The word “Cossack” is derived from the Turkic term kazak that means “free man” or “adventurer”. They consisted of semi-independent Tartar groups – a Turkic-speaking people who lived in west-central Russia – or peasants escaping serfdom in Poland and Russia. The Cossacks united in the 15th century as a self-governing warrior organization that was loyal only to the Russian Czar. They settled in six different areas: the Don, the Greben in Caucasia, the Yaik, near the Ural River, the Volga, the Dnieper and the Zaporozhian, west of the Dnieper. The Cossacks accepted anyone who was considered a worthy warrior, but the new members had to believe in Christ. It is believed that most were of Slavic descent.
The Cossacks had specific customs and traditions. A child was taught the warrior-ways of the Cossacks from birth. When a male child was born, the parents would take his hand and place it on a weapon. The Cossacks were superior horsemen. By the time a Cossack was three years old he was riding horses. As children, Cossack males would stage pretend battles complete with horses and sabers. The ataman, or army chief, would praise the children who exhibited bravery in these mock battles.
The Cossack lifestyle was also based on simplicity. Members shared land and lived in communes.
Almost as soon as the group was formed, governments used them for military purposes. In 16th-century Poland, the Zaporozhian Cossacks protected Poland’s borders. The Russian government used the Cossacks to expand Russia’s empire and protect her frontier.
One of the greatest triumphs in Cossack history was the annexation of Siberia. A merchant family, the Stroganovs, settled people in various territories, including Siberia, and expanded the fur and lumber trades. In the mid-1550s, Tartar leader Kuchum Khan took over the area in Siberia. The Stroganovs wanted to protect their lands and trade from the Tartars and called upon the Cossacks and their leader Yermak Timofeyevich. In September 1581, Timofeyevich led 840 troops to wrest the Siberian city of Sibir from Tartar control. With the use of firearms, the Cossacks easily defeated Kuchum’s forces. The Cossacks lost a subsequent 1584 battle against Kuchum, but despite the loss, Siberia came under complete control of the Russian Empire in 1586.
The Cossacks gradually lost their power under Russian domination in the 17th and 18th centuries. They rebelled when their privileges were threatened but ultimately lost their autonomous status. The Cossacks continued to serve during revolutionary uprisings in Russia, but the Soviet government took away the Cossacks’ administrative status.
Today there are hundreds of Cossack organizations across Russia which are seeking to reestablish Cossack traditions and political structures.
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