A Brief History of the Cossacks

18th Century Cossack

Brief History of the Cossacks

The Cossacks owe their origins to the mixing of Asiatic and Slavic cultures on the Russian steppes that had been a part of Russian life since the first Slavic migrations out of the Carpathian Mountains.

The first group of horsemen to gain the term Cossacks were Tartar (descendents of the Mongol Golden Horde) freebooting outlaws robbing and raiding without Tartar permission. They were called Kazaks by Greek and Turkish traders in the early 14th century, a Turkish word of Arabic origin. Kazak soon found its way into the Tartar, Polish and Russian languages.

By the 15th century bands of Tartar Kazaks, organised on Mongol principles (groups of 10 forming the base unit), were roaming and raiding in the Russian principalities, Lithuania-Poland and even Tartar Khanates. Soon their numbers grew to the point where they were braving direct confrontations with organised forces.

One such raid in 1443 into the Russian principality of Riazan resulted in the granting of winter refuge to the Kazak band, who by the following year were fighting along side their new Russian allies against other Tartar raiders. At about the same time Basil II of Moscow granted refuge to a dissident Tatar Khan and allowed then to settle in the lands between Moscow and Kazan, they too were soon fighting along side their Russian allies as Kasimov Cossacks (named after their leader Khan Kasim).

As the once great Mongol empire shrank and their borders retreated wide tracks of wild steppe land became a frontier land claimed by no state, the ideal home for Tatar Cossacks to roam free. Soon the groups were not just attracting Tartars, but Russians, Poles, Lithuanians and other peoples of the region. Much like western Europeans escaping to the new world in the 18th and 19th centuries, the poor, criminals and dispossessed of 15th and 16th century eastern Europe soon flocked to the open steppe looking for a new life and freedom from life under the Russian princes.  

Tartar Warrior
Un-armoured Tartar

By mid 15th century these two groups were mingling and by the 16th century the integration of the European and Tartar Cossacks was well underway.

On the western steppe the initial wave of European Cossacks were summer migrants, returning to frontier towns in Russian and Lithuania-Poland with the onset of winter.

To control the growing bands of brigand Cossacks Muscovite and Polish authorities try to exercise some form of control over the Cossack bands by enrolling them for military service as border troops, these became “registered” Cossacks and by 1620 the Poles alone had some 6000 in their service.

Not all Cossacks found service in the military; some were simply rounded up and pressed into serfdom (a kind of peasant slavery common in eastern Europe up until the 18th century). In fact as the Russian state became more and more authoritarian in later centuries it would be escaped serfs that would swell the numbers of Cossacks.

Pressure from both states pushed Cossacks further east and south, forcing them to stay on the steppe all year round.

Without the threat of military service and return to serfdom these new “Free” Cossack communities could grow. One major settlement was on the Don River and it inhabitants became known as the Don Cossacks. The other large group was based on the Lower Dnieper River, the got their name form the location of their base Zaporozhsksya Sich (the clearing below the cataracts), so the Lower Dnieper Cossacks became the Zaporozhian Cossacks.

By 1600 further important Cossack hosts (a tribe or band of Cossacks) had come to prominence on the Rivers Yaik (Ural Cossacks) and Terek.

Zaporozhian Cossacks
Ivan the Terrible's army marches out

The first significant Cossack role in the Russian army came in 1552 when Ivan the terrible decided to re-conquer the Volga river from the Tartars, aiming to seize the two Tatar strong holds of Kazan and Astrakhan. Free Cossacks from the Volga area were convinced to fight with Ivan’s Army. Kazan fell after a bloody siege giving the Russians their first victory over the Tartars for 170 years.

Ivan’s Muscovite Army then moved south to Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea. As the Tsar’s army rampaged through Tartar lands more Cossacks swelled it ranks. After four years of fighting Astrakhan finally fell, leaving the mighty Volga River once more in Russian hands.

