Max Vasmer's etymological dictionary traces the name to the Old East Slavic word козакъ, kozak, a loanword from Cuman, in which cosac meant "free man". The ethnonym Kazakh is from the same Turkic root.
In written sources the name is first attested in Codex Cumanicus from the 13th century. In English, "Cossack" is first attested in 1590. (False etymologies have sometimes linked it to the Irish surname Cossack, which is an unrelated homonym, a variant of the Norman Irish surname Cusack.)
It is not clear when new Slavic people apart from Brodnici and Berladniki started settling in the lower reaches of major rivers such as the Don and the Dnieper after the demise of the Khazar state. It is unlikely it could have happened before the 13th century, when the Mongols broke the power of the Cumans, who had assimilated the previous population on that territory. It is known that new settlers inherited a lifestyle that persisted there long before, such as those of the Turkic Cumans and the Circassian Kassaks. However, Slavic settlements in Southern Ukraine started to appear relatively early during the Cuman rule, with the earliest ones, like Oleshky, dating back to the 11th century.
Early "Proto-Cossack" groups are generally reported to have come into existence within the present-day Ukraine in the mid-13th century as the influence of Cumans grew weak though some have ascribed their origins to as early as the tenth century. Some historians suggest that the Cossack people were of mixed ethnic origins, descending from Russians, Ukrainians, Moldavians, Poles, Turks, Tatars, and others who settled or passed through the vast Steppe. However some Turkologists argue that Cossacks are descendants of native Cumans of Ukraine, who lived there long ago before the Mongol invasion.
In the midst of the growing Moscow and Lithuanian powers, new political entities had appeared in the region such as Moldavia and the Crimean Khanate. In 1261 some Slavic people living in the area between the Dniester and the Volga were mentioned in Ruthenian chronicles. Historical records of the Cossacks before the 16th century are scant as the history of the Ukrainian lands in that period for various reasons.
As early as the 15th century a few individuals ventured into the proverbial "Wild Fields," the southern frontier regions of Ukraine separating Poland-Lithuania from the Crimean Khanate, which was a naturally rich and fertile region teeming with cattle, wild animals, and fish. These ventures went on short-term expeditions to acquire the region's natural wealth and this mode of existing—farming, hunting, then returning home in the winter or perhaps remaining permanently—came to be known as the Cossack way of life.
In the 15th century, the Cossack society was described as a loose federation of independent communities, often forming local armies, entirely independent from the neighbouring states (of, e.g., Poland, the Grand Duchy of Moscow or the Khanate of Crimea). According to Hrushevsky the first mention of Cossacks could be found already in the 14th century; however, they were either of Turkic or of undefined origin. Hrushevsky states that Cossacks could have descended from the long forgotten Antes, or groups from the Berlad territory in present-day Romania, then a part of the Grand Duchy of Halych, Brodniki. There, Cossacks may have served as self-defense formations, organized to defend against raids conducted by neighbors. By 1492, the Crimean Khan complained that Kanev and Cherkasy Cossacks attacked his ship near Tighina (Bender), and the Grand Duke of Lithuania Alexander I promised to find the guilty among the Cossacks. Sometime in the 16th century there appeared the old Ukrainian Ballad of Cossack Holota about a Cossack near Kiliya.
By the 16th century these Cossack societies merged into two independent territorial organisations as well as other smaller, still detached groups:The Cossacks of Zaporizhia, centered on the lower bends of Dnieper, inside the territory of modern Ukraine, with the fortified capital of Zaporozhian Sich. They were formally recognised as an independent state, the Zaporozhian Host, by a treaty with Poland in 1649.
The Don Cossack State, on the river Don. The capital of the Don Cossack State was initially Razdory, then moved to Cherkassk, later moved to Novocherkassk.
In addition to these two, one finds mention of the less well-known Tatar Cossacks such as Nağaybäklär and Meschera (mishari) Cossacks, of whom Sary Azman was the first Don ataman and which not only were assimilated by Don Cossacks, but had their own irregular Bashkir and Meschera Host up to the end of the 19th century. Kalmyk and Buryat Cossacks should be mentioned as well. The Gypsy Cossacks are the least known ones now.
The Zaporozhian Cossacks, who lived on the Pontic-Caspian steppe below the Dnieper Rapids (Ukrainian: za porohamy;), became a well-known group. Cossack numbers increased greatly between the 15th and 17th centuries. Cossacks were usually organized by Ruthenian boyars or princes of the nobility, especially various Lithuanian starostas. Merchants, peasants and runaways from the Poland-Lithuania Commonwealth, Moscow state, and modern Moldova and Romania also joined the Cossacks. The first recorded Zaporizhian Host prototype was formed when the cousin of Ivan the Terrible, Dmytro Vyshnevetsky built a fortress on the island of Little Khortytsia on the banks of the Lower Dnieper in 1552. The Zaporozhian Host adopted a lifestyle that combined the ancient Cossack order and habits with that of the Knights Hospitaller.
The Zaporozhian 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. As a result of the Khmelnytsky Uprising in the middle of the 17th century, the Zaporozhian Cossacks briefly established an independent state, which later became the autonomous Cossack Hetmanate (1649–1764). It was a suzerainty under protection of the Russian Tsar from 1667 but ruled by the local Hetmans for a century.
The Zaporozhian Sich had its own authorities, its own "Nizovy" Zaporozhsky Host, and its own land. In the later half of the 18th century, Russian authorities destroyed this Zaporozhian Host and gave its lands to landlords. Some Cossacks moved to the Danube delta region, where they formed the Danubian Sich under Ottoman rule. To prevent further defection of Cossacks, the Russian government restored the special Cossack status of the majority of Zaporozhian Cossacks. This allowed them to unite in the Host of Loyal Zaporozhians, and later reorganize into other hosts, of which the Black Sea host was most important. They eventually moved to the Kuban region, due to the distribution of Zaporozhian Sich lands among landlords, and the resulting scarcity of land.
The majority of Danubian Sich Cossacks had moved first to the Azov region in 1828, and later joined other former Zaporozhian Cossacks in the Kuban region. Groups were generally identified by faith rather than language in that period, and most descendants of Zaporozhian Cossacks in the Kuban region are bilingual, speaking both Russian and the local Kuban dialect of central Ukrainian. Their folklore is largely Ukrainian. While, in recent times, the Ukrainian linguistic and cultural impact has been attributed to Ukrainophile interests, the predominant view of ethnologists and historians is considered to be found in the common culture dating back to the Black Sea Cossacks.
