Cossacks were groups of professional warriors first recorded as a separate group of society in Eastern Europe around late 15th century. Russian Cossacks are typically seen as agile cavalry armed with lances and sabres, while Ukrainian Cossacks mostly fought on their feet and were notorious for their mastery of musketeer tactics.
There were two main groups of cossacks:
- Zaporozhian Cossacks, named so because their stronghold (Zaporozhian Sich) was located on an island beyond ("Za") the rapids ("porogi") of the river Dnieper. For a while the Zaporozhians helped (for Sich Cossacks) or served (for Registered Cossacks) the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth fighting off Crimean Tatars — not that the Polish had much control over them. They played a big role in the history of Ukraine, at one point liberating it from Poland and creating the Cossack Hetmanate — a Ukrainian state in 1648-1764, a vassal of Muscovy and later of the Russian Empire during most of its history. The Russian government, while seeing the value of mighty Zaporozhian Cossack troops, barely tolerated the Sich's and Hetmanate's existence, as their regions were free of serfdom and too autonomous for The Empire. Considering it to be a separatist element, the Russian Empire under Catherine the Great annexed the Cossack Hetmanate in 1764, then ordered the destruction of the Sich in 1775. After the fall of Sich, many Zaporozhian cossacks migrated to the Kuban river valley, and these ones became the Black Sea Cossack Host, later known as Kuban Cossacks. Other Cossacks either intermingled with other parts of Ukrainian society, or escaped to the Ottoman Empire where they were organised into the Danube Cossack Host (Zadunays'ka Sich), which later returned to Russian-ruled Ukraine and became the Azov Cossack Host, that existed until 1866.
- Don Cossacks, named because of the river Don. Gradually formed after Brodnici ("ford men", a large multi-ethnic group in southern Ruthenia) intermingled with Mongols and Cumans (traditional seminomad rivals and allies of Ruthenian princes) in the Steppe and thus adopted independent steppe-wandering style of life, as well as their name (the word "Cossack" has Turkic origins, usually reffering to "free men", who could not find their place in society and went into the steppes, where they acknowledged no authority — some other Turkic names have the same etymology — the Kazakh people for example) from these nomads. Joined by adventurous Russian nobles and runaway peasants, the Don Host became an important part of Muscovite Tsardom's politics, while staying independent from the Tsar until the beginning of 18th century. After the suppression of Bulavin's revolt by the Russians, the Don Host was completely incorporated into Russia as an irregular military organization with some privileges, but less autonomy.
Other groups included the Terek Cossacks, Ussuri Cossacks, Ural Cossacks, etc. Cossacks were exempt from tax and were granted some land in exchange for military service, and as such considered minor nobility (that was especially the case with Registered Cossacks in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth). Cossack settlements were called "stanitsa" in Russia and "sloboda" or "zymivnik" in Ukraine. These settlements enjoyed higher liberties than common villages, e.g. a serf who managed to join the Cossacks was free from his former owner's pursuit.
Zaporozhian Cossacks lived between the core Ukrainian lands and the peninsula of Crimea, with the Registered or Town Cossacks moving into core Ukraine after the creation of Hetmanate. Kuban Cossacks settled between the Russian European core lands and Northern Caucasus. Those Cossacks were away from Russian bureaucrats, but in return took the first hit from any southern attackers.
In the 16th century, a group of Don Cossacks led by the famous ataman Yermak embarked on a campaign to conquer Siberia. Yermak perished during this campaign, but it started the Cossack colonization of the Siberian frontier, and Siberian cossacks became a new large Cossack group.
Some 17th century Cossacks were also pirates who sailed the Black and Caspian seas. The most famous Cossack pirate was Stepan Razin, later well-known as an anti-Tsarist rebel.
In 19th century, the cossacks became a military force trusted by the Empire. Many new cossack hosts were recognized in south-eastern border regions of Russia, such as the Zabaikalski and Amurski cossack hosts in Siberia, and the cossacks became some kind of Russian equivalent to the Texas Rangers.
