[kos-ak, -uhk]
Cossacks, Rus. Kazaki, Ukr. Kozaky, peasant-soldiers in Ukraine and in several regions of Russia who, until 1918, held certain privileges in return for rendering military service. The first Cossack companies were formed in the 15th cent., when Ukraine, then part of the unified Polish-Lithuanian state, took independent measures to defend itself against the devastating Tatar raids. The Ukrainian Cossacks, of heterogeneous background, were chiefly Russians and Poles and included many runaway serfs. By the 16th cent. they had settled along the lower and middle Dnieper River (for their history to 1775, see Zaporizhzhya). Similar communities grew up on the Don (see Don Cossacks) and its tributaries. They were all organized on principles of political and social equality, and originally were virtually autonomous. Each community elected an ataman as its head, while an assembly of all the Cossacks chose the hetman. The Cossacks gave shelter to refugees from Poland and Russia and took part in peasant revolts in Ukraine and Russia in the 17th and 18th cent. Open struggle ensued between the Cossacks and the Polish and Russian governments. By the late 18th cent. the Cossacks had lost most of their political autonomy and had been made the privileged military class, integrated with the Russian military forces. Under the last czars they were often used to quell strikes and other disturbances. The primary unit of Cossack organization, the village, was largely self-governed until 1918. Land was held in common by the village. But an 1869 law, which allowed officers and civil servants to own land as personal property, contributed to the breakup of the traditional cohesiveness of Cossack village life. In the 19th cent. the Russian government began to organize new Cossack units so that by the early 20th cent. there were 11 Cossack communities, each named for its location—Don, Kuban, Terek, Astrakhan, Ural, Orenburg, Siberia, Semirechensk, Transbaykalia, Amur, and Ussuri. Following the Bolshevik Revolution (1917), the majority of the Cossacks fought against the Soviet armies in the civil war of 1918-20. In 1920 the Soviet government abolished all their privileges and between 1928 and 1933 the Cossack communities were forcibly collectivized. In 1936, however, the Cossack party regained status, being allowed to form several cavalry divisions in the Soviet army. Although the Cossack communities were incorporated into the Soviet administrative system, their traditions and customs survived, notably on the Don and Kuban rivers. In post-Soviet Russia, under President Putin, Cossack hosts have been registered with the federal government and formally granted powers, and Cossacks are now allowed to serve in special military and security units.

See studies by P. J. Huxley-Blythe (1964), P. Longworth (1969), and V. G. Glazkov (1972).

The Cossacks (Каза́ки́, Kazaki; Козаки́, Kozaki; Kozacy) are a group of martial people living in the southern steppe regions of Eastern Europe and Asia.

Although many theories exist on the formation of Cossacks, towards the end of the 14th century two Cossack hosts emerged: one on the Don river and the other on the lower Dnieper river. These were joined by numerous Ruthenian migrants who left the adjacent northern states of Moscow and Lithuania. By the start of the 16th century they swelled into large militant states. The Don Cossack Host, allied with the Tsardom of Russia, began a systematic conquest and colonization of lands to secure her borders on the Volga, the whole of Siberia, the Yaik and the Terek Rivers.

The Dnieper Cossacks of Ukraine formed the Zaporozhian Sich. Initially vassal of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, increasing social and religious pressure from the Commonwealth caused the Cossacks of Ukraine to proclaim a Hetmanate and to initiate a rebellion under Bohdan Khmelnytsky in the mid-17th century. Afterwards, the Treaty of Pereyaslavl with Russia ensured that Poland would never recover from the defeat.

In the 18th century the rising Russian Empire's expansion ambitions relied on ensuring the loyalty of the Cossacks, and this caused tension with their traditional independent lifestyle, resulting in rebellions led by Stenka Razin, Kondraty Bulavin and Yemelyan Pugachev. In extreme cases whole Hosts could be dissolved, as was the fate of the Zaporozhian Sich in 1775. By the end of the 18th century, the Cossacks became a special social estate (sosloviye) that served as border guards on national and internal ethnic borders (as was in the case in the Caucasus War) and regularly supplied men to conflicts such as the numerous Russo-Turkish Wars. In return they enjoyed vast social autonomy. This caused them to form a stereotypical portrayal of 19th century Russian Empire abroad and her government domestically.

During the Russian Civil War Cossack regions became the main centres for the Anti-Bolshevik White movement, a portion of whom would form the White Emigre. At the hands of the Red Army and after its victory, the Cossack lands were subjected to famine, and suffered extensive repressions that were relaxed only in the mid-1930s. During the Second World War Cossacks fought for both the Soviet Union and collaborated with Nazi Germany. After the Collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cossack lifestyle blossomed in Russia. Many fought in Campaignbox Post-Soviet Conflicts and there are special units in the Russian Military wholly made of them. Russian Cossacks also have a parallel civil administration and police duties in their homelands and are now an integral part of Russian society. There are also Cossack organizations in Kazakhstan, Ukraine and other countries.


