Cossacks trace their origins at least back to the 1400s. According to legend they evolved from mythical beings, but are believed to have originally been descendants of Tatars (Mongols in Russia) or maybe Scythians (fierce nomads who migrated from Central Asia in the 7th century B.C.) or ancient Scythian-like people called the Kossaraka in Greek inscriptions from the Black Sea area. Even today, Cossack speech is filled with words of Mongol origin.

Most Cossacks were runaway serfs, hunters, freebooters and fugitives who lived in the frontiers beyond the reach of Russian authorities. The early Cossack made a homeland for themselves on the rich, grassy steppes of Russia, the Ukraine and Central Asia described by Gogol as "an ocean of green and gold, sprinkled with millions of different flowers."

In the early days the steppes of Ukraine were regarded as the equivalent of the Wild West and the Cossacks were the equivalent of the Indians. In the late 1400s, no government controlled the Russia steppes. The Mongol empire that once controlled them had collapsed in Central Asia and Europe and the Russian government was weak and small.

The early Cossacks were bandits and mercenaries who traveled on horses in warrior bands that were for all intents and purposes "lordless, womanless, propertyless" egalitarian societies. They raided Slavic hunters, fisherman and traders and caravans that entered the no-man's land where they made their home. They attacked merchant vessels that traveled on the Don and Volga river as well as Turkish ships that plied the Black Sea.

A shortage of women was a problem among the Cossacks. Their wives were often kidnapped in raids. A lauded Cossack feat was to attack a wedding party and make off with the bride. Although a few Cossacks joined the fighting legions, they have traditionally played a passive role.

Cossacks Help the Tsars

The tsars offered the Cossacks autonomy in return for military assistance. The Cossacks were stationed in Imperial Guard camps on the Don River, the Urals, Siberia and the Black Sea. Even though Russian nobles and tsarist soldiers were frequently preyed upon by Cossacks, Ivan the Terrible set the trend in 1570 by hiring them as mercenaries in exchange for gunpowder, lead and money (three things the steppe didn't produce) to free Russian prisoners enslaved by the Tartars and Turks.

The Cossacks helped expand and define the borders of the Russian empire and then helped protect them. The tsar often placed Cossacks on the front line in wars or military campaign that necessitated ruthless warriors. The Cossacks played a crucial roles in exploring the Siberian and Alaskan frontiers. They conquered all of Siberia in less than 70 years. Many industrial towns in Siberia and of northern Kazakhstan, including Alma Altay, began as fortified Cossack forts.

The Cossacks remained dependent on the tsar militarily and politically but were allowed to more or less run their territories as independent states. In the late 17th century the Russian government tried to limit Cossack freedom and privileges. The Cossacks were most upset by demands that they return fugitives, which they viewed as a violation of their traditional freedoms. By the end of the 18th century, the frontier had move far enough south so that military significance of the Cossacks was diminished.

Cossacks Absorbed by the Russian Military

After 1738 the Don Cossack chief commander was appointed by the Russian government. Before that he was elected by the Don Cossacks. After 1754, local commanders were also appointed. Using the these methods, the Cossacks were completely absorbed into the Russian military, with each enlisted Cossack required to put in 30 years of military service.

The Cossacks were expected to do what the tsar told them. Czar Paul once ordered then “to conquer India” and they actually set off to try and do that. The mission was only called off after the tsar was assassinated. Later they were put to work protecting Chinese laborers building the Trans-Siberian railway from tigers.

In accordance with a 1799 edict, a Cossack gentry was created and Cossack commanders were given ranks equal to those of their Russian counterparts. By the 19th century there were dozens of Cossack armies from the Ukraine to the Far East.

The Cossacks developed into a crack calvary force. Whenever there was an uprising or a threat of a civil disturbance, the tsarist government called in the Cossacks. “The Cossacks are coming!” became of one of the most feared calls in Russia.

Cossack and Serf Rebellions

Although the tsars were happy to utilize the Cossacks services in times of need they also tried to repress them and return them to the estates of noblemen, who were angered that so many of their serfs left to join the Cossacks. The Cossack sometimes rebelled when things didn't go their way. They launched three large peasant uprisings in the Volga Don region—in 1670, 1707 and 1773.

