The Cossacks were Christian horsemen who lived on the steppes of Ukraine. At various times they fought for themselves, for the tsars and against the tsars. They were hired by the tsar as soldiers whenever there was a war or military campaign that necessitated ruthless warriors. They became part of the Russian irregular army and played a major role in expanding Russia’s borders. [Source: Mike Edwards, National Geographic, November 1998]

Cossacks were originally an amalgamation of runaway peasants, fugitive slaves, escaped convicts, and derelict soldiers, primarily Ukrainian and Russian, settling frontier areas along the Don, Dnepr, and Volga rivers. They supported themselves by brigandry, hunting, fishing, and cattle raising. Later the Cossacks organized military formations for their own defense and as mercenaries. The latter groups were renowned as horsemen and were absorbed as special units in the Russian army.

Cossack is a Turkish word for "freeman." Cossacks are not an ethnic group but rather a kind of warrior caste of free-spirited, farmer-horsemen that evolved around 300 years ago and have their own customs and traditions. They call themselves "sabers." Cossacks are different from Kazakhs, an ethnic group associated with Kazakhstan. However, the Tatar word “Kazak”, made be the root word for both groups.

Most Cossacks were of Russian or Slavic origin. But some were Tatars or Turks. Cossacks have traditionally had strong links with the Orthodox church. The were some Muslim Cossacks, and some Buddhist ones near Mongolia, but they were sometimes discriminated against by other Cossacks. Many Old Believers (a Russian Christian sect) sought refuge with the Cossacks and their views shaped the views of Cossacks about religion.

Cossacks represent an image and spirit that ordinary Russians have traditionally admired, The symbol of the Cossacks is stag that continues to stand even though it has been pierced and bloodied by a spear. Of the Cossacks, Pushkin wrote: "Eternally on horseback, eternally ready to fight, eternally on guard." Augustus von Haxthausen wrote: "they are of robust stock, handsome, lively industrious, submissive to authority, brave good-natured, hospitable...indefatigable, and intelligent." Gogol also often wrote about the Cossacks.

Different Cossack Communities

The Cossacks organized themselves into self-governing communities in the Don basin, on the Dnieper River in the Ukraine and in western Kazakhstan. Each of these communities had names, such as the Don Cossacks, their own army and elected leader and acted as separate ministates. After a network of Cossack forts was built the number of hosts increased. By the late 19th century there were Amur, Baikal, Kuban, Orenburg, Semirechensk, Siberian, Volga, and Ussuriisk Cossacks.

The Don Cossacks were the first Cossack group to emerge. They appeared in the 15th century and were a major force to be reckoned with until the 16th century. The Zaporozhian Cossacks formed in the Dnieper River region in the 16th century. Two offshoots of the Don Cossack that emerged in the late 16th century were the Terek Cossacks Host, based along the lower Terke River in the northern Caucasus, and the Iaik (Yaik) Host along the lower Ural River.

After a network of Cossack forts was built the number of hosts increased. By the late 19th century there were Amur, Baikal, Kuban, Orenburg, Semirechensk, Siberian, Volga, and Ussuriisk Cossacks

Don Cossacks

The Don Cossacks were the largest and most dominant of the Cossack subgroups. They originated as a band of mercenaries that lived around the Don River about 200 to 500 miles south of present-day Russia. By the second half of the 16th century they had grown large enough that they were the most powerful military and political force in the Don region.

In tsarist Russia, they enjoyed administrative and territorial autonomy. They were recognized and received an official seal under Peter the Great and established settlements in the Ukraine, along the Volga River, and in Chechnya and the eastern Caucasus. By 1914, most of the communities were in southern Russia, between the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus.

Peter the Great visited Starocherkassk, the capital of the Don Cossacks, near the Black Sea. He saw a drunken Cossack wearing nothing but his rifle. Impressed by the idea of man giving up his clothes before his weapons, Peter made a naked man holding a gun the symbol of the Don Cossacks.

Under the Soviets, Don Cossack lands were incorporated into other regions. Today, many are based around the city of Stavropol. The Don Cossack uniform includes an olive tunic and blue pants with a red stripe running down the leg. Their flag features crises, sabers and a double-headed Russian eagle.

Kuban Cossacks

The Kuban Cossacks live around the Black Sea. They are a relatively young Cossack group. They were formed by imperial decree in 1792 as part of a deal in which mostly Don and Zaporizhzhya Cossacks from the Ukraine were given the right the land in the fertile Kuban steppes in return for their loyalty and help fighting miliary campaigns in the Caucasus. By inhabiting the largely uninhabited land in the Kuban steppe the Russian government was better able to back up its claim to it.

The Kuban Cossacks developed a unique folk culture that blended Ukrainian and Russian elements and fought for the tsars in the Crimea and Bulgaria. They also proved to be excellent farmers. They produced high yields based on a unique system of land ownership in which land could be passed down from generation to generation but never be sold.

