Russian Cossaks

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Background

The Cossacks of Russia were founded in 1990 as a professional company of folk dancers, singers and musicians, now justly considered among the very best of their kind.  They perform all over Russia and abroad: France, Spain, Germany, Greece Portugal, China, etc.  They participated in the Edinburgh Festival and Edinburgh Military Tattoo, 2001.  According to Kathryn Smith, The Scotsman, the public must: “forget River-dance. This is group dance at its best and most entertaining.  The music in itself is worth a visit.  This company is considered to be the best in the world.”

The ensemble of about 40 also consists of singers and musicians, and the entire performance is a tour de force of folk culture. The variety of musical forms and rhythms range from swelling laments to high-octane wild sword dances.  Each dance and song includes the traditional Kalinka and Gypsy dance.  It is a measure of the heart and soul each player puts into their performance that their eyes glisten during the moving Destiny Song.

As the Cossacks were the only people in Russia never to be enslaved, their dance and song culture, banned under Stalin, has always been a badge of honor.  This splendid juggernaut of a performance conveys this pride in their noble heritage.

Each performer, in common with the performance itself, is a whirlwind.  Just as one dancer has completed ten or so high speed pirouettes, he bows, does it again, then joins the ten-piece balalaika orchestra to play trumpet before jumping to join the singers.  The quality of each sequence is consistently high and the pace of the whole performance will leave the audience breathless and exhausted.

For centuries the Cossacks have been a vital part of Russian culture and were even identified with the entire Russian people.  In Leo Tolstoy’s words, “all Russian history was made by Cossacks; no wonder Europeans call us that.” Fleeing from oppression and poverty, their ancestors settled all along the southern frontiers of the Tsardom, stretching for thousands of miles from Poland to the Pacific.  They were a fiercely independent, warlike, roving and unruly race, with their own customs and way of life.  In the eighteenth century the crown finally managed to incorporate them as a privileged military estate.  Since then Cossack units, mostly light horse, fought with distinction in every major campaign, having much to do with the destruction of Napoleon’s Grand Army, and fielding some 300,000 men during WWI.  Today the Cossacks still retain their unique folklore, which has Russian, Ukrainian and other sources, even those borrowed from their ancient foes, the tribes of the Caucasus.  Hence the amazing variety of musical forms and rhythms from swelling laments to wild sword dances.

The word “kazak” originally meant nomad horseman, or “freebooter.”  From the time of Genghis Khan, mounted bands had been roaming the undulating plain to the north of the Caspian and Black Seas.  Some of the great Russian writers turned to the Cossacks as a source of free inspiration.  Gogol produced the epic “Taras Bulba” about one of their legendary leaders. Yul Brynner brought his native Russian background to bear in telling fashion on the title role in the Hollywood adaptation of  “Taras Bulba.”  Here, the rich but uneducated leader teaches his book-learning sons the ways of their people in the Ukraine.  A stereotype of this period, caught in another feature film based on Pasternk’s Doctor Zhivago, is of unregenerate Cossacks wielding their whips and even their swords against peaceful demonstrators.  And so, descendants of the untamed outlaws of earlier times became the last defenders of the Romanov dynasty.

Tragically for the Cossacks, the new leaders did not care for semi-autonomous hosts of Cossacks on the fringes of the Soviet Union, however many of them had been prepared to switch loyalties from the Whites to the Reds during the Civil War following the Russian revolution.  The collapse of the Soviet Union has brought about something of a revival among the Cossacks.  If they have not reverted to their traditional roles, they are at liberty to present as they themselves choose the music, songs and dances developed over the centuries and capturing in an inimitable manner the spirit of their dauntless, free-roving ancestors.