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Cossacks (kŏsˈăks, –əks), Rus. Kazaki, Ukr. Kozaky, peasant-soldiers in Ukraine and in several regions of Russia who, until 1918, held certain privileges in return for rendering military service. The first Cossack companies were formed in the 15th cent., when Ukraine, then part of the unified Polish-Lithuanian state, took independent measures to defend itself against the devastating Tatar raids. The Ukrainian Cossacks, of heterogeneous background, were chiefly Russians and Poles and included many runaway serfs. By the 16th cent. they had settled along the lower and middle Dnieper River (for their history to 1775, see Zaporizhzhya). Similar communities grew up on the Don (see Don Cossacks) and its tributaries. They were all organized on principles of political and social equality, and originally were virtually autonomous. Each community elected an ataman as its head, while an assembly of all the Cossacks chose the hetman. The Cossacks gave shelter to refugees from Poland and Russia and took part in peasant revolts in Ukraine and Russia in the 17th and 18th cent. Open struggle ensued between the Cossacks and the Polish and Russian governments. By the late 18th cent. the Cossacks had lost most of their political autonomy and had been made the privileged military class, integrated with the Russian military forces. Under the last czars they were often used to quell strikes and other disturbances. The primary unit of Cossack organization, the village, was largely self-governed until 1918. Land was held in common by the village. But an 1869 law, which allowed officers and civil servants to own land as personal property, contributed to the breakup of the traditional cohesiveness of Cossack village life. In the 19th cent. the Russian government began to organize new Cossack units so that by the early 20th cent. there were 11 Cossack communities, each named for its location—Don, Kuban, Terek, Astrakhan, Ural, Orenburg, Siberia, Semirechensk, Transbaykalia, Amur, and Ussuri. Following the Bolshevik Revolution (1917), the majority of the Cossacks fought against the Soviet armies in the civil war of 1918–20. In 1920 the Soviet government abolished all their privileges and between 1928 and 1933 the Cossack communities were forcibly collectivized. In 1936, however, the Cossack party regained status, being allowed to form several cavalry divisions in the Soviet army. Although the Cossack communities were incorporated into the Soviet administrative system, their traditions and customs survived, notably on the Don and Kuban rivers. In post-Soviet Russia, under President Putin, Cossack hosts have been registered with the federal government and formally granted powers, and Cossacks are now allowed to serve in special military and security units.


See studies by P. J. Huxley-Blythe (1964), P. Longworth (1969), and V. G. Glazkov (1972).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a military estate in prerevolutionary Russia from the 18th to the early 20th century.

From the 14th to the 17th century the cossacks were free people, exempt from taxes and working for hire, primarily in various trades; also called cossacks were people who performed military service in outlying areas of the country and the so-called free cossacks. Military-service cossacks were divided into city, or regimental, and stanitsa (large cossack village), or outpost, cossacks and were utilized for the defense of cities and outposts respectively, in return for which they received lands from the government on the condition of service tenure, as well as a salary. As a social group, the cossacks were similar to the streVtsy (semiprofessional musketeers) and artillerymen. During the 18th and 19th centuries a large proportion of these cossacks were transferred into a tax-paying estate and entered the category of odnodvortsy; others entered the cossack hosts (the Siberian, Orenburg, and other hosts).

The growth of feudal exploitation and serfdom in the Russian and Polish-Lithuanian states during the 15th and 16th centuries and the redoubled national-religious oppression in the Ukraine, which has been seized by Poland, resulted in the mass flight of peasants and posadskie liudi (merchants and artisans) beyond the boundaries of these states—primarily to the unoccupied lands in the south. As a result, from the second half of the 15th century fugitive peasants and posadskie liudi who called themselves free people—cossacks—settled beyond the line of fortified outposts on the southern and southeastern outskirts of Russia and the Ukraine, essentially along the Dnieper, Don, and Iaik rivers and their tributaries.

The necessity of waging a constant struggle against the neighboring feudal states and seminomadic peoples required that all these people unite into military communities. In the 15th and early 16th centuries, communities of Don, Volga, Dnieper (Cherkassy), Greben’, and Iaik cossacks emerged. The Zapo-rozh’e Sech arose in the first half of the 16th century, and the communities of Terek Cossacks and the military-service Siberian Cossacks originated in the second half of the 16th century. In the second half of the 16th century the Polish government, seeking to utilize the upper elements of the Ukrainian cossacks in its own interests, created the category of registered cossacks, who were on salary, and attempted to transfer the remaining cossacks into tax-paying estates and enserf them. The rapidly increasing Ukrainian cossacks constituted the leading force in the popular uprisings against Polish rule in the Ukraine in the late 16th century and first half of the 17th century and especially in the War of Liberation of the Ukrainian People of 1648–, which was led by Bogdan Khmel’nitskii. In the mid-17th century the Sloboda (tax-exempt settlement) Cossacks were formed in the eastern part of the Ukraine, which was ceded to Russia.

