner on his way in from the Moscow suburbs, agreed. He said Cossack patrols were “set against Pussy Riot” and could only increase ethnic tension.
“It’s just support for Putin,” he said.
Art student Nadezhda Irchishina saw no harm in the patrols - but little help, either.
“I think it’s just for show,” she said. “Crimes will simply be committed out of their line of sight.”
Moscow police declined to comment on the Cossack patrols.
The Cossacks on patrol in Moscow said they are limited to verbal persuasion and summoning the police if they see a crime, but they hope that will change.
“When it is all legalised, we will have different powers,” Gennady Tyshkov, a retired police officer in a crisp uniform, said with a smile.
Additional reporting by Anastasia Gorelova and Mikhail Antonov; editing by Jason Webb