John Kass

Some were long whips for the driving of cattle and livestock from horseback, and some were short, possibly for dogs or perhaps for unwilling human backs.

A group of about 10 Cossacks came up and began to heft the whips, whistling and cracking, and laughing. They seemed like they could handle themselves in a scrap but were decent fellows, young and rowdy and lean.

"They are Cossacks," said a police officer.

How do you know?

"I am Cossack," he said. "They are Cossacks."

Watching them play with the whips, I thought of what their great-grandfathers did to the Jews during the pogroms, and what their great-great-great-grandfathers had done to the Circassians in the mountains just above us, whole populations driven from their homes with fire and sword.

The police officer politely refused a cigarette, and I asked him again: Are you certain these are Cossacks? Like the movie, "Taras Bulba"?

"Yes, Cossacks," he said, smiling. "'Taras Bulba' movie. Cossacks."

The young guys joked, cracking each other playfully, worrying the air with the whips, their wrists whirring, and I stood confounded.

How hospitable the people of Russia have been to me here, and yet, underneath, violence always seems to be waiting to break free in this nation of tribes.

I approached Tatiana, not to buy a whip but to ask her a question.

"No Englees," Tatiana said.

When I got to the office -- the Olympic media center -- I learned that Chicago native Shani Davis, the great American speedskater and prohibitive gold medal favorite in the men's 1,000 meters, had lost.

And the winner?

The Dutchman, Stefan Groothuis, whom I saw fall in the 500-meter sprint just a few days before. He tripped, slid in anguish for some 40 feet, got up and trudged the ice, head hanging in shame.

I had interviewed his parents. The mother concerned about her son's transition out of the sport, the father a former dairy farmer who said this would be his son's last Olympic Games.

Now, he goes out with the gold, defeating Davis, who was expected to become immortal in Sochi.

Each time I leave Chicago on a writing trip, I get to see amazing things: the Russian bath-mistress with the accent of Maria Ouspenskaya who refused to hit me with the birch branch, and those young cadets desperate to learn all about American girls.

And the beautiful, almost aristocratic young woman I saw praying at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Michael the Archangel, a girl who may become a matriarch someday and command her brood back into the ancient faith of her grandfathers.

And Josef Stalin's lonely dacha on the hills above us, a reminder of the murderer of millions whose memory is fading as Russia tells a new story about itself with these Games.

There's so much more to see and write, but it's time to go. So dasvidaniya, Sochi. Dasvidaniya, Russia. Goodbye and thank you. You've been wonderful.

But I have work to do back home.