Don Cossacks

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Don Cossacks

ETHNONYM: Cossacks


Identification. Originally the Cossacks were free mercenaries who resided in a no-man's-land. They eventually became a part of the Russian irregular military with the main objective of defending Russia's borderlands. As such, they were identified by their area of residence. The Don Cossacks, the earliest known in Russia, appeared in the fifteenth century and the host was established during the early sixteenth century. About the same time the Zaporozhian Cossacks formed in the Dnieper River region. In the late sixteenth century, two offshoots of the Don Cossacks emerged: the Terek Cossack Host along the lower Terek River in the northern Caucasus and the Iaik (Yaik) Host along the lower Iaik River (now known as the Ural River). With the expansion of the Russian state and the government's encouragement, the Cossack hosts proliferated, forming a defensive belt along the borders of the empire. By the late nineteenth century, in addition to the earlier hosts, there were the Amur, the Baikal, the Kuban, the Orenburg, the Semirechensk, the Siberia, the Volga, the Ussuriisk, and, on the Dnieper River, the Zaporozhian Cossack hosts. The Don Cossacks remained, however, the most numerous and significant host. In pre-Revolutionary Russia, the Don Cossacks enjoyed an administrative and territorial autonomy.

With the creation of the USSR, their lands were incorporated into the present Rostov, Volgograd, Voronezh, and Voroshilovograd regions, as well as the Kalmyk Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic.

Location. The Don Cossacks resided along the 800 kilometers of the Don River and its tributaries between 46°07 and 51°18 N and 37° and 45° E. "Father Don," as the Don Cossacks refer to the river, bisects a region of rolling hills. The river is generally frozen until spring, since winters are hard. Snow falls as early as November. Midwinter thaws do occur, however, and may be accompanied by weeks of rainfall. In the spring, fields sometimes flood. Summers are very hot, with a yellow haze of dust hanging over the wheat fields. The eastern part of the region, which constitutes the left bank of the Don and its tributary, the Medveditsa, is a steppe, the soil is barren and there are only a few shallow creeks. In the springtime, however, the steppe area is brilliantly green. In the west, on the right bank of the Don and in the adjoining area in the north, the steppes give way to hills. The most fertile land is found north of the Medveditsa River. Trees include oak, ash, fir, poplar, and, near the water, willows and pussy willows. Reeds grow along the edge of the river, which is sandy in some places. Birds to be found include geese, ducks (including teals), grebes, swans, bustards, eagles, crows, quails, sparrows, and magpies. Among indigenous smaller plants are thistles, thorns, wormwood, and spear grass. Fish include whitefish, sterlet, and carp.

Demography. In 1897 about 30,000 Kalmyks resided in Don Cossack territory. By 1917 the population of the Don area was 3.5 million, of which almost half were Cossacks, a quarter "native" peasants, and the rest "newcomers." Today the ethnic boundaries between Cossack and non-Cossack are relatively blurred.

Ethnic and Linguistic Affiliation. Whereas most of the Don Cossacks are of Russian or, to a far lesser extent, Ukrainian extraction, others are Turkic or descendants of Kalmyks who settled in the Don region in the seventeenth century. The language is a distinct variant of the southern Great Russian dialect and shows heavy influence from Ukrainian, Turkish, and Tatar. The name "Cossack," incidentally, is from the Turkic word hazak, meaning "free-booter, vagabond" (which should not be confused with the Kazakh ethnic name that appears in Kazakhstan).

History and Cultural Relations

The first Cossack settlements appeared in the late fifteenth century in the region of the lower Don. Most of these people were fugitives who chose to settle along the Don, out of reach of the Russian authorities. With the increasing population along the Don in the second half of the sixteenth century, the Don Cossacks emerged as an important military and political force in the area. Dependent on Moscow economically and militarily, they nevertheless remained politically and administratively independent, residing in the borderlands of the Russian and Ottoman states. In the late seventeenth century the Russian government attempted to limit their freedom and privileges. It was the demand that fugitives be returned that Cossacks saw as the greatest violation of their traditional liberties. By the end of the eighteenth century the frontier had moved farther south and the military significance of the Don Cossacks diminished. After 1738 the Don Cossacks' chief commander, who formerly was elected, became an appointee of the Russian government, and after 1754 the local commanders also were appointed by the Ministry of War in St. Petersburg. Through this and other moves, the Cossacks were completely absorbed into the Russian military and performed military service throughout the Russian Empire; during the reign of Czar Paul, for example, they were ordered "to conquer India," and they had actually set off when, after his assassination, the insane directive was remanded. The Cossack gentry was created by the edict of 1799; Cossacks became equal in rank to the rest of the Russian military. In 1802 the lands were divided into seven districts administered by the Ministry of War; in 1887 the number of districts was increased to nine. By 1802 the Don Cossacks could furnish eighty cavalry regiments. Each enlisted Cossack had to serve thirty years. In 1875 military service was cut back to twenty years. They were particularly notorious for their role in suppressing revolutionary movements in Russia and the massacre of Jews during pogroms. During World War I the Don Cossacks formed fifty-seven cavalry regiments (i.e., nearly 100,000 horsemen). After the February Revolution of 1917 their chief commander, A. M. Kaledin, declared the formation of the "Don Cossack government." After Kaledin and his counterrevolutionary government were crushed, the "Don Soviet Republic" was promulgated in March 1918. However, the new Soviet policies of nationalization and the appropriation of surpluses led to an uprising in the Don region and elimination of the Soviet government. In January 1920 the Soviet troops returned to reestablish Soviet control of the area and to abolish any administrative autonomy in the region. The last reminders of past glory were several Don Cossack regiments formed in 1936 within the Soviet Army. During World War II these regiments proved to be hopelessly outdated cannon fodder and were eventually disbanded.

