Golden Recursion Inc. logoGolden Recursion Inc. logo
Advanced Search
Cossacks - who are they?

Cossacks - who are they?

(PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo) Cossacks have become a highly recognizable feature of modern Russia, playing a central role in the annexation of Crimea and promotion of secessionism in Donbas. Beyond...

Even the Cossacks themselves throughout the 500 years of their history answered this question in different ways - depending on the political situation. Historians studying the Cossacks have also been arguing about the essence of the Cossacks for hundreds of years. The discussion about the identification of the Cossacks is aggravated every time another turning point occurs in its history.

It can be said that the current Cossacks in all their diversity are the descendants of members of a special class of the Russian state, which was abolished a hundred years ago, and those who consider themselves to be such. Since the late 1980s, some of them have been trying, with the help of the state, to recreate this class, whose main right and duty is to serve the state and receive at least some of the privileges that their ancestors enjoyed.

There are those who consider the Cossacks a separate ethnic group with their own culture, customs and national interests. But historians for the most part deny the Cossacks the right to be called an ethnic group.

And where did the Cossacks come from?

This question intersects with the discussion about the identification of the Cossacks. Two main theories give opposite answers to this. According to the most common, the Cossacks are the descendants of people who fled for centuries to the southern and eastern outskirts of Russia from the central regions and foreigners who joined them - from Kalmyks to Poles and Germans.

Another theory, which is not shared by most academic historians, elevates the Cossacks to the indigenous population of the steppes of southern Russia. Supporters of this theory called Caucasians (Circassians), Polovtsian Turks, Scythians, and also mixed ethnic groups the ancestors of the Cossacks. Adolf Hitler wrote that the Cossacks are descended from the Germans - the Ost-Goths.

Modern historians explain that there was a linguistic and historical confusion about the origin of the Cossacks. When, at the end of the 14th century, the Golden Horde was defeated by Tamerlane and disintegrated into several khanates, many Turkic families switched to a wandering way of life; such "tramps", who lived by robbery and mercenary work, were called Cossacks among the Turks. In Russia, they were called "Tatar Horde Cossacks."

Then this name for "tramps" was borrowed by neighboring peoples. According to Nikolai Karamzin, in 1444, the Tatar Meshchera Cossacks of Tsarevich Mustafa clashed with the Russian Ryazan Cossacks in Ryazan (this is perhaps the first mention of "non-Horde" Cossacks in Russia).

For the authorities of the Moscow Principality, the difference between the "Horde" and "Russian" Cossacks was at first small: both could be hired into the service of Moscow. The "Russians" had one advantage - they were Orthodox. In 1538, the Boyar Duma, in a letter to the Nogai Khan, described the diversity of the Cossacks as follows: “Many Cossacks go to the Field: Kazanians, Azovians, Crimeans, and other <…> of our Ukrainians, Cossacks mingling with them go.”



Further reading


Documentaries, videos and podcasts



Golden logo
By using this site, you agree to our Terms & Conditions.