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Last Updated: Sunday, 11 June 2006, 16:40 GMT 17:40 UK
Wounds of past haunt Cossacks
The BBC's Steve Rosenberg is quizzed by locals in the spa town of Kislovodsk as he travels across Russia's volatile North Caucasus.

Cossack concert
Local Cossacks held a song and dance at a tsarist era fortress
"We hate the British!"

Clearly, this wasn't going to be the start of a perfect friendship.

The "Britain Hater" sitting opposite me was a local Cossack chief called Vladimir Labezny.

"Er, can I enquire why you hate the British?" I asked.

"You betrayed us at the end of World War II," Vladimir explained. "Winston Churchill handed over 36,000 Cossack Prisoners of War to Stalin. He killed them all. Why did you do it?"

It was the first of many questions which I've struggled to answer.

Brave and fearless

The Cossacks have long memories, stretching back hundreds of years. That's how long this proud warrior people have inhabited the Caucasus.

I decided to hit back with my own question.

"Are the Cossacks a separate ethnic group, or are you basically Russian?"

Vladimir Lazebny
Mr Lazebny asked why Britain betrayed the Cossacks in WWII
Vladimir rummaged in his briefcase for a few minutes, then handed me a photocopied article.

"Read that," he said, "it's all in there."

It was a fascinating text. According to the article, the word "London" was invented by the Russians.

And evidence was presented to try to prove that the swashbuckling horse-riding Cossacks were a separate nation. Brave and fearless, they'd helped the Russian tsars conquer the Caucasus and defend Russia's borders.

Nuclear bombs

I was bombarded with more questions when I took a stroll in Kislovodsk's central park.

"Why shouldn't Iran be allowed to have its own nuclear bomb?" barked an angry pensioner called Arkady, who'd identified me as a foreign journalist.

"I'd sell my own home to help the Iranians pay for a nuke - it would teach the Jews a lesson."

"Do you know why I like George W Bush?" butted in a senior citizen called Volodya.

Children with Steve Rosenberg
What's the name of that underwater city in Britain where you can only get around by boat?
Question posed by Russian child

Taken by surprise I shook my head. "Because Bush invaded Iraq and got revenge on the Muslims who'd trampled on a portrait of his father. Here in the Caucasus we respect those who exact revenge."

By now a crowd had gathered round and was furiously discussing the merits of American presidents and atomic bombs. I quietly extricated myself from the melee and went back to the hotel.

But there were more questions.

Outside world

A group of young Russian holidaymakers, aged between six and 11 were waiting to quiz the visiting Englishman. We sat round a table in the hotel dining room. There were no questions about treachery or uranium enrichment. But pretty much everything else was covered.

"What's an Englishman's favourite colour?"

"Is it a sin for British people to eat pork sausages?" (from a Muslim boy called Aslan).

"How much money do you make?"

"Do you ever write stories about parts of the body?"

"Why are foreign cars sold in Russia?"

"What's the name of that underwater city in Britain where you can only get around by boat?"

"You mean Venice..?" "Yes, that's the one."

"Are you funny?"

After a day spent dodging hostile questions, this was an hour of pure enjoyment. The children, who'd come to Kislovodsk from all over Russia for a spa holiday were bursting with enthusiasm, completely free of inhibitions and so eager to learn about the outside world. We talked about everything from Yorkshire pudding to Joseph Stalin.

"My dad says that Stalin shed a tear when he told the Soviet people the Nazis were about to attack Moscow. That shows that Stalin was a good man." one girl called Diana said.

"That was just for show," retorted Polina. "He made so many people suffer."

Like the Cossacks, Vladimir Labezny hates Stalin. But by the end of the day I think he'd stopped hating the British. After a colourful concert of Cossack song and dance at a tsarist-era fortress, we parted on good terms - plenty of smiles and no more questions.





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