The Zaporozhians gained a reputation for their raids against the Ottoman Empire and its vassals, although they sometimes plundered other neighbors as well. Their actions increased tension along the southern border of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Low-level warfare took place in those territories for most of the period of the Commonwealth (1569–1795).
In 1539, the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent asked Grand Duke Vasili III of Russia to restrain the Cossacks; the Duke replied: "The Cossacks do not swear allegiance to me, and they live as they themselves please." In 1549 Tsar Ivan the Terrible replied to the Suleiman's request that he stop the attacks by the Don Cossacks, saying, "The Cossacks of the Don are not my subjects, and they go to war or live in peace without my knowledge." The major powers tried to exploit Cossack warmongering for their own purposes. In the 16th century, with the power of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth extending south, the Zaporozhian Cossacks were mostly, if tentatively, regarded by the Commonwealth as their subjects. Registered Cossacks formed a part of the Commonwealth army until 1699.
Around the end of the 16th century, relations between the Commonwealth and the Ottoman Empire were strained by increasing Cossack aggression. From the second part of the 16th century, Cossacks started raiding Ottoman territories. The Polish government could not control the Cossacks, but was held responsible as the men were nominally their subjects. In retaliation, Tatars living under Ottoman rule launched raids into the Commonwealth, mostly in the southeast territories. In retaliation, Cossack pirates started raiding wealthy trading port-cities in the heart of the Ottoman Empire, as these were just two days away by boat from the mouth of the Dnieper River. By 1615 and 1625, Cossacks had razed suburbs of Constantinople, forcing the Ottoman Sultan to flee his palace.
Consecutive treaties between the Ottoman Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth called for the governments to keep the Cossacks and Tatars in check, but neither enforced the treaties strongly. The Polish forced the Cossacks to burn their boats and stop raiding by sea, but they did not give it up entirely. During this time, the Habsburg Empire sometimes covertly hired Cossack raiders to go against the Ottomans to ease pressure on their own borders. Many Cossacks and Tatars developed longstanding enmity due to the losses of their raids. The ensuing chaos and cycles of retaliation often turned the entire southeastern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth border into a low-intensity war zone. It catalyzed escalation of Commonwealth-Ottoman warfare, from the Moldavian Magnate Wars (1593–1617) to the Battle of Cecora (1620) and campaigns in the Polish-Ottoman War of 1633–1634.
Cossack numbers expanded when the warriors were joined by peasants escaping serfdom in Russia and dependence in the Commonwealth. Attempts by the szlachta to turn the Zaporozhian Cossacks into peasants eroded the Cossacks' formerly strong loyalty towards the Commonwealth. The government constantly rebuffed Cossack ambitions for recognition as equal to the szlachta, and plans for transforming the Polish-Lithuanian two-nation Commonwealth into a Polish-Lithuanian-Rus' Commonwealth made little progress due to the idea's unpopularity among the Rus' szlahta of the Rus' Cossacks being equal to Rus' szlachta. The Cossacks' strong historic allegiance to the Eastern Orthodox Church also put them at odds with officials of the Roman Catholic-dominated Commonwealth. Tensions increased when Commonwealth policies turned from relative tolerance to suppression of the Eastern Orthodox church after the Union of Brest. The Cossacks became strongly anti-Roman Catholic, in this case an attitude that became synonymous with anti-Polish.
The waning loyalty of the Cossacks and the szlachta's arrogance towards them resulted in several Cossack uprisings against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the early 17th century. Finally, the King's adamant refusal to cede to the Cossacks' demand to expand the Cossack Registry was the last straw that prompted the largest and most successful of these: the Khmelnytsky uprising that started in 1648. Some Cossacks, including Polish schlahta, converted to Eastern Orthodox, divided the lands of Ruthenian szlachta in Ukraine, and became the Cossack szlachta. The uprising became one of a series of catastrophic events for the Commonwealth known as The Deluge, which greatly weakened the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and set the stage for its disintegration 100 years later.
The influential relatives of Russian and Lithuanian szlachta in Moscow helped to create the Russian-Polish alliance against Khmelnitsky's Cossacks as rebels against any order and the private property of Ruthenian Orthodox schlahta, Don Cossack raids on Crimea leaving Khmelnitsky without the aid of his usual Tatar allies. But in Russian opinion, the rebellion ended with the 1654 Treaty of Pereyaslav in which Khmelnitsky's Cossacks so that to destroy the Russian-Polish alliance against them pledged their loyalty to the Russian Tsar with the latter guaranteeing Cossacks his protection, recognition of Cossack starshyna (nobility) and their property and autonomy under his rule, freeing the Cossacks from the Polish sphere of influence and land claims of Ruthenian schlahta. Only some part of the Ruthenian schlahta of the Chernigov region, being of the Moscow state origin, saved their lands from division among Cossacks and became the part of the Cossack schlahta. After this, Ruthenian schlahta refrained from its plans to have a Moscow tsar the king of the Commonwealth, its own Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki became the king later. 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 Sejm as well as by some of the Cossack starshyna, including Hetman Ivan Vyhovsky. The starshyna were, however, divided on the issue and the treaty had even less support among rank-and-file Cossacks; thus it failed.
Under Russian rule, the Cossack nation of the Zaporozhian Host was divided into two autonomous republics of the Moscow Tsardom: the Cossack Hetmanate, and the more independent Zaporizhia. These 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.
In 1775 the Lower Dnieper Zaporozhian Host was destroyed. Later, its high-ranking Cossack leaders were exiled to Siberia, the last chief becoming the prisoner of the Solovetsky Islands, for the establishment of a new Sich in the Ottoman Empire by the part of Cossacks without any involvement of the punished Cossack leaders.
With the destruction of the Zaporozhian Sich, many Zaporozhian Cossacks, especially the vast majority of Old Believers and other people from the Greater Russia, defected to Turkey and settled in the area of the Danube river, founding a new Sich there. Part of these Cossacks settled on Tisa river in Austrian empire to have a new Sich there as well. Some Ukrainian-speaking Eastern Orthodox Cossacks however ran away across the Danube (territory under the control of the Ottoman Empire) together with Cossacks of the Greater Russia origin to form a new host before rejoining the others in the Kuban. And a lot of Ukrainian peasants and adventurers joined the Danubian Sich afterwards. Ukrainian folklore remembers the Danubian Sich, while new siches of Loyal Zaporozhians on Bug and Dniester are not famous ones. The majority of Tisa Sich and Danubian Sich Cossacks returned to Russia in 1828 and settled in the area north of the Azov Sea and became known as the Azov Cossacks. But the majority of Zaporozhian Cossacks, especially Ukrainian-speaking Eastern Orthodox, remained loyal to Russia in spite of the Sich destruction and became known as the Black Sea Cossacks. Both Azov and Black Sea Cossacks were resettled to colonise the Kuban steppe which was a crucial foothold for Russian expansion in the Caucasus.
