Cossacks, name given to a group of people in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), chiefly of Russian and Ukrainian stock, who lived principally on the steppes that begin north of the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains and extend eastward to the Altai Mountains in Siberia. Those inhabiting the regions of the Don and Kuban’ rivers are known respectively as the Don and Kuban’ cossacks.


Some historians trace the origin of the cossacks to serfs who fled from the principality of Moscow in the 14th and 15th centuries and established wheat-growing and stock-raising communities in the valleys of the Dnepr, Don, and Ural rivers and in Siberia. The name cossack derives from the Turkish word kazak, which means free person. The individual cossack communities, like other Russian peasant communes of the time, owned land in common. The cossack communities were governed by village assemblies, presided over by elected village elders called atamans or hetmans. The chief ataman or hetman of a region enjoyed great prestige and exercised the authority of a military chieftain in war and of a civil administrator in peacetime.

From the 16th century, as the czars extended their realm, the cossacks were subjected to the authority of the Russian government, which tried to incorporate them into the state on the same basis as the other inhabitants of the country. Therefore, as subjects of the czar, all cossack males 18 to 50 years of age became liable to military service. They were used most often as cavalry and became famous in the wars of the czars against the Tatars in Crimea and the Caucasus. The Don cossacks were the largest group and led colonizing expeditions to Siberia.

The cossacks cherished their traditions of freedom, however, and conflicts with the czars occurred. In the 17th and 18th centuries the cossacks, supported by peasants, engaged in two widespread revolts, in 1670 and 1671 and in 1773 and 1774, in the lower Volga Valley. In later years the czars of Russia used the cossacks as border troops and as a special military and police force for the suppression of internal unrest. In the latter part of the 19th and the early part of the 20th centuries, the czarist government used cossack troops to perpetrate pogroms (see Pogrom) against the Jews. Cossack troops were used on a large scale in the suppression of the Russian Revolution of 1905; they refused to be used for the same purpose in the Revolution of 1917. See Russia.

Life Under Communism

During the civil war in Russia, following the Revolution of 1917, the majority of the cossacks fought against the Red armies. The establishment of the Soviet system made many changes in cossack life. The richer cossacks were deprived of their wealth, and social distinctions based on wealth were abolished. The new government also abolished the traditional forms of local administration, and cossack soldiers were relieved of their special military and police duties. Despite resistance, in the early 1930s the cossacks were engaged in collective farming, cossack cavalry units were forbidden, and many cossacks were resettled in Kazakstan and in a number of areas in Siberia. In 1936 the Soviet government reestablished a number of cossack cavalry divisions that later fought valiantly against the Germans in World War II (1939-1945). Cossack customs and traditions continued to be practiced in several parts of Russia during the Soviet period, particularly in the regions of the Don and Kuban’ rivers.

Life After Communism

During the last years of the USSR, cossack organizations experienced a sudden revival. In 1990, cossack associations were formed in traditional areas of the Russian south, including the lower reaches of the Don river, the North Caucasus, the Ural Mountains, and the Far East. A national cossack union uniting various cossack associations was founded in Moscow the same year. After the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, the movement spread to areas outside traditional cossack lands. By the end of 1992, cossack associations had appeared in several large northern cities, such as Saint Petersburg and Moscow.

At first the goals of the cossack associations were cultural and historical in nature—to preserve cossack traditions and promote historical accuracy of cossack lifestyles. The associations announced plans to publish a newspaper on cossack affairs, revive equestrian and other traditional competitions, and build museums. But the associations soon became involved in politics and armed conflicts, spurred in part by the slaying of five cossacks in the North Caucasus in mid-1991. Cossacks began to demand local self-administration and the return of traditional lands. They opposed ceding Russian territory to foreign countries, such as the Kuril Islands to Japan. Thousands of cossack volunteers traveled to Moldova to fight on the side of the self-proclaimed Trans-Dnestr Republic, and many others served with Serbian forces during the fighting in the former Yugoslavia. Cossacks also assumed authoritative power in several small towns in Russia. In Kurganinsk near Krasnodar, for instance, cossacks seized the city's administrative center when a local official publicly opposed cossack demands to expel Armenians from the area. Several associations sought to form semiautonomous republics within Russia, and they demanded that cossacks be considered a separate ethnic group. In mid-1992, a decree signed by Russian President Boris Yeltsin rehabilitated the cossacks. The decree granted them the status of an ethnic group and gave them the right to receive land free of charge. The decree also called for the use of cossack forces to protect Russia's borders, although some cossacks interpreted Russia's borders to be the same as those of the former USSR.