Unlike the regular Imperial Russian Army units which had to submit to slavelike discipline (the Imperial Russian Navy was even worse in this regard), Cossacks enjoyed a much higher level of personal initiative and autonomy, due to their traditions of quasi-independence summarized in the proverb bow down to no one save the God and Emperor himself. This strengthened their Proud Warrior Race spirit and during the early stages of World War I they enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for courage and ruthlessness.
During the 1917-1922 Russian Civil War that followed Red October, the Cossacks divided; the poorer ones fought for the Reds, the richer ones for the Whites, though there were also the idea of independent Don and Kuban Republics. In the Soviet Union, the Cossack hosts were eliminated in 1920. During World War II, some old Cossack commanders from the Civil War supported the Nazis (and were recognised as "Ostrogoths" by Hitler's regime to mask the idea of working together with the Slavs), while Josef Stalin also "restored" old Russian Cossack Hosts among many pro-Russian patriotic moves to counter the German invasion, even though these hosts were mostly formed from new guys, with many Cossacks eliminated under Vladimir Lenin's purge of counter-revolutionaries or fled outside, as much more Cossacks joined the White Army (as most of them were complacent to the Imperial policy to respect the Cossack's free and autonomous lifestyle, in contrast to ill-treated sailors in which lots of them joined the Reds) and Ukrainian anarchists led by Nestor Makhno.
After World War II ended and horse cavalry were rendered largely obsolete, the Cossack units who fought in the Red Army were dismissed once again and lived as farmers, entertainers and craftsmen, although their martial traditions makes them a preferred stock for military service and they fought in Afghanistan in contemporary military units. The fate of those who fought alongside the German forces were far worse, as after they surrendered to the West they were simply handed back to Soviet forces, facing treason charges, albeit a number of them were White emigrants (anti-Bolshevik Russians who moved abroad after the Reds won the Civil War) which were never citizens of the Soviet Union to begin with. Their main German handler, Helmuth von Pannwitz, chose to share the fate of his men rather than running away from it.
After the fall of Soviet Union many organisations yearned for the restoration of Cossack culture. Today, the "Cossack organizations" exist, but up until recently have had little military or law-enforcement powers, other than the right to bear sabers in Russia, or acting as some honorary mounted policemen functions in Ukraine. In some cities and towns they patrol the streets as voluntary police assistance corps, still relying on cadre policemen for paperwork and with tacit or explicit consent from the official police force. Unsympathetic outside observers have warned that the Russian Cossack ethos, of conservative obedience to authority, Church and hierarchy, together with violence against demonstrators and those protesting against Vladimir Putin's administration, places them in Right-Wing Militia Fanatic territory. During the Winter Olympic Games of Sochi, the public whipping of Pussy Riot female dissenters by uniformed Cossacks, whilst the regular police stood by and did not intervene, was recorded on camera and seen around the world.
Still, the Cossack Hosts, while being mostly a farce movement nowadays, greatly influenced the history and culture of Eastern Europe. Dnieper Cossacks formed the basis for the creation of the modern Ukrainian nation and culture, while Russian Cossacks created separate ethnographic groups in South-Western Russia, with culture and traditions that persist to this day. A lot of Cossacks from the Don host native to the Donbas region and the Kuban host descended from the Zaporozhian Cossacks fought in the war that started in Donbas in 2014 on the pro-Russian side.
For a long time in popular culture, the Cossack look has been the primary image that pops in foreigner's minds when they think of what Russians look like, the same way Americans are Cowboys. This is due to the fact that the iconic Cossack hats and dance are closely associated with Russians in movies abroad. These days however, Russian Cossacks share that spot with Dirty Communists. As for Zaporozhian Cossacks, their imagery has showed up a lot on the international scene since early 2022 to symbolize Ukraine's resistance to the full scale Russian invasion.
