The Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan  of Turkey. Painted by  from 1880 to 1891.
The Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of Turkey. Painted by Ilya Repin from 1880 to 1891.

Cossack Template:Audio (Polish Kozak; plural, Kozacy, Russian Kazak (Казак); plural, Kazaki (Казаки), Ukrainian Kozak (Козак); plural, Kozaky (Козаки)) is the name given to a portion of the population of Eastern Europe and the adjacent parts of Asia. Cossacks settled in parts of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, particularly in areas now comprising southern Russia and Ukraine. They were known for their military skills although in the Soviet Union their special service was discontinued and the Cossack culture was suppressed. Their culture began a revival in Russia and Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The name is derived from the Turkic word quzzaq, "adventurer", "freeman". The term is first mentioned in a Ruthenian document dated 1395.

Cossacks should not be confused with the Kazakhs (Kazakh is spelled Qazaq (Казак) in the native language).

"Cossacks" (Kozacy) was also the name given to a kind of light cavalry in Poland-Lithuania regardless of ethnicity.


History of Cossacks

Main article: History of Cossacks

It is not clear when the Slavic people started to settle in the lower reaches of the Don and the Dnieper. It is unlikely it could have happened before the 13th century, when the Mongol hordes broke the power of Cumans and other Turkic tribes on that territory.

Proto-Cossacks could have come to existence in the territories of today's Ukraine in the mid-13th century, when crowds of Slavs fled south to escape the Tatar yoke. In 1261 some Slavic people living in the area between the Dniester and the Volga were mentioned in Russian chronicles. More peasants escaped to the Don and the Dnieper's cataracts in the following centuries, when the system of serfdom started to develop in Poland and Russia.

Historical records of the Cossacks before the 16th century are scant. In the 15th century, the Cossack society was described as a loose federation of independent communities, often merging into larger units of a military character, entirely separate and mostly independent from any other local countries (like Poland, Muscovy or khanate of Crimea).

By the 16th century these Cossack societies were merged into two relatively independent territorial organisations:

  • The Cossacks of Zaporizhia, on the lower bends of the river Dnieper, between Russia, Poland and the Tatars of the Crimea, with the fortified capital, Zaporizhian Sich. They were formally recognized as a state, the Zaporozhian Host, by treaty with Poland in 1649.
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"Bohdan Chmielnicki with Tuhaj-Bej at Lwow", oil on canvas, 1885, National Museum in Warsaw. Chmielnicki Uprising 1648-1654. Painted by Jan Matejko

Historical documents of that period refer to those states as sovereign nations with a unique warrior culture, whose main source of income was the pillaging their neigbours. They were renowned for their raids against the Ottoman Empire and its vassals (like the Tatars), although they didn't shy from pillaging other neighbours. Their actions increased the tension at the southern border of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Kresy), which resulted in almost constant low-level warfare taking place in those territories for almost the entire existence of the Commonwealth.

In 1539 the Grand Duke Vasili III of Muscovy asked the Ottoman Sultan to curb the Cossacks and the Sultan replied "The Cossacks do not swear allegiance to me, and they live as they themselves please." In 1549 the Czar Ivan the Terrible, replied to a request of the Turkish Sultan to stop the aggressive actions of the Don Cossacks, stating, "The Cossacks of the Don are not my subjects, and they go to war or live in peace without my knowledge." Similar exchanges passed between Russia, Ottomans and the Commonwealth, each of which tried to use Cossack warmongering for its own purposes. Cossacks for their part were mostly happy to plunder everybody more or less equally, although in the 16th century, with Commonwealth dominance extending south, the Zaporojian Cossacks were mostly, if tentatively, regarded as subjects of the Commonwealth. Registered Cossacks (Polish Kozacy rejestrowi) were a part of Commonwealth army until 1699.

Around the end of 16th century, the relations between the Commonwealth and the Ottomans, which were not very cordial to begin with, further worsened with the growing number of independent actions by the Cossacks. From the second part of the 16th century, Cossacks started raiding (chadzki) territories under Ottoman rule. The Commonwealth could not control fiercely independent Cossacks, but was held responsible for them, since at that time they were nominally under Commonwealth rule. Reciprocally Tatars living under Ottoman rule were raiding the Commonwealth, mostly in the south-east which were fairly sparsely inhabited, while the Cossacks were raiding the heart of Ottoman Empire, its wealthy merchant port cities, which were just two days away from mouth of river Dniepr Cossacks used as their main transportation route. By 1615, Cossacks had even burned the townships on the outskirts of Istanbul. Consecutive treaties between Ottoman Empire and the Commonwealth called both parties to curb Cossacks and Tatars but its execution was almost nonexistent on both sides of the border. In internal agreements, forced by Polish side, Cossacks agreed to burn their boats and stop raiding. However boats could be rebuilt fast, and the Cossacks' style of life required glory and booty. Sometimes Cossacks just needed money to live and sometimes Habsburgs bribed them to ease Ottoman pressure on their own borders. Many Cossacks hated Tatars, who after all burned their estates and villages (the feeling was quite mutual here). Cossacks almost yearly raided the Ottomans territories and vassals near the Black Sea, almost always causing the retaliatory Tatar raids (or vice versa). The ensuing chaos and string of retaliations often turned the entire south-eastern Commonwealth border into a low-level warzone and led to the escalation of the Commonwealth-Ottoman warfare, from the Moldavian Magnate Wars to the Battle of Cecora and Wars in 1633-1634.

