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Once they were the outriders of the Russian empire, feared and fearless warriors who extended the Czar's authority as far as their horses would carry them.

Now, modern-day Cossacks are doing the same for President Vladimir Putin, except the horses have been replaced with battered Lada sedans.

Suppressed for decades during the Soviet era, Russia's Cossacks are staging a cultural comeback. Their dance troupes roam the world, displaying their signature athletic steps. The World Cossack Games are scheduled for next month in Stavropol, a city with a large Kuban Cossack minority, where dancers compete alongside riders and swordsmen eager to display they have acquired the skills that made their ancestors famous.

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But most practically, the Cossacks are back, enforcing their version of the law in Russia's unruly Caucasus region.

Stavropol, a city of 300,000 surrounded by trouble spots such as Chechnya and Georgia, is one of a handful of Russian cities resurrecting the tradition of Cossacks as guardians of order. In an experiment, Cossack volunteers dressed in green camouflage uniforms rather than the dark blue overcoats of old are patrolling the streets alongside regular police.

Local Cossacks hope Mr. Putin will soon pass a law giving them special status as law enforcers, which they hope will come with a salary. Proponents say the presence of Cossack paramilitaries has already increased security, while at the same time restoring an important part of Russia's culture.

"Kaiser Wilhelm II [of Germany]said the Cossacks were the last knights in Europe," said Oleg Gubenko, the Cossack leader, or ataman, in the nearby city of Mineralnye Vodi. "Now we are bringing this back."

Cossacks -- ethnic Russians who speak a distinct dialect -- won their freedom in Czarist times in exchange for guarding the empire's frontiers.

In the former Soviet republic of Georgia, the government complained this week that the chances of civil war in the breakaway region of South Ossetia have been heightened by a "third force" -- units of Cossack troops that have repeatedly broken a negotiated ceasefire and killed several Georgian soldiers.

Though some Cossacks reside in South Ossetia, Georgia claims the troublemakers crossed the border from Russia as soon as hostilities broke out. There have also been reports of Cossack volunteers heading to Abkhazia, another breakaway Georgian province that, like South Ossetia, wants to reunite with Russia.

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Viktor Yesaulov, who wears green fatigues and a military dog tag while running a cultural centre and museum in Stavropol, smiles under his classic Cossack mustache at the idea that his brethren are fighting once more on the other side of the Caucasus mountains.

"Why wouldn't Cossacks go there to help the Ossetians?" he asks. "The Ossetians have a perfect attitude. They want to join Russia."

Mr. Yesaulov recites an ancient Cossack pledge to be faithful to the czar, the motherland and the Russian Orthodox Church. He boasts that his own son served for 18 months in Chechnya, fighting against separatists seeking independence from Russia. His son-in-law died in that bloody conflict, he says proudly.

Going to war and being a Cossack are as thickly intertwined as they were 200 years ago.

Mr. Gubenko, a lean man with a shaved head and a long, thick beard, who looks like a monk in forest camouflage, heads a community of 800 Cossacks in Mineralnye Vodi. He preaches an angry mix of piety and militarism to his followers.

Dismayed by Russia's fall from great-power status, which he attributes to the waning influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, he encourages those under his command to do a tour in Chechnya as part of a regular Russian army unit.

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Eight years ago, Mr. Gubenko led an all-Cossack unit that razed part of Grozny, capital of the breakaway Chechen republic. Its brutality shocked even battle-hardened Russian troops. Seen as uncontrollable, the unit was disbanded after just 2½ months.

The ataman's office, tucked inside a walled compound filled with camouflage-clad men building a Cossacks-only church, is festooned with portraits of Nicholas II, the last Russian czar. He and most of his followers do not vote, he says. Instead, they pray for the return of the monarchy.

There are more than 600,000 registered Cossacks in Russia, 20,000 of whom serve in the military. Many in Russia's multiethnic and multireligious south view the Cossack resurgence with suspicion.

The Kavkaz Tsentr website, frequently used by Chechen rebels to communicate with the outside world, features complaints about Cossack chauvinism. "The Cossacks here, in the Caucasus, call all the Caucasus people foreigners, and consider only themselves to be the indigenous population," a recent posting read. "This is a blatant incitement to interethnic discord."

But Cossack parents are eager to enlist their children in the revival. Yesterday, 574 students aged 10 to 17 showed up for the first day of cadet school, where they will spend mornings in regular classes and afternoons learning how to fight and serve in the Russian army.

The academy is one of the few secondary schools in Russia where significant teaching time is spent on the war in Chechnya.

Students wear military uniforms in class.

"Since early times, Cossacks would go between different nationalities and keep the peace," says deputy director Vladimir Vodolazkov. "When we stopped doing that, the conflicts began. Now we have to restore that role."

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More


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