A black and white image of the Cosacks in Russia.

An Overview of the Cossacks and their Rebellions

Among the warriors known in history, the Cossacks are among the earliest in Russia. They started as servants and became part of Russia’s military unit and rebelled when their freedom came under threat.

The Cossacks are a group of Russian warriors who still exist today. However, they do not hold the same military power they once had.

They played a major role in expanding Russia’s borders and were the reason behind three of the largest uprisings in Russian history.

The Origin of the Cossack

The Cossack insignia
image source: commons.wikimedia.org

The term ‘Cossack’ comes from the Turkic term kazak, which means ‘free man’ or ‘adventured’.

Turkic people are diverse ethnic groups who speak Turkic languages. The majority live in Central, East, North and West Asia and parts of Europe.

There are several speculated theories on where they came from.

One states that they were semi-independent Tartar groups, Turkic-speaking people who lived in West-Central Russia.

Some believed they were the descendants of the Scythians, fierce nomads from Central Asia from around 7 B.C.E. Others follow the legend that the Cossacks evolved from mythical beings.

The most common and highly believed origin story is that they were peasants who escaped serfdom (the status of peasants under feudalism) from Poland and Russia.

Despite these speculated origin stories, modern-day Cossacks discovered their origin dates to the 14th century from what is now Southern Russia and Ukraine.

Scholars believe them to be of Slavic and Turkic origins.

The Cossacks started as a collection of runaway peasants, fugitive slaves, escaped convicts and abandoned soldiers. They lived on the frontiers beyond the reach of Russian authorities, along the Don, Dnepr and Volga Rivers.

Early Cossacks were bandits and mercenaries.

Through robbery, hunting, fishing and cattle raising, they supported themselves and later formed military formations for their own defence.

Soon after, mercenaries became renowned horsemen and part of a warrior caste of free-spirited farmer-horsemen.

From their 300-year old evolution, they developed their own customs and traditions and even became special units in the Russian army.

Their symbol was a stag that continued to stand even though a spear pierced its side.

Traditional clothing of a Cossack was a tunic and a long black or fur hat.

Among their admired values were cleanliness, honesty, hospitality, military skills and loyalty to the tsar.

Drinking alcohol was an important part of Cossack culture and avoiding it was forbidden.

Cossack Communities

The Cossacks managed to organize themselves into self-governing communities.

Each had their own name, army and elected leaders and acted as separate ministates.

Once the Cossacks built a network of forts, their numbers increased.

The Don Cossacks, the first emerging Cossack group, was the largest and most dominant of the Cossack subgroups.

They were a band of mercenaries that lived around the Don River, south of present-day Russia.

By the 16th century, they grew large enough to be the most powerful military and political network.

Additionally, they grew so large and powerful that Peter the Great of Tsarist Russia recognized and gave them an official seal.

They established settlements in the Ukraine, along the Volga River, in Chechnya and the eastern Caucasus.

By 1914, most of their communities were in southern Russia, between the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus.

Cossacks and Conflict

The Cossacks were always in a state of conflict.

They either engaged in military campaigns for the Russian government, fought with neighbours and/or among themselves, and routinely fought with other Cossack groups.

Traditional weapons were the lance and sabra, a knife in their belt and a four-foot whip (a nagaika) in their book.

Among their tactics, Cossacks were known for their bravery as well as their cowardice.

If they saw an individual separated from their group, they stripped them of everything, including the clothes on their backs, and often sold them as prisoners.

They were also known for switching sides, even when in the middle of a conflict.

If threatened by the enemy, they fled. They fought only if they outnumbered the enemy two-to-one.

Military Democracy

The Cossacks avoided a system of serfdom, elected their own leaders and were self-sufficient.

Krug was an annual meeting where Cossacks made important decisions, elected leaders, distributed land and punished criminals.

A community, known as voikam, was led by an elected leader, the ataman, who was often the oldest member of the community.