Initially, hunting, fishing, and honey gathering made up the foundation of the economic life of the cossacks. Livestock raising appeared comparatively early; farming, as a rule, began to spread later, roughly from the second half of the 17th century. During the 16th and 17th centuries war booty and state stipends were important sources of the livelihood of the cossacks. The cossacks rapidly brought under cultivation vast expanses of the fertile lands of the Dikoe Pole and other borderlands of Russia and the Ukraine.

During the 16th and 17th centuries under the leadership of Ermak, V. V. Atlasov, S. I. Dezhnev, V. D. Poiarkov, E. P. Khabarov, and others, the cossacks participated actively in opening up Siberia and the Far East to Russians. In the 16th century and the first half of the 17th the tsarist government did not have sufficient forces to subjugate the “free” cossacks, but it strove to utilize them to defend the boundaries of the state, sending them stipends, ammunition, and grain. This policy facilitated the gradual transformation of the cossacks into a special privileged military estate (a process that became finalized in the 19th century) whose position was determined by the fact that in exchange for service to the state, each cossack host was allotted land, which it occupied and which was turned over for the use of the cossack stanitsy. This feudal form of land tenure was retained up to the October Revolution.

From the very beginning the cossacks were heterogeneous. In the process of social differentiation the number of poor cossacks (golyt’ba, netiagi, and others) increased, and these cossacks participated actively in the peasant wars and uprisings of the 17th and 18th centuries. At the same time, a wealthy upper element emerged from the midst of the “thrifty” cossacks. This upper element captured the leadership position in the cossack communities, forming the group of elders (starshina). By the beginning of the 19th century the elders had become part of the dvorianstvo (nobility or gentry) of Russia.

During the 16th and 17th centuries the cossacks enjoyed autonomy in the spheres of law, administration, and foreign relations. All the most important matters were discussed by general assemblies of the cossacks (the rada and the krug), whose decisions were influenced to a certain degree by the masses of the rank and file. The tsarist government, drawing its support from the prosperous cossacks and elders, gradually (particularly from the early 18th century) began to restrict the autonomy of the cossack regions, seeking to subjugate the cossacks completely to the central authorities.

In the 17th and 18th centuries broad strata of cossacks persistently defended their freedom against the encroachments of the tsarist government. The freedom-loving cossacks were one of the primary moving forces behind the peasant wars and uprisings of the 17th and 18th centuries. Their ranks produced such outstanding leaders in the struggle against feudalism as S. T. Razin, K. A. Bulavin, and E. I. Pugachev.

At the beginning of the 18th century cossack communities were transformed into irregular cossack hosts. In 1721 they came under the jurisdiction of the war department. Elections for the atamans and elders of the hosts were gradually eliminated; the government began to appoint them. After the Peasant War of 1773– led by E. I. Pugachev, the Zaporozh’e Sech was eliminated, and the Don, Ural (formerly the Iaik), and other hosts were once and for all subordinated to the war department. In the second half of the 18th and the 19th century a number of cossack hosts were eliminated and new ones, completely subordinated to the government, were created (the Astrakhan Host in 1750; Orenburg Host in 1755; Black Sea Host in 1787; Siberian Host in 1808; Caucasus Border Host in 1832, divided in 1860 along with the Black Sea Host into the Kuban’ and Terek hosts; the Transbaikal Host in 1851; Amur Host in 1858; Semirech’e Host in 1867; and Ussuri Host in 1889). These hosts played a significant role in colonizing the sparsely settled outlying areas (Siberia, the Far East, Semirech’e, and parts of the Northern Caucasus) and in spreading farming.

By the early 20th century there were 11 cossack hosts in Russia (the Don, Kuban’, Terek, Astrakhan, Ural, Orenburg, Semirech’e, Siberian, Transbaikal, Amur, and Ussuri hosts). In addition, there were a small number of Krasnoiarsk and Irkutsk cossacks, who in 1917 formed the Enisei Cossack Host and the Yakut Cossack Regiment of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Table 1. Total cossack population and cossacks in military service in 1916
Cossack hostPopulationIn military service
Don…………1,495,000about 100,000
Kuban’…………1,367,000about 90,000
Ural (in 1917,Iaik)…………166,00011,500
Enisei Cossacks (Irkutsk and Krasnoiarsk)…………about 10,000600
Yakut Regiment…………about 3,000300
Totalabout 4,434,000about 285,400

All cossack hosts and regions settled by the cossacks were militarily and administratively subordinated to the Main Directorate of Cossack Hosts; from 1910 they were subordinate to the Cossack Section of the Main Headquarters of the War Ministry, headed by the ataman of all cossack hosts, who was the heir to the throne from 1827. At the head of each host stood the appointed ataman; under him there was a host staff, which managed the affairs of the host through appointed atamans of sections or district atamans (the latter in the Don and Amur hosts). Stanitsa and khutor (smaller settlement) atamans were elected at assemblies.

