The Cossacks were bands of warlike horsemen who, from the early 15th century, roamed the steppe north of the Black Sea along the frontiers of Muscovite Russia, Lithuania, Poland, and the Ottoman Empire. The name "Cossack" is from the Turkish kazak, meaning adventurer or freeman outside the existing social structure.
Composed mainly of runaway Russian peasants, but including Poles and Tatars, the Cossack bands organized into self-governing communities on the Don and Dnieper rivers under elected leaders called atamans or hetmans. Smaller Cossack brotherhoods existed on the lower Volga, on the Terek River north of the Caucasus, and on the Ural River in Siberia.
The Cossacks were a major military power in the 16th and 17th centuries. Although they were conquered by Muscovite Russia by 1700, most of them preserved their status as free landholders.
They formed a loyal mounted military force and served as police of the czarist government until the revolution of March 1917.
The Dnieper Cossacks
In the late 16th century the Cossacks built forts, known collectively as the "Zaporozhi an sich" (stronghold below the rapids), on islands in the lower course of the Dnieper. From there, under hetmans Sahaidachnyi, Nalivaiko, and Chmielnicki, they raided the Ottoman Empire, and augmented by fugitive Polish serfs from the western Ukraine, then under Polish rule, they led a series of peasant rebellions against Poland. In 1648-1649, Bohdan (Bogdan) Chmielnicki decisively defeated the Poles, but in 1654, after a series of defeats, he signed the Treaty of Pereyaslavl with Russia, putting the Ukraine under the czar's protection. Russia failed to observe Cossack autonomy, and some Cossack cruefs resisted the treaty, trying to organize the Ukraine into an independent state or a protectorate of Poland or the Turks. One of them, Ivan Mazepa, made an alliance with King Charles XII of Sweden against Peter the Great.
Peter defeated Charles in the Ukraine at Poltava in 1709 and abolished Cossack autonomy. The Don Cossacks. The first record of the Cossacks on the Don is a letter they sent to Czar Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible ) of Russia in 1570. They were involved in the social upheaval and political anarchy of Russia's "Time of Troubles" from 1606 to 1613 and even had their own pretender to the czarist throne. In 1614 they declared themselves vassals of the new czar, Michael Romanov, but remained independent.
In 1637 they seized Azov from the Turks and offered it to Russia. Russia was too weak to accept it, and the Cossacks gave it up in 1641.
The Cossack and Peasant Unrest
By the mid-17th century the Cossack brotherhoods had turned to agriculture to supplement their income from stock raising, fishing, and raiding. Some Cossacks also entered Polish and Russian service as border guards in the Ukraine and in Siberia.
Cossack detachments, notably that led by Yermak Timofeyev in 1580, pioneered in extending Russian rule across Siberia to the Pacific.
Increasingly, chiefs and large landowners dominated the brotherhoods. Fearing pressure from Russia and in order to protect their own position, they tried to close the brotherhoods to new waves of fugitive peasants. Dissident Cossacks and new arrivals on the Don sparked the great peasant revolts of Russia led by Stenka Razin in 1669-1671, by Kondraty Bulavin in 1707, and by Yemelyan Pugachev in 1773-1775.
Peter the Great brought the Don Cossacks under his control after the Bulavin revolt, and in 1754, Moscow began to appoint the Cossack leadership. After the Pugachev revolt, Catherine the Great liquidated the Zaporozhian sich of the Dniep er Cossacks. She extended the imperial administration over the Ukraine, enserfing the peasants, and in 1783 converted the Cossack units into regular army regiments.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, and most significantly in 1869 in the land reforms connected with the emancipation of the peasants, the czars recognized the right of the Don and Terek Cossacks to be free landowners, utilizing their military traditions and contempt for the serf-peasant. The Cossacks formed elite cavalry troops in the Russian army and became famous for their fanatical loyalty to the czars, the protectors of their "liberties".
Until 1917, Cossack regiments acted as special police to put down peasant disturbances and, later, urban strikes.
During the Russian Revolution and Civil War (1917-1921), some Cossacks supported the Soviets while others under Generals Kaledin and Denikin fought with the White armies. The Cossacks generally resisted collectivization in 1928-1933, but the Soviets finally broke up the Cossack communities and forced them into collective farms on the same basis as the rest of the peasantry.