Time magazine has one of the scariest news reports I’ve read in a while. It seems the Cossacks are on the rise again. No, not figuratively — literally. The fanatically religious pan-Slavic paramilitary tribe that terrorized your great-grandmother’s great-grandmother in the old country is recruiting, operating youth training camps, running for office (successfully) in Russia and Ukraine and agitating for a reunification of Belarus and Ukraine with Mother Russia, all with the active encouragement of Russia’s prime minister, ex-president and permanent strongman, Vladimir Putin.
The Ukrainian government is fighting them, because they threaten Ukrainian independence, but Russia and Belarus are both encouraging them, Time’s Simon Shuster (that’s his name, not his publisher) reports. He visited a training camp for teenage boys in Crimea and interviewed their leader, General Viktor Vodolatsky, a former plumber and a member of parliament for the United Russia party, which is chaired by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Their latest graduates — some of them Cossacks by birth, others newly initiated — took in their commander’s speech on Aug. 10 with all the requisite decorum. “The unification of the Slavic state is the guarantee of our future,” Vodolatsky told them. “And the children who stand beneath these Cossack banners are ideologically pure, physically strong and secure in their faith. Now you must serve as an example to the youth in whatever town you come from.”
There was a major violent clash in July between an organized band of Cossacks and a large force of police in a Ukrainian city where Cossacks erected a metal cross in front of city hall without a permit.
“These actions send an effective message, and we will continue them,” said Vitaly Khramov, one of Ukraine’s most prominent Cossack elders. “We want them to understand that the state of Ukraine is a stillborn project, a tumor that Ukrainians must extract from themselves … We are the immunity against this disease.” As the head of Sobol, the radical Cossack battalion whose flags adorned the training camp last week, Khramov is one of the movement’s key ideologues in Ukraine, and his preaching has reached many of the boys who attend the Cossack camps. (Among the ideas he spouted during his interview with TIME were the notions that the U.S. is a satanic nation secretly run by the Rockefeller family, that Jews practice ritual sacrifice and necrophilia, and that Vladimir Putin, Khramov’s political hero, is a future saint of the Russian Orthodox Church.)
Here is Time’s photo gallery from inside the training camp.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).