I wrote a post a while back about the Circassians, who were the original inhabitants of the north-west Caucasus. They were the long-term neighbours of the Kuban Cossacks, who borrowed a lot of their culture.
Eventually, the Russian Empire annexed their territory – though it took decades, in the face of determined opposition. Peter Hopkirk writes about this in passing in his book on The Great Game, and notes that the Circassian tribes were initially organised and inspired by a couple of British adventurers, who subsequently organised arms shipments and tried to publicise the Circassian cause in the London press.
After the Circassians’ defeat, the Russians deported almost the entire population to Turkey, where they still live. There are communities elsewhere in the Middle East, and a small republic in Southern Russia where the culture is still alive.
As I said, the Cossacks of the Kuban host borrowed an awful lot of Circassian customs – including their costumes.
I was on my way back from a client’s office a while ago when I saw some dolls for sale in a newsagents’ in the Metro.
It looked quite interesting, and I made a mental note to go in and have a closer look the next time I was passing. I was there again two days later – but they’d all sold out! The female dolls were still there, but every single one of the male figures had been sold. I started to look in at every news stand that I passed… but it was the same all across the city!
Eventually, I found a stand in Sennaya Ploschad that had one left, so I snapped it up. It turned out not to be a Cossack, as I’d originally assumed, but a Circassian warrior. There was a small leaflet with it, which had some information about the culture and the costume.
I can’t understand it, of course, but it’s nice to have!
Anyway, I also mentioned that I’d been back to the Cossack shop, and was tempted to buy myself a Cherkesska – aka a Circassian coat. I had a little bit of a windfall last week, and it was exactly the amount I needed to buy the coat I’d had my eye on.
The shop has dozens of coats, but none of them fit me – except this one. Furthermore, the others were all considerably cheaper, but for a reason: they’re all made of polyvinyl. This one, however, is made of wool and/or camel hair. Oddly, this kind of coat doesn’t even appear on the company’s web site, so it really was the case that this was one of a kind, and not obtainable elsewhere. So, I bought it.
It’s fastened at the front with alternating loops and hooks.
There’s an lining in the body, with a small internal belt.
There are hooks on the back for a traditional leather belt, and the skirt is shaped by folds in the material.
The slits in the sleeve-ends and in the skirt are fastened by loops of an elasticy material.
The sleeves are overlong to give protection and, like traditional Mongol and Manchu clothing, are folded back to form cuffs.
It falls to mid-shin on me. This is about as long as it can be worn, and you’ll see many pictures of Cossacks wearing coats of this length. It is a bit unusual now, though, and I more typically see them falling to just below the knee – or even just above the knee, though that seems to be a Caucasian style rather than a Cossack one.
The excellent Pygmy Wars web site has this to say in its background material on the dress of the Caucasian mountain peoples:
The cherkeska was originally a long garment, but over time it seems to have gotten progressively shorter. Men serving on foot had always worn a version that did not reach much over the knees anyway, and by the end of the Civil War many cavalry had also adopted this style.
I’m not sure what I’ll do with it now that I have it, but sometimes you don’t need a reason to buy something! As my finances permit, I’ll acquire more elements of the Cossack costume, but this is a good start.
The coat I’ve bought is, on me, somewhere between the length of the coats of the two standing Cossacks.