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4 things you need to know about the Cossacks fighting Russia’s opposition groups

What you need to know about Russia's Cossacks (Video: The Washington Post)

Today's Cossacks are a far cry from their Czarist-era ancestors, the fierce horsemen with woollen papakha hats, sabres and horsewhips, best known as a buffer force on the borders of the Russian Empire. But revival communities of Russians claiming Cossack heritage are increasingly making their mark as conservative shock troops, fighting alongside separatist forces in southeast Ukraine and embracing, and sometimes policing, a return to conservative values under President Vladimir Putin.

On Tuesday, Cossacks, some in traditional dress, threw milk at supporters of opposition politician Alexey Navalny in the city of Anapa in southern Russia in a confrontation that descended into a brawl.

As modern Cossacks become a kind of patriotic advocacy group in modern Russia, here are four facts to help understand their modern history.

1. Modern Cossacks trace their heritage to the self-ruled communities of horsemen who appeared in the 14th century in what is now southern Russia and Ukraine. The two of the largest groups consolidated into the Zaporojie and Don Cossack groups by the 16th century. Although formally independent, they sometimes fought off Mongol and Tartar raids, effectively serving as a buffer force between early Russia and its enemies. One of the Russian master Ilya Repin's most famous paintings is an imagined scene of the Zaporojie Cossacks sending a rude note to Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire in the late 17th century.

Seeking to maintain their independence, the Cossacks participated in a series of rebellions in the 17th and 18th centuries, including the Pugachev rebellion of 1773-1775 that inspired Alexander Pushkin's “The Captain's Daughter.” They also played an important role in expanding the territory of the Russian Czars. The Zaporojie Cossacks signed a treaty with Russia in the mid-17th century that effectively gave Russia dominion over a large part of what is now Ukraine in exchange for protection from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Cossacks also helped conquer Siberia and the mountainous regions of the Caucasus.

Cossack self-rule was phased out and military service was formalized under imperial Russia, where Cossacks were employed to fight unrest and often led pogroms against Jewish communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After the Russian revolution, hundreds of thousands of Cossacks were killed by the Bolsheviks in a process called Decossackization.

2. Cossack identity was suppressed until perestroika, when atamans, their traditional leaders, in Russia's southern regions began a revival with a distinctly political flair, and a nationalism that dovetailed nicely with what was coming out of Moscow at the time. Cossack communities have opened special training schools, and Cossacks have also been allowed to patrol streets in some Russian cities as a kind of auxiliary police force. The former governor of Russia's Krasnodar region, himself a descendant of Cossacks, put 1,000 Cossacks on the government payroll in 2012 to help patrol against illegal migrants, hooligans and drunks.

The Kremlin under Putin has generally promoted conservative values, and Cossacks have emerged as avatars for all that is Russian, and have been described as similar to cowboys for the United States or samurai in Japan. Their legacy, however, is also bound up with vigilante-style violence and their historical role against Muslim invaders and Jews.

3. Increasingly, they have taken on the role of culture warriors. During the Sochi Olympics in 2014, Cossacks attacked members of the Punk protest group Pussy Riot as they filmed a scene for a music video in downtown Sochi. They protested a Ukrainian dance boy band called Kazaky (which means Cossacks) for their high-heeled routines, which the Cossacks equated to "gay propaganda."

4. But their role has been far more pronounced as paramilitary troops during the Ukrainian crisis. When unmarked Russian troops began appearing in Crimea, seizing government buildings ahead of a hastily executed referendum to join Russia, Cossacks in traditional hats began manning checkpoints and providing crowd control. When war broke out in east Ukraine, Cossacks from Russia fought as individual units and even took control of whole cities, until later facing reprisals from competing separatist fighters.

In an interview, one of the Cossacks who fought in east Ukraine told an interviewer that if he met Putin, he would ask for "weapons."

"To create a Cossack army and declare a day of peace on earth, for everyone to leave peacefully, and to those who want war, for Cossacks to come and say: Okay, let's fight," Alexander Mozhayev, who was better known by the nom de guerre Babay, said in the interview last week. "First of all I would ask him to help the Cossack people, so that we could live how we want to. The Cossacks will be united by either Putin or war. The government should be thankful to us, but we haven't seen thankfulness for either Crimea or Donbas. Although Crimea and Donbas showed that the Cossacks are a real force."