The Cossacks were semi-autonomous and militaristic communities that first appeared along the Dnieper and Don rivers in the area of modern-day Ukraine. These communities, which eventually came to be referred to as Cossack “hosts”, were subsequently put to work maintaining order on the fringes of the expanding Russian Empire and used as a source of skilled warriors for fighting the tsar’s battles in far away lands. After realizing the potential value of the Cossacks, the Russian state began in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries to establish additional Cossack outposts in newly acquired territories. While it is difficult to define the many roles which the Cossacks fulfilled within the Russian Empire, their importance is undeniable. Indeed, the Cossacks were central in maintaining the hegemony of the Russian Empire in its outlying frontier territories. Nonetheless, the Cossack’s history is not one of unwavering support for the state. The various Cossack uprisings, most importantly the Pugachev rebellion, also occupy a central mythicized aspect of their history.
The very term Cossack is deceptive in its meaning. It is really a Westernized version of the word Kazakh, which is a Russified version of the Turkic Qazaq. Despite this conflation with a central Asian province, the origin of the Cossacks is far more European. The Russian state has generally viewed the Cossacks as being one and the same with ethnic Russians, and the Soviet state went so far as to deny them any separate cultural heritage, partly as punishment for their siding with the Whites in the Russian revolution (O’Rourke, 4). While the original Cossack settlements, free of state interference, did spring up in Ukraine (leading them to claim the Cossacks as their own in a related process of ‘invented tradition’), the bulk of Cossack settlements were actually commissioned by the Russian autocracy in order to control their new acquisitions which stretched across the Steppe and South into the Caucasus. This resettlement was generally achieved by giving the Cossacks preferable land grants as incentive to move into these areas and establish military colonies. This allowed the Cossacks to pursue their unique mix of soldiering and agriculture, an often precarious balance (Barrett, 2).
In contrast to agrarian tribute paid by many settlers in the Russian border areas which the Cossacks were protecting (and in some instances repressing) and the fur pelt tribute paid by the small people of the North, the Cossacks fulfilled their commitments to the Tsar by supplying men for military service. Young men served a twelve- year term beginning on their 21st birthday. From 21-24 they were trained and served active service in the military, but by age 25 they were put on “privileged” service until they were 33. Privileged service required the Cossack to be constantly prepared to ride to battle on a moment’s notice and included a yearly “summer camp” which cost almost a month’s time. This was often a huge blow to the Cossack households, which lost the backbone of their workforce at the busiest time of the year. Even more catastrophic however were the general mobilizations which included even those Cossacks on “privileged” service. The first such mobilization in order to fight the Ottoman Empire eventually resulted in “emergency aid of 250,000 roubles [being] given to the families of men mobilized from privileged service” (O’Rourke, 87). This is an excellent representation of just how much these periods away from home actually cost the Cossacks in productiveness, as they involved the loss of every able bodied male for an indeterminate period of time. Despite these commitments and constraints, the Cossacks managed to continue to eke out their existence on the periphery of the Russian Empire. The difficult lives of the Cossacks feature prominently in the minds of Russians. The Cossacks’ militaristic culture and sense of pride fueled by tradition still has a strong appeal today, as evidenced by the enduring popularity of figures like Taras Bulba.
Considering the conditions that the Cossacks were often asked to live under, it is perhaps not surprising that there were some instances of revolt. The most important, as well as the last of these Cossack-centered frontier rebellions, the Pugachev rebellion, occurred in 1773. The violence of the rebellion was repressed harshly, but then followed by a blanket pardon of those who were involved in minor ways. This was followed by the realization that the state needed to play a more central role in the supervision of these regions, and the implementation of state administrative structures (Sunderland, 58). These changes represented a significant turning point and saw a drastic reduction of Cossack autonomy, as well as a push to integrate them into the Russian Imperial state structures.
The Cossacks were a vital force in the control and protection of Russia’s frontiers. Before the installation of administrative structures, the Russian empire could scarcely have maintained the integrity of its territory, as well as the monopoly of force, without the aid of the Cossack hosts. The Cossacks’ unique blend of military and agriculture allowed them to maintain a special relationship with the Russian state that was markedly different from many other colonial subjects. It was in this unique role that they contributed to the Russian Empire’s process of colonization.
- Shane O’Rourke, The Cossacks (Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 2007).
- Thomas M. Barrett, At the Edge of Empire (Colorado: Westview Press, 1999).
- Willard Sunderland, Taming the Wild Field (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004).