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 Edmunds, National Geographic, November 1998]

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.

Early Cossack History and Bandits

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.

Don Cossack and Other Cossack Groups

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.

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 Russian, 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 Soviet, 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.

Cossacks Help the Czars

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.

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.

Cossack Fighting Tactics

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."

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]

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 and Violence

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 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."

Cossacks 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."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: 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.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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