Historically the Don Cossacks bordered the Kalmyks in the east, the Nogays and the Crimean Tatars in the south, Russians in the north, and Ukrainians in the west. Today the region includes these and other ethnic groups of the USSR.


Until the eighteenth century, with the beginning of the peasant colonization of the area, Don Cossack settlements were united in stanitsas, constellations of two or three villages. In the early nineteenth century there were .114 stanitsas with a new administrative center at Novocherkassk. The population of a stanitsa varied from 700 to 10,000 people. Types of housing ranged from the elaborate estates of the aristocracygreat houses surrounded by brick walls, outbuildings, servants' quarters, bathhouses, stables, and orchardsto substantial homesteads, to the more rudimentary huts of poorer peasants. Whereas the country house of a rich man would appear virtually interchangeable with its counterpart in Western Europe, peasant homesteads and huts were more characteristic of the Don region. These dwellings were built by carpenters but plastered by women, with clay kneaded with dung; the buildings were whitewashed "for Easter." The roofs were thatched, sometimes with reeds. Floors were earthen. Water was carried from the river by women, who suspended their pails from yokes. Many peasant huts were surrounded by wattle fences. Some village houses might have iron roofs, six or so paneled rooms, balustrades, and porches. Such houses might have a plank fence, and the yard might be paved with tiles. The houses, illuminated by oil lamps, typically had a silver icon in one corner, tables, mirrors, and a samovar, either on the stove or heated with charcoal. The stove was often tall and covered with green tiles. The house, which had eaves and window frames, was made more attractive by curtains, sometimes of blue cotton. Household items included iron-bound chests, photographs, and cradles for infants. Whereas some persons slept on bedsteads with feather beds, peasants often slept on plank beds. Behind the house was an earth cellar for keeping food. The smallest settlement was a khutor, a hamlet with no church. The village included a church and might have grain elevators and a steam flour mill or windmill. Today most of the population resides in large industrial cities: Rostov-na-Donu, Taganrog, Donetsk, Voroshilovograd, and Novocherkassk.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . Until the eighteenth century the Don Cossacks did not practice farmingtheir military commanders specifically banned such activity. Instead they subsisted on the grain supplies from Moscow, shipped to them in exchange for military service. Annual supplies of gunpowder, bullets, liquor, and cash were also provided by the government. Sometimes the Don Cossacks purchased these and other indispensable commodities in the neighboring Russian towns, but the authorities in Moscow tried to prevent such trade. In addition the Don Cossacks were paid cash upon the completion of a military campaign. The state monopoly on salt and liquor did not apply to the Cossacks, and the right to produce both constituted a crucial privilege. Another major source of wealth was booty (zipun ) captured in raids against the Ottoman provinces and the neighboring peoples. Among the most valuable items taken were animal herds, horses, household items, and particularly captives, who later were ransomed or exchanged. Fishing, hunting, and apiculture were major aspects of the economy; Cossacks resisted with particular vehemence any infringement on their exclusive rights to fish in the Don area. Animal husbandryraising horses, cows, goats, pigsremained an important part of the local economy. With the increased number of colonists in the eighteenth century and introduction of market crops in the nineteenth century, however, agriculture began to dominate the economy of the region. Wheat was the most important agricultural product, and considerable mechanical equipment was used in its cultivation. The ground was broken with harrows and plows; the crops were reaped by machine and then transported on underframes beneath wagons. Bullocks were the most common dray animals for field work. Wheat was kept in granaries, individual and communal, and ground in communal mills. Other field crops included barley, rye, and hemp. A rich farmer might have had more than a dozen bullocks, horses, cows, and flocks of sheep. Also raised were pigs, chickens, turkeys, and ducks. Cattle were kept in common pasture and were watched over by a village herder, who drove the animals back from the steppes in the evening. Gardens and farms made each household virtually independent with regard to its food needs. A village without orchards and gardens was called "unhappy." Besides the customary apple trees and potato patch, the peasants also had patches of sunflowers, cultivated for their seeds. Hay was made from the steppe grass, and clover was also cut and used as hay. In the 1890s the region experienced economic depression, which continued unabated until the Soviet policies of industrialization changed the economic landscape of the area. Today, in addition to agriculture and animal husbandry, the area has a heavy concentration of various industries: steel, machinery, coal mining, and textiles.

Food. The most common breakfast was porridge. A major meal might consist of hot bread and butter, salted watermelon, pumpkin, pickled cucumbers and pickled cabbage, cabbage soup, homemade vermicelli, mutton, chicken, cold lamb's trotters, potatoes baked in their jackets, wheat gruel with butter, vermicelli with dried cherries, pancakes, and clotted cream. Workers in the fields enjoyed fatty meat and sour milk, whereas soldiers in the field often subsisted on cabbage soup, buckwheat gruel, and millet cooked in a pot.

Trade. In the past, most of the trade, particularly the slave trade, was conducted in Cherkassk, the administrative center. Transportation was by horse-drawn wagons or carts, in winter by bullock-drawn sledges. In the nineteenth century the Don Cossacks traded grain and cattle at the several annual fairs in the region. Today the major products are grain, coal, and steel, which are transported by rail or water to the other parts of the former USSR. Since 1952 the Volga-Don Canal has connected the two major arteries of European Russia.

