THE COSSACKS ARE A group of Russian military
warriors who still exist today, but without the same military
power they had in the past.
Cossacks were among Russia's greatest military assets.
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
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
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
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'
Today there are hundreds of Cossack organizations across Russia
which are seeking to reestablish Cossack traditions and political
This article originally appeared as part of a larger piece
on the 1580s in our October/November 2001