The Cossacks: a special breed

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April 02, 2015
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Don Cossacks in the late 19th century. © RIA Novosti

The Cossacks are known for their seminal role in Russian history, their nomadic culture and their attractive folklore. But who actually are the Cossacks? thinkRUSSIA sheds some light on this very specific group of people.

Who are they?

There are several versions regarding the origin of the word ‘Cossack.’ However, the most-widely accepted one suggests that it comes from the language of Cumans, a nomadic Turkic people who once inhabited vast territories of today’s southern Russia, Caucasus, Ukraine, Romania and significant parts of central Asia, and means “free man.”

As on the word’s etymology, historians tend to have different views on the origin of the Cossacks’ people. Cossacks are predominantly Russian and East Slavic people who settled the region during the 11th century. However, there are also notable Tatar, Caucasian and even Germanic elements. While there has never been a strong sense of particular national identity among them, the Cossack culture has nevertheless been always closely associated with the Orthodox Christian religious identity. Today, Cossacks are among the most patriotic Russians. Still, they see themselves as a particular breed of Russians, what experts describe as “subethnicity.”

A brief history

So how did Cossackdom start? The first communities were formed in the 15th century (some sources argue much before) by people who were on the run from feudal oppression, famine or persecution. They created small self-governed communities across the largely-unpopulated steppes around Dnieper, Don, Terek, Volga and Ural rivers. As such, these communities were entirely independent from neighbouring states, such as the Grand Duchy of Moscow, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth or the Crimean Khanate, often serving as a buffer zone between them but also fighting against each one of them to preserve their independence and way of life.

In the 18th century, as the Russian empire grew, Cossack communities became its integral, yet autonomous, part. Cossacks became a special military class and a special social estate within the empire. Their primary duties included guarding the empire’s borders and participating in military campaigns. In return, they enjoyed numerous privileges. For example, their communities remained governed by their internal laws and they were given large plots of land and tax-free status. This led to what is today considered to be the Golden Age of Cossackdom.

In the next century, Cossacks also played an active role as explorers, traders and warriors in the Urals, Siberia and the Russian Far East. They founded numerous cities, among which Irkutsk, Omsk, Tomsk, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Orenburg, Krasnoyarsk, Krasnodar and Grozny. They also reached the Pacific Ocean and Cossack Semyon Ivanovich Dezhnev was the first European to sail through the Bering Strait.

How are the Cossacks organised?

Cossacks are, first and foremost, a warrior breed. For many, the first association with them is a bearded warrior skilfully riding a horse through vast Russian steppes. Indeed, Cossack boys were trained as warriors from a very young age and, usually, by the age of five they were already confident horse riders. In times of peace, all Cossacks were considered equal but in times of war, they would elect a supreme commander called ataman.

There are several different groups of Cossacks. Historically, the most well-known ones are the Zaporozhian Cossacks around the Dnieper River in present-day Ukraine, and Don Cossacks who inhabited the areas around the river Don in Southern Russia and northern Caucasus. However, as their lifestyle led them across the vast plains of central Asia and Eastern Europe, Cossack groups have historically existed from Poland to the Far East and even the Russian-Chinese border. Interestingly, although they are famous as skilful horsemen, the Cossacks which inhabited the coasts of the Azov Sea were also known as sailors and were primarily a Naval Coast Guard of the Russian Empire.

Cossacks in popular culture

As their culture, lifestyle and history is dominated by the idea of freedom, Cossacks have long appealed to romantics. Apart from numerous representations in Russian, Ukrainian and Polish literature through works of writers such as Nikolai Gogol, Henryk Sienkiewicz or Leo Tolstoy, Cossacks were also heroes of works by Lord Byron, Lord Alfred Tennyson and Richard Connell, to name only a few.

Cossack revival and their place in modern Russian society

After a significant decline which marked the Cossack culture and lifestyle in the 20th century, the late 1980s brought a marked revival. Today, Cossack ethnic and cultural identity is growing stronger in many parts of Russia but also across the world.

Since 2005, they have been recognised in Russia as a distinct ethno-cultural entity and today, in southern Russia, there are even special state-funded Cossack schools where pupils are also taught Cossack tradition and history. Since 2005, the Russian Army has also had a Cossack division and some regional authorities, including the city of Moscow, have conceded some policing and administrative duties to them.

The 2010 Population Census estimates that there are 67,573 ethnic Cossacks in Russia but, at the same time, up to 5 million people around the world associate themselves with the Cossack identity. An identity which has stood the test of time!

What interests you most about the Cossacks? Have any similar communities existed, or still exist, in your country?

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