During Cossack stay in Turkey, 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 manoeuvres used by the Russian Empire, led to splits in the Cossacks. After a portion of the runaway Cossacks returned to Russia they were used by the Russian army to form new military bodies that also incorporated Greek Albanians, Crimean Tatars and Gypsies. However, after the Russo-Turkish war of 1787–1792, most of them were incorporated into the Black Sea Cossack Host together with Loyal Zaporozhians. The Black Sea Host 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 between Berdyansk and Mariupol. In 1860, all of them were resettled to the North Caucasus and merged into the Kuban Cossack Host.
The native land of the Cossacks is defined by a line of Russian/Ruthenian town-fortresses located on the border with the steppe and stretching from the middle Volga to Ryazan and Tula, then breaking abruptly to the south and extending to the Dnieper via Pereyaslavl. This area was settled by a population of free people practicing various trades and crafts.
These people, constantly facing the Tatar warriors on the steppe frontier, received the Turkic name Cossacks (Kazaks), which was then extended to other free people in Russia. Many Cumans, who had assimilated Khazars, retreated to the Ryazan Grand principality (Grand Duchy) after the Mongol invasion. The oldest reference in the annals mentions Cossacks of the Russian principality of Ryazan serving the principality in the battle against the Tatars in 1444. In the 16th century, the Cossacks (primarily those of Ryazan) were grouped in military and trading communities on the open steppe and started to migrate into the area of the Don.
Cossacks served as border guards and protectors of towns, forts, settlements and trading posts, performed policing functions on the frontiers and also came to represent an integral part of the Russian army. In the 16th century, to protect the borderland area from Tatar invasions, Cossacks carried out sentry and patrol duties, guarding from Crimean Tatars and nomads of the Nogai Horde in the steppe region.
The most popular weapons used by Cossack cavalrymen were usually sabres, or shashka, and long spears.
Russian Cossacks played a key role in the expansion of the Russian Empire into Siberia (particularly by Yermak Timofeyevich), the Caucasus and Central Asia in the period from the 16th to 19th centuries. Cossacks also served as guides to most Russian expeditions formed by civil and military geographers and surveyors, traders and explorers. In 1648 the Russian Cossack Semyon Dezhnyov discovered a passage between North America and Asia. Cossack units played a role in many wars in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries (such as the Russo-Turkish Wars, the Russo-Persian Wars, and the annexation of Central Asia).
Western Europeans had a lot of contacts with Cossacks during the Seven Years' War and had seen Cossack patrols in Berlin. During Napoleon's Invasion of Russia, Cossacks were the Russian soldiers most feared by the French troops. Napoleon himself stated "Cossacks are the best light troops among all that exist. If I had them in my army, I would go through all the world with them." Cossacks also took part in the partisan war deep inside French-occupied Russian territory, attacking communications and supply lines. These attacks, carried out by Cossacks along with Russian light cavalry and other units, were one of the first developments of guerrilla warfare tactics and, to some extent, special operations as we know them today.
Frenchmen 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 purity during Napoleon's wars. Bistrots appeared after the Cossack occupation of Paris. Stendhal had, that "Cossacks were pure as children and great as Gods".
The Don Cossack Host (Russian: Всевеликое Войско Донское, Vsevelikoye Voysko Donskoye) was either an independent or an autonomous democratic republic in the present day Southern Russia from the end of the 6th century until the early 20th century. In the year of 948 Byzantine Emperor Constantine mentioned of trade of goods, between the Don Cossacks in their home capital. Don Cossacks had a rich military tradition, playing an important part in the historical development of the Russian Empire and successfully participating in all of its major wars.
The exact origins of Don Cossacks are unknown. In modern view, Don Cossacks are descendants of both Slavic people and Khazars, which assimilated Slavs, Goths, Alans, and possibly of Rugii, Roxolans, Alans and even Goths-Alans of the Black Sea Rus See the works of Evgueni Goloubinski and Vasily Vasilievsky about Relations of Gothoalans (Goths-Tetraxits) and Russian colonists in region of North-East part of Black Sea and Sea of Azov as well. The Goths-Alans came from the Western part of North Caucasus and from Northern Europe, Goths intermixed with Slavs during their trip from Northern Europe. When Alans had moved to Europe, these Goths occupied the part of the former Alania in Crimea and were called Gothoalans, Russian occupying another part were called Roxolans. Later people from the western part of North Caucasus joined Gotho-Alans in their Feodoro principality. It is believed that Crimean Greeks have the Gotho-Alan ancestry, among others. Mikhail Lomonosov was the first to identify Roxolans as Russians similar to Gotho-Alan identification as Goths. New Slavic people have come from Dnepr and Taman, and from Novgorod Republic and Principality of Ryazan, both before and after their violent occupation and subjugation by the Muscovite Tsardom.
The majority of Don Cossacks are either Eastern Orthodox or Christian Old Believers (старообрядцы); and prior to the Civil War in Russia, there were numerous religious minorities, including Muslims, Subbotniks, Jews and others.
Kuban Cossacks are Cossacks who live in the Kuban region of Russia. Although numerous Cossack groups came to inhabit the Western Northern Caucasus most of the Kuban Cossacks are descendants of the Black Sea Cossack Host, (originally the Zaporozhian Cossacks) and the Caucasus Line Cossack Host.
A distinguishing feature from other Russian Cossacks is the Chupryna or Oseledets hairstyle, a roach haircut popular among some Kubanians. This is due to their traditional roots, going back to the Zaporizhian Sich.
The Terek Cossack Host was a Cossack host created in 1577 from free Cossacks who resettled from the Volga to the Terek River. Aboriginal Terek Cossacks joined this host later. In 1792 the Host was included in the Caucasus Line Cossack Host and separated from it again in 1860, with the capital of Vladikavkaz. In 1916 the population of the Host was 255,000 within an area of 1.9 million desyatinas. Many of the members of the Terek Cossacks in 1916 were Ukrainians, Ossetians, Circassians, and Armenians. The genocide of Sunzhensky Cossacks during the Civil war in Russia implemented under the leadership of Sergo Orjonikidze was part of the genocide of Circassians.
