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) Poland fighting off Crimean Tatars — not that Poland 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 Russian Empire during most of its history. Russian government, while seeing the value of mighty Zaporozhian Cossack troops, barely tolerated 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, Russian Empire under Catherine II annexed Cossack Hetmanate in 1764, then ordered to destroy 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 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 were "stationed" between the core Ukrainian lands and the peninsula of Crimea, with the Registired or Town Cossacks moving into core Ukraine after the creation of Hetmanate. Kuban Cossacks settled between the Russian European core lands and the North 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 becoming a new large Cossack group.
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 & 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 Civil War, 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 Soviet Russia, the Cossack hosts were eliminated in 1920. During WWII 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 Soviet Union also "restored" old Russian Cossack Hosts, even though these were mostly formed from new guys, with many Cossacks eliminated under 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 & autonomous lifestyle, in contrast to ill-treated sailors in which lots of them joined the Reds) and Ukrainian anarchists led by Nestor Makhno.
After WWII ended & 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 & they fought in Afghanistan in contemporary military units. The fate of Nazi Germany-aligned ones 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 1917-1922 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 with it.
After the fall of Soviet Union many organisations yearned for the restoration of Cossacks. Today, the "Cossack organizations" exist, but have 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. 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 modern Ukrainian nation and culture, while Russian Cossacks created a separate ethnographic group in South-Western Russia, with culture and traditions that persist to this day. As of 2014, a lot of Cossacks from the Don host native to the Donbass region & the Kuban host descended from the Zaporozhian Cossacks fought in the Ukrainian civil war on the pro-Russian side, the most famous one is an awesomely bearded guy named Aleksandr Mozhayev a.k.a Babai.
Nowadays 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 is closely associated with Russians in movies abroad (these days however, it shares that spot with Dirty Communists). Unfortunately, to this day Ashkenazi Jewish children in America (and elsewhere) are terrified by horror stories of the pogroms Cossacks participated in, especially as many Ashkenazi Jews in America (and elsewhere) are descendants of Jews who fled said pogroms.
Examples in Fiction
- The page image 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. When "goat-fucker of Alexandria" is one of the tamer insults, you know you picked a fight with the wrong people.
- The Cossacks is a 1928 silent film based on a Leo Tolstoy novel, in which said Cossacks spend their time drinking vodka and fighting Turks.
- Taras Bulba 2009 Russian film featuring Zaporozhian cossacks, based on novel of the same name by Nikolai Gogol. There's an older Hollywood version of the movie starring the great Yul Brynner as Taras himself.
- 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 they would be tried and executed for treason) 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.
- A Cossack shows up in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows as an assassin working for Moriarty to kill a gypsy 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.
- The Russian folk 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.
- Ogniem i Mieczem Polish historical novel from 1884, set during the Khmelnytsky Uprising of the Zaporozhian Cossacks.
- 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 Gogol 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.
- 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.
- 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 Cossack as one of the Multiplayer characters, the Vanguard.
- Cossack Cavalry is used by the European Alliance in March of War.
- An American Tail opens with the Jewish village of Shostka being subjected to a pogrom by Cossacks, while the equivalent cat versions of the Cossacks terrorize Jewish mice.