Cossack rebellions and peasant and serf uprising were often one in the same. A major uprising occurred in the Volga region in 1670 and 1671. Stenka Razin Stepan (Stenka), a Cossack who was from the Don River region, led a revolt that drew together wealthy Cossacks who were well established in the region and escaped serfs seeking free land. The unexpected uprising swept up the Volga River valley. Razin’s army of 200,000 men captured the entire lower Volga and even threatened Moscow. Tsarist troops finally defeated the rebels after they had occupied major cities along the Volga in an operation whose panache captured the imaginations of later generations of Russians. Razin was publicly tortured and executed. Razin remains a popular folk hero today. *

In 1707, there was a peasant rebellion led by the Don Cossack Kondraty Bulavin. Bulavin led the rebellion against Russia, after Peter the Great ordered a round up of fugitive serfs. Peter crushed the rebellion and burned villages and hung civilians. Defeated in a battle, Bulavin committed suicide. His head was delivered to Peter, who pickled it in alcohol and displayed on a pole. Then as a gesture of reconciliation, Peter laid a few bricks on Cossack cathedral.

Pugachev Serf Rebellion

In 1773, an obscure Don Cossack named Yemelyan Pugachov (Emel'yan Pugachev), who claimed he was Peter III, lead Russia’s greatest serf uprising. The nearly successful peasant revolt spread from the Urals to the Caspian Sea along the Volga in 1773-74. Hundreds of thousands of followers attracted by promises of ending serfdom and taxation responded. They ravaged estates, massacred noblemen and captured cities. They were not stopped until a great famine struck Russia and they were cut down by Catherine's army outside the gates of Moscow.

The “Pugachev Uprising” occurred during the 1768-74 war with the Ottoman Empire (See Below). Cossacks, various Turkic tribes that felt the impingement of the Russian centralizing state, and industrial workers in the Ural Mountains, as well as peasants hoping to escape serfdom, all joined in the rebellion. Russia's preoccupation with the war enabled Pugachev to take control of a part of the Volga area. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996 *]

Afterwards, embarrassed by how the rebellion affected her image in Europe, Catherine had Pugachev executed and ended Cossack autonomy. Instead of attempting to improve the conditions that led to led to the rebellion she brutally repressed the serfs. She explained to Voltaire, the rebellion was led by "good-for-nothings of whom Russia has thought fit to rid herself over the past 40 years, rather in the same spirit in which the American Colonies have been populated."

Cossack State and Uprisings in the Ukraine

As the Cossacks in the Ukraine obtained new recruits and grew stronger they began challenging Polish nobles, who were particularly despised by Cossacks who were former serfs under their control. Friction between the Poles and Cossacks grew in the 17th century when the Polish landlords began expanding into territory occupied by the Cossacks. The situation was flamed by differences in religious beliefs: the Polish landlords were Catholics and the Cossacks were Orthodox Christians.

The Cossacks led by Cossack chief, Bohdan Khemelnytsky defeated Polish armies twice in 1648 and led an uprising of serfs and peasants against the hated Polish landlords that led to the deaths of thousands, including many Jews who were regarded as oppressors because in some cases they helped the landlords manage their estates.

Khemelnytsky created an autonomous Cossack state called the Army of Zaporozhia in 1649 that lasted until 1654, when he formed an alliance with Russia. After the alliance was made Russians and Poles fought vicious battles on Ukrainian soil and the for all intents and purposes the Cossack state was annexed by Russia.

After this the Cossacks became integrated into conflicts involving Russia, Ukraine and Poland. The Cossacks helped the Russians defeat Poland in 1667 and 1668 and gain control of Kiev, northern Ukraine and territory east of the Dnieper. This established the traditional dividing line between Polish-influenced Ukraine in the west and Russian-influenced Ukraine in the east.

Ivan Mazeppa

Ivan Mazeppa (1640 to 1709) was a Cossack warlord who attempted to unify eastern and western Ukraine. Immortalized in works by Tchaikovsky, Liszt, Delacroix, Lord Byron and Victor Hugo, he first allied himself with Peter the Great against Poland to reunite Ukraine under Russian suzerainty. But then he joined with Sweden against Peter. Sweden was defeated in the decisive battle at Plotava in the Great Northern War in 1709 and Cossack land in the Ukraine was again claimed by Russia.

Peter was so outraged by Mazeppa’s traitorous act he undertook a campaign to capture Mazeppa and get rid of anything remotely connected to him. His palace was razed, he was anathematized from the Orthodox Church, and his name image were erased from buildings and monuments.

According to legend Mazeppa was found by a Polish count in bed with his wife. As punishment he was roped to horse that was let loose on the steppe and survived after the horse dropped dead from exhaustion after making its way to Ukraine, where Mazeppa was found unconscious and rescued by Ukrainian peasants. The legend was first written down by Voltaire in a biography of Charles XII of Sweden.

Cossack in Russian Wars

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."

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.

Cossack Fighting in the Caucasus

Describing a single combat incident in the Caucasus in 1858, Alexander Dumas wrote, "I saw a puff of smoke and at the same moment heard a bullet whistle through the upper branches of the bushes...We ran back, and saw that the bullet had hit one of the horses, breaking its foreleg...What surprised me, from what I had heard of the habits of Chechen bandits, was their delay in attacking us. Usually they charge down on the enemy as soon as their first shot is fired."

