Paul Greenberg

My mother was puzzled. As she regularly was by this strange country and haven, where they did things differently from the old country, thank God. So she asked my older brother to explain something to her. "Irving," she was saying, "I know the Army fights on the land, the Navy on the sea, and the Air Force in the air. But what do the Marines do?"

"Ma, they're shock troops," he said.

"Shock troops?"

"Shock troops," he repeated. "They go in before all the others, land on the beaches, wipe out the enemy and everything else in the way, so the regular troops can follow."

Recognition dawned. "Ahh," said my mother, "Cossacks!"

Of course. The Cossacks have been called on by every Russian regime, tsar and commissar alike, whenever an enemy needed to be repelled, or another land annexed to the empire and its people exiled, or protesters at home need their heads cracked.

No film about the Russian revolution, any Russian revolution, would be complete without Cossacks on horseback breaking up a demonstration, sabers swinging, whips cracking, blood flowing. Just as every posh Russian café in Manhattan needs a Cossack in full regalia at the door. To give a joint a little class.

It was only natural that this latest Russian tsar would call out the Cossacks, and maybe the Black Hundreds, too, another feature of Russian revolutions, to quell any sign of freedom. Thuggism comes in all kind of uniforms. Or in plainclothes, as an old KGB man like Vladimir Putin would know.

Nothing was allowed to interfere with the great and glorious Olympics at Sochi, the most recent and elaborate version of the Potemkin Village, another long-standing Russian institution designed to impress the gullible. Like a Hollywood façade thrown up to hide the grimy reality behind it.

The curtain parted only on rare occasion, as when a video surfaced of a Cossack caught horsewhipping a punk-rock group that tried to crash the big show and do an anti-government number. The more Russia changes, the more repressive it stays. The cast may change, but the script remains the same.

Raised on a battlefield in eastern Poland during the First World War, my mother could never tell who would be "in control" of her little village, her shtetele Mordt, when the sun came up next morning. She'd seem 'em come, she'd seen 'em go. Germans regular and irregular, correct officers and foraging freikorps. Russians white and red, tsarist and Bolshevik. Even occasional Polish troops. No wonder she grew up illiterate in several languages.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.