The name entered the English language via French Cosaque, which was a translation from the Polish, which was derived from the Ukrainian Kozak (In Russian Kazak). It is originally a Turkic word, qazaq, which means "adventurer" or "free man". Cossacks (Qazaqlar) were also border keepers in the Khanate of Kazan.


It is not clear when the Slavic people started settling in the lower reaches of major rivers such as the Don and the Dnieper. It is unlikely it could have happened before the 13th century, when the Mongol hordes broke the power of the Cumans and other Turkic tribes on that territory. It is known that they inherited a lifestyle that persisted there long before, such as those of the Turkic Cumans and the Circassian Kassaks (also spelled Kassogs)

Proto-Cossack groups most likely came into existence within the territories of today's Ukraine in the mid-13th century. In 1261 some Slavic people living in the area between the Dniester and the Volga were mentioned in Ruthenian chronicles. Historical records of the Cossacks before the 16th century are scant. It is known that Don Cossacks in 1380 gave the icon of Virgin Mary to the Dmitry Donskoy. In the 15th century, the Cossack society was described as a loose federation of independent communities, often forming local armies, entirely separate from the neighbouring states (of, e.g, Poland, Grand Duchy of Moscow or the Khanate of Crimea).

By the 16th century these Cossack societies merged into two independent territorial organisations as well as other smaller, still detached groups.

  • The Cossacks of Zaporizhia, centred around the lower bends of Dnieper, inside the territory of modern Ukraine, with the fortified capital of Zaporozhian Sich. They were formally recognised as a state, the Zaporozhian Host, by a treaty with Poland in 1649.
  • The Don Cossack State, on the river Don, separating the Grand Duchy of Moscow from the Nogai states, vassals of the Ottoman Empire. The capital of the Don Cossack State was Cherkassk, later moved to Novocherkassk.

Less well-known are the Polish Cossacks (Kozacy) and the Tatar Cossacks (Nağaybäklär). The name 'Cossacks' was also given to a kind of light cavalry in the army of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Zaphorozhian Cossacks

The Cossacks of the Zaporozhian Host, who lived on the steppes of Ukraine, are another well known group of Cossacks. Their numbers increased greatly between the 15th to 17th centuries, led by poor Ruthenian boyar-nobility, merchants and runaway peasants from Poland-Lithuania. The Zaporozhian Cossacks played an important role in European geopolitics, undergoing a series of conflicts and alliances with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. As a result of the Khmelnytsky Uprising in the middle of the 17th century Zaporozhian Cossacks managed to briefly create an independent state, which later became the autonomous Cossack Hetmanate, a suzerainty under protection of the Russian Tsar but ruled by the local Hetmans for half a century. In the later half of the 18th century the Zaporozhian Host was dissolved by the Russian authorities. Some of Cossacks' descendants have moved to the Danube delta region and Kuban, although after 1828 most of the Danubians have moved to Russia as well, first to the Azov and later to the Kuban. Although today the Kuban Cossacks and their descendents do not consider themselves Ukrainians, their local dialect and folklore preserved the Ukrainian influence and many historians consider their predecessors, the Dnieper Cossacks, as founders of what became a modern Ukrainian nation.

Some historical documents of that period refer to those states as sovereign nations with unique warrior cultures, whose main source of income was derived from the pillaging of their neighbours. They were renowned for their raids against the Ottoman Empire and its vassals, although they did not shy away from pillaging other neighbours. Their actions increased tension along the southern border of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Kresy), which resulted in almost a constant low-level warfare taking place in those territories for almost the entire existence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Conflicts with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

After being asked in 1539 by the Grand Duke Vasili III of Russia to restrain the Cossacks, the Ottoman Sultan replied: "The Cossacks do not swear allegiance to me, and they live as they themselves please." In 1549, Czar Ivan the Terrible replied to a request of the Turkish Sultan to stop the attacks of the Don Cossacks, stating, "The Cossacks of the Don are not my subjects, and they go to war or live in peace without my knowledge." Similar exchanges passed between Russia, the Ottoman Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, each of which tried to exploit Cossack warmongering for its own purposes. Cossacks for their part were mostly happy to plunder everybody more or less equally, although in the 16th century, with the dominance of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth extending south, the Zaporozhian Cossacks were mostly, if tentatively, regarded by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as their subjects. Registered Cossacks were a part of the Commonwealth army until 1699.

