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.
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.
The government gave the Cossacks 15,000 hectares of land, Cossacks say; regional authorities voted to provide $11 million for the settlement scheme in 1998 to pay for 70 percent housing subsidies and farming equipment. And hopes were high that Moscow would pitch in with cash, too.
But today, the Cossack dream of re-creating former glory looks as bleak as the leaden sky above Pogran-Petrovka, from which fall endless snowflakes. Besides a sparse population of three, political support seems to have evaporated.
The one gun at the camp was confiscated by local police three months ago. And not one ruble has been spent on making the place habitable - with schools, better roads, or even water pipes and electricity - which might attract the thousands of Cossacks needed for success.
"Of course I want to live out here," says Vicheslav Shipilov during a recent visit to this frigid post with the chieftain and several other Cossacks. He says his wife refuses to even consider such hardship, however - regardless of any historical imperative.
"There is a plan on paper, but no investments," says Mr. Shipilov. "We see the Chinese as very dangerous, but Moscow doesn't want a well-organized militia out here. Now we are patrolling the border for free."
The Cossack role in extending the czarist empire into Alaska and along the Pacific Coast to California was well-rewarded. In the end, though, their numbers were not enough - one reason that Alaska was finally sold to the United States in 1867.
Uniformed Cossacks today may vow that "no Chinese" will ever again inhabit "their" territory, but historians note that one of the Soviet myths about this region was that Russians were here first. When Cossacks were in control, this was more of a frontier than a border, and ties were close.
"Cossacks made good friends with the Chinese," says Andrei Alexandrov, a China expert at the Institute for Oriental Studies at the Far East University in the regional capital, Vladivostok. "They gave their kids to the Chinese to look after, and took Chinese children to care for [in exchange], to keep this border safe."
A book called "Yellow Menace" was published a couple of years ago, with the help of local officials in the regional capital, Vladivostok, though the fears it sought to fan were economic in nature.
"The Chinese never conquer, and 2,000 years ago they developed a strategy they call: 'Eat your neighbors, like a silkworm eats its leaves,' " says Mr. Alexandrov. "That is what is happening now. It is impossible to stop, but there is no need for it to stop, because there is no way to change the map of the world today, and every possibility to develop ties."
Russia-China ties have improved dramatically in recent months, shaking off past friction between what were once rival Communist giants in a bid to jointly oppose American global domination, and Washington's plans to develop a missile-defense system.
But popular attitudes here have changed little since author Laurens Van Der Post visited in the early 1960s. In his book "Journey into Russia," Mr. Van Der Post writes, China was "as overcrowded and poor in natural resources as this [Russian] land is empty and rich." Noting that this area was once under Chinese-Mongol rule, he adds, "Can they endure indefinitely having too little, with close at hand so few having so much?"
Those questions still agitate Cossack minds, especially at this forlorn border point. But so far, plans to jump-start the czarist Cossack border policy is "all talk and no money," says Poluyanov, the chieftain who is also consultant to the Cossack Affairs Department of the Russian president's office.
"Cossacks are champions of survival, on rivers and in forests," says Shipilov, who first took his children shooting at age 8, and carries a nagaika whip.
"But we want to live also," Shipilov adds. "I'm sure that people at the top will understand that they need the Cossacks. It's not just a hope - reality will force them to understand."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society