Division of Labor. In pre-Soviet times labor was divided between men and women as in most traditional peasant societies. Women were judged by their ability to work and were almost constantly busy in the fields or their homes. Some of their duties included milking the cows and cooking, often under the critical supervision of a mother-in-law. For washing, the women beat clothing with flat stones in the river. They also prepared yarn on spinning wheels and knitted in idle moments. The Cossack men despised work and spent most of their time in military service, hunting, or fishing. Under Soviet rule the role of gender in the division of labor ceased to be important. Particularly during and after World War II, more women were employed at the jobs that traditionally had been reserved for men.

Land Tenure. Historically, the Don Cossacks had no immovable property and the land remained in common possession. With the influx of settlers and the incorporation of the Cossacks into the Russian military, landownership and serfdom were introduced in the region in the early nineteenth century. Water, forests, and grazing lands remained in usufruct, although each member of the stanitsa was eligible for a plot of land either as a shareholder or a rent payer. During the 1930s the Cossack lands were forcibly collectivized. Those who resisted were jailed or exiled to Siberia; others involuntarily joined the Soviet collective farms.


In the early period, when Cossack society consisted of single males, the most important relationship was blood brotherhood. As the number of families began to increase, social ties based on exogamous lineages and godfatherhood became dominant. Descent is strictly agnatic.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Until the end of the seventeenth century the great majority of the Don Cossacks were single males. Falling in love, getting married, and settling down were considered out of keeping with the free life-style of the Cossack, and those few who followed such a course often found themselves mocked by their peers. With the influx of settlers to the Don region, however, the family emerged as a basic domestic unit. Previously most of the Cossack wives were captive women. Few married in the churches. In order to be considered wedded, a man and a woman would appear in front of a public gathering, say a prayer, and declare each other husband and wife. It was just as easy to divorce a wife by declaring that she was no longer loved. Upon this declaration, a divorced woman could be sold to any other Cossack for cash or goods. The dishonor of a divorce was removed after a new husband had partially covered a purchased woman with his coat and then declared her his wife.

Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the wedding rites became increasingly similar to the Russian ones, and most of the marriages took place in the churches. A husband had an unlimited authority over his wife and could beat, sell, or even murder her without a fear of punishment. Masculine domination often asserted itself in bitter, very profane cursing and sometimes in sadistic secret beatings. In view of these attitudes and practices, young women frequently detested the institution of marriage. Marriage traditionally was arranged by the father of the prospective bridegroom, who entered into negotiations with the girl's father through the agency of an elderly female relative of the young man, who served as matchmaker. Considerable haggling took place between the matchmaker, representing the bridegroom's family, and the father of the bride. A girl might have considerable choice, since her wishes were sometimes considered by her father in deciding whether to accept a proposed marriage. If the decision was yes, the two families began addressing each other immediately as relatives, broke out bread and a bottle of vodka, and began disputing over the amount of the dowry. A small procession, directed by the bridegroom dressed in a black frock coat, went to fetch the bride in several gaily colored wagonettes. While the newly arrived guests were drinking kvass and vodka, the bride's sisters put up a mock defense of the bride against the bridegroom. Sitting beside her, with poker and rolling pin as weapons, they refused to "sell" their sister for the offered pricea coin in the bottom of the bridegroom's glass. They finally did relinquish her, however; then the bridegroom explained that the total bride-price had been paid. Postmarital residence was traditionally patrilocal. Leaving the home of the bride's parents, the couple was showered with hops and wheat. After receiving the blessing of the groom's father, they went into the church for the formal wedding. During this ceremony the groom, at least, held a candle and the two exchanged rings. The ceremony culminated with a kiss. In the post-1917 period civil marriages became prevalent. Today, because of the severe housing shortage, postmarital residence is conditioned mostly by the availability of space rather than the force of tradition. The age of marriage and childbearing is early or mid-twenties for both men and women. The rate of divorce is high. Legal abortion is a principal means of birth control.

Domestic Unit. The family household, the kuren, was the basic domestic unit of the Cossacks. It appears that an extended family household was less prevalent among the Don Cossacks than among the Russians and the Ukrainians. Boys were brought up in a strict military fashion and at the age of 3 were able to ride a horse.

Inheritance. Inheritance was through the male line.

Socialization. Male bonding and friendship were the most important traditional means of socialization for men. Any Cossack felt a definite superiority over any non-Cossack. A poor Don Cossack considered the rich non-Cossack merchant "a peasant." Until the eighteenth century Cossack women were secluded. Later they became more visible, socializing mostly with each other. Respect for parents and the aged remains important. In an elderly man, the Cossacks respect clarity of mind, incorruptible honesty, and hospitable ways. The universally admired Cossack today is one who has mastered military skills and who loves farming and hard work. The Don Cossacks were also known for their piety and loyalty to the monarch. An elderly Cossack considered his life fulfilled when he had "lived his days, served his czar, and drunk enough vodka." Drinking was similar to a ritual and avoiding it was regarded almost as an apostasy.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Traditional Don Cossack society was a military democracy. Local miliary commanders (ataman ) as well as the chief commander (voiskovoi ataman ) were elected in a public gathering (krug ). Yet even at this early period Cossack society was clearly divided into the better-off, more established Don Cossacks (domovitye ) who resided predominantly along the lower Don and the poor newcomers (golutvennye ) who took residence farther up the Don. Social differentiation continued to grow with the Cossacks' further incorporation into Russian military, political, and legal systems. The atamans, now appointed by the Russian government, and the expanding bureaucracy formed a distinct social elite (starshina ). The majority, however, were either rank-and-file cavalry or agriculturalists. In Soviet society the distinctions between social groups of the Don area became primarily occupational.