The Ural Cossack Host was formed from the Ural Cossacks, who had settled along the Ural River. Their alternative name, Yaik Cossacks, comes from the former name of the river, which was changed by the government after the Pugachev's rebellion. The Ural Cossacks spoke Russian and identified as having primarily Russian ancestry, but they also incorporated many Tatars into their ranks. Twenty years after Moscow had conquered the Volga from Kazan to Astrakhan, in 1577, the government sent troops to disperse pirates and raiders along the Volga (one of their number was Ermak). Some escaped to flee southeast to the Ural River, where they joined Yaik Cossacks. In 1580 they captured Saraichik. By 1591 they were fighting on behalf of the government in Moscow. During the next century, they were officially recognized by the imperial government.
The Cossacks, as an autonomous group, had to defend their liberties and traditions against the ever-expanding Russian government. The Cossacks tended to act independently of the central government, increasing friction between the two. The government's power began to grow in 1613 with Mikhail Romanov's ascension to the throne after the Time of Troubles, when dynastic conflicts constantly presented themselves and inconsistency reigned with the lack of a single, competent ruler. The government began attempting to assimilate the Cossacks into the Russian culture and political system by granting elite status and enforcing military service, thus creating divisions within the Cossacks themselves as they fought to keep their own traditions alive. The government's efforts to alter the traditional nomadic lifestyle of the Cossacks caused the Cossacks to be involved in nearly all the major disturbances in Russia over a 200-year period, including the rebellions led by Stepan Razin and Emilian Pugachev.
As Muscovy regained stability under Mikhail Romanov after the Time of Troubles beginning in 1613, discontent steadily grew within the serf and peasant populations. The Code of 1649 under Alexis Romanov, Mikhail's son, divided the Russian population into distinct and fixed hereditary categories. This law tied peasants to the land and forced townsmen to take on their fathers' occupations. The Code of 1649 increased tax revenue for the central government and stopped wandering to stabilize the social order by fixing people in the same land with the same occupation of their families. The increased taxes fell mainly on the peasants as a burden and continued to widen the gap between the wealthy and the poor. As the government developed more military expeditions, human and material resources became limited, putting an even harsher strain on the peasants. War with Poland and Sweden in 1662 led to a fiscal crisis and riots across the country. Taxes, harsh conditions, and the gap between social classes drove peasants and serfs to flee, many of them going to the Cossacks, knowing that the Cossacks would accept refugees and free them.
The Cossacks experienced difficulties under Tsar Alexis as the influx of refugees grew daily. The Cossacks received a subsidy of food, money, and military supplies from the tsar in return for acting as border defense. These subsidies fluctuated often and provided a source of conflict between the Cossacks and the government. The war with Poland diverted necessary food and military shipments to the Cossacks as the population of the Host, the unit of Cossacks identified by the region in which they resided, grew with the fugitive peasants. The influx of these refugees troubled the Cossacks not only because of the increased demand for food but also because the large number of these fugitives meant the Cossacks could not absorb them into their culture through the traditional apprenticeship way. Instead of taking these steps of proper assimilation into Cossack society, the runaway peasants spontaneously declared themselves Cossacks and lived beside true Cossacks, laboring or working as barge-haulers to earn food.
As conditions worsened and Mikhail's son Alexis took the throne, divisions among the Cossacks began to emerge. Older Cossacks began to settle and become prosperous, enjoying the privileges they earned through obeying and assisting the Muscovite system. The old Cossacks started giving up their traditions and liberties that had been worth dying for to obtain the pleasures of an elite life. The lawless and restless runaway peasants that called themselves Cossacks looked for adventure and revenge against the nobility that had caused them suffering. These Cossacks did not receive the government subsidies that the old Cossacks enjoyed and thus had to work harder and longer for food and money. These divisions between the elite and lawless would lead to the formation of a Cossack army beginning in 1667 under Stenka Razin as well as to the ultimate failure of that rebellion.
Stenka Razin was born into an elite Cossack family and had made many diplomatic visits to Moscow before organizing his rebellion. The Cossacks were Razin's main supporters and followed him during his first Persian campaign in 1667, plundering and pillaging Persian cities on the Caspian Sea. They returned ill and hungry, tired from fighting but rich with plundered goods in 1669. Muscovy tried to gain support from the old Cossacks, asking the ataman, or Cossack chieftain, to prevent Razin from following through with his plans. However the ataman, being Razin's godfather and swayed by Razin's promise of a share of the wealth from Razin's expeditions, replied that the elite Cossacks were powerless against the band of rebels. The elite did not see much threat from Razin and his followers either, although they realized he could cause them problems with the Muscovite system if his following developed into a rebellion against the central government.
Razin and his followers began to capture cities at the start of the rebellion in 1669. They seized the towns of Tsaritsyn, Astrakhan, Saratov, and Samara, implementing democratic rule and releasing peasants from slavery as they went. Razin envisioned a united Cossack republic throughout the southern steppe in which the towns and villages of the area would operate under the democratic, Cossack style of government. These sieges often took place in the runaway peasant Cossacks' old towns, leading them to wreak havoc on their old masters and get the revenge for which they were hoping. The rebels' advancement began to be seen as a problem to the elder Cossacks, who, in 1671, decided to comply with the government in order to receive more subsidies. On April 14, ataman Yakovlev led elders to destroy the rebel camp and captured Razin, taking him soon afterward to Moscow to be executed.
Razin's rebellion marked the beginning of the end to traditional Cossack practices. In August 1671, Muscovite envoys administered the oath of allegiance and the Cossacks swore loyalty to the tsar. While they still had internal autonomy, the Cossacks became Muscovite subjects, a transition that would prove to be a dividing point yet again in Pugachev's Rebellion.