The male cossack population 18 years of age and over was obligated to perform military service for 20 years (by the statute of 1875 for the Don Host, later extended to other hosts), including three years in the “preparatory” ranks; 12 years in the “combat” ranks, of which four years were spent in active service (first line) and eight years on “privilege” (second and third line) with periodic summer encampments; and five years in the reserves. In 1909 the period of service was reduced to 18 years by decreasing the “preparatory” ranks to one year. A cossack was obliged to appear for military service with his own uniform, equipment, silent weapons, and saddle horse.

On the eve of World War I (1914–) in peacetime the cossacks put forward 54 horse cavalry regiments, 23 batteries, six infantry reconnaissance battalions, 11 detached troops, four detached squadrons, and the imperial escort (a total of 68, 500 men). In wartime (by 1917) the cossacks presented 164 horse cavalry regiments, 54 batteries, 30 dismounted battalions, 179 detached troops, 78 half-troops, nine horse cavalry and infantry squadrons, 63 reserve troops and three and a half reserve batteries, and the imperial escort (a total of more than 200, 000 men).

Because of their fine combat training and military traditions, cossack forces played an important role in Russia’s wars of the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly in the Seven Years’ War of 1756–, the Patriotic War of 1812, the Caucasian War of 1817–, the Crimean War of 1853–, and the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, relying on the economic prosperity of the cossacks, their privileged status as a military estate, and their political backwardness, tsarism employed them extensively to perform police service and suppress the national liberation and revolutionary movement, particularly in the period of the Revolution of 1905–.

The basis for the enlistment of cossacks into military service and police functions was the system of land tenure that took its final shape in the cossack regions in the 19th century. A statute of 1869 consolidated communal ownership of the stanitsa (yurt) lands, from which each cossack was allotted one “share” of 30 desiatiny (one desiatina equals 1.09 hectares; in practice, plots averaged between 9 and 23 desiatiny). The remaining land constituted a reserve for the host, intended primarily to replenish the parcels of the stanitsa as the cossack population grew. In 1916, 63 million desiatiny were at the disposal of the cossacks for 474, 000 men in military service. (The total cossack population was more than 4.4 million.) The lands of the cossack dvoriantsvo were declared hereditary property in 1848. Through all these measures tsarism strove to maintain the economic and sociopolitical structure of the cossacks, which caused the retention of many feudal features in their economy and daily lives.

At the same time, the development of capitalism drew the cossacks into commodity-money relations, undermining the foundations of its isolation as an estate. Because landlord ownership of land was weak in cossack regions, capitalist relations began to penetrate the enconomy of the cossack stanitsy fairly rapidly, a process which was aided by the influx of newcomers (inogorodnie) after the abolition of serfdom. The Don, Kuban, ’ and other regions became areas of commercial farming; leasing of the lands of the hosts became widespread, and antagonism arose between the cossacks and the inogorodnie. Class stratification occurred among the cossacks themselves. The economy of the prosperous upper elements acquired a capitalist character. At the same time, the number of poor cossack peasant farms increased, although on the whole, the cossacks’ supply of land remained considerably higher than that of the peasants, particularly in European Russia. By the beginning of the 20th century industry was developing in certain cossack regions (the Don, Kuban’, and Siberia), and impoverished cossacks joined the ranks of the working class.

Class struggle became exacerbated among the Cossacks by the beginning of the 20th century. During 1906– there were revolutionary actions and disturbances in a number of cossack units (the 2nd Urup Regiment, infantry reconnaissance battalions, etc.). But because of the peculiarities of the military-estate organization of the cossacks, class struggle did not yet assume a broad scope. The majority of cossacks remained “as monarchist as ever” (V. I. Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 38, p. 277). However, the rapidly developing differences “in the size of holdings, amount of taxes paid, and terms of medieval land tenure as a reward for service, and so forth” (ibid., vol. 16, p. 315), as well as the influence of impoverishment and the general revolutionizing of the masses during World War I (1914–), resulted in class, and not estate, antagonism becoming the chief contradiction in cossack regions by 1917.

During the February Revolution of 1917 cossack units went over to the side of the insurgent people. Soviets of cossacks’ deputies arose on the Don, Kuban’, and Terek and in Siberia. With the support of the Provisional Government, the Soviet of the Union of Cossack Hosts was established; its leadership supported General L. G. Kornilov. During March-May 1917 host krugi were held (in the Kuban’, rada), and counterrevolutionary host governments headed by atamans were established. However, the cossack masses did not support Kornilovism.

