The Cossacks



Not to be confused with Kazakhs from Kazakhstan.


The origins of the first Cossacks are uncertain. Everyone has an image of Cossacks – colourfully clad, warlike semi-barbarians in search of glory and plunder. Artists, poets, writers, composers and film directors have all fostered it. They are either ‘galant knights’ or ‘devils on horseback’, depending on the story.


The traditional historiography dates the emergence of Cossacks to the 14th century. Byzantine Greek traders around the Black sea reported the presence of Tartar bands looting and plundering merchant’s caravans. These outlaws were referred to as Kazacks after there leader. They settled around modern Kuban and organized a state called Kazakia or Cossackia. The main meaning of the word "Cossack" is "free man, own man or free warrior".

Cossack people were of mixed ethnic origins, descending from Tartars, Ukranians, Russians, Poles, Turks and from ruminants of the Golden Horde the Vikings visited the area in 9th century and settled and also others who settled or passed through the vast Great Steppe and those who travelled the Silk Route to Asia this could have included the Celts who traded on the Silk Route and settled in Asia. They inhabited sparsely populated areas and islands in the lower Dnieper and Don basins and played an important role in the historical development of both Ukraine and Russia. Towards the end of the 15th century, the Cossacks formed the Zaporozhian Sich centered on the fortified Dnieper Islands. Initially a vassal of the Polish Lithuania Commonwealth


The increasing social and religious pressure from the Commonwealth caused them to proclaim an independent Cossack State. Afterwards, the Treaty of Pereyaslav brought most of the Ukrainian Cossack State under Russian control for the next 300 years.


The Don Cossack Host allied itself with the Tsardom of Russia. Together they began a systematic conquest and colonisation of lands in order to secure the borders on the Volga, the whole of Siberia, the Yaik and the Terek Rivers.


The Cossacks of the Zaporizhia Sich settled on the lower bends of Dnieper, inside the territory of modern Ukraine. They were formally recognised as an independent state, by Poland in 1649. The Zaporozhian Cossacks were renowned for their raids against the Ottoman Empire and its vassals. Their actions increased tension along the southern border of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which resulted in almost a constant low-level warfare taking place in those territories for almost the entire existence of the Commonwealth.


The Don Cossack State, on the river Don, separated from the Grand Duchy of Moscow, vassals of the Ottoman Empire. The capital of the Don Cossack State was Cherkask, later moved to Novocherkassk


The Cossacks played an important role in European geopolitics, participating in a series of conflicts and alliances with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. In 1552 on the banks of the Lower Dnieper River was formed the first recorded Cossack fortress. In the middle of the 17th century the Cossacks managed to briefly create an independent state.


In 1539 the Grand Duke Vasili III of Russia was asked by the Ottoman Sultan to restrain the Cossacks he replied: "The Cossacks do not swear allegiance to me, and they live as they themselves”. In 1549, Tsar Ivan the Terrible replied to a similar request by the Turkish Sultan to stop the attacks by the Don Cossacks. He replied stating that, "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 there own purposes.


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.


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 attacks. 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 southeast 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 River.


By 1615 and 1625, Cossacks had even managed to raze townships on the outskirts of Constantinople (Istanbul), forcing the Sultan to flee his palace. Consecutive treaties between the 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. 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 southeastern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth border into a low-intensity war zone and led to escalation of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth-Ottoman warfare.


The Cossack ambitions to be recognised as equal to the Polish and Lithuanian masters were constantly rebuffed, and plans for transforming the Polish-Lithuanian two nations into three nations made little progress due to the Cossacks' unpopularity. The waning loyalty of the Cossacks and the Commonwealths arrogance towards them resulted in several Cossack uprisings against the Polish-Lithuanian’s. In the early 17th century the King's adamant refusal to cede to the Cossacks demand to expand the Commonwealth to include the Cossacks was the last straw that prompted the largest and most successful uprising.


The uprising became one of a series of catastrophic events for the 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 nobility and their 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 some of the Cossack nobility. However, the majority of Cossack nobility where divided on the issue and the treaty had 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 and the more independent Zaporizhia.


Under Catherine the Great in 1762, the Russian peasants and Cossacks once again faced increased taxation, heavy military conscription, and grain shortages that had characterized the land before Razin’s rebellion. In addition, Catherine II annulled one of Peter III’s acts, an act interpreted to mean that economy peasants, or serfs living on church lands, were free from their obligations and payments to church authorities. In 1767, the empress refused to accept grievances directly from the peasantry. Peasants fled once again to the land of the Cossacks; in particular, the fugitive peasants set their destination for the Iaik Host, whose people were committed to the old Cossack traditions.