Amongst the many Cossack adventurers gathered in this army was Yermak Timofeyevich, who along with his Cossack host, would win fame by starting the colonisation of the vast lands of Siberia for Russia.

Registered Cossacks became integral part of Ivan’s Army, and Free Cossacks would also fight for him on occasion. After success on the Volga Ivan turned his attention westward to Poland-Lithuania and the Swedish Baltic Empire. 25 years of warfare ensued and Cossacks found roles in the armies of both sides. Poland-Lithuania and Muscovy both took registered Cossack, signing them up individually and organising them into regiments with appointed commanders. But the approach changed when dealing with the Free Cossack, the Poles continued to try to impress the Free Cossacks of the Dnieper and Ukraine individually causing resentment, while the Muscovites simply recruited whole hosts of Cossacks for service under their own leaders (Ataman), a tradition that became formalised in later years. 

Mounted Cossack Warrior
Ukainian Cossack leader Bogdan Khmelnitsky Cossacks were also involved in political intrigue and weren’t afraid to throw their lot in with a rebellion against the Tsar. Cossack from the Zaporozhian and Don flocked to the banner of the False Dmetri in 1604 when he laid claim to the Throne over the current Tsar Boris Godunov. When Dmetri was killed in 1606 they rose up once again in revolt against the new Tsar Basel IV.

Cossacks also played a major role the election of Michael Romanov in 1613, as large numbers of Cossacks had fought in an army raise to bring order to Muscovy. Michael Romanov rewarded the Don Cossack for their support making them “protectors of Russia’ and granting rights of free movement and trade in and out of Muscovy. He soon struck similar deals with the Yaik and Zaporozhian Cossacks.

Through the 17th Century, with the protection of the Romanov Russia and growing trade, Cossack communities on the Dnieper, Don, Yaik and Terek rivers grew. Massive revolts in the Polish controlled Ukraine ended with Ukrainian Cossacks leaving Polish service to swear allegiance to Russia to obtain more freedoms. The Ukrainian Cossacks were soon plotting with the Swedes for independence and were never fully trusted again by the Russians. Fighting for control of the Ukraine continued between Poland, Russia and Turkey until 1689, with the Cossacks stuck in the middle.

Under Russian rule the Ukraine gradually lost its Cossack identity and its society became indistinguishable from Russia where the landed Gentry ruled over peasants and serfs.

Cossack were also great users of the Rivers, the Don and Volga being important trade routes as well as occasional threatres for Piracy

Only the Zaporozhi Cossacks kept their identity on the lower Dnieper throughout these turbulent times.

In the meantime the Don Cossacks were engaged in continuous raids, fighting and robbery along their frontier with the Turks and Tartars, with an ultimate aim of capturing Azov, the Turkish port at the mouth of the Don.

Don Cossack
Cossack River boat In 1637 a massive expedition led by the Don Cossacks, but also attracting Ukrainian and Zaporozhian hosts, laid siege to Azov. After two months they finally blew a hole in the citadel wall and stormed the fortress. After several days fighting the Cossacks had cleared the port of Turkish resistance, and the Cossacks’ control of the Don was complete. A Turkish attack in 1641 levelled the city and the Cossacks were forced to leave at Russian insistence in 1642.

By 1660 Azov was once more in Turkish hands. It fell once again to a combined Cossack/Russian force in Peter the Great’s first campaign in 1696.

Another Cossack revolutionary rose to prominence during the second half of the 17th century. Stenka Razin started as the son of a leading Don Cossack, but after his brother’s death at the hands of the Russians, took a band of Cossack and refugees to the Volga where he operated as a pirate, even launching raids on Persian territory. After a short return to the Don, he was back on the Volga, this time as the leader of a revolution against the rich landowners. He took a number of towns on the Volga, and in 1670 took control of Tsaritsyn (later to become Stalingrad), and later Astrakhan. His army was stopped on the way to Moscow, the untrained peasants that had flocked to his banner proved no match for the Russian troops of Prince Bariatinsky.