Communities voted in nominees with a show of hands and shouts of “Lyubo!” (“It pleases us!”) and “Neyubo!” (“It doesn’t please us!”).

Regarding their justice system, thieves were publicly whipped in a square called a maiden during a krug.

A Cossack who stole from another was sometimes sentenced to death by drowning.

Soldiers sentenced by a military court were publicly birched while kneeling over a bench of executed by fire squad.

 Women and Marriage

Along with not having a lord and property, Cossacks were also without women, which posed a problem.

Since the early Cossack lifestyle did not include married life, the growth of their communities depended on the arrival of a new fugitive or offspring from women taken captive during raids.

If a wedding took place, the couple made a public appearance to declare themselves man and wife.

It was just as easy for divorces. However, they often involved the sale of the divorced wife to another Cossack.

Women played a subservient role in settlements, such as taking care of the home and raising children.

Husbands could abuse, sell and murder their wives without receiving any punishment, which led many women to detest the Cossack concept of marriage.

Cossacks and Russia’s Borders

A black and white image of the Cosacks in Russia.
image source: rbth.com

In return for autonomy offered by the tsars, the Cossacks gave their military assistance.

Stationed as Imperial Guards, their camps were near the Don River, the Urals, Siberia and the Black Sea.

At first, the Russian government was skeptical of the Cossack involvement in expanding their borders.

This view changed in 1570, when Ivan the Terrible hired Cossacks as mercenaries in exchange for gunpowder, lead and money, which they did not have in abundance. Their completed mission freed Russian prisoners enslaved by the Tartars and Turks.

The Cossacks helped expand, define and protect the Russian Empire’s borders.

The tsar often placed the Cossacks on the front lines of wars or military campaigns that needed ruthless warriors.

Although they were dependent on Tsarist Russia, for military and politically, the tsar allowed the Cossacks to run their territories as independent states.

By the 17th century, the Russian government tried to limit Cossack freedom and privileges as their numbers grew.

They demanded the Cossacks to return the fugitives that joined their forts. The Cossacks saw this as an attempt to violate their traditions and freedom.

In the late 18th century, the frontier moved far into the south. It moved far enough to diminish the military significance of the Cossacks.

In addition, the tsars tried to repress and return the fugitives to the estates of noblemen. The reason behind this is the angered noblemen when they saw so many of their serfs left and joined the Cossacks.

To retaliate against the injustices to their traditions and freedom, the Cossacks rebelled, which led to three large uprisings.

The Cossack Revolution of 1670

A black and white photograph of the Cossacks riding in for the rebellion.
image source: flamesofwar.com

In the Volga region, between 1670 and 1671, Stepahn Razin, a Cossack from the Don River region, led a Cossack revolt.

The revolt brought together wealthy Cossacks that established themselves well in the region and the escaped serfs who sought free land.

Although there was a social protest element to the revolt, their original aim was to destroy and loot villages.

However, it soon became a symbol of peasant unrest and, therefore, became political.

The new aim was to protect Cossack independence and protest a centralized government.

They made it known that they did support the tsar but wanted one who responded to the needs of the people and not only to those of the upper class.

In destroying and pillaging villages, Razin wanted to take power from the government officials and give more autonomy to the peasants.

The End of the Revolt

The rebellion slowly came to its end, which led to increased government control.

The Cossacks lost some of their autonomy and the tsar bonded closely with the upper class as both feared a future rebellion.

Simultaneously, the revolt slowly awakened the social consciousness of the poor.

Moreover, the revolt suffered countless defeats. One of which was the Russian army, who used western European military techniques, which defeated Razin’s 20 000 undisciplined and badly equipped troops.

Razin fled to the Don River where Cossacks loyal to the tsar captured him and turned him over to the tsarists authorities.

He was taken to Moscow and publicly tortured and executed by quartering (cutting his arms till his elbows and legs to his knees before his beheading).

Despite the outcome, today, Razin remains a popular folk hero.