Social Control. The Cossacks traditionally have been bound by customary law. An offender was brought before the krug, and the punishment, agreed upon by all present, was announced by the ataman. Stealing from a fellow Cossack was one of the most grievous offenses. Testimony of two trustworthy witnesses was sufficient to sentence a serious offender to capital punishment by drowning (v vodu posadit ). Corporal punishment was common. In a dispute between two parties, the ataman of the stanitsa served as mediator. If he failed to resolve the issue, he sent the contestants to Cherkassk, where the decision was made by the voiskovoi ataman and a group of elders. From the late eighteenth century until 1917 the legal system was comprised of the khutor court as a basic unit, the stanitsa court with four to twelve elected judges, an honor court for each two stanitsas, and the host government as the highest court. Elders had the authority to conduct courts-martial, and a man could be deprived of the title of Don Cossack. Youths were sworn into military service in a group ceremony involving as many as 1,500 young men. After taking their oath from a priest, the newly sworn kissed a crucifix. Discipline was severe, with sergeant-majors permitted tacitly to strike recruits in the face with whips with impunity, even under the eyes of officers. Punishment by a military tribunal sometimes led to execution by firing squad or a public birching, the latter carried out before a crowd on the public square with the pantless culprit bent over a bench. After 1917, Soviet courts and the Soviet legal system were introduced in the Don region. Today, the militia is used to enforce authority.

Conflict. Essentially a militaristic society, the history of the Don Cossack Host is the history of a military, political, social, and religious conflict. Until the late eighteenth century the Don Cossacks were in constant conflict with their neighbors: the Kalmyks, the Nogays, the Tatars, the Russians, and the Ukrainians. Government attempts to control the military actions of the Don Cossacks and to incorporate them into the Russian military led to some of the largest revolts in Russian history: one led by Stepan Razin in 1670-1671, another by Kondratii Bulavin in 1708, and yet another by Yemelyan Pugachov (17731774). Although these revolts were crushed, the Cossacks continued to play a major role in most of the social uprisings throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. After the Bolshevik Revolution the majority of the Don Cossacks remained strongly anti-Soviet and took an active part in the civil war of 1918-1920 on the side of the counterrevolutionary forces. In 1961 a mass demonstration of workers and students to protest food shortages ended in a bloodbath in the city of Novocherkassk.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. After the schism within Russian Orthodoxy in the mid-seventeenth century, the Old Believers found a welcome refuge among the Don Cossacks, and a significant proportion of the population has remained Old Believer. Other Christian sects also came to settle in the Don region, although the Don Cossacks as a whole were committed to Russian Orthodoxy. By the 1820s there were 330 churches in the area. The church, located in the center of the village, had an onion-shaped cupola, sometimes green, with an adjoining garden surrounded by a brick wall. The houses of the priests, excellent by local living standards, stood nearby. The village church bell rang vespers and matins on Sundays, and time was reckoned by the church calendar. Confession was practiced and members of the church frequently crossed themselves before important acts and decisions. Prayers were often written down and carried as amulets. Unlike the practice elsewhere in the Russian Empire, the priests were elected until the middle of the last century. In 1891 there were 6,966 Russian Orthodox priests in the Don region, and the religious constituency of the area was diverse: Russian Orthodox, 1,864,000; Old Believers, 117,000; other Christians, 43,000; Tibetan Buddhists (Kalmyks), 29,551; Jews, 15,000; and Muslims, 2,478. The Soviet government made a sustained effort to eradicate religion. Today, although a significant number regard themselves as Christians, the majority are not practicing Christians.

Orthodoxy was commingled with other elements. Prayers were addressed not only to the Supreme Ruler and the Mother of God but also to folk heroes. Superstitions and folklore were mixed thoroughly with tradition. In song, the Don Cossacks referred to the Don as their "father" and to the surrounding countryside as "Mother Donland." Returning from military campaigns, they offered gifts to "Father Don": hats, capes, etc. Superstitions included fear of cats and of the number thirteen. An owl screeching from a belfry could portend trouble. Illness was seen as God's punishment and the illness of a child as punishment of the mother. Witchcraft could cause cows to go dry, as well as cause the death of livestock. The "evil eye" could make a girl morose or give her unwonted sexual yearning. Remedies for witchcraft were the province of crones, who might advise "washing away" the longing in the river by the light of dawn or sprinkling water over the shoulder. Some medicine had superstitious overtones. For bleeding, earth mixed with spiderweb was chewed, the bolus being applied to the wound. Superstition and tradition blended in such practices as that of placing a 1-year-old boy on a horse, in the belief that this would make him a good Cossack.

Arts. Oral epic poetry glorifying military feats and bravery was particularly well known. Cossack dancing and singing were also very popular. The Don Cossacks sang about their good horses and valiant battles but rarely about love.

Medicine. Today hospitals and physicians are available to the population. The poor state of Soviet and post-Soviet medicine, however, as well as traditional beliefs, still lead many to seek help from the folk practitioners.

Death and Afterlife. Death and pain were not matters of particular importance, unless a relative was involved, in which case there was a sense of bereavement. Burial could be in "Christian fashion," with the head toward the east and a small shrine placed over it or, as in the case of a peasant infant, simply in a small coffin under a tree with no accompanying service. Requiem masses were celebrated for the death of an adult, followed nine days later by a family feast for the priest and friends.


