There is some mystery that surrounds the true origin of the Cossacks. Depending on who you ask, and when you ask, you are bound to get different answers as to who the Russian Cossacks were and where they came from. Similar to gypsies or nomads, very few Cossacks were ever willing or available to tell the story of their history, so it is up to historians to piece together what they can. There are, however, some generally agreed upon histories of the Cossack people.
In a nutshell, Cossacks are free men and adventurers. In fact, the word Cossack comes from the Turkish word “qasaq” which means exactly that – a free man or adventurer. The earliest Cossacks were men from Russia and the Ukraine who lived freely on the outlying districts of their regions. They were usually serfs who had escaped the system and were not willing to comply with the social caste that had been forced upon them.
The government at first were determined to hunt the Cossacks down and punish them. The problem was that there so many of them and they were very good at eluding the government. Therefore, the government decided it made more sense to give up the chase and formally recognize the newly established communities on its borders.
The Cossacks did not limit themselves to other Russians. They welcomed Turks, Germans and Tatars as long as they believed in Christ. That was their one requirement. Once accepted into the fold, these men were no longer known as Russians or Germans. They were to be known simply as Cossacks. They had their own elected leaders. These leaders oversaw certain area and their groups were named for the areas in which they ruled.
What is for certain is that the early Cossacks were skilled fighters. Early historical documents show that the Cossacks were a unique warrior culture, raiding and pillaging against their neighbors as a source of income. They were bold, even attacking the Ottoman Empire. Cossack boys were trained to be fighters from a very early age. In fact, as babies, Cossack boys were brought to the Church where a service to St. John the Warrior was held so that the babies would grow up to be strong warriors. All Cossack males were required to perform 20 years of military service, beginning at the age of 18. He had to supply his own uniform and horse, with the Cossack government only supplying the arms and ammunition. The Cossacks even had their own military schools, with the men serving in the reserve branch of the military teaching the new recruits all of the Cossack warrior skills.
One of the reasons the government was not able to stop the Russian Cossacks is because of their military might. The government realized that it was to their benefit to try to take advantage of the Cossack’s military skills. In the 18th Century, the Russian government came to an agreement with the Cossacks. In exchange for their (mostly) loyalty to the Tsar, the Cossacks were recognized as a special social estate. Their job was to protect the borders and enforce loyalty to the Tsar. In exchange for their service, the government gave the Cossacks certain privileges and the social autonomy they craved. The problem for the Cossacks (and the Russian government) is that the one thing the Cossacks believed in was freedom from government. This led to many rebellions by the Cossacks. However, when push came to shove, the Cossacks, respecting their agreement with the government, were one of the greatest forces to support the Russian government. This lasted until 1917, when the Russian Revolution took place.
In 1917, the Bolsheviks began a revolution against the Russian government. During this Civil War, the Russian Cossacks had fought mostly for the White army. When the Red Army was victorious, the Cossacks suffered persecution at the hands of the new regime. Many Cossacks lost their land to the new government and they experienced a depression of sorts. By the time WWII broke out, the Cossacks were so splintered that half of them fought for the Soviet Union while the other half fought for the Nazis. Many believe that the reason so many Cossacks fought for the Nazis is that they felt they were fighting against the very power that had persecuted their people following the Revolution.
Following the Second World War, the Cossacks seemed to have disappeared, almost as if they regressed to their early days of living on the outskirts of society. Many of the Cossacks who had supported the Nazis were eventually allowed to return home, but they did so under a pact of secrecy. It wasn’t until the collapse of the collapse of the communist regime in the USSR in 1981 that the collaborators were allowed to openly mourn and memorialize their fallen men. It was not until 1989 that they made a significant reappearance. It was during this period of Perestroika that the Cossack culture began its revival. In fact, in 2005, Vladimir Putin, then President of Russia, passed a bill that formally recognized the Cossacks not only as a distinct ethno-cultural entity, but also as a separate, potent military force.
Today, modern day Cossacks seem to be thriving. Despite a lot of backlash for the role many Cossacks played in both the Russian Revolution and in World War II, they have survived. They have their own active society, with their own schools and businesses. With the break-up of the Eastern Bloc following the Cold War, it will be interesting to see what role the Cossacks play in the modern era.