The Bulavin Rebellion

An artistic interpretation of the Bulavin Rebellion.
image source: wikipedia.org

In 1707, Don Cossack Kondraty Bulavin led a peasant rebellion.

The rebellion started because Peter the Great ordered the round up of 60 000 serfs who fled their masters to the Don River.

On October 8, 1707, the rebellion staged an attack to kill the Russian forces that rounded up 3000 serfs.

However noble the cause, not all Cossacks supported Bulavin.

Some atamans, who remained loyal to the tsar, planned to capture Bulavin and his insurgents. The latter were already west of the Donetsk River Basin to regroup before they staged their second attack.

In February 1708, the rebel army returned to the Don River for a second uprising against the Russians, to seize the political center of the Don River and advance to Moscow.

At the same time, the tsar organized an army of 32 o00 Russian soldiers to capture Bulavin and his troops.

In addition, some Cossacks in Bulavin’s troops conspired against him.

On July 7, 1708, Bulavin was found dead from a gunshot to the head.

It remains unknown whether it was suicidal or from those who conspired against him.

The Bulavin Rebellion ended with his death.

The Pugachev’s Rebellion

An artistic interpretation of the Pugachev Rebellion, with the Cossacks running and setting a field on fire while on horseback.
image source: rbth.com

Pugachev’s Rebellion took place between 1774 and 1775.

It was named after an unknown Don Cossack, Yemelyan Pugachev, who led Russia’s greatest serf uprising.

Pugachev claimed he was Peter III who escaped assassination in 1763 and his among the Cossacks outside the Yaik River.

Although he bore no resemblance to Peter III, the Cossacks, serfs and factory workers drew into his charisma and leadership skills.

The rebellion consisted mostly of Cossacks who suffered economic deprivation and detested Catherine II’s demand for mandatory conversion to Christianity.

Pugachev opposed the order and promised religious freedom, which brought him greater popularity.

They ravaged estates, massacred nobles and captured cities.

The Fall and Aftermath of the Rebellion

The rebellion faced many defeats, including one that took 9000 to 10 000 rebel lives.

By August 21, 1774, the Don Cossacks saw that Pugachev was not Peter III of Tsarist Russia.

The Russian forces crushed the rebellion by September 1775.

Pugachev tried to flee but his own Cossacks betrayed him and returned him to the tsarist authorities.

Publicly, he was quartered and beheaded in Moscow on January 21, 1775.

After the rebellion, Catherine II brutally repressed the serfs. She cut Cossack privileges further and set up more garrisons across Russia.

The Cossacks Today

A photograph of modern-day Cossacks on horseback riding through Russia.
image source: quora.com

Since the break up of the Soviet Union, there has been a revival of the old Cossack brotherhood and some of the Cossack land has been returned to him.

By 1999, there were 4000 Cossack groups.

The Russian government sponsors some units.

Others are independent groups who keep their distance from the government, who regard them as corrupt and responsible for Russia’s chaos and crime. In certain areas, they formed vigilante home guards.

Certain groups also hold strong ties with Russian nationalists with strong xenophobic, racist and anti-Sematic views.

Today, in Vladimir Putin’s attempt to promote a nationalist ideology, the Cossacks returned as political and financial supporters.

Cultural Significance to Anthropology

A photograph of a modern-day Cossack family.
image source: documentarytube.com

In the study of cultures, the Cossack’s prove to be a unique one that is proudly shared amongst those who follow their traditions.

Some of these traditions are kept alive by new arrivals and descendants of past Cossacks. In doing so, they keep a part of Russia’s history alive, as well as their own.

Despite their views of the Russian government and their actions, they evolved with modern times, which is key to keeping their culture and traditions alive and growing.

Culture makes people understand each other better. And if they understand each other better in their soul, it is easier to overcome the economic and political barriers. But first, they have to understand that their neighbor is, in the end, just like them, with the same problems, the same questions.

– Paulo Coelho, Brazilian lyricist and novelist.

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