My earliest memories are of my family’s wartime home in White Russia, where the Cossacks had thrived for centuries in the fertile black earth steppe of the Kuban river region, beyond the valley of the Dnieper. I am a Cossack by birth and by temperament- a Cossack like the first cavalrymen, freebooters and petty nobles who left Muscovy, Wallachia and Moldavia to take up a nomadic existence in the open grasslands of the steppes. The Cossacks were always warriors and rebels–expert horsemen, they formed bands of irregular cavalry, fought the Turks, the Swedes and the Czar’s armies by turns, and united briefly around 1700 under the great Ivan Stepanovic Mazeppa. Unfortunately, our Hetman Mazeppa withdrew the Cossacks from their traditional alliance with Moscow, when he sided with the mad Swedish warrior King Charles XII against Peter the Great. Chasing Charles’ invading army south, the Russians burned the Cossack capital of Baturin, massacred all its inhabitants, and routed the Swedes at Poltava in 1709. Having taken the wrong side, the Cossack people were split up, as Mazeppa fled south to exile and death in the Ottoman empire. After that, most remaining Cossacks became subjects of the growing Russian empire, living ordinary lives as farmers and merchants in the Dnieper river valley region. They eventually united to form the six federated republics– the Cossacks of the Don, Terak, Orenburg, the Ural, Astrakan, and the Kuban – my home.
For all those captive centuries, though, the wild Cossack spirit longed for the freedom of the gypsy caravan life. Like all the White Russians, we chafed under Communist rule, but unlike many rural folk we survived the worst part of Stalin’s Great Terror of the 1930s, because we were not kulaks or landed peasants opposing collectivization. Our nomadic ways meant that the Reds could not hold down our farms or towns for very long. But when World War II erupted, my father Feodor Ivanovich was arrested by the communists as a leader of the Cossacks, probably because he was born in 1900 before the revolution, and studied at the Czar’s imperial academy.
I dimly remember a stormy night when we were at my Grandparents Alixanova’s home gathered together, having learned that our Uncle, the village priest, had been shot by the communists.
Soon the war reached its climax as the end of World War II approached, and my father escaped from prison in the chaos of the struggle roaring through the Caucasus. My father, who had sworn never to become a communist, announced that rather than submit to the ravages of the Reds, we would leave Russia forever! Unfortunately, he had no idea where we could reach safety, so the old gypsy way of life was thrust back upon us, as we were caught between the advancing Red Army and the retreating Germans. As they had hundreds of years before, the Cossacks again wound up on the wrong side of a struggle between two warring giants.
Fleeing through Romania and Hungary toward Austria, my family joined with 60,000 other Cossacks–a people without a country–to seek haven in the West. I was just three and a half years old in 1943, when we started our journey; my father Feodor had been a leading merchant, so he led our caravan on his great black horse. Behind, in a rickety wagon filled with pots, pans, pillows and blankets, my mother Palina drove a team of two horses down the deep ruts of the trail. My older sister Galina guarded our lone cow, tied to the back of the wagon, while my older brother Anatoly walked behind with our other two horses. These animals, the covered wagon and its meager contents were all that we had left in the world.
The last gesture my father made before we crossed the border and left Russia forever was to reach down and grab a handful of dirt–the soil of Mother Russia, the rich black earth of the steppes, the source of life itself in the hearts and minds of all Cossacks. He wrapped the dirt up in a piece of his cotton leggings, handed it to my sister and commanded her, “Never forget where you came from!” She carried that fistful of earth with her for the rest of his life, and keeps it today as a remembrance of our birthplace.