18th Century

When Peter the Great came to power in 1682 he was determined to forge Russia into a modern European power, and though happy to use the Don Cossacks to retake Azov in 1696, soon turned his attention to taming the lawless Russian frontiers. His requests for the Don Cossacks to return to their traditional territory on the lower Don and to hand over runaway serfs and peasants was ignored.

Late 18th century Cossacks
Don Cossacks

Peter then took direct action rounding up the runaways in the hundreds and dragging them back to serfdom. He then banned the Cossacks from the upper reaches of the Don and the area around Azov.

The Cossacks were soon back to their old ways, ignoring Peter’s restrictions and inciting his wrath. A military expedition was mounted in 1706 to push the Cossacks back into their territories. This time a number of Don Cossacks under Kondrati Bulavin resisted. He was initially defeated by Peter’s forces, but soon returned to the Don with Zaporozhi support and rallied a Don Cossack force in rebellion. Peter raised a strong army and defeated Bulavin, he was ousted as Don leader and killed himself in disgrace. The Don Cossacks were finally brought to heel and their ambitions for expansion in to the upper Don were quashed. 

Many Don Cossacks couldn’t face direct Russian rule and moved east to the Kuban River near Caucasus under the protection of the Turks and became the Kuban Cossack Host. 

The Ukrainian Cossacks were the next to fall under Peter’s sway. During his campaign against Charles XII of Sweden’s forces in 1708-09, during which most Ukrainian Cossacks had stayed loyal, he dealt with the rebellious Zaporozhi. He besieged their stronghold on the Dnieper, defeating them and forcing their leaders in exile in the Crimea. In 1722-23, once the war with Sweden had concluded, the Ukraine was placed under direct military rule, and Cossack regiments were put under the command of Russian officers and thousands of Ukrainian Cossacks were deported to Siberia.

The Yaik Cossacks were subdued in 1723. It was a period of great upheaval for the Cossack communities. If one action sums up the change in the Cossacks’ status it was administrative. In 1721 Cossacks stopped dealing with Moscow through the Foreign Ministry and were redirected through the War Ministry, virtually annexing them into the Russian State.
A Cossack attacks a Swede during the Great Northern War

Under Peter and his successors’ oppression the freebooting, democratic attitude to life slowly lessened and Cossacks turned to farming to make ends meet. Cossack society started to drift back towards that seen in the rest of Russia. Those without the means or land to support themselves kept alive the time honoured Cossack traditions of banditry and theft, but now fellow Cossacks as well as Russians, Poles, Turks and Tatars were their victims. Now respectable Cossacks found themselves fighting alongside Russian troops to control rebellious Cossacks.

During the 18th century discontent also stirred over the impress of free Cossacks in to regular army units. This along with other grievances led to rebellion among the Yaik and Don Cossacks in 1772-73.

The Rebellion was crushed, but smouldering resentment remained. Another rebellion among the Yaik was raised under Emilion Pugachov, in the guise of the dead Tsar Peter III, he raise a force and from 1773-74 laid siege to Orenburg, defeating several attempt to relive the fortress. After defeat in open battle Pugachov quickly organised another force and took Kazan, his rebellion was finally defeated in September 1774.

In the aftermath the Yaik river was renamed the Ural, and the Yaik Cossack Host became the Ural Cossack Host and was heavily garrisoned by regular Russian troops. The Volga Cossacks were forcibly moved to lands in the Caucasus, now under Russian rule.

On concluding a successful war with the Turks in 1774, Catherine turned her attention to the final Cossack thorn in the side of the Russian state, the Zaporozhi.

In 1775 and veteran Russian army, Don Cossacks among their ranks, fell on the lower Dnieper and the Zaporozhi Cossacks. They were crushed and their leadership exiled or executed. They were revived as the Black Sea Host to fight the Turks for the Crimea in 1787, but never returned to their past glory.