Bronevskii, Vladimir (1834). Istoriia Donskago voiska (History of the Don military forces). Vol. 3. St. Petersburg.

Longworth, Philip (1969). The Cossacks. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Pronshtein, A. P. (1973). Istoriia Dona (The history of the Don). Rostov-on-Don: Rostov University Press.

Sholokhov, Mikhail (1941). And Quiet Flows the Don. Translated by Stephen Garry. New York: A. A. Knopf.



views updated May 29 2018


COSSACKS. Frontierspeople between the Slavic and Turkic worlds, the Cossacks (name derived from the Turkic kazak, 'free person') emerged by the fifteenth century as military servitors. In the sixteenth century, a wider strata of the Slavic-borderland foragers and fishers took on the name Cossacks. They were especially numerous in the Ukrainian territories along the Dnieper River of the Polish-Lithuanian state and somewhat later along the Don River on the periphery of the Muscovite state, where they developed skill in building small boats and navigating the Black Sea. The Lithuanian state (after 1569 the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) enlisted the Cossacks in defending its long steppe frontier with the Crimean Khanate. Border officials often served as leaders of the Cossacks who defended grand ducal (later royal) castles. By the second half of the century, Cossacks established strongholds or siches beneath rapids in the lower Dnieper beyond the reach of the authorities (hence the name Zaporozhian, from the Ukrainian za porohy, 'beyond the rapids'). Increasingly the Zaporozhians became an autonomous force, often conducting raids on the Black Sea against the Ottomans. The commonwealth enlisted some Cossacks in its service (the registered Cossacks), but the register never encompassed more than a small part of the Ukrainian Cossacks.

The spread of the manorial serf economy into central Ukraine in the late sixteenth century and the early seventeenth century increasingly threatened the Cossack way of life and status as free people. Starting in the 1590s, Cossacks led revolts in Ukraine, with the authorities suppressing them in time of peace and seeking their support in time of war. Thus the magnates and court enlisted them in invading Muscovy in the early seventeenth century and in fighting the Turks in 16191621. Yet when Warsaw wanted peace with the Ottomans, it found the Cossack naval raids troublesome. After the Union of Brest (1596) established Orthodox union with Rome, the Cossacks resisted the religious change, and by the 1620s they played a major role in Ukrainian religious and cultural life. Cossack revolts in the 1620s and 1630s were put down by the Polish authorities, but the entire political and social order of Ukraine was overthrown by the Khmelnytsky Uprising (1648), in which the Zaporozhian Host was transformed into the civil administration, much of the Ukrainian population "Cossackicized," and Cossacks became the major social Estate. In 1654 the Ukrainian hetman took an oath to the Russian tsar, and while the Cossacks changed their sovereigns frequently in the wars of the century, they ultimately came under Russian rule.

Out of the revolt two Cossack polities emerged, the Zaporozhian Host and the Hetmanate. The Zaporozhian Host, centered on the old sich, long retained the character of old Cossackdom in the unsettled steppe and remained autonomous of neighboring rulers. In the eighteenth century it came under Russian control and was destroyed by the Russian imperial forces in 1775. Its Cossacks were dispersed to other Black Sea areas (eventually the Kuban). The Hetmanate, known as Little Russia in the eighteenth century, developed into a complex society with a Ukrainian Cossack culture and identity controlled by the Cossack officers, who evolved into a nobiliary elite. The office of hetman was abolished in 1764, and the autonomy of the region was abolished in 1781. Cossack social strata were absorbed into the Russian imperial social structure. An outcropping of Ukrainian Cossack formations was established in parts of Muscovy by Cossack emigrants in the mid-seventeenth century and became known as Sloboda Ukraine.

In the Muscovite and Russian state the Cossacks remained a borderland phenomenon. They intervened in Russian affairs in times of weakness, such as the Time of Troubles of the late sixteenth century and early seventeenth century. Major revolts, such those of Stepan Razin (died 1671) in 16701671, Kondratii Bulavin (c. 16601708) in 17071709, and Emilian Pugachev (17261775) in 17731775, were launched by Don, Iaik, and other Cossacks. The Don Cossacks, who like the Zaporozhians conducted sea raids in the early seventeenth century, came under more direct rule of Moscow in the eighteenth century and lost their autonomy in 1775. They were integrated into Russian military structures, as was the Kuban Host that formed near them in 1792. The Cossacks Hosts of the Terek and Iaik played a major role in the conquest of the Caucasus and Siberia and then were integrated into Russian imperial military structures.

See also Black Sea Steppe ; Khmelnytsky, Bohdan ; Khmelnytsky Uprising ; Poland-Lithuania, Commonwealth of ; Time of Troubles (Russia) ; Ukraine ; Union of Brest (1596) .


Gordon, Linda. Cossack Rebellions: Social Turmoil in the Sixteenth-Century Ukraine. Albany, N.Y., 1983.

Hrushevsky, Mykhailo. History of Ukraine-Rus'. Vol. 7. Translated by Bohdan Strumiński. Vol. 8. Translated by Marta D. Olynyk. Edmonton and Toronto, 19992002.

Longworth, Philip. The Cossacks. London, 1969.

Plokhy, Serhii. The Cossacks and Religion in Early Modern Ukraine. Oxford and New York, 2001.