For the Cossack elite, a noble status within the empire came at the price of their old liberties in the 18th century. An advancement of agricultural settlement began forcing the Cossacks to give up their traditional nomadic ways and to adopt new forms of government. The government steadily changed the entire culture of the Cossacks. Peter the Great increased service obligations for the Cossacks and mobilized their forces to fight in far-off wars. Peter began establishing non-Cossack troops in fortresses along the Iaik River and in 1734 constructed Orenburg, a fortress of government power on the frontier that gave Cossacks a subordinate role in border defense. When the Iaik Cossacks sent a delegation to Peter to explain their grievances, Peter stripped the Cossacks of their autonomous status and subordinated them to the War College rather than the College of Foreign Affairs, solidifying the change in the Cossacks from border patrol to military servicemen. Over the next fifty years, the central government responded to Cossack grievances with arrests, floggings, and exiles. Among the ordinary Cossacks, hatred of the elite and central government boiled and by 1772, an open state of rebellion ensued for six months between the Iaik Cossacks and the central government.
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 did not spread one of Peter III's acts, relevant to economy peasants, or the former church serfs living on the former church lands, freeing from their obligations and payments to church authorities, to other peasants freeing them from serfdom thus. 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.
Emelian Pugachev, a low-status Don Cossack, arrived in the Iaik Host in late 1772. Pugachev's claim to be Peter III stemmed from the expectations the Cossacks held for the late ruler, believing that Peter III would have been an effective ruler after freeing not only church serfs, but the serfs of landlords as well had he not been assassinated by a plot of his wife Catherine II. Many Iaik Cossacks believed Pugachev's claim, though those closest to him knew the truth. Others that may have known the truth but did not support Catherine II, due to her disposal of Peter III, still spread Pugachev's claim to be the late emperor.
The first of the three phases of Pugachev's Rebellion began in September 1773. The elite-supporting Cossacks constituted the majority of the first prisoners taken by the rebels. After a five-month siege of Orenburg, a military college became Pugachev's headquarters. Pugachev began envisioning a Cossack tsardom, similar to Razin's vision of a united Cossack republic. The peasantry across Russia stirred with rumors and listened to manifestos issued by Pugachev. However, Pugachev's Rebellion soon came to be seen as an inevitable failure. The Don Cossacks refused to help the rebellion in the last phase of the revolt because they knew military troops followed Pugachev closely after lifting the siege of Orenburg and following Pugachev's flight from defeated Kazan. In September 1774, Pugachev's own Cossack lieutenants turned him over to the government troops.
The Cossacks' opposition to centralization of political authority led them to participate in Pugachev's Rebellion. Their defeat led the Cossack elite to accept government reforms in the hope of obtaining status in the nobility. The ordinary Cossacks had to follow and give up their traditions and liberties.
From the start, relations of Cossacks with the Tsardom of Russia were varied; at times they supported Russian military operations, and at others conducted rebellions against the central power. After one of those uprisings at the end of the 18th century, Russian forces destroyed the Zaporozhian Host. Many of the Cossacks who chose to stay loyal to the Russian Monarch and continue their service later moved to the Kuban. Others choosing to continue a mercenary role escaped control by taking advantage of the large Danube delta.
By the 19th century, the Russian Empire had annexed the territory of the hosts and controlled them by providing privileges for their service. At this time the Cossacks served as military forces in many wars conducted by the Russian Empire. Cossacks were considered excellent for scouting and reconnaissance duties, as well as undertaking ambushes. Their tactics in open battles were generally inferior to those of regular soldiers such as the Dragoons. In 1840 the hosts included the Don, Black Sea, Astrakhan, Little Russia, Azov, Danube, Ural, Stavropol, Mesherya, Orenburg, Siberia, Tobolsk, Tomsk, Yeniseisk, Irkutsk, Sabaikal, Yakutsk and Tartar voiskos. By the 1890s the Ussuri, Semirechensk and Amur Cossacks were added; the last had a regiment of elite mounted rifles.
By the end of the 19th century, the Cossack communities enjoyed a privileged tax-free status in the Russian Empire, although they had a 20-year military service commitment (this was reduced to 18 years from 1909). They were on active duty for five years, but could fulfill their remaining obligation with the reserves. In the beginning of the 20th century, the Russian Cossacks counted 4.5 million. They were organized as independent regional hosts, each comprising a number of regiments.
Treated as a separate and elite community by the Tsar, the Cossacks rewarded his government with strong loyalty. His administration frequently used Cossack units to suppress domestic disorder, especially during the Russian Revolution of 1905. The Imperial Government depended heavily on the perceived reliability of the Cossacks. By the early 20th century, their decentralized communities and semi-feudal military service were coming to be seen as obsolete. The Russian Army Command, which had worked to professionalize its forces, considered the Cossacks as less well disciplined, trained and mounted than the hussars, dragoons, and lancers of the regular cavalry. The Cossack qualities of initiative and rough-riding skills were not always fully appreciated. As a result, Cossack units were frequently broken up into small detachments for use as scouts, messengers or picturesque escorts.
At the outbreak of World War I the mounted Cossacks made up 38 regiments, plus some infantry battalions and 52 horse artillery batteries. By 1916 their wartime strength had expanded to 160 regiments plus 176 independent sotnias (squadrons), the latter employed as detached units. While about a third of the regular Russian cavalry was dismounted in 1916 to serve as infantry, the Cossack arm remained essentially unaffected by modernization.
During the initial stages of the February Revolution of 1917, the three Cossack regiments stationed in Saint Petersburg proved in the words of a senior officer to be "extremely slack and indecisive" when deployed in support of the overstretched police. While less than three thousand Cossack reservists and new recruits from the poorer regions of the Don and Kuban regions were involved, their inaction (and that of the primarily ceremonial Konvoi) came as a psychological blow to the Tsarist authorities in the city and encouraged defections from other units.
In the Russian Civil War that followed the October Revolution, various Cossacks supported each side of the conflict. Cossacks formed the core of the White Army, but many also fought with the Red Army. Some Cossack units in the Ukrainian service participated in pogroms against Jews in Ukraine. Following the defeat of the White Army, the new Communist regime instituted a policy of harsh repressions, the so-called Decossackization, which took place on the surviving Cossacks and their homelands. In 2003, historian Shane O'Rourke announced finding documentary evidence that the Soviets had issued orders for exterminating the Cossacks, and that "ten thousand Cossacks were slaughtered systematically in a few weeks in January 1919." He says this "was one of the main factors which led to the disappearance of the Cossacks as a nation." During Decossackization, the new regime also divided traditional lands of Cossack Hosts among new Soviet republics and various autonomous republics of non-Cossack peoples. Cossacks were banned from serving in the Red Army.
