MOSCOW (AP) — Renowned for their sword-fighting prowess and notorious for their anti-Semitism in czarist Russia, the Cossacks are taking on new foes: beggars, drunks and improperly parked cars.
With the approval of city authorities, eight Cossacks clad in traditional fur hats and uniforms patrolled a Moscow train station on Tuesday looking for signs of minor public disturbances.
The Kremlin is seeking to use the once-feared paramilitary squads in its new drive to promote conservative values and appeal to nationalists.
The southern Krasnodar province — which includes Sochi, the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics — launched Cossack patrols in September to crack down on Muslim migrants from the neighboring Caucasus. Now they've made it to the Russian capital.
Cossacks trace their history in Russia back to the 15th century. Serving in the czarist cavalry, they spearheaded imperial Russia's expansion in exchange for special privileges, including the right to govern their own villages. In the 2010 census, about 650,000 Russians declared themselves Cossacks.
Tuesday's patrol was a test run on whether the group can become an armed and salaried auxiliary police force, with the power of arrest, patrol leader Igor Gulichev said.
He compared his forces to the Texas Rangers, the elite law-enforcement body in the U.S. state.
"They are just like Cossacks, and they work for the government, but they're welcomed with open arms. How come this should be allowed in America, but not in Russia, with our rich Cossack traditions? We're like Chuck Norris!" Gulichev said, in reference to the cult karate-kicking star of the television series "Walker, Texas Ranger."
Gulichev's group, which he said numbers up to 85, has patrolled southwestern Moscow with police approval for the past year, and has brought about 35 arrests. They are unpaid but receive free public transport passes and uniforms. Tuesday's patrol was the first in central Moscow.
The conservative Cossacks have increased their political activity in response to an impromptu protest that feminist punk rockers Pussy Riot staged in Moscow's main cathedral in February. Groups of Cossacks recently barred visitors from entering a Moscow art exhibition that daubed Pussy Riot's trademark balaclavas over Orthodox Christian icons, and they led a successful campaign to cancel a staging of Vladimir Nabokov's racy novel "Lolita" in St. Petersburg.
A government-backed Cossack political party held its first congress in Moscow this weekend. Communists have called it a cheap attempt to siphon pensioners' support from their party, which is widely known by the same acronym. Six other groups have applied to form splinter Cossack parties.
Gulichev, whose official title is deputy ataman, a Turkic word meaning commander, said he expected his group's responsibilities would soon expand to fighting drug trafficking and terrorism, mirroring the special relationship Cossacks had with the czars. "Cossacks have always been on the frontiers of the Russian empire, fighting foes and adversaries, illegal immigration — repulsing raids, as people say today," he added.
Tuesday's modest effort lasted barely more than an hour and yielded few rewards. Without the police supervisor that Russian law requires to oversee volunteer deputies, the Cossacks drove away two elderly beggars, an old woman selling dried wild mushrooms and one unlicensed trading stall before piling into a bus. The stall was back selling socks within hours.
City authorities later distanced themselves from the Cossack patrol, even though officials had announced it widely the day before. Moscow's central district administration and the city Cossack committee released a joint statement denying they had authorized the patrol and saying that the Cossacks did not have the authority to crack down on unlicensed traders or badly parked cars.
Gulichev later told the Interfax news agency that the Cossacks had been hampered by the several dozen journalists who arrived to cover the patrol. The Cossacks spent most of their time giving interviews or aimlessly milling around the square, and only began their battle against public disturbances after reporters from Russian state television desperately begged them to do something on camera.
President Vladimir Putin was inducted into what is known as the Cossack host in 2005 and given the rank of Cossack colonel, previously held by imperial czars.
Russia plans to restore the functions Cossacks had in the imperial Russian army, where they were instrumental in repelling Napoleon's invading army in 1812 and led pogroms against Jews. A 400,000-strong All-Russia Cossack Host directly subordinate to Putin is scheduled to be launched by the end of the year.