Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Russia's unarmed, heavily costumed guards may look intimidating, but their actual power is pretty limited.
In preparation for the Winter Olympics (on heightened alert after a string of bombings in Volgograd), 40,000 Russian troops and police have been deployed to Sochi to protect the region. Among the most notable are the hundreds of unarmed Cossacks on patrol.
Cossacks, native to parts of southern Russia and Eastern Europe, once served as paramilitary squads for Russian czars. They faced persecution under Soviet rule and largely disappeared from Russian culture during the 20th century.
With a conservative and nostalgic Kremlin today, they are gaining prominence again, seen by Putin and his supporters as representations of old-fashioned, egalitarian justice, "like cowboys in the United States or samurai in Japan," as the New York Times recently put it.
In the southern Krasnodar province (where Sochi is located), the presence of Cossacks comes with ethnic and religious tension. For one thing, they are associated with the regional expulsion of Circassians (a mostly Muslim ethnic group) in the 18th century. Even in 2012, over 1,000 Cossacks were put on patrol by regional governor Alexander Tkachev to help regulate what he saw as an uncontrollable influx of Muslims. Tkachev told law enforcement officers at the time, "what you can't do, the Cossacks can."
Though Cossacks can't legally carry a weapon, detain people or demand documents, they've been known to carry out vigilante justice. In a 2013 Times article about the group, one Cossack patrolman, Andrei Kovtun, said "this is what people are afraid of — that a Cossack will punish the culprit in the old, traditional but fair fashion."
In Sochi, Konstantin Perenizhko, a deputy to the regional Cossack military leader, tells Reuters that there will be 410 Cossacks on duty during the Games, patrolling with actual police at Olympic venues, train stations and the airport. Their presence, though intimidating, is mostly symbolic, and it's not clear how they could actually keep people safe. As Grantland's Louisa Thomas wrote earlier this week, "what that symbol is, and whom it's directed at, and why they’re there at all are questions without clear answers."
With no eminent threat to be faced yet, the Cossacks, in their photogenic big hats and gray coats, have mostly added tourist appeal to Sochi.