Histories of the 21st century document that hundreds of thousands of Cossacks were killed by the Soviet Government during Decossackization. According to Michael Kort, "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", including 45 thousand Terek 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. Historian Leonid Futorianskiy disputes these recent claims. He argues that during the preceding White Terror of the Krasnov regime, between 25 and 40 thousand Cossacks were killed. The Cossack homelands were often very fertile. During the Soviets' 1930s collectivisation campaign, many Cossacks were killed or died of starvation, as did the kulaks.
The Soviet famine of 1932–33, called Holodomor by Cossacks, impacted the people very hard. Ukraine, lower Volga, Don, Kuban, and Terek territories (the Northern Caucasus) had high fatalities from starvation. The famine caused a population decline of about 20–30% in these territories (the population decline in the rural areas, populated largely by ethnic Cossacks, was even higher, since urban areas were less affected by the famine); Robert Conquest estimates the number of famine-related deaths in the Northern Caucasus to be about 1 million. Government officials expropriated grain and other produce from rural Cossack families, leaving them to starve and die. Many families were forced from their homes in the severe winter and froze to death — Mikhail Sholokhov's letters to Joseph Stalin document the conditions and widespread deaths, as do eyewitness accounts.
In 1936, under pressure and appeals from Cossack communities, the Soviet government lifted the ban on Cossacks serving in the Red Army.
During the Second World War, ethnic Cossacks fought on both sides of the conflict. Cossacks who had emigrated to the UK and the USA served with their military forces. Many Cossacks joined the Resistance. Though some Cossacks joined German armed forces, they did so usually to defect either to the western allies or to the Resistance, to liberate their co-patriots and family members from Nazi work and Nazi concentration camps.
The vast majority of the ethnic Cossacks fought against the Nazis in the ranks of the Red Army and of the Red Navy on all war theatres. Their service was crucial on the Southern theatre of the Eastern Front. They were used for frontal patrols and logistics on the open prairies (steppes), which they knew well. The first Cossacks units were formed as early as 1936; by 1942 there were 17 Cossack corps units in the Red Army (as opposed to two in the German forces). Later these corps units were increased in size and reduced to eight. Their distinction in battle eventually led all to be merited as Guards. Oka Gorodovikov formed 49 Cossack cavalry divisions during the war. Many ethnic Cossacks served in other divisions of the Red Army and in the Navy, including Boris Shaposhnikov, Markian Popov, Aksel Berg, Arseniy Golovko, Oka Gorodovikov, Lev Dovator, Pavel Belov, General Dmitry Karbyshev, Dmitry Lavrinenko, pilot Grigory Bakhchivandzhi and engineer Fedor Tokarev. A Cossack detachment of the 4th Guards Corps marched in Red Square during the Moscow Victory Parade of 1945.
A substantial number of Cossacks served with the Germans, in response to the harsh repressions and genocide that their families had suffered under the policies pursued by Joseph Stalin. Like other people of the Soviet Union who suffered persecution under Stalin, some Cossacks greeted the advancing German army as liberators from Stalinism.
While some Cossacks in German service were former White Army refugees or related to them, many Soviet citizens, including rank-and-file Cossacks, defected from the Red Army to join the "Cossack units" of German armed forces. Native Cossacks usually served as officers. As early as 1941, the German leadership formed the first Cossack detachments from prisoners of war, defectors and volunteers. 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 Germans used Cossacks for anti-partisan activity in the rear of the German army.
The Cossack National Movement of Liberation hoped to gain an independent Cossack state, to be called Cossackia, after the war. In 1943, after the 1st Cossack Division was formed under the command of General Helmuth von Pannwitz, Cossack émigrés such as Andrei Shkuro and Pyotr Krasnov took leading positions in the movement. The 2nd Cossack Division, under the command of Colonel Hans-Joachim von Schultz, formed in 1944, existed for a year. Both Cossack divisions were made part of the XV Cossack Cavalry Corps, totalling some 25,000 men. They wore regular Wehrmacht uniforms and not Waffen-SS ones, as has occasionally been incorrectly alleged. Although in 1944 General von Pannwitz accepted 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, no pagan SS features had ever been implemented to respect the Christianity of Cossacks and the Corps command, structure, uniforms, ranks, etc. remained firmly Wehrmacht.
The Corps contained regiments of different Cossack groups, who were Don, Kuban, Terek and Siberian Cossacks who had been fighting Tito's guerrillas in the former Yugoslavia. 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 Allied-administered Austria. They hoped to join the British to fight Communism. At the time the Cossacks were seen as Nazi collaborators and they were reported to have committed atrocities against resistance fighters in Eastern Europe. As part of Operation Keelhaul, the British returned Cossack prisoners of war to Russia.
On 28 May 1945, told they would be resettled in Canada or Australia, the Cossacks were transferred to SMERSH custody at the Soviet demarcation line at Judenburg. Also included in the transfer were civilian members of the Kazachi Stan, consisting of old folk, women, and children, 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 and 50 thousand Cossacks, including families of military, to the Soviet Union. Many of those were reported as never having been Soviet citizens. An unknown number were subsequently executed or imprisoned. This episode is widely known as the Betrayal of the Cossacks.
Following the war, Cossack units, along with cavalry in general, were rendered obsolete and released from the Soviet Army. In the post-war years many Cossack descendants were thought of as simple peasants, and those who lived inside an autonomous republic usually gave way to the particular minority and migrated elsewhere (particularly, to the Baltic region).
During the Perestroika era of the Soviet Union of the late 1980s, many descendants 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.
Simultaneously, 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.
According to 2002 Russia's population census, there are 140,028 people who currently self-identify as ethnic Cossacks, while at the same time, between 3.5 and 5 million people associate themselves with the Cossack identity in Europe and across the world.
Cossacks have taken an active part in many of the conflicts that have taken place since the disintegration of the Soviet Union: the War of Transnistria, the Georgian–Abkhazian conflict, the Georgian–Ossetian conflict, the First Chechen War and the Second Chechen War, as well as the 2014 pro-Russian unrest in Ukraine and subsequent War in Donbass.
210 Cossacks from the Caucasus are distributed among the Y-DNA haplogroups: 42% Haplogroup R1a, 15% I2a, 11% G, 7% N, 7% R1b, 5% I1, 5% J2, 3% E, 2% J1, 2% L, and others of lower frequency. Distribution in 90 Kuban Cossacks: R1a 47,8%, I2 20,0%, R1b 8,9%, N1c 6,7%, I1 4,4%, J2 4,4%, E1b1b1 3,3%, G2a 1,1%, T 1,1%, N1b 1,1%, Q 1,1%. R1a is of the Z282 branch.
