For Nekrasov Cossacks, life in Steppe, song and wine

Descendants of the Cossack migrants.

Descendants of the Cossack migrants.

Yekaterina Filippovich
Exile, two centuries in Turkey and subsequent return to the sun-scorched lands of the Russian Caucasus, the Nekrasov Cossacks have seen it all. Despite their troubled history, however, these people have managed to preserve their traditions and lifestyle.

In the tsarist era of Russian history, those known as Cossacks were people who, in search of freedom and a better life, settled in the peripheries of the empire. Often fleeing from the government, they had the opportunity to freely cultivate their land in these regions, but had to protect themselves and the state's borders without assistance, on their own.

Cossacks originally emerged in what is now Ukraine and southern Russia, then in the Volga River basin, the Urals, Siberia and the Far East. Scientists are still debating whether Cossacks can be considered a separate ethnic group or whether they are an ethnic and social group.

The Cossack ethnos has disappeared in modern Russia (except for some enthusiasts in southern Russia who are trying to re-establish Cossack military traditions and similar elements from a former life). But if you see a real Cossack settlement in Russia today, it will be a community that emigrated abroad before the revolution and then returned (their culture has been more or less preserved).

A woman after work. Source: Yekaterina FilippovichA woman after work. Source: Yekaterina Filippovich

The Nekrasov Cossacks, for example, are one such community. They took their name from their leader Ignat Nekrasov who, around 250 years ago, led his people out of Russia to escape tsarist persecutions and settled the community in what is now Turkey (near Lake Manyas in the western areas of Bandirma).

From among those people, 215 Cossack families returned to Russia in 1962. They settled in the Stavropol area, in the settlement of Novokumsky (870 miles south of Moscow).

Cossack village life

Tucked away somewhere in the steppe along the border with Russia’s southernmost republic, Dagestan, the village where the Nekrasov Cossacks live is so small that it cannot even be found on a map.

Descendants of the Cossack migrants still live in Novokumsky. Source: Yekaterina FilippovichDescendants of the Cossack migrants still live in Novokumsky. Source: Yekaterina Filippovich

The road to Novokumsky in summer leads through parched fields and swarms of voracious locusts that destroy crops as instantaneously as piranhas can devour an animal carcass.

Despite the harsh climatic conditions, grapes can be grown in the region, and are used to make wine that tastes like the steppe summer. The first Nekrasov migrants started cultivating the grapes because, during the Soviet era, the new farms lacked sufficient labour.

"In Turkey people would tear off our crosses…. We dreamt of returning to the Don, to the great waters. We were offered to resettle and they took us to the steppe where you can't find one little river," said Varvara Gorina, a Nekrasov Cossack who moved back to Russia with her husband and son at the age of 24. Now she is over 80 years old.

"It was terrible leaving. The cattle cried, the dogs were barking, chicken were cackling, as if they all understood that we would never return to the farm,” said Gorina. “We were very afraid that we would be forced to pay for the ferry ride. We didn’t have any money at all back then. When we arrived here, each family received a room and then they built houses for us."

In her youth Varvara Gorina returned to Russia from Turkey. Source: Yekaterina FilippovichIn her youth Varvara Gorina returned to Russia from Turkey. Source: Yekaterina Filippovich

The houses in the village are all the same. The sun-dried earthen roofs and the adobe walls that were characteristic of the former homes of Nekrasov Cossacks stayed behind in Turkey.

Ignat's testaments

Outside Russia, the Nekrasov Cossacks lived a cloistered life, adhering to the testaments of the man who had brought them to a foreign land 250 years ago. The testaments were passed down orally; no one ever wrote them anywhere.

"We are illiterate, we can't read. But we remembered that men could marry women only from the community so that the blood would not intermix," explained Gorina. "Probably that is how we survived."

Ethnographers believe that the original culture of the Nekrasov Cossacks has been preserved because of their isolation. Over 200 years, a small number of people far away from their motherland managed to protect traditions in the form in which they existed in tsarist Russia.

A sign near the entrance to the ethno-village. Source: Yekaterina FilippovichA sign near the entrance to the ethno-village. Source: Yekaterina Filippovich

It was for this reason that Novokumsky became the site of the first and only Nekrasov Cossack history museum in the world. They have also erected an native ethno-village that recreates the life they had led before the revolution.

The Cossacks come to the ethno-village (a couple of houses with traditionally vivid interiors) to meet the few tourists and guests, and put on their national costume for visitors.

Attire and religion

The attire of the Nekrasov Cossacks looks like the feathers of a tropical parrot. Green, golden, crimson, orange, blue and violet intertwine on sleeves and skirts.

The ethno-village. Source: Yekaterina FilippovichThe ethno-village. Source: Yekaterina Filippovich

These clothes are for going out. In Novokumsky on working days there are no wild, rainbow-coloured ‘birds’ on display, but on Sundays and religious holidays the village dresses up. Only a handful of Cossack families live here, 10 at most, but they can easily be spotted.

"We've always gone around like this, just like our ancestors in Turkey. Women also cover their heads and decorate themselves with real flowers," said Viktoria, an artisan.

She weaves decorations from wire and beads that are hung from the sides of a scarf. Only widows or women whose families are in mourning do not wear them.

"See these dolls? They're dressed like us." Viktoria hands me a lavish doll with a cross-stitched face. "This is a Nekrasov doll. We call her Kharyusha. Each woman has her own doll."

A part of the traditional furnishing of a Cossack room from the Nekrasov Cossack history museum. Source: Yekaterina FilippovichA part of the traditional furnishing of a Cossack room from the Nekrasov Cossack history museum. Source: Yekaterina Filippovich

"Dolls, tales for tourists… But what do your husbands do?"

"Some have gone to the city to make money. But the grandmothers' husbands are in the ground. And we pray for them," she said.

In orthodox Nekrasov Cossack culture, a woman is subservient to the man.

"If you meet a man outside, regardless of his age, you must bow and wait until he passes, even if we have a load on our backs. That is what religion teaches us," she said.

The Nekrasov Cossacks are fervent Old Believers (members of a Christian religious community that split from the main Orthodox Church following a schism in the 17th century). When they arrived in the Stavropol region in southern Russia, they built a small Old Believer church with their own money. That is where they go to confess and listen to services.

Descendants of the migrants show tourists how their ancestors lived. Source: Yekaterina FilippovichDescendants of the migrants show tourists how their ancestors lived. Source: Yekaterina Filippovich

"When we walk into the room we always cross ourselves," said Aksinya Lushechkina, as if justifying herself, fixing her eyes on a corner with icons.

The villagers call Lushechkina a storyteller. Not only does she sing prayers, she also tells stories about evil water creatures and good forest spirits, about birds that carry disobedient children down south and about sorceresses whom it is better to avoid.

A Nekrasov doll. Source: Yekaterina FilippovichA Nekrasov doll. Source: Yekaterina Filippovich

"I didn’t have time to put my own children to bed because I worked in the vineyards till late at night,” she said. “In the summer we would gather the vines with our hands… But now I have time to tell my grandchildren stories. They correct me and say, 'But grandma, in the book it's written differently!"

Later in the evening, the Nekrasov Cossacks start singing a song about enormous river expanses, about freedom and about unhappy love. The Old Russian language in which the women sing has an overflowing and lulling effect.

And it appears that singing for them today is as natural as it was two centuries ago.

The Cossack women sing songs in the evening. Source: Yekaterina FilippovichThe Cossack women sing songs in the evening. Source: Yekaterina Filippovich

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