During the October Revolution the Communist Party was able to carry along with it the cossack poor and the masses of the cossacks of the front. This, in particular, was the reason for the rapid rout of the Kerensky-Krasnov revolt. The working cossacks took part in smashing the counterrevolutionary revolts in the cossack regions and helped establish Soviet power there. In March through May 1918 the Don, Kuban’-Black Sea, and Terek soviet republics were formed as parts of the RSFSR.

The development of the socialist revolution in the countryside in 1918 sharpened the class struggle and caused serious vacillations among the cossacks. The kulak stratum and middle cossacks stood on the side of counterrevolution. A significant portion of the cossacks wound up in the ranks of the White Guard armies.

The organization of the cossack poor by the Communist Party, the victories of the Red Army, and the contradictions between the cossacks and the landlord-bourgeois counterrevolution brought about a shift of the masses of working cossacks to the side of Soviet power in late 1919. Cossack units under the command of P. V. Bakhturov, M. F. Blinov, S. M. Budennyi, B. M. Dumenko, N. D. Kashirin, F. K. Mironov, and others fought in the ranks of the Red Army. The shift of the cossacks to the side of Soviet power was consolidated at the First All-Russian Congress of Working Cossacks (February-March 1920). On the basis of the decisions of the congress on Mar. 25, 1920, a decree on the establishment in the cossack regions of the local bodies of government specified by the Constitution of the RSFSR was promulgated. In 1920, by a resolution of the All-Russian Central Executive Committee, all general statutes concerning land tenure and land use which were in effect in the RSFSR were extended to the cossack regions. These enactments put an end to the existence of the cossacks as a special military estate.

The working cossacks embarked upon the path of socialist construction. In April 1925 the plenum of the Central Committee of the ACP (Bolshevik) worked out measures to strengthen and develop the economy in the former cossack regions, pointing out the need for extensive enlistments of the leaders of the Red cossacks in party and soviet work and underscoring that the characteristic features of cossack life were not to be ignored. During collectivization the fierce resistance of the kulaks was broken in the cossack regions, and the differences between the cossacks and the inogorodnie disappeared. On Apr. 20, 1936, the Central Executive Committee of the USSR abolished the restrictions concerning service in the Red Army that had existed for cossacks. In addition to the existing cossack cavalry divisions, new ones were created. During the Great Patriotic War of 1941–45 large Cossack units commanded by P. A. Belov, L. M. Dovator, N. Ia. Kirichenko, I. A. Pliev, A. G. Selivanov, and others fought heroically at the fronts.


Lenin, V. I. Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 16, pp. 314–16 vol. 34, pp. 219–20 vol. 35, pp. 296–97 vol. 39, pp. 244, 302; vol. 40, pp. 166–87.
Stoletie voennogo ministerstva, vol. 11, parts 1–4. St. Petersburg, 1902–11.
Golobutskii, V. A. Chernomorskoe kazachestvo. Kiev, 1956.
Golobutskii, V. A. Zaporozhskoe kazachestvo. Kiev, 1957.
Istoriia Dona: S drevneishikh vremen do Velikoi Oktiabr’skoi sotsialisti cheskoi revoliutsii. Rostov-on-Don, 1965.
Istoriia Dona: Ot Velikoi Oktiabr’skoi sotsialisticheskoi revoliutsii do nashikh dnei. Rostov-on-Don, 1967.
Khoroshkhin, M. Kazach’i voiska. St. Petersburg, 1881.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
(27.) "War Cabinet, Chiefs of Staff Committee, Operation 'Overlord' Report and Appreciation with Appendices," July 30, 1943, File: Committee Report COSSAC Planning Report (Dwight D.
It is clear that if COSSAC planners in July, 1943 were using Love's method, then the appropriate planning factor for Division casualties would have been 15%.
As Hartford was the senior American medical planner on the COSSAC staff, it is reasonable to infer that he was a part of this change.
He had alienated General Morgan over his criticism of the COSSAC plan and had upset both Tedder who was the deputy supreme commander and Conningham the commander of the allied tactical air force by promising the carpiquet airfields at Caen.
A breakout in the East had been part of the COSSAC plan but had been rejected by both Montgomery and Eisenhower months before D Day.
(21.) Historical Subsection, Office of Secretary, General Staff, SHAEF, The History of COSSAC, 19.
Another was the decision to nominate a COSSAC, and from British ranks, which ensured that a vested interest in pressing the second front would evolve in London.
The reception of COSSAC was seen as an important litmus test.