By the end of Catherine’s reign in 1796, both the Ukrainian and Zaporozhi Cossacks had ceases to exist as functioning hosts, the Yaik (now Ural) survived, but now depleted and rivalled by newly formed Orenburg host near by and only the Don Cossack retained some of their former status, though now firmly under Russian rule.

Suvorov’s Russians cross the Swiss Alps

Several newer hosts had started to grow in the Caucasus on the River Kuban and the Terek Cossacks, for so long under Turkish rule, came back under the sway of the Russians. Don and Zaporozhi Cossacks were move into the Caucasus to boaster ranks (signed on for 20 years service) and help protect the new southern frontier. The Caucasus rapidly became the new peasant and serf runaway destination to join the “free” Cossacks.

Napoleonic Wars

During the French Revolutionary War the Don and Ural Cossacks were in the vanguard of the Austrian and Russian armies in 1799, their military prowess soon got the attention of Europe and the Russians under Marshal Suvorov proved equal to the French armies. Western Europe also felt the depredation of the Cossacks for the first time as they foraged for food, taking what they needed from the local population. In 1800 the Russian armies returned home.

The Cossacks next military campaign saw them thrust into one of the strangest schemes of Tsar Paul I, known to his subjects as the “Madman”.

After renouncing an alliance with Britain, Paul’s plan, hatched in conjunction with Napoleon, was to attack India and retake lost French holdings from the British. A force of 22,000 Don Cossacks was assembled under the command of Cossack Major-General Matvei Platov, General Basel Orlov led the expedition.

The expedition set off on 12 January 1801 in the depths of winter, their aim to march to Bukhara on the Silk Road, through Afghanistan to northern India then down the Ganges. Buy the time that had cleared the Steppe and entered the deserts of central Asia their supplies had already dwindled, but they were reprieved when a messenger caught them three weeks into the trek. Paul had been assassinated and the expedition was called off. A march to certain death had been avoided.

The new Tsar Alexander I was soon involved in war in Europe and in 1805 Cossacks were at the head of a Russian army heading for Austria to aid them against Napoleon. During the intervening years Alexander had increased the number of Cossacks in service to 50 Regiments totalling 50,000 men, over half from the Don. Cossack uniforms were standardised to some extent and some Cossacks served as infantry and horse artillery.

Guard Cossacks of the Napoleonic wars
Sevastapol, Crimean War

For the Russians the battle of Austerlitz was a disaster, but the Russian army would improve and its Generals would become more able to deal with Napoleon’s style of war. From 1805 to 1815 the Cossack would be involved in even Russian battle and campaign and would earn a fearsome reputation. After Napoleons defeat in Russia in 1812 it was the Cossack who harried the French retreat all the way back to Germany. After the 1813 German campaign, Cossacks left memories of terror imbedded in the minds of the German population that would be rekindled in 1945.
19th Century

During the European revolutions of the 1830s and 1840s Cossacks were used extensively to crush uprisings. Tsar Nicolas I used them to crush the Poles in Russian Poland and Cossack regiments were sent into Hungary and Czechoslovakia to aid the Austrians against uprisings.

The Crimean War (1854-56) was the next the major conflict involving the Cossacks. They were used mainly in the reconnaissance role in which they excelled but during pitched battled performed badly when used like regular cavalry, as they were often armed with old weapons and poor mounts, which they paid for themselves and saw little reason to waste good equipment or horses.

After the Crimea Russia was limited in its expansion west, so once more looked south and east for extension of territory and trade. The Cossacks were once more at the head of expansion and exploration. 

As part of the expansion five new Cossack hosts were created: Siberia (Omsk), Transbaikal (Irkursk), Amur, and Ussuri in the east. Meanwhile Don, Terek and Kuban Cossacks were expanding the frontiers south in to the Caucasus, where the Don Cossacks picked up their habit of wearing crossed ammunition belts from local tribesmen. Expansion also went east of the Caspian Sea in to the Islamic Khanates of Kokand, Khiva and Bukhara. The Seven Rivers (Semirechnie) Host was formed from Siberian Cossack in the 1860s to protect the southwest border with China. By 1885 Russian territory went all the way up to the Persian, Afghan and Chinese frontiers.