Frank E. Sysyn


views updated May 29 2018


The word Cossack (Russian kazak ) is probably Turkic in origin, and the term dates to medieval times, when it was used to denote wanderers or freebooters of varying Slavic and non-Slavic origins who lived off raids on the Eurasian steppe and jealously guarded their independence. By the fifteenth century, the term was increasingly applied to a mixture of freemen and fugitives who had fled the serfdom of Poland-Lithuania and Muscovy to live in the seams between encroaching Slavic settlement and receding remnants of the Golden Horde. From these beginnings two distinct traditions gradually emerged to figure in the evolution of the various Cossack groupings in later Russian and Ukrainian history. One tradition witnessed the transformation of these frontiersmen into military servitors, who, in exchange for compensation and various rights and privileges, agreed to discharge mounted military service, usually on the fringes of advancing Slavic colonization. These servitors came to be called "town Cossacks," and their duties included mounted reconnaissance and defense against nomadic and Tatar incursion.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Cossacks of this type in what is now Ukraine appeared often in Polish military service. They also fought stubbornly to retain their autonomy and status as freemen, for which reason in 1654 they sought protection from the Muscovite tsar. However, their autonomous status and sometimes even their existence proved ephemeral, as Muscovite and Imperial Russian rulers gradually either absorbed, abolished, or transplanted various service-obligated Cossack groupings, including the Ukrainians.

A second and related tradition produced the more famous "free Cossack" communities. Like their service brethren, the roots of the free Cossacks lay largely with various wayward Russian and Ukrainian peasants (and town Cossacks) who combined with other migrants of mixed ethnic origins to settle in the open steppe beyond any recognizable state frontiers. They formed what the historian Robert H. McNeill has called "interstitial polities," autonomous military societies that occupied the great river valleys of the Pontic steppe. Free Cossack communities began to appear in the fifteenth century, and by the mid-sixteenth century, they numbered six distinct groupings, including most prominently the Cossacks of the Don Host (voisko ) and the Cossacks of the Zaporozhian Sich. Living by their wits and warrior skills off the land and its adjoining waters, these free Cossacks plundered traditional Islamic enemies and Orthodox allies alike. However, like their service-obligated brethren, the free Cossacks gradually came to serve as Muscovite allies, fielding light cavalry for tsarist campaigns, pressing Slavic colonization farther into the Pontic steppe, then into the Caucasus and Siberia. Although the free Cossacks formed bulwarks

against invasion from the south and east, they were also sensitive to infringements of their rights and privileges as free men. From the time of Stepan Razin's revolt in 16701671 until the rising of Yemelian Pugachev in 17721775, they periodically reacted explosively to encroachments against their status and freebooting lifestyle.

The service and free Cossack traditions gradually merged during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when the former free Cossack groupings were either abolished (e.g., the Zaporozhian Sich in 1775) or brought under the complete control (e.g., the Don Host also in 1775) of imperial St. Petersburg. A series of imperial military administrators from Grigory Alexandrovich Potemkin through Alexander Ivanovich Chernyshev imposed measures that regularized Cossack military service, subordinated local governing institutions to imperial control and supervision, and integrated local elites into the ranks of the Russian nobility. Regardless of origin, by the time of the Crimean War in 18541856, all Cossacks had been transformed into a closed military estate (sosloviye ) subject to mandatory mounted military service in exchange for collective title to their lands and superficial reaffirmation of traditional rights and privileges. During the Great Reform Era, War Minister Dmitry Alexeyevich Milyutin toyed briefly with the idea of abolishing the Cossacks, then imposed measures to further regularize their governance and military service. The blunt fact was that the Russian army needed cavalry, and the Cossack population base of 2.5 million enabled them to satisfy approximately 50 percent of the empire's cavalry requirements. Consequently, the Cossacks became an anachronism in an age of smokeless powder weaponry and mass cadre and conscript armies.

Reforms notwithstanding, by the beginning of the twentieth century, many traditional Cossack groupings hovered on the verge of crisis, thanks to a heavy burden of military service, overcrowding in communal holdings, alienation of land by the Cossack nobility, and an influx of non-Cossack population. The revolutions of 1917 and the ensuing Russian Civil War seriously divided the Cossacks, with a majority supporting the White movement, while a stubborn minority espoused revolutionary causes. Following Bolshevik victory, many Cossacks fled abroad, while those who stayed were persecuted, gradually disappearing during collectivization as an identifiable group. During World War II, the Red Army resurrected Cossack formations, while the Wehrmacht, operating under the fiction that Cossacks were non-Slavic peoples, recruited its own Cossack formations from prisoners of war and dissidents of various stripes. Neither variety had much in common with their earlier namesakes, save perhaps either remote parentage or territorial affinity. The same assertion held true for various Cossack-like groupings that sprang up in trouble spots around the periphery of the Russian Federation following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991.

See also: caucasus; nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist; ukraine and ukrainians


Barrett, Thomas M. (1999). At the Edge of Empire: The Terek Cossacks and the North Caucasus Frontier, 17001860. Boulder: Westview Press.

Khodarkovsky, Michael. (2002). Russia's Steppe Frontier: The Making of a Colonial Empire, 15001800. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

McNeal, Robert H. (1987). Tsar and Cossack, 18551914. London: The Macmillan Press.