Cossack Communities in Ukraine

The most famous group of Ukrainian Cossacks established themselves on the lower Dnieper on a fortified island known as Zaporishzhya. Although this community was tacitly under the control of Poland, it was largely autonomous and self ruled. At various times Ukrainian Cossacks fought for themselves, for the tsars and against the tsars. Whenever Poles were involved they almost always fought against them.

These Cossacks raided the Turks from time to time. They sacked the Black Sea cities of Varna and Kafa and even attacked Constantinople, in 1615 and 1620. These Cossacks carried away Turkish, Persian and Caucasus wives from their raids which explains why there are eyes can be brown as well as green and blue.

Efforts by the Catholic Polish noblemen to convert the Orthodox serfs to the Uniate Church was met with resistance. In the 1500s and 1600s, serfs from Poland, Lithuania, the Ukraine and Russia who were escaping Polish subjugation and choosing "cossacking" to a life in servitude joined the Cossacks in the steppes. They were also joined by some Germans, Scandinavians and Old Believers (conservative rebels with the Russian Orthodox church).

Cossack Fighting Tactics and Brutality

The Cossacks were in constant state of conflict. If they were not engaged in a military campaign for the Russian government they were fighting with the neighbors or among themselves. The Don Cossacks routinely fought with other Cossack groups.

The traditional Cossack weapons were the lance and saber. The kept a knife in their belt and a four-foot “nagaika” (whip) in their boot, which was used on people to keep order and intimidate them. Many served in the cavalry with Mongolian horses. One modern Cossack told National Geographic, Mongolian horses "were strong—they could break any rope." His mount "was a great horse. She saved my life many times because she didn't turn away when I fell from the saddle."

Cossacks mostly fought side by side with Russia Imperial Army. They played big parts in capturing the Caucasus and Central Asia and were instrumental in turning back the armies of Napoleon and the Ottoman Turks. They also played a major role in the brutal pogroms against the Jews, who passed on stories of Cossacks killing innocent children and cutting opened pregnant women.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the traditionally unruly and undisciplined Cossacks were organized into regiments that fed on the sick and wounded in Napoleon's retreating army like a pack of wolves and chased them all the way to Paris. A Prussian officer, who observed the merciless tactics, later told his wife: "If my feelings had not been hardened I would have gone mad. Even so it will take many years before I can recall what I have seen without shuddering." [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

During the Charge of the Light Brigade in Crimean War, a Russian officer reported, the Cossacks were "frightened by the disciplined order of the mass of [British] cavalry bearing down on them, the [Cossacks] didn't hold but wheeled to the left, began to fire on their troops in an effort to clear their way to escape." When the Light Brigade had been driven out of the Valley of Death, "the Cossacks...true to their nature...set themselves to the task at hand—rounding up riderless English horses and offering them for sale." Needless to say the Cossacks were not normally recruited as officers. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

Cossack Brutality

Although the Cossacks were known for their bravery their tactics were usually on the cowardly side. They traditionally chased down stragglers with their lances and either stripped of everything they owned, including the clothes on their back, and often sold their prisoners to peasants. The Cossack were notorious for switching sides, even in the middle of a conflict. If the were threatened by the enemy, according to one French officer, the Cossacks fled and only fought if they outnumbered the enemy two to one. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books ]

The Cossacks were notorious for the brutal tactic they used to suppress revolutionary movements and massacre Jews during pogroms. Cossack bands were particularly fond of going after Polish noblemen. The cry "The Cossacks are coming!" is call that sent shivers of fear into the hearts of many people that lived before World War II.

One Canadian woman told National Geographic, "My grandpa remembers the Cossacks. When he was a boy, they rode into his village between Ukraine and what is now Belarus. He remembers his grandma standing outside her front door and having her head loped off. During another encounter he remembers the Cossacks calling for his other grandma to get out of her house, where in mortal fear she hid. They then threw some sort of grenade-like bomb into her small home, killing everyone within."

Cossack Democracy and Justice

The Cossacks were led under a military democracy. They avoided the system of serfdom and elected their own leaders and were largely self sufficient. Traditionally, important decision were made, leaders were elected, land was distributed and criminals were punished at an annual meeting called a “krug”.

Cossacks traditionally lived in communities called “voika” and were lead by leaders known as “ataman”, who were often among the oldest men in the community. Ataman, scribes and treasurers were selected in elections in which participants voted with a show of hands and shouts of “”Lyubo”!” (“It pleases us”) and “”Neyubo”!” (“It doesn’t please us”).

The Cossack justice system was often quite harsh. Thieves were publically whipped in a square called a “maiden” during a krug. A Cossack who stole from a Cossack was sometimes sentenced to death by drowning. Cossacks routinely whipped new recruits in the face. Soldiers sentenced in a military court were sometimes publically birched while kneeling over a bench or executed by a firing squad.