In early times an ataman (later called hetman) commanded a Cossack band. He was elected by the tribe members at a Cossack rada, as were the other important band officials: the judge, the scribe, the lesser officials, and the clergy. The ataman's symbol of power was a ceremonial mace, a bulava. Today, Russian Cossacks are led by Atamans, and Ukrainian Cossacks by Hetmans.
After the split of Ukraine along the Dnieper River by the Polish-Russian Treaty of Andrusovo in 1667, Ukrainian Cossacks were known as Left-bank and Right-bank Cossacks.
The ataman had executive powers, and at time of war, he was the supreme commander in the field. Legislative power was given to the Band Assembly (Rada). The senior officers were called starshyna. In the absence of written laws, the Cossacks were governed by the "Cossack Traditions" - the common, unwritten law.
Cossack society and government were heavily militarized. The nation was called a host (vois’ko, or viys’ko, translated as 'army'). The people and territories were subdivided into regimental and company districts, and village posts (polky, sotni, and stanytsi). A unit of a Cossack troop could be called a kuren.
Each Cossack settlement, alone or in conjunction with neighbouring settlements, formed military units and regiments of light cavalry (or mounted infantry in the case of Siberian Cossacks). They could respond to a threat on very short notice.
A high regard for education was a tradition among the Cossacks of Ukraine. In 1654, when the Patriarch of Antioch, Makarios, traveled to Moscow through Ukraine, his son, Deacon Paul Allepscius, wrote the following report:
All over the land of Rus', i.e., among the Cossacks, we have noticed a remarkable feature which made us marvel; all of them, with the exception of only a few among them, even the majority of their wives and daughters, can read and know the order of the church-services as well as the church melodies. Besides that, their priests take care and educate the orphans, not allowing them to wander in the streets ignorant and unattended.
Russian Cossacks founded numerous settlements (called stanitsas) and fortresses along troublesome borders. These included forts Verny (Almaty, Kazakhstan) in south Central Asia; Grozny in North Caucasus; Fort Alexandrovsk (Fort Shevchenko, Kazakhstan); Krasnovodsk (Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan); Novonikolayevskaya stanitsa (Bautino, Kazakhstan); Blagoveshchensk; and towns and settlements along the Ural, Ishim, Irtysh, Ob, Yenisei, Lena, Amur, Anadyr (Chukotka), and Ussuri Rivers. A group of Albazin Cossacks settled in China as early as 1685.
Cossacks interacted with nearby peoples, and exchanged cultural influences (for example, the Terek Cossacks were heavily influenced by the culture of North Caucasian tribes). They also frequently married local residents (non-Cossack settlers and natives), regardless of race or origin, sometimes setting aside religious restrictions. War brides brought from distant lands were also common in Cossack families. General Bogaevsky, a commander in the Russian Volunteer Army, mentions in his 1918 memoir that one of his Cossacks, Sotnik Khoperski, was a native Chinese who had been brought back as a child from Manchuria during the Russian-Japanese War 1904–1905; a Cossack family adopted and raised him.
Cossack family values as expressed in 21st century Russia are simple, rigid, and seem very traditional compared to those of contemporary Western culture. In theory men build the home and provide an income; the women take care of the family and provide for the children and household. Traditional Russian values, culture and Orthodox Christianity form the bedrock of their beliefs.
Cossacks, particularly those in rural areas, tend to have more children than most other people in Russia. Rural Cossacks often have traditional kinship systems; they live in large clans of extended family. These are led by an elder patriarch, usually a grandfather, who often has the title of Ataman.
Historically, when male Cossacks waged permanent wars at a great distance from their homes, the women took over the role as family leaders. They were also called on to physically defend their villages and towns from enemy attacks. In some cases, they raided and disarmed neighbouring villages composed of other ethnic groups. The writer Leo Tolstoy described such Cossack female chauvinism in his Cossacks novel.
Sergei Korolev's mother was the daughter of a leader of the civil estate of the Zaporozhian Sich. When Malorossian Cossack regiments had been disbanded, those Cossacks who were not promoted to nobility or did not join other estates were united into a civil Cossack estate, like Korolev's mother's family.
Cossacks have long appealed to romantics as idealising freedom and resistance to external authority, and their military exploits against their enemies have contributed to this favorable image.
For others, Cossacks have become a symbol of repression because of the role of various horsemen crying "Cossacks" to frighten people, suppressing popular uprisings in the Russian Empire, their actions during the Khmelnytsky Uprising of 1648–1657 and for their role in pogroms In Ukraine in 1919 headed by Petlura's Ukrainian People's Republic army and Ataman Semosenko.
Literary reflections of Cossack culture abound in Russian, Ukrainian and Polish literature, particularly in the works of Nikolai Gogol (Taras Bulba), Taras Shevchenko, Mikhail Sholokhov, Henryk Sienkiewicz (With Fire and Sword). One of Leo Tolstoy's first novellas, The Cossacks, depicts their autonomy and estrangement from Moscow and from centralized rule. Most of Polish Romantic literature deals with themes about the Cossacks. (Roman Catholics, especially Poles, could be Zaporozhian Cossacks up to 1635. A lot of landless Polish Schlahta converted to Eastern Orthodoxy to divide the lands of Ruthenian Schlahta together with Cossacks during the Khmelnitsky uprising. After this Cossacks used to convert Poles, especially Polish children, to Eastern Orthodoxy to turn them into Cossacks. Many Polish and Polish Jewish children were adopted into Cossack families. All Poles captured with arms by Russian forces in the 1812–1814 campaign were enlisted in Cossack Hosts for 25 years, though without the obligation to convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. However, those who converted to Eastern Orthodoxy might escape from the Cossack service and from any other exile. Thus "Polish Cossack" became synonymous with a Polish Roman Catholic patriot from 1814.
In the literature of Western Europe, Cossacks appear in Lord Byron's "Mazepa", Tennyson's poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade", and Richard Connell's short story "The Most Dangerous Game". In many of the stories by adventure writer Harold Lamb, the main character is a Cossack.
Historiography can interpret Cossackdom in imperial and colonial terms.