McNeill, William H. (1964). Europe's Steppe Frontier 15001800. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Menning, Bruce W. (2003). "G. A. Potemkin and A. I. Chernyshev: Two Dimensions of Reform and Russia's Military Frontier." In Reforming the Tsar's Army: Military Innovation in Imperial Russia from Peter the Great to the Revolution, eds. David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye and Bruce W. Menning. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Subtelny, Orest. (2000). Ukraine: A History, 3rd ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Bruce W. Menning


views updated May 18 2018


On January 24, 1919, the Orgburo, the administrative body subordinate to the Politburo, issued a secret order for the immediate genocide of the Cossacks; local officials were ordered to carry out the policy with the utmost ruthlessness. The categories of those selected for extermination were broad and loosely defined, and within the space of twelve weeks more than ten thousand Don Cossack men, women, and children were executed by revolutionary tribunals. The policy was abruptly abandoned in March 1919 when the Cossacks revolted, driving the Bolsheviks from the Don territory and setting the stage for the climactic phase of the Russian civil war. The policy of genocide against the Cossacks was unique and arose from a complex matrix of Cossack history, Bolshevik beliefs, and the course of the civil war.

In 1914 the Cossacks numbered approximately 4.5 million people scattered across the whole of the Eurasian from the River Don in the west to the River Ussuri in the Far East. The Cossacks had originated in the steppe lands of Russia in the sixteenth century when Slavic frontiersmen and fugitives joined with nomadic peoples of the steppe to form distinct and autonomous communities. For the first two hundred years of their existence, the Cossacks and their way of life had been the incarnation of freedom for the enserfed masses of Russia. From the late eighteenth century, however, the tsarist state succeeded in harnessing the Cossacks' military skills for its own ends, enlisting them to serve either as soldiers or as a form of paramilitary police. By the twentieth century the Cossacks were the most feared defenders of the tsarist state and widely loathed, particularly by the revolutionary movement and the Jews. Cossack attitudes toward the throne and the revolutionary movement were actually far more complex and ambiguous than the popular stereotype suggested. But the perception that all Cossacks were inveterate reactionaries remained an instinctive prejudice for all those opposed to the tsarist regime.

With the Bolsheviks' seizure of power in October 1917 came the civil war. The rapid descent into barbarism by all sides formed the immediate context for the genocide of 1919. But it was the combination of prejudice, the habit of violence, and Cossack behavior during the civil war that coalesced to trigger the policy of genocide. Although divided in their attitudes toward the October Revolution, most Cossacks were much less hostile to the Bolshevik regime than is generally recognized. Nevertheless, the experience of Bolshevik rule in early 1918 led to large-scale rebellions against it in many Cossack territories. These rebellions were not an endorsement of the wider anti-Bolshevik movement; rather, they had the much more limited aim of removing the Bolsheviks from Cossack territories. For the Bolsheviks, however, the rebellions during the spring of 1918 were ample proof of the counterrevolutionary nature of the Cossacks as a whole. Rebellion against Bolshevik rule was seen not as the action of individual Cossacks making choices, but as something inherent in being a Cossack. Already accustomed to using violence and terror on an unprecedented scale, the Bolsheviks took this policy to its logical conclusion with the order for genocide.

Compared to earlier and subsequent genocides and even by the standards of the Russian civil war, the killing of ten thousand Cossacks in the Don region over a three-month period can easily be overlooked. Yet there is no doubt that the genocide which occurred was a state-driven policy. It was devised at the highest level of the Bolshevik state, it targeted a specific community on the basis of who they were, not what they had done, and it was carried out by officials and organizations of that state. It stopped not because the leadership had qualms about the morality of the genocide, but because the Cossacks successfully rebelled and expelled the Bolsheviks. Later the Bolsheviks modified their treatment of the Cossacks, still regarding them suspiciously but acting more circumspect in their dealings with them. By this point, however, the civil war had eviscerated the Cossacks, destroying their communities and way of life. Collectivization was the final catastrophe for the Cossacks, irrevocably ending any possibility of their continued existence as a distinct community.

During World War II many Cossacks fought with the Nazis against the Stalinist regime at whose hands they had suffered so much. The Cossacks retreated with the German army and many thousands of Cossacks ended up in Austria at the war's end. In May 1945 they surrendered to the British. Although many of the Cossacks had never been Soviet citizens, the British decided to comply with a Soviet request for their repatriation. With a great deal of brutality, British soldiers forced the Cossacks onto trains and then to the NKVD. The leaders of the Cossack armies were executed in Moscow, while the rank and file were sent to the Gulag. The regime of Nikita Khrushchev later released any survivors.

SEE ALSO Chechens; Ethnic Cleansing; Famine; Gulag; Kalmyks; Kulaks; Lenin, Vladimir; Pogroms, Pre-Soviet Russia; Stalin, Joseph; Ukraine (Famine)


Holquist, Peter (2002). Making War, Forging Revolution:Russia's Continuum of Crisis 1914–1921. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

McNeal, Robert Hatch (1987). Tsar and Cossack1855–1914. New York: St. Martin's Press

O'Rourke, Shane (2000). Warriors and Peasants: The DonCossacks in Late Imperial Russia. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Shane P. O'Rourke


views updated May 11 2018


The Cossacks emerged as distinct communities in the sixteenth century on the Don and Dnieper Rivers in present-day Russia and Ukraine. These communities were self-governing and considered themselves autonomous from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Muscovy (and later the Russian Empire). In the following centuries, many more Cossack hosts came into being: some by independent action of the Cossacks themselves such as the Terek and Yaik Cossacks in the sixteenth century and some by direct government action like the Orenburg Cossacks in the eighteenth century or the Ussuri and Amur Cossacks in the nineteenth century. The hosts consisted of the entire Cossack community including women and children who were an integral part of the community. Originally Cossacks supported themselves through a mixture of hunting and fishing, but in the nineteenth century they turned increasingly to farming. However, it was for their military skills that Cossacks were famed. They provided invaluable service guarding the borders of Muscovy and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth against attacks by the Crimean Tatars. Later, Cossack hosts were used by the Russian Empire to protect its southern and eastern borders from attacks by indigenous nomadic peoples.