Around the end of the 16th century, relations between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Ottoman Empire, which were not cordial to begin with, were further strained by increasing Cossack aggressiveness. From the second part of the 16th century, Cossacks started raiding Ottoman territories. The Polish government could not control the fiercely independent Cossacks, but since they were nominally subjects of the Commonwealth, it was held responsible for the raids by their victims. Reciprocally, the Tatars living under Ottoman rule launched raids into the Commonwealth, mostly in the sparsely inhabited south-east territories. Cossack pirates, however, were raiding wealthy merchant port cities in the heart of the Ottoman Empire, which were just two days away by boat from the mouth of the Dnieper. By 1615 and 1625, Cossacks had even managed to raze townships on the outskirts of Istanbul, forcing the Ottoman Sultan to flee his palace. Consecutive treaties between Ottoman Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth called for both parties to keep the Cossacks and Tatars in check, but enforcement was almost non-existent on both sides. In internal agreements, forced by the Polish side, Cossacks agreed to burn their boats and stop raiding. However, boats could be rebuilt quickly, and the Cossack lifestyle glorified raids and booty. During this time, the Habsburg Empire sometimes covertly employed Cossack raiders to ease Ottoman pressure on their own borders. Many Cossacks and Tatars shared an animosity towards each other due to the damage done by raids from both sides. Cossack raids followed by Tatar retaliation, or Tatar raids followed by Cossack retaliation were an almost regular occurrence. The ensuing chaos and string of retaliations often turned the entire south-eastern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth border into a low-intensity war zone and led to escalation of Commonwealth-Ottoman warfare, from the Moldavian Magnate Wars to the Battle of Cecora and Wars in 1633–1634.

Cossack numbers expanded with peasants running from serfdom in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Attempts by the szlachta to turn the Zaporozhian Cossacks into serfs eroded the Cossacks' once fairly strong loyalty towards the Commonwealth. Cossack ambitions to be recognised as equal to the szlachta were constantly rebuffed, and plans for transforming the Polish-Lithuanian Two-Nations Commonwealth into Three Nations (with the Ruthenian Cossack people) made little progress due to the Cossacks' unpopularity. The Cossack's strong historic allegiance to the Eastern Orthodox Christianity put them at odds with the Catholic-dominated Commonwealth. Tensions increased when Commonwealth policies turned from relative tolerance to suppression of the Orthodox church, making the Cossacks strongly anti-Catholic, which at the time was synonymous with anti-Polish.

The waning loyalty of the Cossacks and the szlachta's arrogance towards them resulted in several Cossack uprisings against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the early 17th century. Finally, the King's adamant refusal to cede to the Cossack's demand to expand the Cossack Registry was the last straw that prompted the largest and most successful of these: the Khmelnytsky uprising that started in 1648. The uprising became one of a series of catastrophic events for the Commonwealth known as The Deluge, which greatly weakened the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and set the stage for its disintegration 100 years later. The rebellion ended with the 1654 Treaty of Pereyaslav in which Cossacks pledged their loyalty to the Russian Tsar with the latter guaranteeing Cossacks his protection, recognition of Cossack starshyna (nobility) and the autonomy under his rule, freeing the Cossacks from the Polish sphere of influence. The last, ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to rebuild the Polish-Cossack alliance and create a Polish-Lithuanian-Ruthenian Commonwealth was the 1658 Treaty of Hadiach, which was approved by the Polish King and Sejm as well as by some of the Cossack starshyna, including Hetman Ivan Vyhovsky. The starshyna were, however, were divided on the issue and the treaty had even less support among Cossack rank-and-file; thus it failed.

Under Russian rule the Cossack nation of the Zaporozhian Host was divided into two autonomous republics of the Grand Duchy of Moscow: the Cossack Hetmanate, and the more independent Zaporizhia. A Cossack organisation was also established in the Russian colony of Sloboda Ukraine. These organisations gradually lost their autonomy, and were abolished by Catherine II by the late 18th century. The Hetmanate became the governorship of Little Russia, Sloboda Ukraine the Kharkiv province, and Zaporizhia was absorbed into New Russia. In 1775 the Zaporozhian Host was dissolved and high ranking Cossack leaders were granted titles of nobility (dvoryanstvo). Most of the Zaporozhians resettled to colonise the Kuban steppe which was a crucial foothold for Russian expansion in the Caucasus. Some however ran away across the Danube (territory under the control of the Ottoman Empire) to form a new host before rejoining the others in the Kuban.