Examples in Fiction
- The painting Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire by Ilya Repin depicts a group of Cossacks writing a reply to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire. Having been defeated in a battle, Mehmed attempted to intimidate the Cossacks into submission, sending them a declaration filled with impressive titles and the many lands he ruled. The Cossacks' reply twisted the many titles and lands into some very creative profanity, "goat-fucker of Alexandria" being one of the tamer ones.
- Cossacks, a French comic book about a young early 17th century Lithuanian Hussar from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth who deserts the Polish army, joins a group of Zaporozhian Cossacks and starts living among them.
- In Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, among the many encounters with Dirty Communists Tintin has in the Random Events Plot, there's one where he finds himself in the middle of a Russian winter, frozen after an involuntary bath and at the mercy of a wandering Cossack who wants to bring him to the OGPU for a bounty. Said Cossack turns out to be quite buff when Tintin gets thawed and fights him.
- The Cossacks is a 1928 silent film based on a Leo Tolstoy novel, in which Cossacks spend their time drinking vodka and fighting Turks.
- Adaptations of Nikolai Gogol's Taras Bulba about Zaporozhian Cossacks:
- In the James Bond film GoldenEye, the Big Bad is the son of Lienz Cossacks, a group of cossacks who fought for Nazi Germany (or perhaps more accurately, with the Nazis against the Soviets, in their eyes anyway) and were forcefully repatriated to the USSR (where Stalin had them tried and executed) by the British. Their Real Life counterparts never lived in a place named "Lienz", this was just the name of the Austrian town where they were handed over to the Soviets in late May 1945.
- With Fire and Sword (1999) features Zaporozhian Cossacks fighting the Poles, being an adaptation of the Sienkiewicz Trilogy.
- A Cossack shows up in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows as an assassin working for Moriarty to kill a Romani who might have been sent information on his plans.
- In Snatch., Avi refers to Boris (whom he thinks is Russian) as a "Cossack". Because Avi is Jewish and Cossacks were involved in anti-Jewish pogroms, this is meant as an insult.
- An American Pickle: While living in 1919, Herschel's shtetel is constantly pillaged by Cossacks. In the present time, a sign for Russian vodka has been planted in his wife' graveyard, and he's outraged that the "Cossacks" have invaded even there.
- Appear frequently in Ukrainian folk songs regardless of the genre — epic ballads, love songs, humorous / bawdy songs... anything really. "Dumy" (historical /epics ballads) in particular feature a lot of cossacks and hetmans, often mentioned by name, for example Dmytro Vyshnevetsky, Ivan Mazepa or Bohdan Khmelnytsky. Traditionally accompanied by the bandura, a zither/lute instrument.
- There's a lot of Russian folk songs as well, often accompanied by the traditional balalaika instrument.
- "Cossack Patrol" is one of the most famous, especially its cover by the Red Army Choir.
- The song "Stenka Razin" (with lyrics by Dmitri Sadovnikov) describes a fictional episode in the life of the eponymous hero, a Don Cossack chief. The song describes the Cossacks as wild and warlike, and Stenka sacrifices his beautiful young bride, a Persian princess, to maintain the loyalty of his men.
- Cossack songs such as Oysa ti Oyisa is frequently found on YouTube and elsewhere as the backing to videos featuring flankirovna, a form of energetic sword-dancing which is associated with Kuban Cossack tradition. The song is also known as The Cossack's Prayer and sets the philosophy of the Cossack Way to music. Folk-rockers Otava Yo perform a version using the same melodic and verse structure, but with different lyrics that appear to take the martial and nationalistic overtones out of it.
- Ogniem i Mieczem Polish historical novel from 1884, set during the Khmelnytsky Uprising of the Zaporozhian Cossacks. It's perhaps the most famous fictional depiction of them outside Ukrainian media.
