Celebrate Cossack Krug
We join the Sydney-based Russian Zabaikal Cossacks celebrating a krug (circle), where members come together to debate, drink and dine on hearty, home-style traditional food. By Tatyana Leonov
The Russian Cossacks here today, gathered at the Russian Sports and Social Club in the Sydney suburb of Kemps Creek, are from the Zabaikal region east of Lake Baikal, bordering Mongolia and China. Some have moved to Sydney recently, others are Australian-born sons and grandsons of the Zabaikal Russian Cossacks. Cossacks are, and have always been, a deeply patriotic bunch.
In the past they inhabited sparsely populated areas and travelled by horse. Those here today live in Sydney and drive a mix of cars; the parking area fills up quickly with family cars, a few sports cars, and a Lexus with a numberplate that simply reads ‘Baikal’.
“Cossacks are people of free will who share a unique history, culture and traditions arising from their historical role as settlers and protectors of the frontiers of the Russian Empire as it expanded its borders,” explains George Vassilevski, the secretary of the Zabaikal Cossack Society of Australia Incorporated. It’s an official business name, and today there’s an official krug meeting before the feast. Krug, which translates to ‘circle’, is a time when all the Cossacks from a geographical region gather to discuss and settle administrative issues. Today’s topics include an upcoming youth fundraiser dance, and they hear from a delegate about his recent trip to the Zabaikal region.
After the official part of the day is over, the Zabaikal Cossacks sit down for a festive meal – a time for family and friends to catch up and reminisce about a land they come from or feel a connection with.
George stresses that this organisation is the only one in Australia directly affiliated with the Cossacks of the Zabaikal region in Russia, who are officially recognised by the Russian government.
“In this diaspora, Cossack activities are limited to the preservation of culture and traditions,” explains Simeon Boikov, the Ataman (Cossack leader) of the society. “However, in Russia the Cossack movement has revived after 90 years, and today’s Cossacks have their own schools and academies where the next generation of Cossacks are preparing for service to their country.”
You can count the number of women on one hand, and they don’t attend the meeting, instead spending the day crafting the traditional specialties that will be eaten. They spend most of the day skilfully assembling dishes, such as pelemeni (small, boiled dumplings), piroshki (fried cabbage buns) and pouzy (large, meat-filled steamed dumplings) – their hands moving swiftly as they chat together.
Sophia Boikov is clearly the head of the kitchen. She shouts orders and occasionally shares a story with whoever is listening. Born in a tiny village located not far from Yakeshi, a town in the Inner Mongolia region of China, she was one of eight children, and moved to Sydney in 1965 where she now lives in Cabramatta. Alongside her, Maria Portnagina and Nadejda Lavrova are working hard. Maria is half-Russian, half-Chinese,and grew up as Sophia’s childhood neighbour and closest confidante, but came to Australia much later in the 1980s. Nadejda made the move to Australia from Oryol in Russia in 1995 and likes to involve herself in Russian activities, helping out with cooking at the Cossack krugs.
Five-year-old Michael Vlasoff, a son of one of the Cossacks and the youngest ‘man’, joins the women in the kitchen after growing bored of the meeting. He unsuccessfully tries to assemble a pelemen. Looking at his clumsy hands and flour-drenched clothes, Sophia cracks a smile and mumbles something about having to milk 20 cows when she was his age.
Victor Ubugunov takes a break, too, and joins the women. He moved to Sydney two years ago from the Buryatia region in Russia, and is known among the community for his authentic country-style dishes. Everyone laughs as he brandishes a large sheet of caul fat. He’ll use it to wrap mutton liver before frying it, a Buryatian dish known as hugubsha.
When the feast is served, there is no hesitation. The men dig into the food, and bottles of homemade pomegranate liqueur, vodka and whisky appear. Cossacks live a simple life and their celebrations reflect their cultural ethos. The food is hearty, there are no unnecessary decorations; it’s simply about being together and sharing a meal – and a story.
Although very different to the depiction of Cossack dress in films and history books, present- day Cossacks throughout Russia have a standardised uniform and a system of ranks. These are closely modelled on their Russian military and police force counterparts, but also retain traditional elements, such as the names of the various ranks and the distinguishing coloured stripe running down the side of the pants. Cossacks from different regions in Russia have different colours – the Zabaikal colour is yellow. Today, Cossack Ataman General Sergei Bobrov (who is based in Chita, a city in Russia’s Zabaikal region) presents a new banner to the group, and Cossack Russian Orthodox priest Reverend Alexander Filchakov conducts a short moleben (prayer service). Each Cossack region in Russia has a representative banner, and this one was brought from Russia especially for the occasion.
A blend of cultures
Because of the region’s close proximity to Northern China, the food that the Zabaikal Cossacks eat and the menu today is a blend of Russian, Chinese and Mongolian cooking styles. Pouzy (pictured left) look very similar to buuz, the Mongolian version of dumplings. The smaller pelemeni are not too dissimilar to Chinese dumplings, and mutton is the most commonly eaten meat in Mongolia. Russian Cossacks like to eat pouzy and pelemeni with both soy sauce (an Asian influence) and sour cream. A traditional Russian meal is usually composed of three dishes – an entrée, which will often be a soup or something simple like selyodka (cured herring), followed by a main, such as pouzy, pelemeni or piroshki, and also a beverage or dessert.