The Cossacks are coming! Did anyone notice?
POGRAN-PETROVKA, RUSSIA-CHINA BORDER
Alexander Khramov sees himself as a modern frontiersman on a historical mission. Wearing the tall, wildly furry hat traditionally associated with Cossack warriors and an equally wild beard, Mr. Khramov dreams of revitalizing the role of the once-feared horsemen who guarded Russia's borders and helped expand the empire during czarist times.Skip to next paragraph
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Many of his comrades say they share the dream. But getting Cossack brothers-in-arms to forsake the scant comforts of present-day urban life for hardbitten duty on this remote border with China is another story.
After three years, the first of what was envisioned as a string of 60 new Cossack border settlements has a total population of three - two men and a woman.
Still, Khramov is undaunted. "Our task is the same as it was 100 years ago: to prevent a Chinese invasion," he says, standing knee-deep in a snow field with an eye on the strip of border that snakes through the rolling forests nearby.
On this exact spot - today an all-but-deserted former Soviet tank-battalion base - Khramov's grandfather kept at bay what he calls the "yellow menace" from China. Coined by Russian officials toward the end of the 19th century to describe their fear of a Chinese economic takeover, the term's racist connotations make it unacceptable in the West.
But that "menace" still exists today in the minds of many Russians in the sparsely populated Far East, who see China's swelling population bursting its borders - and eyeing anew economic opportunity in Russia.
Most ethnic Chinese and Koreans were forced out or shipped to Central Asia by Stalin in the 1930s, so Russia's Far East feels and looks as ethnically European as Moscow. But an increasing number of Chinese traders are thronging local markets, and cram city hotels and casinos.
Russians say that when they look at the numbers, they see a demographic threat from China. Only 7.5 million Russians live across the thousands of square miles of their Far East region, while at least 150 million people live in the three northern provinces of China alone.
The point is not lost on the Chinese, either. At the ever-bustling Chinese market in Usiriisk, traders sleep in containers and sell everything from bootleg cassette tapes, videos, and software, to shoes and boots, coats and cheap gas heaters, batteries, and pens.
"More and more people are coming," says one Chinese woman, who at first gave her name as Katya - a common Russian name - and then her real Chinese name, Song Len Shun. Uniformed Russian "guards" in the market forbid photographs.
Business is poor "because Russians have no money," Ms. Shun says, through a thick black muffler. So why do so many Chinese come? "Because there are too many people in China," she says.
Which is why the Cossacks - who formed an elite military caste, which was supremely loyal to the czar for decades before the Russian Revolution of 1917 - say they are needed to stop Chinese along the 2,400-mile-long border.
"They are everywhere, like cockroaches," says Cossack Vladimir Lasyutin. "In the market, they are taking our places."
So it was with a sense of duty three years ago, that Khramov was the first to volunteer for a plan put together by local authorities to seal the border with a string of 60 Cossack settlements. They were to patrol hand in hand with border police to stop illegal cross-border traffic and tiger poaching.
"The Chinese are afraid of Cossacks, and stop when they see this yellow stripe," booms Vitaly Poluyanov, a barrel-chested Cossack army chieftain, pointing out the design of the 19th-century uniform. "They believe rumors that Cossacks don't take prisoners, just bury them."
Few Russians, either, forget the role the Cossacks played against anti-czar demonstrators, wading into crowds of Revolution-era protesters with sabers cutting, or traditional leather-thonged nagaika horse-whips cracking.
Such a fierce reputation is exactly why Cossacks today say they are on a patriotic mission: "It's in our blood, we took it from our mother's milk that Cossacks have to be the guards of Russia," says Mr. Poluyanov.