At the end of the 19th century the Cossacks found themselves the tools of Tsarist oppression, stamping out revolutionary activities and escorting political prisoners to the east.

World War I

In 1904 war broke out with Japan over possessions in the Far East and Transbaikal, Amur, and Ussuri Cossacks were mobilised. When Port Arthur surrendered to the Japanese in 1905 a popular protest of 120,000 workers took to the streets of St. Petersburg on January 9. 

Cossack at the turn of the 19th/20th century
Cossacks vs Japanese Cavalry in 1904

Panicking Cossack and Hussars brought in for crowd control opened fire and over 130 people were killed and many more wounded. The end result of this “Bloody Sunday” was the widespread distrust Tsar Nicolas II regime, leading finally to the revolution of 1917.

In 1914 the Cossack were off to war again, this time against the Germans and Austro-Hungarians.

350,000 Cossack were put into the field during the First World War, after the first 16 months of the war the Cossack regiments had been reduced to a quarter of their original strength. Many Cossack regiments ended up fighting on foot and despite little training as infantry they fought well and often to the death.

Revolution and Civil War

In the spring of 1916 the Cossacks were once more being used to squash dissension in St. Petersburg. As civil disorder and unrest continued the Cossacks continued to be called out for crowd control, but as disaffection spread to their ranks and communities they showed less willingness to viciously suppress the protests. 

Cossacks off to war in 1914
Fighting against the central powers

Finally during a demonstration in St. Petersburg on February 25, 1917 the Cossacks turned on the Police who were roughly treating the protesters. Soon other army regiments in the area mutinied and the revolution had begun.

As Lenin’s Bolsheviks took control of St. Petersburg many Cossack regiments headed home. The Bolsheviks set up a Commissar of Cossacks and went about spreading their message to the Cossack communities. With the chaos of the revolution going on around them the idea of an independent Cossack republic appeared, unfortunately support outside the Cossack community was limited. In 1918 Red forces tried to gain control of previously un-committed Cossack areas, murdering and looting as they went and finally turning the Cossack against them. 

As the War ended and the Germans relinquished control of the Ukraine the Red army moved against the Don Cossacks. The Cossacks were beaten and its survivors merged with the nearby White army.

The Reds had in the meantime raised the First Cavalry Army, containing large number of Don and Kuban Cossacks, which they sent against the White army.

As chaos continued in Russia during the Civil War, banditry was once rife with the breakdown of civil law. Cossacks were among the many who turned to this time honoured tradition, especially in Siberia and the Far East. When the Red army drove the final Whites, many Cossacks among them, out of Siberia many fled to Harbin in Chinese Manchuria. Harbin had long been under Russian influence since the building of the Transsiberian railway, and its population swelled by another 200,000 Russians by 1920. Large number of Transbaikal Cossack set up villages and farms in the countryside around the city.

Cossacks during the civil war
Between the Wars

For those Cossack communities that remained in Russia (now the Union Soviet Socialist Republics) it took time to recover from the ravages of the Civil War, plus they now had to adapt to a society where their traditional privileges no longer held sway. Cossack farms were collectivised in the early 1930, further reducing their independence. Some resistance to change flared up, but was mercilessly crushed by the Soviet authorities.

Along with the military and dissidents the Cossacks were also victims of Stalin’s purges as he blamed their leaders for the failure of collective farms.
Cossacks in Soviet Service World War Two

By 1937 Stalin had relented in his persecution of the Cossacks, he reinstated the Cossack Regiment names in the army, and re-opened recruitment on the Don, Terek and Kuban. 100,000 Cossacks were serving in the Red Army in 1941.