During their stay there, a new host was founded which by the end of 1778 numbered around 12000 Cossacks. Their settlement at the border with Russia was approved by the Ottoman Empire after the Cossacks officially vowed to serve the Sultan. Yet the conflict inside the new host of the new loyalty, and the political manoeuvres used by the Russian Empire, led to a split in the Cossacks. After a portion of the runaway Cossacks returned to Russia they were used by the Russian army to form new military bodies that also incorporated Greek Albanians and Crimean Tatars. However after the Russo-Turkish war of 1787–1792, most of them were incorporated into the Black Sea Cossack Host which moved to the Kuban steppes. Most of the remaining Cossacks that stayed in the Danube delta returned to Russia in 1828 and created the Azov Cossack Host between Berdyansk and Mariupol. In 1860 all of them were resettled to the North Caucasus and merged into the Kuban Cossack Host.

Russian Cossacks

Don, Terek and Yaik

According to some historians, the earliest traces of Cossacks on the Don River trace back to the 13th century.

In the Russian Empire

From the start, relations of Cossacks with the Tsardom of Russia were very much varied, at times this involved combined military operations, and at others there were famous Cossack uprisings. One particular example was the dissolution of the Zaporozhian Host, which took place at the end of the 18th century. The divisions of the Cossacks within was clearly visible between those that chose to stay loyal to the Russian Monarch and continue the service (who later moved to the Kuban) and those that chose to continue their pro-mercenary role and ran off the Danube delta.

Nevertheless by the 19th century, the Russian Empire managed to fully annex all the control over the hosts and instead rewarded the Cossacks with privileges for their service. At this time the Cossacks were actively participating in many Russian wars. Although Cossack tactics in open battles were generally inferior to those of regular soldiers such as the Dragoons, nevertheless Cossacks were excellent for scouting and reconnaissance duties, as well as undertaking ambushes. In 1840 the hosts included the Don, Black Sea, Astrakhan, Little Russia, Azov, Danube, Ural, Stavropol, Mesherya, Orenburg, Siberia, Tobolsk, Tomsk, Yeniseisk, Irkutsk, Sabaikal, Yakutskand Tartar voiskos. By 1890s the Ussuri, Semirechensk and Amur Cossacks were added, with the later having the elite mounted rifles regiment.

The Cossack sense of being a separate and elite community gave them a strong sense of loyalty to the Tsarist government and Cossack units were frequently used to suppress domestic disorder, especially during the Russian Revolution of 1905. The Imperial Government depended heavily on the perceived reliability of the Cossacks, although by the early 20th century their separate communities and semi-feudal military service were increasingly being seen as obsolete. In strictly military terms the Cossacks were not highly regarded by the Russian Army Command, who saw them as less well disciplined, trained and mounted than the hussars, dragoons and lancers of the regular cavalry. The Cossack qualities of initiative and rough-riding skills were not always fully appreciated. As a result, Cossack units were frequently broken up into small detachments for use as scouts, messengers or picturesque escorts.

During the February Revolution of 1917, the Cossacks appear to have shared the general disillusionment with Tsarist leadership and the Cossack regiments in Saint Petersburg joined the uprising. While only a few units were involved, their defection (and that of the Konvoi) came as a stunning psychological blow to the Government of Nicholas II and sped his abdication.

At the end of the 19th century, the Cossack communities enjoyed a privileged tax-free status in the Russian Empire, although having a military service commitment of twenty years (reduced to eighteen years from 1909). Only five years had to be spent in full time service, the remainder of the commitment being spent with the reserves. In the beginning of the twentieth century Russian Cossacks counted 4.5 million and were organised into separate regional Hosts, each comprising a number of regiments.

After the Russian Revolution

In the Russian Civil War that followed the October Revolution, the Cossacks found themselves on both sides of the conflict. Many officers and experienced Cossacks fought for the White Army, and some of the other ones joined the Red Army. Following the defeat of the White Army, a policy of Decossackization (Raskazachivaniye) took place on the surviving Cossacks and their homelands since they were viewed as potential threat to the new regime. This mostly involved dividing their territory amongst other divisions and giving it to new autonomous republics of minorities, and then actively encouraging settlement of these territories with those peoples. This was especially true for the Terek Cossacks land. According to Michael Kort, "During 1919 and 1920, out of a population of approximately 3 million, the Bolshevik regime killed or deported an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 Cossacks". Including 45 thousand Terek Cossacks. The Cossack homelands were often very fertile, and during the collectivisation campaign many Cossacks shared the fate of kulaks. The Soviet famine of 1932-1933 hit the Don and Kuban territory the hardest. Nevertheless, in 1936, under pressure from former Cossack descendants, it was decided to reintroduce Cossack forces into the Red Army.

