Russia's Eastward Expansion Cossacks

The Cossacks in the 16th century

The strategy of nomadic warrior-fighters, such as the Tatars and Ottoman Turks, was to raid areas before subjugating them and taking them under full control. The Golden Horde regarded the core regions of the Russian steppe - Volga Bulgaria, the region along the lower Volga and Don, the Crimea, as such core regions. However, vast stretches of land located between the Tatar pastures and the Russian principalities had been a buffer zone, not Tatar pastures, but not part of any other state either. The population had to live in the contant threat of a Tatar raid.
Here a new people emerged, the COSSACKS. They consisted of runaway serfs, of refugees from elsewhere, of adventurers. of all kinds of origin. Ethnically most were southern Russian (Ukrainian), but they included Poles, Vlachians, Greeks, even Jews and Tatars. Economically they lived of a little farming and fishery, but their main interest lay in horses; cossacks were excellent riders. .
Cossacks lived in HOSTS (political communities covering certain areas); the most important hosts, in the 16th century, were the ZAPOROZHE and DON COSSACKS. The administrative center of a Cossack host was the SICH, a fortified "city" where only men were allowed in, and in which the all-powerful RADA (assembly) was held. "city" in quotation marks, because the location was repeatedly changed. The Cossack host was lead by the ATAMAN or HETMAN, who was elected and could be voted out of office any time; but he had absolute command in war. The Cossack society had a distinct identity - those who joined the Cossacks had to take on that identity, adopting new names and accepting rigid discipline. Part of that identity was Orthodox Christianity. The Cossacks were FREE, rejected serfdom. They chose their leaders and only those who opted for one were obliged to follow his commands. They were famous for consuming large amounts of alcohol.

Cossack identity had developed because they lived in a country constantly exposed to Tatar raids (from the Crimea and elsewhere). The Zaporozhe Cossacks formed a shield protecting Poland from such raids, but the Cossacks proved to be an entity of their own - allying themselves to Poland, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, according to the situation; and Cossacks as allies were kind of unpredictable. At times the Cossacks themselves would raid on their neighbours, be it Poles, Tatars or Russians.
In 1581 the STROGANOV family hired a band of Cossacks to conquer the Khanate of Sibir (conquest achieved in 1584) and to explore the vast lands to the east of that, Hetman YERMAK thus gaining lasting fame.
From the 16th century onward, the Cossacks lived in the border region of Poland-Lithuania, the Ottoman Empire and Russia. They were often split in a number of distinct hordes.

The Cossacks Page, by Artiom Kochukov
Cossack, database entry from NUPI, ethnologic-historical
DOCUMENTS Map : Ukrainian lands after 1569, from Historical Atlas of Ukraine

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted in 2000, last revised on November 8th 2004

Click here to go Home
Click here to go to Information about KMLA, WHKMLA, the author and webmaster
Click here to go to Statistics

Impressum · Datenschutz