Skip to comments.COSSACKS in NJ WAGING HISTORICAL BATTLE; Two enclaves fight over fate of priceless relics
Posted on 11/25/2005 4:29:43 PM PST by Coleus
COSSACKS WAGING HISTORICAL BATTLE; Two aging and dwindling enclaves fight over fate of priceless relics
They were Cossacks.
For more than half a century, almost nobody paid attention to New Kuban, a refuge for a people with nowhere else to go. Following World War II, some 300 displaced Cossacks - targeted for extinction by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin - created the 814-acre village in western Atlantic County.
There, they laid low and remembered what was. They became guardians of precious artifacts sent from other Cossacks-in-hiding from as far as Australia and China.
They preserved the past. Now Russia wants it back.
What Russia wants, specifically, is the Kuban Cossack regalia, an irreplaceable collection of royal documents, ancient flags and military memorabilia that once was the most treasured possession of 1.5 million Kuban Cossacks near the Black Sea.
The future of the regalia has touched off a fierce battle among the handful of aging Cossacks left in New Jersey. At a time when they expected to quietly live out their days, the glare of international attention instead has caused them to turn on each other.
"We should be teaching our grandchildren what it means to be a Cossack. Instead, we are fighting with each other and selling off our heritage," said Anatoly "Tony" Sienczenko, the ataman - or chief - of New Kuban.
"It used to be, Stalin was chopping us up like cabbages. Now we are going to do it to ourselves."
With barely enough members to populate a Boy Scout troop, the New Jersey Cossacks have split into two camps, one in New Kuban, the other in Howell Township, just outside Lakewood.
The Howell Cossacks say the regalia belongs back in the motherland. The New Kubans are afraid the Russian government will sell it, so they have padlocked the little Cossack museum in Howell where it now lies.
Whatever the outcome, the regalia war has created a cause out of what was a historical oddity.
"We've had more people contact us in the last year than in the last 50," said Alexander Pewnew , who is determined to send the regalia home to Russia.
"Once I thought our culture would die with us. Now I know it will live on."
The question is where.
Earlier this year, Alexander Tkachev, governor of the Krasnodar region of southern Russia, visited New Jersey with a $50,000 check and a proposition: that he be allowed to bring the Kuban regalia back to Russia.
The regalia should go back because the Cossacks "only temporarily took them from Russia during the (75-year) time of Communist power," Vladimir Gromov, Tkachev's chief of staff, said in a recent phone interview from Russia.
Gromov wouldn't discuss the $50,000 payment. He did say the governor already has announced publicly that the regalia will go on display in Krasnodar by the end of the year.
A LONG HISTORY AS FIGHTERS
Ferocious brigands as far back as the early middle ages, the Cossacks consolidated to become the military class of Imperial Russia. They received extraordinary freedoms in return for extraordinary fighting skills, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries.
By the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, there were 11 Cossack tribes, including Kuban, with lands ranging from the Dnieper River to Siberia. Each tribe had its own regalia.
The Kuban regalia allegedly includes Czar Nicholas' sword and a 1792 land grant in which Russian Empress Catherine the Great gave the Cossacks a huge chunk of land in return for helping annex Crimea.
Once called Kuban, that rich agricultural and oil producing region in the Caucasian Steppes between the Black and Azov seas is now called Krasnodar.
Pewnew, 77, who is the ataman of the Howell Cossacks, says he promised to send the regalia back "because that way millions could see it." He said Tkachev's $50,000 was a gift, not a purchase price.
Sienczenko, 55, insists that returning the regalia is tantamount to "seeing it sold off to a private collector. There is too much corruption in Russia to trust them with our most prized possession."
Sienczenko said he is also the "inspector general" on the board of the Howell organization. In that capacity, he in August "ordered the regalia padlocked" pending a special meeting this fall in which all the Cossacks would vote whether or not to send it back.
Both men say there are less than a dozen of the original Cossack settlers left to vote. The Cossack population in New Jersey has steadily dwindled since the 1970s, but there are a few newcomers like Vassili Lyashko.
Born in 1951 in a Soviet gulag where his Kuban father and grandfather were sent as enemies of the state, Lyashko said he "first began to hear rumors about the Cossacks in New Jersey" in the 1980s.
Lyashko immigrated to the U.S. in the 1990s and made his way to New Jersey: "I expected a real Russian village. I thought it would be like the Amish, only Cossack."
Instead, he found old men who love to argue.
With Tolstoyan drama, they mix stories of Cossack greatness with accusations of perfidy and show off their little pieces of czarist Russia transplanted to New Jersey soil.
There's not much to see.
In Howell, the Cossack enclave is a few houses and an abandoned Russian Orthodox church on a residential street a half mile north of Route 195. Next door to the church, in what looks like a big garage, is their museum, Cossack Hall.
Although more ambitious at its inception in 1953, New Kuban village isn't much more impressive.