Second World War

During the Second World War Cossacks found themselves on both sides of the conflict once again. While most historians agree that the majority of the Russian Cossacks fought in the ranks of the Red Army, a substantial number of them also served with the Nazis. This can be explained by harsh repressions that many of them suffered under the collectivization and Decossackization policies pursued by Joseph Stalin. Like other peoples of the Soviet Union, who suffered persecution under Stalin, many Cossacks dreaming of autonomy greeted the advancing German army as liberators.

While the core of the Nazi collaborators was made up of former White Army refugees, many rank-and-file Cossacks defected from the Red Army to join the German Army (Wehrmacht Heer). As early as 1941, the first Cossack detachments, created out of prisoners of war, defectors and volunteers, were formed under German leadership. The Dubrovski Battalion formed of Don Cossacks in December 1941 was reorganised on July 30, 1942 into the Pavlov Regiment, numbering up to 350 men. The Cossacks were successfully utilized for anti-partisan activity in the rear of the German army.

The Cossack National Movement of Liberation was set in the hope of creating an independent Cossack state, Cossackia. It was not until 1943 that the 1st Cossack Division was formed under the command of General Helmuth von Pannwitz, where Cossack emigrees, like Andrei Shkuro and Pyotr Krasnov, took leading positions. The 2nd Cossack Division under the command of Colonel Hans-Joachim von Schultz, formed in 1944, existed only for a year, as both Cossack divisions were transferred into the Waffen-SS and merged into the XVth SS Cossack Cavalry Corps in 1945. The Corps contained regiments of different Cossack groups: Don, Kuban, Terek and Siberian Cossacks. At the end of the war in 1945, they surrendered to the British Army in Allied-administered Austria, hoping to join the British to fight Communism. There was little sympathy at the time for a group who were seen as Nazi collaborators and who were reported to have committed atrocities against resistance fighters in Eastern Europe. They were accordingly handed over to the Soviet Government. At the end of the war, British commanders repatriated between 40 to 50 thousand Cossacks, including their families, to the Soviet Union. An unknown number were subsequently executed or imprisoned. Reportedly, many of those punished had never been Soviet citizens. This episode is widely known as the Betrayal of the Cossacks.

The majority of the Cossacks fought in the ranks of the Red Army on the Southern theatre of the Eastern Front, where open steppes made them ideal for frontal patrols and logistics. A Cossack detachment marched in Red Square during the Moscow Victory Parade of 1945.

Modern times

Following the war, Cossack units, along with cavalry in general, were rendered obsolete and released from the Soviet Army. In the post-war years many Cossack descendants were thought of as simple peasants, and those who lived inside an autonomous republic usually gave way to the particular minority and migrated elsewhere (notably, to the Baltic region).

In the Perestroika-enlightened Soviet Union of the late 1980s, many successors of the Cossacks became enthusiastic about reviving their national traditions. In 1988 the Soviet Union passed a law which allowed formation of former hosts and the creation of new ones. The ataman of the largest, the All-Mighty Don Host, was granted Marshal rank and the right to form a new host. The Cossacks have taken an active part in many of the conflicts that took place afterwards:the War of Transnistria, the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, the Georgian-Ossetian conflict, the Kosovo War, the First Chechen War and the Second Chechen War. While their impact on the outcome of the conflict rarely garnered mass-media attention, they were recognised for their high morale and bravery.

At the same time many attempts were made to increase the Cossack impact on Russian society and throughout the 1990s many regional authorities agreed to hand over some local administration and policing duties to the Cossacks. However in April 2005, Vladimir Putin, President of Russia introduced a bill "On the State Service of the Russian Cossacks" to the State Duma, which was passed at the first reading on May 18, 2005. For the first time in decades the Cossacks were recognized as not only a distinct ethnocultural entity but also as a potent military force. Although their full ambition to administer wholly the territory stretching from Transnistria all the way along the steppe to the Ural River might be distant, the bill made a significant step towards achieving it.

Russian Cossacks

The native land of the Cossacks is defined by a line of Russian/Ruthenian town-fortresses located on the border with the steppe and stretching from the middle Volga to Ryazan and Tula, then breaking abruptly to the south and extending to the Dnieper via Pereyaslavl. This area was settled by a population of free people practicing various trades and crafts.

These people, constantly facing the Tatar warriors on the steppe frontier, received the Turkic name Cossacks, which was then extended to other free people in northern Russia. The oldest reference in the annals mentions Cossacks of the Russian city of Ryazan serving the city in the battle against the Tatars in 1444. In the 16th century, the Cossacks (primarily those of Ryazan) were grouped in military and trading communities on the open steppe and started to migrate into the area of the Don (source Vasily Klyuchevsky, The course of the Russian History, vol.2).

