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Cossacks Are Back In Sochi

Russian Cossacks stand guard, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana outside the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia. (Jae C. Hong/AP)
Russian Cossacks stand guard, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana outside the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

If you’re watching the Sochi Olympics coverage, you’ve probably seen them in their tall lambswool hats and long gray overcoats and boots. There are some 1,000 uniformed Cossacks among the 70,000 security officials in Sochi.

Cossacks have a complicated place in Russian history and their presence, both symbolic and serving a real purpose, is picking at old wounds in the region.

Historian Shane O’Rourke, author of the book “ The Cossacks,” joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to provide a brief history lesson.

Interview Highlights: Shane O’Rourke

On Cossacks killing and expelling Circassians in the late 19th century

“This was the policy of imperial state; it wasn’t Cossacks acting autonomously or on their own initiative. This is what the state decided as part of its security needs, that it needed to control these border areas. And the way it did this, obviously, was to remove populations that it regarded as disloyal or potential security risks. So there’s a long of history of that in the North Caucasus. And of course the Cossacks themselves were victims of that in Soviet times as well when they were deported.”

On the idea Cossacks are the mascot for “conservative, nationalist ideology”

“I think the Cossacks are a symbol of Russian national identity. During Soviet times, they were seen as — the state was very suspicious about the Cossacks; it didn’t allow any sort of public recognition of them or celebration of their identity. But since the end of the Soviet Union, the new Russian state has made a big effort to reclaim them and to publicize them as part of Russian national identity. And so in a sense that’s what’s going on here as well, that they’re part of the identity of the new Russia, that the Russian state wants to show off to the world.”

On what the Cossacks are doing in Sochi for the Olympics

“As far as I can understand it, they seem to be part of the police force there, they’re helping with the security arrangements. But it seems to me that it’s ceremonial, it’s part of the pageantry of the Olympics, that clearly the real security is being handled by other agencies — by the police, the intelligence services, the army — the usual things you would get at the Olympics. And I think the Cossacks are there symbolically as part of the presentation of Russia to the outside world.”

On Cossacks possibly racial profiling at the games

“They are doing a bit of racial profiling there, in the way that they act. They don’t seem to be making any secret of that. The only thing is, I should image all the security services are keeping a very close eye on anyone who appears to come from the North Caucuses. There were the bombs in Volgograd at the beginning of the year and I think that has obviously clearly heightened tensions and fear and concerns of the security in the games.”

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  • Shane O’Rourke, senior lecturer in the history department at University of York in the United Kingdom. He is also the author of the book “The Cossacks.”

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