Ivan Bezugly offered an oversize bottle of 160-proof Kazachya vodka across his desk. "Have a drink!" Behind him a hodgepodge of Cossack kitsch suggested a room that was more shrine than office.
Meticulously polished scabbards hung on the wall next to submachine guns. A bullwhip dangled in the corner, a few feet from a large, cream-colored flag with an image of Jesus in the center.
"If the country finds itself in a critical situation, the Cossacks will always be here to defend their motherland," boomed Bezugly, a Cossack chieftain with a baritone voice that could probably fill Carnegie Hall. "But the most important thing is that we revive Cossack traditions, because we deeply respect these traditions."
For years, Bezugly and thousands of other Cossacks here in the steppes of southern Russia have clung to their warrior past, hoping for the day authorities restore their status as revered guardians of Russian society. In their heyday, they were the czar's Secret Service; today Cossacks exist as half-legal vigilantes, something between everyday citizens and beat cops.
Soon, Cossacks may get their wish for resurrection. President Vladimir Putin has asked parliament to enact a statute legitimizing the role of Cossacks in law enforcement, where they could be used in everything from patrolling borders to fighting terrorism.
"There is a long-felt need to confer legal status on the activity of Cossack units," Putin said during a spring visit with Cossack chieftains in the southern Rostov region. "Today, the Cossack movement is reviving."
Enthusiasm for a Cossack revival is far from unanimous in Rostov, which is home to a volatile, Muslim-Christian soup of ethnic groups: Ossetians, Adygeans, Chechens, Ingush, Dagestanis, Kabardinians, Cherkessk, Meskhetian Turks and Armenian Kurds, as well as ethnic Russians. Cossacks are Russian Orthodox and rarely disguise their disdain for local Muslims.
No group knows this better than the Meskhetian Turks, members of a Muslim enclave in the Krasnodar region whom Cossacks and local authorities have been systematically forcing out of jobs, farm fields and homes for a decade. In 2000, nearly 13,000 Meskhetian Turks lived in the Krasnodar region. Six thousand remain.
Those who left were granted refugee status by the United States. The rest tough it out in Krasnodar villages, waiting for U.S. officials to approve their immigration requests.
They rarely find work, because Krasnodar authorities will not grant them residency status despite a 1991 decree that gave them citizenship. Local officials also assign Cossacks to conduct document checks on Meskhetian Turks and other Caucasian minorities, essentially giving Cossacks license to raid villages and harass people under the guise of checking their papers.
Bezugly describes how he feels about Meskhetian Turks in crude, blunt terms.
"We consider it our mission and our duty to coerce Meskhetian Turks to leave the Krasnodar region," he said. "Their birthrate is very high. They have 10 or 11 kids in their families. If this prevails, they could soon outnumber Russians."
That kind of attitude has persuaded Marina Dubrovina, a human rights lawyer who routinely represents Meskhetian Turks and other Caucasian minorities, that Putin's push to legitimize the Cossack role in law enforcement is a dangerous mistake.
"He's merely legitimizing Cossacks' unlawful behavior," Dubrovina said. "Many of them live on the money they extort from people, and this decision just gives them more opportunity to do that."
For Putin, encouraging a Cossack revival is another in a series of attempts to rev up patriotism in Russia, where cynicism and mistrust of government run deep. The group called Nashi, or Ours -- a Kremlin-backed movement aimed at stoking patriotic sentiment among Russian youths -- is picking up steam.
The Russian government also recently set aside $17 million to infuse Russian television with patriotic themes and establish a network of offices to oversee the spread of "patriotic education" in the provinces.
In Russia, Cossack history inspires and emboldens. Dating to their settlement of the steppes of southern Russia and Ukraine in the 15th century, Cossacks were famed for their horsemanship, valor and ferocity. During the Middle Ages, Polish and Russian rulers enlisted Cossacks to defend their kingdoms against marauding Tatars. A vanguard of Cossacks conquered Siberia for Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century. Czar Alexander I relied on Cossacks to help vanquish Napoleon in 1812.
Cossacks fought alongside the White Army during the Russian civil war of 1918-20. After their defeat by the Bolsheviks, the Cossacks were declared "enemies of the state." Thousands fled the country. The government disbanded Cossack regiments and seized their farms.
After the Soviet collapse in 1991, Cossacks resurfaced. Under President Boris Yeltsin, they began taking on de facto law-enforcement responsibilities. In St. Petersburg, authorities assigned Cossacks to patrol city streets on horseback to snatch up pickpockets and thugs. In the Krasnodar region, officials rely on Cossacks to conduct passport and document checks.
In all, 25 Cossack groups with 660,000 members operate across the country, from the southern provinces near the Black Sea to the Siberian city of Irkutsk to the Amur region of Russia's far east.
In the region surrounding Krymsk, a city of 60,000, Cossacks are led by Bezugly, a wiry, handlebar-mustached man with energy that belies his 56 years. He eagerly volunteers that he keeps in shape by running 12 miles every other day and lifting weights.
"It's easy for Cossacks to establish order in our villages, since we know everyone there," Bezugly said. "We appear on the scene quicker than the police do, so it makes sense for us to establish order. And we do it for free. We consider it to be our moral responsibility."
Their other moral responsibility, Bezugly freely admits, is to run Meskhetian Turks out of the region. The campaign involves everything from intimidation to beatings and raids on Turk villages. In 2002, 77 Cossacks in two buses pulled up to a party at a Meskhetian Turk house in the village of Shkolny, said Israpil Litfiyev, a local elder. The Cossacks locked women inside the house, ordered the men into the courtyard and clubbed them with truncheons, Litfiyev said.
The Cossacks took two of the injured men and threatened to bury them alive, Litfiyev recalled, "but we chased after them and prevented that from happening."
In January, Alexander Tedorov, 45, a Meskhetian Turk and father of two, was beaten to death outside his parents' house in Varenikovskaya. A youth from a Cossack family was convicted of the murder and sentenced to three years in prison. Before the trial, local Cossacks tried to persuade Tedorov's family to drop the case.
"They said the boy was a good guy, with old parents that he needed to support," said Tedorov's uncle, Sarvar Tedorov. "They . . . asked me to sign papers saying we refute the evidence. I refused to do this."
"Of course, the Cossacks are defending their boy," said Tedorov's mother, Valentina Tedorova, thumbing tears from her cheek. "But nobody defends us, because we are Turks."
The way Bezugly sees it, the best solution to the conflict between Cossacks and Meskhetian Turks is a simple one: The Turks should leave.
"Many times we have told them, 'When in Rome, do as Romans do,' " Bezugly said. "But they ignore that."