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June 11, 2012, Monday

RISS and Rostov-on-Don

I am in Rostov-on-Don at the invitation of Russia’s Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS), which is the official think tank of the Presidency of the Russian Federation. It is led by Leonid Reshetnikov, who is an experienced general with a good command of international developments. He loves Russia and his grandchildren. He sincerely believes that Russia should improve its relations with Turkey.

Rostov-on-Don is located at the northwestern end of the Black Sea. It is a Black Sea city that sports a Mediterranean climate and culture. It is prosperous city with a history of trade. The distance between Rostov-on-Don and Moscow is one hour and a half. It takes a two-hour flight from İstanbul to reach the city and there are four direct flights per week from İstanbul. The Don River flows through the city. This river is considered one of the border-setting natural landmarks. So the land west of the Don River is Europe and the land east of it is Asia. The Don River was also used to delineate the northern borders of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman forces came up to the European side of the river and considered it a border. This region is home to Don Cossacks. Cossacks also are partially descended from Kipchak Turks. The name of their first leader, or “Ataman,” was Sarı (Yellow) Azman (1548-1550). Don and Kuban Cossacks played a great role in bringing the Northwest Caucasus under the domination of Czarist Russia. But, later, they sided with Czar against Bolsheviks, and with the establishment of the Soviet Union, Bolsheviks uprooted them. And Cossacks sought refuge in their old enemy, the Ottoman Empire. With Vladimir Putin at the helm of Russia, there are efforts to revive the Cossack culture. There are efforts to make Cossack culture a driving force in the state and the popular culture.

The first Cossack capital in 1644 was Cherkassk (now Starocherkasskaya). Cossacks conquered the Ottoman Fortress of Azov in 1637. But they had to abandon it four years later, and they took the gate of the fortress and the giant fortress balance to the garden of the cathedral in Cherkassk. The gate and the balance are still there. The cathedral’s garden also features the bust of the famous Cossack general of the army of Czarist Russia, Matvei Ivanovich Platov, who was one of the Russian generals who defeated Napoleon Bonaparte. Legend has it that Napoleon said, “I would conquer the world, if there were 100,000 Cossacks in my army.” And in response, Platov said to Napoleon, “Gave me 100,000 French girls and I’ll give you 100,000 Cossacks in return.” Platov was both a good commander and a womanizer. He had returned to Russia accompanied by a young and beautiful British girl from his visit to Britain. This girl was his last wife. 2012 is the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s campaign against Russia. During the 100th anniversary festivities in 1912, the name of the pastry “mille-feuille” was changed to “Napoleon” in Russia. Russians are very skilled in making mille-feuille.

The Don is river of great force, but it flows slowly and quietly. For this reason, Cossacks call it “Tihiy Don,” meaning “slowly flowing Don.” The name of Mikhail Sholokhov’s famous work about Don Cossacks is therefore “Tikhii Don” (“And Quiet Flows the Don”). People from North Caucasus had inhabited the Don region, known as black lands due to their fertility, before Cossacks and Russians came: Adyghas, Nogays, Ossetians... Ossetians believe that the name of the Don River is derived from Ossetian. “Don” means “river” in Ossetian. Indeed, the other rivers flowing to the Black Sea are prefixed by “din”: Dniestr, Dniepr, Danube...

Some Russian historians say, “Czarist Russia was a Slavic state with a Turkish culture while the Ottoman Empire was a Turkish state with a Slavic culture.” Indeed, the fate of the north of Eurasia was set by Czarist Russia and its successor, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) -- St. Petersburg and Moscow -- while the fate of the south of Eurasia was set by the Eastern Roman Empire and its successor, the Ottoman Empire -- İstanbul. The peoples who bridged across Eurasia were Romans, Russians, Turks, Iranians, Mongols, Arabs and Alexander the Great and the Macedonians. The strong administrative structures of these peoples brought stability and security to the region. Stability ensured the smooth stream of trade from the east to the west. And trade in turn boosted welfare and scientific and cultural development. These achievements were lost due to the Balkanization of the region. Turkish-Russian relations are gradually improving. The repair of the damage done to relations during the conflict between Czarist Russia and the Ottoman Empire as well as during the Cold War era is still going on. It seems authorities from both sides have focused on saving the day instead of rehabilitating the past’s wounds. The roof of a house is repaired when it is sunny, not when it is windy.

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