"At this moment we saw seven or eight men filing up from the bank of the terke. Our Cossacks gave a cheer and raced off towards them, but then another man emerged from the thicket where he had shot at us. He made no attempt to escape, but stood his ground, brandishing the gun above his head and shouting, '”Abrek”!'...'”Abrek”! our Cossack shouted in reply, and reigned in their horses to a standstill...What does that mean? I asked Kalino...'It means that he is sworn to seek out danger and never to turn his back on the enemy. He is challenging one of our Cossacks to single combat.'"

"The Cossack whose horse had been shot tried to get the animal on its feet again, but with no success...Meanwhile, the mountain tribes had been riding around us in ever-narrowing circles and were now quite close. They eyes of our Cossack flashed, but not one of them dishonored the code that forbade him to shoot, once the challenge had been accepted.

Dumas wrote: "The Cossack returned to his place and began checking his weapons as if he expected his turn to arrive at any moment. By this time the first man was already close enough to fire, but his opponent made his horse rear so that the bullet struck it in the shoulder. His return shot carried away the Cossack's fur hat. Now they both slung their guns over their shoulders and seized their swords.

“The mountaineer managed his wounded horse so cleverly that, through blood streamed down its chest, it showed no sign of weakness, and responded instantly to the bridle, the pressure of its master's knees and the sound of his voice. Now the men were fighting hand to hand, and for a moment I though our Cossack had run his enemy through, for I saw the point of the blade shone behind his back. But he had only thrust it through his jerkin."

"In the next few minutes it was impossible to see what happened, but then came a pause, and slowly our Cossacks slipped from the saddle. That is, his body slipped to the ground. His head, dripping with blood, was waved at us with a fierce cry of triumph, then tied to the saddle-bow of his conqueror."

"I turned to the Cossack who had asked to be next...Then we saw the Cossack fire...and by the sudden jerk of the mountaineer's body we knew he had been hit...The mountain champion was dead indeed. The Cossack dismounted, drew his sword, bent over the body and moment later stood waving the severed head, while the other Cossacks cheered wildly."

Assault by Cossacks on Bloody Sunday

Cossacks were used by the tsars in the brutal “Bloody Sunday” crackdown in 1905 that was a key event in triggering the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 that brought down the tsars and led to the creation of the Soviet Union. In January 1905, striking Russian workers marched on the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, singing "God save the Tsar, to present a list of grievances to Nicholas II. According the some estimates the crowd was over 100,000 strong and included by women and children. Instead of being met by the tsar, who had left the city, the protesters were welcomed with a shower of bullets delivered by barricaded Cossack troops. Disgust over the violence lead to an unsuccessful revolution later that year.

Father Georgiy Gapon, who participated in the protests, wrote: "Suddenly the company of Cossacks galloped rapidly towards us with drawn swords...A cry of alarm arose as the Cossacks came down upon us. Our front ranks broke before them, opening to the right and left, and down this lane the soldiers drove their horses, striking on both sides. I saw some swords lifted and falling, the men, women and children dropping on earth like logs of wood, while moans, curses and shouts filled the air....At my order the front rows formed again...Again we started forward, with solemn resolution and rising rage in our hearts. The Cossacks turned their horses and began to cut their way through the crowd from the rear. They passed though the column.

"We were not more than thirty yards from the soldiers...when suddenly without any warning and with a moment's delay, was heard the dry crack of many rifle-shots...Vasiliev, who whom I was walking hand in hand, suddenly left hold or my arm and sank upon the snow. One of the workmen who carried the banners fell also...I turned rapidly to the crowds and shouted to them to lie down, and I also spread myself out upon the ground. As we lay there another volley was fired, and another, and yet another, till it seemed almost continuous."

"One of the banner carriers had his arm broken by a bullet, A little boy of ten, who was carrying a church lantern, fell pierced by a bullet, but still held the lantern tightly and tried to rise again, when another shot struck him down.. Both smiths who had guarded me were killed, as well as all those who were carrying icons and banners...At last the firing ceased, I stood up with a few others who remained uninjured and looked down at the bodies that lat prostate around me. I cried to them, 'Stand up!' But they lay still. I could not at first understand...I looked again and saw their arms were stretched out lifelessly, and I saw the scarlet stain of blood upon the snow."

Cossacks in the Soviet Era

At the beginning of the 20th century, there were around 5 million Cossacks. During World War I, the Don Cossack alone were able to mobilize 100,000 horsemen for the war effort. In 1917 one Don Cossack commander declared the formation of “Don Cossack government.” The movement was crushed.