The changing government burdened the Cossacks as well, extending its reach to reform the Cossack traditions. The Cossack organisations gradually lost their autonomy, and were abolished by Catherine II by the late 18th century. The Hetmanate became the governorship of Little Russia, and Zaporizhia was absorbed into New Russia. Therefore, In the later half of the 18th century the Zaporozhian Host was destroyed by the Russian authorities. Some Cossacks moved to the Danube delta region and later the Kuban region. After 1828 most of the Danubians had moved first to the Azov and later to the Kuban regions. Although today someof the Kuban Cossacks and their descendants do not consider themselves Ukrainians or Russians by nationality but Cossackians from Cossackia. However, the language spoken by most of descendants speak in a dialect of central Ukrainian and their folklore is significantly Ukrainian


With the destruction of the Zaporozhian Sich, many of these Cossacks settled in the area of the Danube river and became known as the Black Sea Cossacks. Others settled in the area north of the Azov Sea and became known as the Azov Cossacks. Some of these Cossacks later were resettled to colonise the Kuban steppe which was a crucial foothold for Russian expansion in the Caucasus. Some however ran away across the Danube 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 12,000 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 maneuvers used by the Russian Empire, led to a split in the Cossacks.


After a portion 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.


By the 18th century, Cossack hosts in the Russian Empire served as buffer zones on her borders. However, the expansionist ambitions of the empire relied on ensuring the loyalty of Cossacks, which caused tension with their traditional freedom and independence. In the 17th and 18th centuries this resulted in anti-imperial rebellions and wars.


During Napoleon’s Invasion of Russia, Cossacks were the most feared by the French troops. Napoleon himself stated "Europe would eventually be either Cossack or republican”.


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.


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, Cossacks were nevertheless excellent for scouting and reconnaissance duties, as well as undertaking ambushes.


In the Russian Civil War that followed the October Revolution, the Cossacks found themselves on both sides of the conflict. Cossacks formed the core of the White Army, but many of them also fought for the Red Army. Following the defeat of the White Army, a policy of de-commissioning took place on the surviving Cossacks who the Red Army still viewed as a potential threat to the new regime. 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. Cossacks were also banned from serving in the Red Army.


Some recent literature claims that hundreds of thousands or even millions of Cossacks were killed by the Soviet Government during this period According to historians, "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". The Denikin regime alleged that in 1918–19, 5,598 were executed in the provinces of the Don, 3,442 in the Kuban, and 2,142 in Stavropol. On the other hand, historian Leonid Futorianskiy disputes these claims and argues instead that, during the preceding White Terror of the Krasnov regime, between 25,000 and 40,000 people were killed. The Cossack homelands were often very fertile, and during the collectivisation campaign many Cossacks shared the fate of Kulaks (Independent farmers).


The Soviet famine of 1932–1933 hit the Don, Kuban, and Terek territories very hard. The famine caused a population decline of about 20-30% in these territories. It was estimated the number of famine-related deaths in the Northern Caucasus to be at about 1 million. Grain and other produce were expropriated from Cossack families, leaving them to starve and die, my father was 11 years old and remembers eating his pet dog and horse to survive, and many families were forced out of their homes in the winter time, leaving them to freeze to death.


During the Second World War Cossacks found themselves again on both sides of the conflict. A substantial number of them served with the Nazis. This can be explained by harsh repressions that many of them suffered under the collectivization and de-commissioning 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 armed forces. 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 German General Helmuth von Pannwitz, where Cossack emigrees, took leading positions. The 2nd Cossack Division under the command of Colonel Hans-Joachim von Schultz, formed in 1944, existed only for a year, when both Cossack divisions became part of the XV Cossack Cavalry Corps, totalling some 25,000 men, being a regular Wehrmacht unit and not Waffen-SS, as has occasionally been incorrectly alleged. Although in 1944 General von Pannwitz accepted a loose affiliation with the Waffen-SS in order to gain access to their supply of superior arms and equipment, together with control over Cossack units in France, the Corps command, structure, uniforms, ranks, etc. remained firmly Wehrmacht.


The Corps contained regiments of different Cossack groups which had been fighting Tito's partizans in Croatia. At the end of the war in 1945, they conducted a fighting retreat north-eastwards over the Karavanken Mountains into Carinthia where they surrendered to the British Army in 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. On 28 May 1945 they were duped by British assurances that they were being taken to Canada or Australia. Instead they were all handed over to SMERSH on the Soviet demarcation line at Judenburg together with the civilian members of the Kazachi Stan, consisting of old folk, woman, and children Operation Keelhaul as well as about 850 German officers and non-commissioned officers of the Corps. At the end of the war, the British 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.


In the Perestroika era 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.


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. God Bless them All. - Yorkshire Cossack