- The Russian Jewish short story writer, Isaac Babel served alongside the Cossacks, and wrote about it in his famous Red Cavalry stories. Jorge Luis Borges once wrote on the clash this created:
In early 1921, Babel joined a Cossack regiment. Those blustering and useless warriors (no one in the history of the universe has been defeated more often than the Cossacks) were, of course, anti-Semitic. The mere idea of a Jew on horseback struck them as laughable, and the fact that Babel was a good horseman only added to their disdain and spite. A couple of welltimed and flashy exploits enabled Babel to make them leave him in peace.
- Cossacks play major roles in Nikolai Gogol's stories like Taras Bulba (see above), including A Terrible Vengeance.
- In The Most Dangerous Game General Zaroff says that Ivan is a Cossack, and considering that Ivan is a Husky Russkie this seems to be used as a form of Mother Russia Makes You Strong, which is followed up by a similar comment about himself.
- Many of the characters in Mikahil Sholokhov's The Quiet Don are Cossacks from the Don region of Russia.
- The works of Nikolai Gogol.
- Ivan Kotlyarevskyi (1769-1838) wrote an parody of the Aenid in Ukrainian which replaces Aeneas and co. with Zaporozhian Cossacks. The poem was later adapted into an animated film (see below).
- "The Shadow of the Vulture" by Robert E. Howard: The story's co-heroine, Red Sonya of Rogatino (i.e. Rohatyn in Ukraine) is suggested to be a cossack by her swearing with a "Cossack curse" and going into a "Cossack dance" when she's happy.
- In Temeraire Cossacks are mentioned as being part of the Russian forces. Unlike the main Russian Aerial Corps who favor heavyweight dragons and treat them harshly the Cossacks have fly-weight dragons only slightly larger than couriers and seem to have a very close bond to their dragons with both men and dragons sharing the same campfires at night. Their small size means that they are of limited use in a pitched fight but are excellent at skirmishing and harassing Napoleon's supply lines.
- Fiddler on the Roof: The song "To Life" is a Jewish wedding celebration in which the local Russian soldiers unexpectedly join in with some traditional Cossack dancing, implying that they're Cossacks. Their commander warns Tevye that they will be performing a pogrom within the next few weeks. At the end of Act I, during another wedding, the Cossacks ride back in to ransack the town.
- Cossacks: European Wars, the first entry in the Cossacks series of historical Real-Time Strategy games (as well as its two expansions), aptly features an entire nation of these, representing 17th and early 18th century Ukraine in the game. There is also a mercenary Cossack light cavalry unit available to all nations, and a Don Cossack medium cavalry unit for the Russian nation. The game used the famous Ilya Repin painting Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire (the page's pic) as cover art. The amount of special attention Ukraine has in terms of gameplay and campaigns really stands out due to its studio, GSC Game World, being Ukrainian.
- The Ukrainian campaign of European Wars is about the Polish–Cossack–Tatar War. The Polish campaign of the Expansion Pack The Art of War is about the same war, from the Polish side, obviously.
- The third game features Cossacks again (since it's partly a remake of European Wars). And this time, the game's Mascot is one.
- One can only assume this is where the Russian Dr. Cossack got his name from in the Megaman series.
- The Cossacks are Russian unique national units in the later Civilization games.
- Cossacks are one of the units for the Russian civilization in Age of Empires III.
- In Mount & Blade the addon "With Fire and Sword" features Cossack Hetmanate as one of the main factions, central to the plot of the game.
- Assassin's Creed: Revelations has a female Cossack named Oksana Razin as one of the Multiplayer characters, the Vanguard.
- Cossack Cavalry is used by the European Alliance in March of War.
- The classic Ukrainian cartoon characters Cossacks.
- An American Tail opens with the Jewish village of Shostka being subjected to a pogrom by Russian Cossacks, while the equivalent cat versions of the Cossacks (Catsacks) terrorize Jewish mice.
- The 1991 cartoon adaptation of Ivan Kotlyarevskyi's Eneyida (Aenid) has Aeneas and other Trojans that look and act like Zaporozhian Cossacks (see here).