The Cossacks were mostly anti-Communist. During the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, some Cossacks fought on the side Reds. During the Russian Civil War that followed, some fought for the Reds, most fought for the Whites, and some fought on both sides. “Quietly Flows the Don”, a novel by Nobel-prize-winning Mikhail Sholokhov, described a Communist Cossack who changed sides. In 1919, the Red Army drove tens of thousands of Cossacks out of Russia and captured the rest.

The Cossacks were officially abolished by the Communists. An editorial in a Bolshevik paper read: One has to note the similarity between Cossack psychology and certain representatives of the animal kingdom. The Cossacks must be burned on the flame of social revolution.” The Cossacks were never recognized as an ethnic group or nationality; they were registered under other nationalities, usually as Ukrainians or Russians.

The Cossacks were brutally repressed, their land was seized and their communities were disbanded. In 1919 Lenin issued an order that approximately 1 million Cossacks be “executed to the last man.” Persecution continued under Stalin. Two million Cossacks (about half their total) were slaughtered, imprisoned and sent to Siberia. Survivors kept a low profile and became farmers and livestock herders in the their rich grain and grazing lands in southern Russia and Ukraine.

Regiments of Cossacks fought in both World Wars. In World War II, the Cossacks cavalry units were revived. They were in charge of reconnaissance, often working 70 miles ahead of the main army. Some Cossacks fought on the side of the Germans in World War II. All in all, their methods were tragically out of date and many were killed and the Cossack units were eventually disbanded.

Cossacks Today

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union some of the old Cossack brotherhood have been revived and some Cossack land has been returned. By 1999, there were 400 Cossack groups, ranging in size from a few members to one with 140,000. There are many people of Cossacks ancestry in Ukraine and the former Soviet republics in Central Asia but they have not organized themselves like the Cossacks in Russia. Because the line between Cossacks and non-Cossacks is often blurred it is difficult t estimate the numbers of Cossacks.

The Cossacks the particularly strong in areas north of the Caucasus such as Krasnodar, Stravropol and Novocherkassk. Some units are sponsored by the government. Others are independent, wanting to keep their distance from the Russian government which they regard as corrupt and responsible for Russia's chaos and crime. In many places they have formed themselves into vigilante home guards.

The Cossacks have strong ties with Russian nationalists who have strong xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic views. The whip has returned a from of punishment. In a Cossack community in the small city of Lazarevskoye Cossacks are punished with lashes from a whip for public drunkenness and wife beating.

Cossacks as Mercenaries and Police

Cossacks were involved in defending the Supreme Soviet during the Communist coup attempt in 1991. They were recruited by Boris Yeltsin to fight conflicts in which Russian minorities were threatened by other ethnic groups in Abkhazia, against the Romanian insurgency in Transdneister Moldova and the Chechen uprising in the Caucasus. Some fought on the side of the Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo. Cossack vigilantes are active in North Ossetia. Ossetians frequently clash with people of Igushetia over territory.

Cossacks also assist police at highway checkpoint and work on the border patrol. The have been known to whip food vendors for taking advantage of their customers. Many ordinary Russians praise the Cossacks for fighting against lawlessness.

Cossacks have been key members of paramilitary groups that have cracked down on illegal immigrants, many of them Muslim Meskhetian Turks in the Krasnodar region in southern Russia. They have been called a kind of shadow police force that works with the nationalist government there to harass illegal immigrants and conduct periodic sweep of communities with large numbers of immigrants. As of 2002, there were more 280 Cossack “vigilante” groups with 5,200 members. They had been accused of extortion, violence and serious crimes.

Some Cossacks regard it as their mission to fight Muslims. One Cossack in a paramilitary force told Atlantic Monthly, “We Cossacks are Christians. So we’ll never be friends with Muslims—“never”. We won’t let them build mosques here...We’ve always lived with this religious tension—with this state of semi-war with the Muslims.”

Modern Cossacks and the Military

Modern Cossacks want their children to grow to be soldiers not doctors or computer operators. On their 40th day of life, Cossack male infants receive a tiny saber which is attached to their belt. Cossack men with an earring signifies that they are only males supporting their families and are thus are excused from hazardous duty.

Cossack schools and summer camps, whose aim is to prepare boys for military service, have been set up in the Caucasus and St. Petersburg. Cadets wake up at 6:00am and begin their day with push ups and distance runs and then put on their uniforms. Their day is filled with marching drills, target practice with air rifles, guard duties on the perimeters of the camp or school and instruction on military tactics.

The Royal Cossack Academy in Novocherkassk had 260 cadets in 1998. Established by Tsar Alexander III in 1883, it was closed under Stalin 1931 and reopened under Yeltsin in 1991.

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

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.