There is another Orthodox church with gilded onion domes, and the Cossack monastery in the woods. There is a Cossack retirement home and cemetery.
The church has been empty since the priest died last year. The last Cossack monk died at age 103 about seven years ago. Romanian monks are now rebuilding the monastery.
In the New Kuban Cemetery, the graves face toward Mother Russia.
They bear the distinctive, doubled-barred cross of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Many bear two names: the Cossack name of birth and the alias assumed in hiding.
Like Cossack Hall, the New Kuban Education and Welfare Society Hall is a bunker-like structure built for function.
In the New Kuban museum, shelves and cabinets bulge with papers, daggers, ceremonial swords and uniforms. There are what Sienczenko says are 400-year-old flags, 200-year-old books, 1,000-year-old coins and letters from czars, including Ivan the Terrible.
"Nobody ever kept track of what was here, or what it meant, so it's up to me," said Sienczenko, who admits he has no training in archival preservation or history.
"I know this place was the dream of Cossacks all over the world after they were driven from Russia," adds Sienczenko, who was born in Krasnodar and stumbled across New Kuban in 1973. "We wanted our history to be in one place, so our children would never forget."
SCATTERED TO THE WIND
Known primarily in the U.S. as brutal oppressors of Russian Jews, Cossacks were also superb horsemen and fighters who were largely responsible for Russia doubling its borders. In 1900, there were an estimated 8 million Cossacks among the 11 tribes.
Fiercely loyal to the crown, the Cossacks fought against the Bolsheviks until they were forced to flee in the 1920s, taking as much of their history as they could carry.
Some went underground in Russia. Others scattered throughout the world. In World War II, many sided with Hitler against the Communists. During the Stalin era, historians say, 4 million Cossacks disappeared in Russia.
A few thousand, however, escaped after the war and entered the U.S. as displaced persons. They were helped by Russians who fled to the U.S. before the revolution.
One of those earlier immigrants bought land at auction in Buena Vista, a rural area near Vineland known for scrub pines and chicken farms. The New Kuban village opened in 1953.
These days they are, mostly, secretive old men who never lost heavy Slavic accents. They venture out a couple of times a year for parties at the museum, where they dress in old uniforms, eat pickled beets, drink homemade vodka and tell stories.
They are retired carpenters, chicken farmers and factory workers. Many are widowers whose wives, when they were alive, wore babushkas and really did make borscht. They listen to Russian music, speak only Russian at home and distrust anyone not a Cossack.
Their children, with only a few exceptions, grew up Americanized and left South Jersey for better job pastures. They had little interest or patience for things Cossack.
Once famed for their horsemanship, the only New Jersey Cossack to own a horse now is Sienczenko, who got a good deal on Ruler, his retired racehorse, after she broke two legs.
They could be dismissed as anachronisms if it weren't for Russia, where Cossacks and Cossack lore are making a huge comeback.
The revival there is so strong that Cossacks are credited with influencing the last two presidential elections. President Vladimir Putin personally introduced a bill to restore Cossacks to their former glory as a protected military caste.
International rights groups also say, however, that the new Cossacks are responsible for vicious ethnic cleansing in Russia's unstable border regions.
"It's hard to overestimate what Cossackdom means to the Russian people," said historian Thomas Barrett. "Right now, history is huge in Russia, because so much of it was lost under the Soviets.
"To Russians, Cossacks represent freedom, power and strength. They have a great history, which makes their artifacts very desirable."
Archivists said there is no way to estimate the value of the Cossack artifacts in New Jersey but $50,000 seems extremely low.
"People should be cautious about giving (the regalia) back," Barrett said. "Many artifacts disappeared in the chaos of post-Soviet Russia. The regalia would be a great loss."
New Jersey Cossacks may disagree about the future of the regalia, but not its value.
"The regalia is our soul," Pewnew said, his gravelly voice thickening with emotion. "It is our ancestor."
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$50,000 does sound like a lowball figure.I assume they'll eventually sell,but what assurances could the buyers give that the artifacts would be safe?Any idea how many Cossaks are still in Russia?
Is this appropriate?
Not for a ping, but I have added it to the catalog.
The Cossacks fled with their possessions and now others think that they know best what to do with them?
Once famed for their horsemanship, the only New Jersey Cossack to own a horse now is Sienczenko, who got a good deal on Ruler, his retired racehorse.. I am a cossack living in new jersey.. I own a horse... and my pictures of being on horseback are at the New Kuban Historical Museum in Buena NJ. I am constantly learning horsmanship. My Horse is a 20 plus year old gelding named Kody.. nicked named KodyKhan...I joust and shoot arrows from his back like my anscestors. I am a Miroschnitschenko. Grandson of Vasily. I am a Cossack.
Oh, this is that Russian Orthodox community near Vineland, that we heard about last year, where the last priest, or whatever they call their head of the church, died and his wife and daughters refused to surrender the control of the church, saying mass, themselves.
I should have known that there was more than religion involved in this story.
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