BUENA VISTA TOWNSHIP — Anatoli “Tony” Sienczenko stresses that he is Cossack, not Russian.
Outsiders may fail to recognize the distinction, but the 63-year-old takes it very seriously.
For decades, Sienczenko has been the caretaker of western Atlantic County’s New Kuban, a community founded by Cossack immigrants who fled Communist Russia following Czar Nicholas II’s abdication in 1917.
The Cossack diaspora began as a result of a long-simmering conflict with Russia’s Communist leaders, who were more closely related to racially “white” Europeans, and accelerated following World War II.
“White Russians interfered in the situation because they didn’t want Russia to fall apart, and they did everything they could to stop (Cossacks) from separating from Russia,” Sienczenko said.
New Kuban, founded along rural Weymouth Road in 1953, served as a refuge for the oft-oppressed group. Although the community has thinned as younger generations spread out across the country and the world, many return for its annual celebrations, and a few — including Sienczenko — fight to keep its heritage alive.
“We should be proud of the place we hold sacred,” he said between sips of homemade wine at the community center he’s renovating. “If you can’t do something for your culture, your tradition, you are nothing.”
Displaced from their homeland in southern Russia and around the Black Sea after World War II, many Cossacks found their way to the United States and New Jersey. The World Cossack Association established a community in Lakewood, Ocean County, in 1947.
Sienczenko said a group of about 50 families led by Alexis Corson, who fled Russia earlier in the 1930s, settled in Buena Vista Township, purchasing hundreds of acres of remote forest land at $20 per acre in the early 1950s. The community, which was formally recognized in 1953, was named for the Kuban region in the North Caucasus, where many of the families had lived.
Another touchstone for the Buena Cossacks was the street names. Don Road, Kavkaz Place and Tereck Road are all named for regions and river basins from which the settlers came.
In the early 1960s, community members built an Orthodox church — the heart of New Kuban life for decades — and a community center made of concrete block with a dirt floor.
The church, with its gold domes and stark white walls, was modeled after the churches residents left behind in Russia. It served not only the immigrants who settled in Buena Vista but the similarly large groups that settled in neighboring Mays Landing and Vineland.
That enterprising spirit has persisted. When Sienczenko, who worked various construction jobs, arrived in 1972, his neighbors helped him build his home.
“It was like family,” he said. “Everyone knew everyone else, and the regional differences didn’t matter.”
Sienczenko was elected ataman, or chief, of the group in 1986 and took over permanently in 1988. For more than two decades, he has renovated the community center — finishing the dirt floor, adding wood paneling to the main hall and expanding the New Kuban museum.
Township Committeeman and former Mayor Chuck Chiarello said the Cossacks probably ended up in the rural municipality because land was affordable, compared to more urban areas.
New Kuban’s settlers kept many of their traditions. Many families grew their own food, said Sienczenko, who still makes his own wine by fermenting grapes, another communal tradition.
Sienczenko said many of the settlers changed their names when they arrived, because they feared reprisal. His father-in-law, who’s buried in the New Kuban cemetery, has two different names on his headstone — the one he used in Russia and the one he adopted in America.
Sienczenko’s own family changed the first letter of their surname from “z” to “s” for that very reason. “I guess that was enough,” he said.
Those old wounds were aggravated in 2007, when the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, or ROCOR, successfully sued New Kuban for ownership of its church. The church has been padlocked ever since, and all functions now take place exclusively in the community center.
But the community members who remain still maintain the graveyard, even though they’ve lost the church.
Alex Kaganzev, 67, of Vineland, raked leaves from the graves of his mother and stepfather one recent Wednesday. Born in Germany after his parents left Russia, Kaganzev’s family eventually settled in the Landisville section of neighboring Buena Borough and attended the church in New Kuban.
Many original residents have died, and younger generations have moved out of the area, but he said that at one point the church had a thriving congregation. On Easter Sunday, the church was packed and some worshippers stood outside, straining to hear the sermon inside.
“Back then, everyone knew everyone,” he said. “A lot of them are laying right here,” he added, gesturing toward the gravestones around him.
“My brother is across from my parents, and my grave lot is here, too,” he said. “This is just as good as any place.”
Today, about 20 Cossack and Russian families still live in Buena Vista Township. Another 30 or 40 families live nearby in Bridgeton, Mays Landing, Millville and Vineland.
Besides organizing annual barbecues for Memorial Day and Labor Day that draw Cossacks from across the country, Sienczenko has assembled a trove of Cossack artifacts.
Every coin and dagger tells a story, and stories — or skazka — are at the heart of Cossack culture, since the Russian government has long dismissed the Cossacks’ very existence.
He worries about the future of those stories. Although his 28-year-old son, Anatoli Jr., will some day take over the museum, many young people aren’t interested in history or the old ways.
Today, Sienczenko takes every opportunity to tell young people about the Cossacks’ artistic and military might, although they tend to be most interested in helmets and scabbards and uniforms.
“I have many student groups in here,” he said. “They put up with my skazka.”
Contact Wallace McKelvey:
Follow @wjmckelvey on Twitter