Cossacks numbers expanded with peasant immigration from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Attempts by Szlachta to turn Zaporoijan Cossacks into serfs eroded the Cossacks' once fairly strong loyalty towards the Commonwealth. Cossack ambitions to be recognized as equal to szlachta were constantly rebuffed and plans for transforming the Two-Nations Commonwealth (Polish-Lithuanian) into Three Nations (with the Cossack and Ruthenian people) were limited to a small minority of forward-thinking men. Waning loyalty of the Cossacks and the szlachta's arrogance towards them resulted in several Cossack uprisings against the Commonwealth in the early 17th century. The largest of these was the Chmielnicki Uprising, which together with The Deluge is considered to be one of the events which brought an end to the Golden Age of the Commonwealth. This uprising freed Cossacks from the Commonwealth sphere of influence, only to make them servants of the Russian Empire after the treaties of Pereyaslav and Andrusiv. The final attempt to rebuild the Polish-Cossack alliance and create a Polish-Lithuanian-Ruthenian Commwealth in the 1658 Treaty of Hadiach came to nought after military intervention of Muscovy combined with the infighting among Cossacks themselves.

After this point, the Cossack nation of the Zaporozhian Host was divided into two semiautonomous republics of Muscovy: the Hetmanate, and the more independent Zaporozhia. A Cossack organization was also established in the Muscovite colony of Sloboda Ukraine. These organizations gradually lost their independence, and were abolished by Catherine II by the late 18th century. The Hetmanate became the governorship of Little Russia, Sloboda Ukraine the Kharkiv province, and Zaporozhia was absorbed into New Russia.

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A Cossack from Orenburg

Valuing the relative freedom they enjoyed in Imperial Russia, the Cossacks mainly fought against Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War of 1919, both within the White Army and as partisans. At the same time, many poor Cossacks also joined the Red Army. This notwithstanding, after the victory of the Soviet Communists, the new regime repressed the Cossack culture and way of life. During the Nazi invasion of the USSR the Cossacks once again joined opposing sides of the conflict.

At the end of World War II, about British troops "repatriated" more than 150,000 Cossack men, women, and children to the USSR. Many of these people had never been Soviet citizens.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, efforts to revive the Cossack traditions have grown.

Cossack Organization

In early times, Cossack tribes were commanded by an ataman (later called hetman). He was elected by the tribe members at a Cossack rada, as were the other important tribe officials: the judge, the scribe, the lesser officials, and even the clergy. The ataman's symbol of power was a ceremonial mace, a bulava.

The ataman had executive powers and at time of war he was the supreme commander in the field. Legislative power was given to the Tribal Assembly (Rada). The senior officers were called starshyna. In the absence of written laws, the Cossacks were governed by the "Cossack Traditions," the common, unwritten law.

Cossack society and government was militarized. The nation was called a host (vois’ko, sometimes translated "army"), and subdivided into regimental and company districts, and village posts (polky, sotni, and stanytsi).

After the split of Ukraine along the Dnieper River by the Polish-Russian Treaty of Andrusovo 1667, Ukrainian Cossacks are known as Left-bank Cossacks and Right-bank Cossacks.

The Cossack Image

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A modern Cossack, Ostrap Kindratchuk, playing the bandura on a Old Market in Poznan

Cossacks have long appealed to romantics as idealising freedom and resistance to external authority, and their military exploits against enemies of the Russian people have contributed to this favorable image. For others they have been a symbol of repression because of their role in suppressing popular uprisings during the Tsarist period, as well as their frequent role in deadly anti-Jewish attacks.

Literary reflections of Cossack culture abound in Russian literature: one might particularly mention the work of Nikolai Gogol (Taras Bulba), Leo Tolstoy and of Mikhail Sholokhov.


Ukrainian Cossacks

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Tabor kozacki
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Chayka cossacks military boat
  • Hetman - a Ukrainian Cossack supreme military leader
  • bulava - a ceremonial mace, a symbol of Hetman's authority
  • starshyna - officers
  • tabor - a tactic using a set of horse-drawn wagons, mastered by Cossacks in 16-17th century

Russian Cossacks

  • Voisko (Slavic word, literally means "army", probably of Polish origin ("Wojsko" in polish) - a major cossack military and administrative unit.
  • Ataman - a Russian cossack military leader or subordinate leader (possibly derived from Hetman, which in its turn derived from German Hauptmann ("headman" or "captain") or more likely derived from "ataman" in Turkish)
  • Sotnia ("hundred") - a military unit.
  • Stanitsa - cossack settlement, a village.
  • Cossack, Prikazny, Uryadnik (minor and major), Podkhorunzhiy, Khorunzhiy, Sotnik, Podyesaul, Yesaul, Voiskovoy starshina, -- cossack military ranks (from lowest up)

See also

External links

nl:Kozakken pl:Kozak ru:Казаки sv:Kosacker


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