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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 August 2007, 09:49 GMT 10:49 UK
Russia's Cossacks rise again
In the first of a series from southern Russia, the BBC's Steven Eke reports on the Cossacks, who have emerged as an influential political group in the region, strongly supportive of Vladimir Putin and his idea of Russia's "greatness".

Local leader "Ataman" Viktor Vasilyevich
Village leaders like "Ataman" Viktor Vasilyevich are greatly respected
The Cossacks play an increasingly important role in Russia. Their disciplined way of life, patriotism, large families and commitment to work, are seen by many politicians as a model that could help resolve many of Russia's problems. For this, they receive support from the very top.

The village of Varennikovskoye is home to some 300 Cossacks and their families.

The local leader, "Ataman" Viktor Vasilyevich, received me with open arms. He was dressed in traditional Cossack costume, which includes a full-length black coat, a sheepskin hat and a sword. He oozed authority, and it was immediately clear that he was held in deep respect by his family and the other villagers.

Cossack family life is a rigid, hierarchical system in which the eldest man's word is law. Unashamedly, the Ataman explained that Cossack families should be as large as possible. He introduced me to one of his own sons, already the father of seven children.

Orthodox beliefs

One of his grandsons was boxing in the village gym - a converted bar. He said being a good Cossack was someone who "took responsibility" for his family and their well-being. Just 11 years old, he was already used to hard physical work on the farm.

Cossack family
Cossack families are large and their values simple and rigid
Cossack family values are simple, rigid, and to a Western eye, seem to come from another era. The men build the home and provide an income; the women cook, clean and give birth to children. Traditional Russian values, culture, and Orthodoxy form the bedrock of their beliefs.

Ataman Viktor asserted that the village was welcoming to people of other faiths, including Muslims. But, he warned, they would only be accepted as long as they recognised the pre-eminence of Orthodox customs and beliefs.

The alternative, he made clear, was expulsion. Two families had already been "dealt with" in this way.

Varennikovskoye had previously been a large collective farm, part of the agricultural system that Stalin imposed on the Soviet Union in the 1930s. That disastrous policy led to millions of deaths from famine and decades of food shortages.

Agricultural success

Things are very different in Russia now. Agricultural land cannot be privately owned, but it can be leased in flexible ways that put individuals and their families or companies in charge of sometimes large areas.

Orthodox Church
The construction of this Orthodox church is financed by donations
This is how the Ataman and his sons had come to work thousands of hectares of land. They have made a big success of it, with the family owning several large houses and appearing materially comfortable. Communism, they say, was an alien belief forced on Russia by foreigners. He was referring to Karl Marx.

Buying and selling, and taking responsibility for one's own welfare, they added, were an intrinsic part of their way of life.

Before we sat down to a table laden with food, Ataman Viktor recited the Lord's Prayer in Old Church Slavonic. There was no alcohol on the table, something unusual in Russia, town or country.

As I was told, a Cossack found drinking in this village would face a whipping. This was the village's exemplary way of dealing with the rampant alcoholism that blights life in much of the Russian countryside.

In another Cossack village, Zelenaya Roshcha, the local leader was overseeing the construction of an Orthodox church, financed by donations. The village also had an amateur Cossack choir, which was always delighted to perform for visitors.

In the blistering heat, they came out into the street in traditional regalia, to entertain us with Russian folk songs. They sang wonderfully.

Cossack values are deeply conservative, a mix of self-reliance, fervent patriotism and belief in discipline and authority. As I prepared to leave, Ataman Viktor told me he would like to see the Tsar return to Russia.

When I asked him if he could suggest any candidates, he told me there was "only one". President Vladimir Putin, he said, had proved himself as a potential Tsar, by bringing order and the start of Russia's long-awaited national revival.

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