Cossacks served as border guards and protectors of towns, forts, settlements and trading posts, performed policing functions on the frontiers and also came to represent an integral part of the Russian army. In the 16th century, to protect the borderland area from Tatar invasions, Cossacks carried out sentry and patrol duties, observing Crimean Tatars and nomads of the Nogai Horde in the steppe region.

The most popular weapons used by Cossack cavalrymen were usually sabres, or shashka, and long spears.

Russian Cossacks played a key role in the expansion of the Russian Empire into Siberia (particularly by Yermak Timofeyevich), the Caucasus and Central Asia in the period from the 16th to 19th centuries. Cossacks also served as guides to most Russian expeditions formed by civil and military geographers and surveyors, traders and explorers. In 1648 the Russian Cossack Simeon Dezhnev discovered a passage between North America and Asia. Cossack units played a role in many wars in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries (such as the Russo-Turkish Wars, the Russo-Persian Wars, and the annexation of Central Asia).

During Napoleon's Invasion of Russia, Cossacks were the Russian soldiers most feared by the French troops. Napoleon himself stated "Cossacks are the best light troops among all that exist. If I had them in my army, I would go through all the world with them. Cossacks also took part in the partisan war deep inside French-occupied Russian territory, attacking communications and supply lines. These attacks, carried out by Cossacks along with Russian light cavalry and other units, were one of the first developments of guerrilla warfare tactics and, to some extent, special operations as we know them today.

Western Europeans had had few contacts with Cossacks before the Allies occupied Paris in 1814. As the most exotic of the Russian troops seen in France, Cossacks drew a great deal of attention and notoriety for their alleged excesses during Napoleon's 1812 campaign.


In early times, Cossack bands were commanded by an ataman (later called hetman). He was elected by the tribe members at a Cossack rada, as were the other important band officials: the judge, the scribe, the lesser officials, and even the clergy. The ataman's symbol of power was a ceremonial mace, a bulava.

After the split of Ukraine along the Dnieper River by the Polish-Russian Treaty of Andrusovo, 1667, Ukrainian Cossacks were known as Left-bank Cossacks and Right-bank Cossacks.

The ataman had executive powers and at time of war he was the supreme commander in the field. Legislative power was given to the Band Assembly (Rada). The senior officers were called starshyna. In the absence of written laws, the Cossacks were governed by the "Cossack Traditions," the common, unwritten law.

Cossack society and government were heavily militarized. The nation was called a host (vois’ko, translated as 'army'), and subdivided into regimental and company districts, and village posts (polky, sotni, and stanytsi).

Each Cossack settlement, alone or in conjunction with neighboring settlements, formed military units and regiments of light cavalry (or mounted infantry, for Siberian Cossacks) ready to respond to a threat on very short notice.


Russian Cossacks founded numerous settlements (called stanitsas) and fortresses along troublesome borders such as forts Verny (Almaty, Kazakhstan) in south Central Asia, Grozny in North Caucasus, Fort Alexandrovsk (Fort Shevchenko, Kazakhstan), Krasnovodsk (Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan) Novonikolayevskaya stanitsa (Bautino, Kazakhstan), Blagoveshchensk, towns and settlements at Ural, Ishim, Irtysh, Ob, Yenisei, Lena, Amur, Anadyr (Chukotka), and Ussuri Rivers. A group of Albazin Cossacks settled in China as early as 1685.

Although Cossacks are sometimes regarded as xenophobic, some Cossacks readily adapted to the cultures and customs of nearby peoples (for example, the Terek Cossacks were heavily influenced by the culture of North Caucasian tribes) and frequently married local residents (other non-Cossack settlers and natives) regardless of race or origin, sometimes setting aside religious restrictions. War brides brought from distant lands were also common in Cossack families. One of the Russian Volunteer Army commanders, General Bogaevsky mentions in his book one of his Cossacks unit's servicemen, Sotnik Khoperski, who was Chinese by origin and brought from Manchuria during the Russian-Japanese War 1904-1905 as a child, adopted and raised by a Cossack family.