Cossacks Society

Traditional Don Cossack settlements were united clusters of two or three villages called “stantistas”. The population of one stanitsa varied from 700 to 10,000 people. The housing ranged from elaborate mansions use by the Cossack gentry to basic huts occupied by peasants. A typical houses had wooden outer walls, a roof thatched with reeds and interior walls that were plastered with clay mixed with dung by women. The floors were made of earth, clay and dung.

The Cossack traditionally do no engage in farming, animal herding or other traditional trades. They despised normal work, and spent their time in the military service or hunting or fishing. They were paid in cash for their mercenary work and got to keep any booty they could plunder. After they became allied with the Russian military they depended on Moscow for grain and military supplies. Many Cossack became quite rich from seizing horses, cattle and other animals in raids and then selling them. Taking captives was even more lucrative. They could be ransomed or exchanged are sold as slaves.

Children learned how to farm and young men were expected to serve in the military. Cossacks that had been in an area for some time were often significantly better off than newcomers and settlers that lived among them.

Cossacks Marriage and Women

Male bonding and friendship were greatly valued. Cossack that spent too much time with women or their families were often teased as being wimps by other Cossacks. Cossacks felt an degree of superiority to non-Cossacks.

In the early days most Cossack men were single. The Cossack lifestyle simply was not conducive with married life. The community was kept going by the arrival of new fugitive and other offspring produced by unions with women that were taken captive. A wedding often was no more than an appearance at public gathering by a couple to declare they were man and wife. Divorces were just as easy to obtain, often required the sale of the divorced wife to another Cossack. Over time the Cossacks became more involved with settlers and adopted more conventional views about marriage

Women played a passive role in Cossack society, taking care of the home and raising children. When guests were welcomed to a Cossack home, they were usually men who were served by the hostess of the house, who did not join the men. Women were also often in charge of duties like carrying water in pails hanging from a yoke.

Through the 18th century Cossack men were regarded as having absolute authority over their wives. They could beat, sell and even murder their wives and not be punished for it. Men were expected to curse their wives. Sometimes the beatings could quite nasty. It is no surprise that many women detested the Cossack concept of marriage.

The Cossack wedding process began when a girl agreed with her father’s choice for a marriage partner. The families of the bride and groom celebrated the proposed union with drinks of vodka and haggled over the dowry. The wedding itself was festive affair with lots of vodka and kvass drinking, the arrival of the bride in a brightly painted wagonette, and a mock battle between the groom and the bride’s sister to claim the bride that was not settled until a bride price was paid. During the church ceremony the couple held a candle as they exchanged rings. Well-wishers showered them with grains of hops and wheat.

Cossacks Customs

Traditional Cossack clothes include a tunic and black or fur hat with a red and black "god's eye" to ward off bullets. The hats stand up erect and look sort of like turbans. Cleanliness, clarity of mind, honesty and hospitality, military skill, loyalty to tsar were all admired values. "A Cossack house was always clean," one man told National Geographic. "It might have a clay floor, but there were herbs on the floor for aroma.”

Drinking was an important ritual and avoiding it was almost a taboo. A Cossack was said to have lived a full life if he “lived his days, served the czar and drunk enough vodka.” One Cossack toast went: “Posley nas, no hoodet nas”—After us they'll be no more of us."

Traditional Cossack food includes porridge for breakfast, cabbage soup, picked cucumbers, pumpkin, salted watermelon, hot bread and butter, pickled cabbage, homemade vermicelli, mutton, chicken, cold lamb trotters, baked potatoes, wheat gruel with butter, vermicelli with dried cherries, pancakes and clotted cream. Soldiers traditionally subsisted on cabbage soup, buckwheat gruel and cooked millet. Workers in the fields ate fatty meat and sour milk.

Cossacks Culture and Religion

The Cossacks have their own epic poetry and songs that praise good horses, fierceness in battle and honor heros and bravery. Relatively few deal with romance, love or women. Many traditionally Cossack sports grew out of military training. These include shooting, wrestling, fist-fighting rowing and horseback riding competitions. One musicologist told the New York Times, "The Cossack Spirit never died; it was hidden within the people in the villages."

The traditional squat and kick Kazachok dance, associated with Russia, is of Cossacks origin. Acrobatic Russian and Cossack dances are famous for dancers spinning like tops while in deep pliés, squatting and kicking and doing barrel jumps and hand springs. Cossacks dances and Ukrainian Hopak feature thrilling leaps. There were also martial sword-throwing dances.

For Cossacks, traditional Orthodox beliefs were supplemented with worship of a mother goddess, cult of heros and a pantheon of spirits. Superstitions included a fear of cats and the number 13 and a belief that the screech of an owl was an omen. Illnesses were blamed on punishments of God; cows going dry was blamed on witchcraft; and promiscuous sexual activity was blamed on the evil eye. Bleeding was treated by a mixture of mud and spider webs. Witchcraft could be cured by bathing in the Don River at dawn.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia, China”, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K. Hall & Company, Boston); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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