Napoleon once said,

“give me 20,000 Cossacks and I will conquer the whole of Europe and even the world.”

In 2005, Russian President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin were enlisting the help of the Cossack ethnic minority to keep order in Russia’s volatile southern regions.

The President personally introduced a Bill to the state Duma (parliament) that would create special Cossack security units to preserve law and order and fight terrorism. About 600,000 Cossacks would be eligible to join the units, the first of which could be formed by the end of the year. The move would mean an end to a 90-year hiatus of their traditional role as tough defenders of Russia’s border regions.

The word Cossack is derived from the Turkish word ‘Kazak,’ meaning freedom. In Russia, Cossack history inspires and emboldens. Dating back to their settlement on the steppes of southern Russia and the Ukraine in the 15th century, Cossacks were famed for their horsemanship, valour and ferocity.

During the middle ages Polish and Russian rulers enlisted Cossacks to defend their kingdoms against marauding Tatars. They were brutally repressed under Stalin’s reign due to their traditional power being viewed as a threat and thousands were transported to the Siberian Gulags. After the Soviet collapse in 1991, Cossack society slowly began to resurface.

Nowhere is the Cossack ideology more strong than in southern Russian cities and towns. The region boasts dozens of military bases, military academies, regional recruiting stations, and the headquarters of the great Don Cossack Army where Cossack children from the ages of 11 to 17 are taught the rich history of their culture. In addition to learning mathematics, science and language, the boys also learn everything from hand-to-hand combat to ballroom dancing. After graduation they are propelled in to the military where they are likely to serve in the war torn republics of the Caucasus for a minimum of three years.

However in Southern Russia, enthusiasm for a Cossack revival is far from unanimous. The region is a volatile mix of Muslim-Christian ethnic divisions; Ossetians, Chechens, Ingush, Dagestanis, and of course, ethnic Russians.