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About Russia

Nations of Russia

The Cossacks

The Cossacks were not counted as a separate ethnic group in the 1989 census.
The Cossacks are nowadays experiencing a national revival, especially in the southern Volga-Don region.
Before the 1917 revolution, there were 11 different Cossack "Hosts" (voysko); the Amur-, Astrakhan-, Don-, Transbaykal-, Kuban-, Orenburg-, Semireche-, Siberian, Terek-, Ural- and Ussuri-Cossacks. A similar status was also held by the Irkutsk and Yenisey cavalry regiments.
Language: Russian. Many bilinguals.
Religion: Russian Orthodox. Some Old Believers among the Don-, Ural- and Siberian Cossacks
Diaspora: Ukraine

The Cossacks were a unique phenomenon in world history. They consisted of several bands of free warriors of different ethnic origins, who roamed the vast expanse of the steppe north of the Black and Caspian seas. For centuries, they survived by constant warfare against the Tatars and the Turks, and later on behalf of whoever paid them. For two centuries, they made war at the will of the tsar, who dismantled their society and turned them into ordinary soldiers.

As the Golden Horde was beginning to break up in the late 14th c., Russia and Lithuania was expanding into Ukraine. They were frequently raided by Mongol and Tatar Hordes, and found that the best way to protect themselves against such raids was to hire other Tatars for their defense. The first Tatars in Russian service were the Ryazan Cossacks. Others were soon to follow. Emigrant Tatars provided Russia with soliders for border defense, paid by the state.
From the mid-15th century non-Tatar Cossacks appeared: As Slavic peasants began to migrate into Tatar lands, they also banded together in military colonies to defend themselves against Tatar raids. They copied Tatar organisation, weapons, style of warfare and the habit of piracy and began to call themselves Cossacks. Their frequent raiding made agriculture impossible, so they lived by fishing, hunting and piracy.
All of these Cossack communities were formed along the rivers that flow into the Black and Caspian seas; the Dniester, Dniepr, Don, Donets, Volga and Yaik, and they developed into separate "hosts" (voysko).
From the late 1500s to around 1700, the Russian tsars used Cossacks to escort envoys and caravans, raid the Tatars and recapture Russians that had been taken by them and to protect borders - without ever taking responsibility for their actions. They were dealt with through the Muscovite Foreign Office. The Russians feared that they might change sides, and accept employment with Russia's enemies, so the Russians did not dare to encroach on them to much. However, as Peter the Great sent the Don Cossacks against Azov, the Turkish threat was removed, allowing the tsar to make greater demands on the Cossacks and exert greater control. As Russia expanded into Don territory, Peter's increasing demands on the Cossacks led to uprisings among several Cossack hosts.
In the late 16th c., several other Cossack groups evolved out of the various original Cossack communities of the Don area. Among them were the Greben Cossacks and the Terek Cossacks in the south (with elements of North Caucasian culture), and later the Transbaykal Cossacks and the Amur-Ussuri Cossacks in Siberia.
The Zaporozhe Cossacks, living along the Dnieper river in Ukraine, were not derived from the Don Cossacks. Their Zaparoche Sich became a strong power in the 16th and early 17th c., and the Zaporozhe pirates even threatened Constantinople. The Zaporozhes also served as mercenaries for whoever paid them, and both the Zaporozhe and the Don Cossacks were involved, for instance, in the "time-of-troubles" in Russian history (1605-13), when they fought on behalf of "False-Dmitri" who claimed the Russian throne. At other times they forght against each other.
In the mid-17th c., a rebellion broke out among the Zaporozhe Cossacks against Polish rule in Ukraine, which dramatically improved their position in Ukraine, but eventually led to the Russian acquisition of eastern Ukraine. In 1653, the Russian tsar recognised the Ukrainian Cossacks as a "free people" not bound to Poland, and the year after, the Cossacks gave their loyalty to the tsar.
The Zaporozhe Cossacks remained fairly independent until the end of the 17th c., but grew closer and closer to the tsar. The tsar began to dismantle their regiments, and in 1699, he abolished registation altogether. After Cossack Hetman Ivan Mazepa persuaded the Zaporozhe Cossacks to join the Swedes against Russia, tsar Peter punished them by burning their Sich to the ground. Among new Cossack groups that then appeared in Ukraine were the Transdanubian Cossacks, the Black Sea Cossacks and the Kuban Cossacks.
Gradually, the various Cossack groups became simply a warrior class within Russian society. They were frequently uprooted by the government and sent to colonize new land. When the government ran out of Cossacks, it simply extended Cossack status to other segments of the population (immigrants, orphans, exiles, as well as Kalmyk and Bashkir tribesmen). By the end of the 18th c., Cossacks had a status similar to the minor Russian nobility.
Total loyalty to the tsar became a tradition among the Cossacks, but the revolution in 1917 divided them into those who still supported the tsar, those who supported the revolution, and a few who attempted to set up a Cossack state. After the revolution, the Cossacks lost their special status. They protested collectivisation, only to be mercilessly crushed by Stalin, who simply had a great many of them murdered. Several "Cossack" regiments were re-created in 1936, with hardly any connection traditional Cossack formation. These regiments fought unsuccessfully in World War II.

Starting with Gorbachov's Glasnost and Perestroyka policies of the late 1980s, and the burst of Russian nationalism that followed, there has been a revival of Cossack identity. Descendants of Cossacks started demanding tax-exemptions as reparation for what the Soviet state had done to them in the inter-war years. Other Cossack groups have appeared in places like Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Siberia and the Baltics to protect ethnic Russians against persecution by local ethnic groups, and to promote order.


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