Popular image

Cossacks have long appealed to romantics as idealizing freedom and resistance to external authority, and their military exploits against their enemies have contributed to this favourable image. For others they have been a symbol of repression because of their role in suppressing popular uprisings in the Russian Empire, as well as their assaults against Jews.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, many have begun seeing Russian Cossacks as defenders of Russian sovereignty. Cossacks not only reestablished all of their hosts, they also took over police and even administrative duties in their homelands. The Russian military also took advantage of the patriotic feelings amongst the Cossacks and as the hosts become increasingly larger and more organised, has in past turned over some of its surplus technology to them. On par with that the Cossacks also play a large cultural role in the South of Russia. Since the whole rural population of the Rostov, Krasnodar and Starvropol territories as well as the Autonomous republics of the Northern Caucasus consists almost exclusively of Cossack descendants (amongst the ethnic Russian population) the region was always known, even in the Soviet times for its high discipline, low crime and conservative sentiments, like having one of the highest rates of religious attendance and literacy rates. The result was that, amongst Russian youth, Cossacks began to represent order and, in some cases, hope, especially when compared with the presently unpopular Russian Army.

In Ukraine where the Cossackdom represents historical and cultural heritage, some people have been attempting to recreate the images of Ukrainian Cossacks. Traditional Ukrainian culture is often tied in with the Cossacks and the Ukrainian government actively supports these attempts. The traditional Cossack Bulava is one of its national symbols and the island of the Khortytsia, where the Zaporozhian Sich once existed, has been restored.

Literary reflections of Cossack culture abound in Russian, Ukrainian and Polish literatures, particularly in the works of Nikolai Gogol, Taras Shevchenko, Mikhail Sholokhov, Henryk Sienkiewicz's book With Fire and Sword. Most of Polish Romantic literature deals with themes about the Cossacks.

Cossacks are also portrayed in Tennyson's "The Charge of the Light Brigade," and Richard Connell's short story, "The Most Dangerous Game."

Because of their long military history, Cossacks feature as prominent special military units in various strategy games, including Age of Empires III, Medieval II: Total War, Civilization III, and most notably Ukrainian GSC Game World's Cossacks: European Wars and its expansions.

Cossacks are also a popular school mascot, including the International Academy of St. Petersburg, Russia, for example.

The popular image of the Cossacks as heroic freedom and resistance fighters has been mythologized over time [J. Keaton A History of Warfare London 1993]. Clausewitz, a regimental officer of the Prussian 34th Infantry Regiment, who later became famous with the publication On War was convinced that the Moscow fire of 1812 was the result of the disorder and the habit the Cossacks had of first thoroughly pillaging and then setting fire to all the houses before the enemy could make use of them. [R. Parkinson, Clausewitz London 1970, pp 175-6] He was revolted by such Cossack habits of riding down stragglers at the point of a lance, selling prisoners to the peasants for cash and stripping the unsaleable ones to the bare skins for the sake of their rags. Clausewitz, who was present at the time of the great retreat of the French 1812, told his wife he had witnessed ghastly scenes.... If my feelings had not been hardened it would have sent me mad. Even so it will take many years before I can recall what I have seen without a shuddering horror.

In the Charge of the Light Brigade, a watching Russian officer reported that frightened by the disciplined order of the mass of [British] cavalry bearing down on them, [the Cossacks] did not hold but wheeling to their left began to fire upon their own troops in an effort to clear their way of escape. When the Light Brigade had been driven out of the Valley of Death by the Russian artillery, the first to recover, reported another Russian officer, were the Cossacks and true to their nature they set themselves to the task at hand - rounding up riderless English horses and offering them for sale. [A. Seaton, The Horsemen of the Steppes London 1985 p. 54]


Cossacks in Russia

In the Russian Empire, the Cossacks were organised into several voiskos (hosts), which lived along Russian borderland, or internal borders between Russian and non-Russian peoples. Each host had its own leadership and regalia as well as uniforms as well as ranks. However by the late 19th century the latter were standardised of the example of the Imperial Russian Army. Following the 1988 law, which allowed the hosts to reform and the 2005 one that legally recognised the hosts as a combat service the ranks and insignia were kept but on all military tickets that are standard for the Russian Army they are given bellow.

Ataman Komandir Commander
Modern Cossack rank Equivalent modern Russian Army Equivalent foreign rank
Kazak Ryadovoy Private
Prikazny Yefreitor Corporal
Mladshy Uryadnik Mladshy Serzhant Junior Sergeant
Uryadnik Serzhant Sergeant
Starshy Uryadnik Starshy Serzhant Senior Sergeant
Mladshy Vakhmistr Mladshy Praporshik* Junior Warrant Officer
Vakhmistr Praporshchik Warrant officer
Starshy Vakhmistr Starshy Praporshchik Senior Warrant Officer
Podkhorunzhy Mladshy Leitenant* Junior Lieutenant
Khorunzhy Leitenant Lieutenant
Sotnik Starshy Leitenant Senior Lieutenant
Podyesaul Kapitan Captain
Yesaul Mayor Major
Voiskovy Starshyna Podpolkovnik Lieutenant-Colonel
Kazachy Polkovnik Polkovnik Colonel
Kazachy General** General General

*Rank Presently absent in the Russian Army
**The application of ranks Polkovnik and General is only stable for small hosts. Large hosts are divided into divisions and consequently the Russian Army sub-ranks General-Mayor, General-Leitenatant and General-Polkovnik are used to distinguish the Atamans' hierarchy of command, with the Supreme Ataman having the highest rank available. In such a case the shoulder insignia will have a dedicated one, two and three star alignment as normal in the Russian Army otherwise it will be blank.