With the disaster of 1941 the Cossacks were once again used to harry and delay the enemy as infantry retreated and re-grouped. Some Cossacks went over to the Germans and their allies, but many more stayed loyal to the Soviet cause. In 1942 Cossacks were once more involved in attacks on the enemy.

Soviet Cossack Units 1942-43

12th Cavalry Division
4th Cavalry Regiment (Kuban Cossacks)
19th Cavalry Regiment (Kuban Cossacks)
23rd Cavalry Regiment (Kuban Cossacks)

The 12th Cavalry Divison had the honorific title of “Kuban Cossack Division”, it formed in January 1942 at Krasnodor as part of the 17th Cavalry Corps. It first saw combat in June 1942. It became the 9th Guard Cavalry Division in August 1942 and the Corps became the 4th Guard Cavalry Corps.

13th Cavalry Division
24th Cavalry Regiment (Kuban Cossacks)
29th Cavalry Regiment (Kuban Cossacks)
32nd Cavalry Regiment (Kuban Cossacks)

The 13th Cavalry Division also had the honorific title of “Kuban Cossack Division”, it formed in January 1942 at Krasnodor as part of the 17th Cavalry Corps. It went into battle in May-June 1942. It became the 10th Guard Cavalry Division in August 1942 and the Corps became the 4th Guard Cavalry Corps.

15th Cavalry Division
25th Cavalry Regiment (1st Don Cossack Cavalry Regiment)
33rd Cavalry Regiment (2nd Don Cossack Cavalry Regiment)
42nd Cavalry Regiment (3rd Don Cossack Cavalry Regiment) 

"German" Don Cossack
Cossacks on the move

The 15th Cavalry Division served near Stalingrad until April 1942. it was then added to the 17th Cavalry Corps forming at Krasnodor. It fought the German advance into the North Caucasus from June-July. It became the 11th Guard Cavalry Division in August 1942. It was moved to the 5th Guards Corps in November 1942 with which it fought until the end of the war.

62nd Cavalry Division
181st Cavalry Regiment
183rd Cavalry Regiment
185th Cavalry Regiment

The 62nd Cavalry Division had the honorific title of “Cossack in the name of Paramon Samsonovich Kurkin” Division. It formed in July-October 1941. It took part in the retaking of Rostov in November 1941. In December is became part of the 2nd Cavalry Corps. It was caught in encirclement during the Kharkov offensive and was officially disbanded in July 1942.

116th Cavalry Division
257th Cavalry Regiment (Don Cossack)
258th Cavalry Regiment (Don Cossack)
259th Cavalry Regiment (Don Cossack)

The 116th Cavalry Division had the honorific title of “Don Cossack Division”.
Cossacks on the march
Soviet cavalry stop to rest

It formed in January 1942 at Salsk in the Rostov oblast, and was assigned to the 17th Cavalry Corps in June when is saw its first fighting to stop the German break into the North Caucasus. It became the 12th Guard Cavalry Division in August 1942 and the Corps became the 4th Guard Cavalry Corps.

Further possible Don, Kuban and Terek Cossack divisions formed around Rostov or in the North Caucasus:

35th Cavalry Division
38th Cavalry Division
40th Cavalry Division
42nd Cavalry Division
43rd Cavalry Division
47th Cavalry Division
50th Cavalry Division
52nd Cavalry Division
53rd Cavalry Division
56th Cavalry Division
60th Cavalry Division
64th Cavalry Division
66th Cavalry Division
68th Cavalry Division
70th Cavalry Division
72nd Cavalry Division

Enemy at the Gates

Possible Siberian Cossack divisions:

49th Cavalry Division
73rd Cavalry Division
75th Cavalry Division
77th Cavalry Division
87th Cavalry Division

Fielding Cossacks in Flames Of War

You can field Cossacks in Mid-war using the Enemy at the Gates Cossack Regiment or Hero Cossack Regiment, and Cavalry command cards. 

Cossacks on parade

Last Updated On Tuesday, January 11, 2022 by Wayne at Battlefront