The early Cossack communities were entirely autonomous in their internal affairs and possessed considerable autonomy in external relations. A democratic assembly consisting of all Cossacks exercised authority in the hosts. This assembly elected leaders, either atamans or hetmans depending on the host, and a small number of officials to provide assistance. The constituent parts of the Cossack host—the stanitsas—replicated this democratic organization. Cossacks lived according to their own law and acknowledged the authority of the Polish king or Muscovite tsar in a very limited way.

From the very first appearance of organized Cossack communities, the Polish-Lithuanian and Muscovite governments sought to integrate the Cossacks into their armed forces, preserving their military abilities, but stripping them of their autonomy. The Cossacks violently resisted these attempts, successfully defeating the attempts of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth but eventually succumbing to imperial Russia. The imperial government relied on a strategy of incorporating local or indigenous elites into the imperial ruling class in return for unswerving loyalty to the empire. By the end of the eighteenth century, the government had successfully incorporated Cossack elites into the empire and, as part of this process, had abolished the democratic assemblies that had dominated Cossack life.

Until the nineteenth century the government had very little interest in the lower orders as long as they paid their taxes, did their military service, and obeyed their elites. Cossack democracy survived in the stanitsas, where communities continued to administer themselves through their assemblies (sbory), their elected atamans, and their own norms of justice. After the Napoleonic Wars, the government began to take a much greater interest in the lives of ordinary Cossacks and was no longer content to leave them under the somewhat distant control of their own elite. Four major legislative measures over the course of the century in 1835, 1870, 1875, and 1890 expanded government control over Cossack life. Elected atamans now had to be confirmed in office, rules were established for the competence and conduct of local assemblies, and Cossack military service was integrated more closely into the regular army. Most importantly, the government progressively restricted the competence of Cossack courts until by the end of the century they were reduced to hearing very trivial cases. Many contemporaries believed that Cossack autonomy had all but disappeared by the end of the century.

In reality, however, government control was less than it first appeared. The government's ambitions were severely limited by the absence of any bureaucratic presence in all but a few designated administrative centers. It had to rely on local people and institutions, which in effect left their autonomy substantially intact even if there was rather more government oversight than before. Cossack military service likewise remained separate and distinct from the regular army. In addition, the last two tsars, Alexander III (r. 1881–1894) and Nicholas II (r. 1894–1917), strenuously resisted attempts by the bureaucracy to reduce Cossack autonomy further, believing it to be an expression of their autocratic power, which the bureaucracy was eroding. By the twentieth century the process

of integration had began to unravel as the Cossacks distanced themselves psychologically from the regime due to the rising costs of military service, caused in part by the military reforms of the 1870s, and the increasing use of the Cossacks for internal repression. During the Revolution of 1905 substantial numbers of Cossack military units mutinied and unrest in Cossack territories was widespread. By 1914 the tsarist government had exhausted its credibility among the Cossacks no less than among others peoples of the empire.

The integration of the Cossacks into imperial Russia was a facet of the expansion of the state in the nineteenth century. Until the end of the eighteenth century, the state had concerned itself only with elites, but in the nineteenth century the state sought to extend its control over the mass of people who made up the empire's population. The integration of the Cossacks was part of this wider trend, but, as with so much else in imperial Russia, it remained incomplete and subject to contradictory pressures. By World War I the process of integration had ground to a halt and had even gone into reverse.

See alsoArmies; Russia; Ukraine.


Barrett, Thomas M. At the Edge of Empire: The Terek Cossacks and the North Caucasus Frontier, 1700–1869. Boulder, Colo., 1999.

Longworth, Philip. The Cossacks. London, 1969.

McNeal, Robert. Tsar and Cossack, 1855–1914. London, 1987.

O'Rourke, Shane. Warriors and Peasants: The Don Cossacks in Late Imperial Russia. London, 2000.

Shane O'Rourke


views updated May 21 2018

Cos·sack / ˈkäsˌak; -ək/ • n. a member of a people of southern Russia, Ukraine, and Siberia, noted for their horsemanship and military skill. ∎  a member of a Cossack military unit.• adj. of, relating to, or characteristic of the Cossacks.


views updated May 29 2018

Cossack a member of a people of southern Russia, Ukraine, and Siberia, noted for their horsemanship and military skill. The Cossacks had their origins in the 15th century when refugees from religious persecution, outlaws, adventurers, and escaped serfs banded together in settlements for protection. Under the tsars they were allowed considerable autonomy in return for protecting the frontiers; with the collapse of Soviet rule Cossack groups have reasserted their identity in both Russia and Ukraine.

The name comes through Russian from Turkic kazak ‘vagabond, nomad’, a word which is ultimately also the base of cassock.


views updated May 14 2018

Cossacks Bands of Russian adventurers who undertook the conquest of Siberia in the 17th century. Of ethnically mixed origins, they were escaped serfs, renegades and vagabonds who formed independent, semi-military groups on the fringe of society. After the Russian Revolution (1917), the Cossacks opposed the Bolsheviks and strongly resisted collectivization.

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