The same can be said about the colonel ranks as they are given to atamans of regional and district status. The lowest group—stanitsa, is commanded by Yesaul. If the region or district lacks any other stanitsas then the rank polkovnik is applied automatically but with no stars on the shoulder. As the host continue to grow, starless shoulder batches are becoming increasingly rare.

In addition to all that, the Supreme Ataman of the largest Don Cossack Host, is officially titled as Marshal and consequently wears insignia that is derived from the Russian/Soviet Marshal ranks, including the diamond Marshal Star. This is because the Don Cossack Supreme Ataman is recognised as the official head of all Cossack armies (including those outside the present Russian borders). He also has the authority to recognise and dissolve new hosts.


Cossacks were expected to provide their own uniforms. While these were sometimes manufactured in bulk by factories owned by the individual Host, garments were often handed down or cut out within a family. Individual items might accordingly vary from those laid down by regulation or be of obsolete pattern. Each Host had its own distinctive uniform colourings.

For most Hosts the basic uniform comprised the standard loose fitting tunics and wide trousers typical of Russian regular troops during the period 1881-1908. However the Caucasian Hosts (Kuban and Terek) wore the very long, open fronted, cherkesska coats with ornamental cartridge loops and coloured beshmets (waistcoats), that epitomise the popular image of the Cossacks. Most Hosts wore fleece hats with coloured cloth tops in full dress with peaked caps for ordinary duties. The two Caucasian Hosts however appear to have worn high fleece caps on most occasions.

Until 1909 white blouses and cap covers of standard Russian army pattern were worn by the Cossack regiments in summer. The shoulder straps and cap bands were in the Host colour as detailed below. From 1910 to 1918 a khaki-grey jacket was worn for field wear with the blue or green breeches and coloured stripes of the dress uniform.

While most Cossacks served as cavalry, there were infantry and artillery units in several of the hosts. Three regiments of Cossacks formed part of the Imperial Guard, as well as the Konvoi—the tsar's mounted escort. The Imperial Guard regiments wore tailored Government issue uniforms which were of spectacular and colourful appearance. As an example, the Konvoi wore scarlet cherkesskas, white beshmets and red crowns on their fleece hats.

Host Year est. Cherkesska or Tunic Beshmet Trousers Fleece Hat Shoulder Straps
Don Cossacks 1570 blue tunic none blue with red stripes red crown blue
Ural Cossacks 1571 blue tunic none blue with crimson stripes crimson crown crimson
Terek Cossacks 1577 grey-brown cherkesska light blue grey light blue crown light blue
Kuban Cossacks 1864 grey-brown cherkesska red grey red crown red
Orenburg Cossacks 1744 green tunic none green with light blue stripes light blue crown light blue
Astrakhan Cossacks 1750 blue tunic none blue with yellow stripes yellow crown yellow
Siberian Cossacks 1750s green tunic none green with red stripes red crown red
Baikal Cossacks 1851 green tunic none green with yellow stripes yellow crown yellow
Amur Cossacks 1858 green tunic none green with yellow stripes yellow crown green
Semiryechensk Cossacks 1867 green tunic none green with crimson stripes crimson crown crimson
Ussuri Cossacks 1889 green tunic none green with yellow stripes yellow crown yellow
*All details are based on the 1909-14 dress uniforms as portrayed in "Tablitsi Form' Obmundirovaniya Russkoi Armi", Colonel V.K. Shenk, published by the Imperial Russian War Ministry 1910-11.

See also

Notes and references


  • Knotel, Richard, Knotel, Herbert, & Sieg Herbert, Uniforms of the World: A compendium of Army, Navy and Air Force uniforms 1700-1937, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1980

Further reading

  • H. Havelock, The Cossacks in the Early Seventeenth Century, English Historical Review, Vol. 13, No. 50 (Apr., 1898), pp. 242-260, JSTOR
  • "The Cossack Corps", General der Flieger Hellmuth Felmy, US Army Historical Division, Hailer Publishing, 2007

External links

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