In Ukraine, where Cossackdom represents historical and cultural heritage, some people have started attempting to recreate the images of Ukrainian Cossacks. Traditional Ukrainian culture is often tied in with the Cossacks, and the Ukrainian government actively supports these attempts. The traditional Cossack bulawa serves as a symbol of the Ukrainian presidency, and the island of the Khortytsia, the origin and center of the Zaporozhian Sich, has been restored.
Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, many have begun seeing Russian Cossacks as defenders of Russian sovereignty. Cossacks have not only reestablished all of their hosts, they have also taken over police and even administrative duties in their homelands. The Russian military also took advantage of the patriotic feelings among the Cossacks and as the hosts become larger and more organised; it has in the past turned over some of its surplus technology to them. On par with that, the Cossacks also play a large cultural role in the South of Russia. Since the rural ethnic Russian inhabitants of the Rostov-on-Don, Krasnodar and Stavropol territories, as well as of the Autonomous republics of the Northern Caucasus, regard themselves as consisting almost exclusively of at least spiritual Cossack descendants, the region has had a reputation, even in the Soviet times, for its high discipline, low crime and conservative views. Such areas have high rates of religious attendance and of literacy.
The Russian Empire organised its Cossacks into several voiskos (hosts), which lived along the Russian border, or internal borders between Russian and non-Russian peoples. Each host originally had its own leadership and regalia as well as its own uniforms and ranks. However, by the late 19th century the latter were standardized following the example of the Imperial Russian Army. Following the 1988 law, which allowed the hosts to reform and the 2005 one that legally recognised the hosts as a combat service, the ranks and insignia were kept, but on all military tickets that are standard for the Russian Army they are given below.
*Rank presently absent in the Russian Army
*The application of ranks polkovnik and general is only stable for small hosts. Large hosts are divided into divisions and consequently the Russian Army sub-ranks general-mayor, general-leitenatant and general-polkovnik are used to distinguish the atamans' hierarchy of command, with the supreme ataman having the highest rank available. In such a case, the shoulder insignia has a dedicated one-, two- and three-star alignment, as normal in the Russian Army; otherwise it will be blank.
The same can be said about the colonel ranks as they are given to atamans of regional and district status. The lowest group, stanitsa, is commanded by Yesaul. If the region or district lacks any other stanitsas, then the rank polkovnik is applied automatically but with no stars on the shoulder. As the hosts continue to grow, starless shoulder patches are becoming increasingly rare.
In addition, the supreme ataman of the largest Don Cossack Host is officially titled as marshal, and so wears insignia derived from the Russian/Soviet marshal ranks, including the diamond Marshal Star. This is because the Don Cossack Supreme Ataman is recognized as the official head of all Cossack armies (including those outside the present Russian borders). He also has the authority to recognize and dissolve new hosts.
Cossacks were expected to provide their own uniforms. While these were sometimes manufactured in bulk by factories owned by the individual host, families often handed down garments or made them within the household. Individual items might accordingly vary from those laid down by regulation or be of obsolete pattern. Each Host had distinctive uniform colourings.
For most hosts, the basic uniform consisted of the standard loose-fitting tunics and wide trousers typical of Russian regular troops during the period 1881–1908. The Caucasian Hosts (Kuban and Terek) wore the very long, open fronted, cherkesska coats with ornamental cartridge loops and coloured beshmets (waistcoats). These have come to epitomize the popular image of the Cossacks. Most hosts wore fleece hats with coloured cloth tops in full dress, and round caps, with or without peaks, for ordinary duties. These caps were worn sharply slanted to one side by the rank-and-file of cossack regiments, over hair trimmed longer than that of ordinary Russian soldiers. The two Caucasian Hosts wore high fleece caps on most occasions, together with black felt cloaks (burke) in bad weather.
Until 1909, Cossack regiments in summer wore white blouses and cap covers of standard Russian army pattern. The shoulder straps and cap bands were in the host colour, as detailed below. From 1910 to 1918, they wore a khaki-grey jacket for field wear. The dress uniform had blue or green breeches with broad coloured stripes in the Host colour and these were often worn with the service jacket.
While most Cossacks served as cavalry, several of the larger hosts had infantry and artillery units. Four regiments of Cossacks formed part of the Imperial Guard, as well as the Konvoi—the tsar's mounted escort. The Imperial Guard regiments wore tailored government-issue uniforms, which were colourful and elaborate. As an example, the Konvoi wore scarlet cherkesskas, white beshmets, and red crowns on their fleece hats. The Guard Cossacks of His Majesty and the Ataman's Guard Cossacks, both drawn from the Don Host, wore red and light blue coats respectively. The Combined Cossack Guard Regiment (made up of representative detachments from each of the remaining Hosts) wore red, light blue, crimson or orange coats according to squadron.
*All details are based on the 1909–14 dress uniforms as portrayed in "Tablitsi Form' Obmundirovaniya Russkoi Armi", Colonel V.K. Shenk, published by the Imperial Russian War Ministry 1910–11.
Ethnic or "born" (prirodnye) Cossacks are those who can trace, or claim to trace, their ancestry to people and families identified as Cossacks in the Tsarist era. They tend to be Christian, practising as Orthodox Christians or Old Believers. This group includes the edinovertsy, who identify as Slavic.
Others can be initiated as Cossacks, particularly men in military service. Such initiates may be neither ethnic Slavic nor Christian in religion. Not everyone agrees that such initiates should be considered Cossack. There is no consensus on an initiation rite or rules.
In other cases, individuals may put on a Cossack uniform and pretend to be one, perhaps because there is a large ethnic Cossack population in the area and the person wants to fit in. Others adopt Cossack clothing to try to take on some of their mythic status. Ethnic Cossacks refer to the re-enactors as ryazhenye (ряженые, or "dressed up phonies").
Because of the lack of consensus on how to define Cossacks, accurate numbers of the people are not available. According to Russia's Population Census 2010, there are 67,573 people who identify as being ethnic Cossacks in Russia, while between 3.5 and 5 million people associate themselves with the Cossack identity in Europe and across the world.
Turkey considered the Black Sea as its own internal water transport system, controlling the Bosphorus channel which led to the Marmara and Mediterranean seas. The Black and Azov seas were a natural border for the Cossacks and an integral part of Europe. This natural border, however was also the field of numerous conflicts. In 1570 an anti-Turkish coalition was established in Europe between the Papal States, the Habsburg Empire, and the Polish kings. After the success of the Cossacks at the Battle of Khotyn in 1621, King Sigismund III directed the Cossacks to focus the attention on the Turkish bases around the Black Sea, promising rewards for conquest.