The History of the Cossacks is subject to some dispute and varying opinions. The Cossacks are a group of people living in the southern steppe regions of Eastern Europe and Russia. Although many theories exist on the formation of Cossacks, towards the end of the 14th century two Cossack hosts emerged: one on the lower Dnieper River and the other on the Don River. These were joined by numerous Ruthenian migrants who left the adjacent northern states of Moscow and Lithuania. By the start of the 16th century they swelled into large militant states. The Don Cossack Host, allied with the Tsardom of Russia, began a systematic conquest and colonization of lands to secure her borders on the Volga, the whole of Siberia, the Yaik and the Terek Rivers. The Dnieper Cossacks of Ukraine formed the Zaporozhian Sich. Initially a vassal of Poland-Lithuania, the increasing social and religious pressure from the Commonwealth caused them to proclaim a Cossack Hetmanate, initiating a rebellion under Bohdan Khmelnytsky in the mid-17th century. In the 18th century the rising Russian Empire's expansion ambitions relied on ensuring the loyalty of the Cossacks, and this caused tension within their traditional independent lifestyle. This resulted in rebellions led by Stenka Razin, Kondraty Bulavin and Yemelyan Pugachev. In extreme cases whole Hosts could be dissolved, as was the fate of the Zaporozhian Sich in 1775. By the end of the 18th century, the Cossacks became a special social estate (sosloviye), they served as border guards on national and internal ethnic borders (as was in the case in the Caucasus War) and regularly supplied men to conflicts such as the numerous Russo-Turkish Wars. In return they enjoyed vast social autonomy. This caused them to form a stereotypical portrayal of 19th century Russian Empire abroad and her government domestically. During the Russian Civil War Cossack regions became the main centres for the Anti-Bolshevik movement. After the Collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cossack lifestyle blossomed in Russia. Many fought in post-Soviet conflicts and there are special units in the Russian Military wholly made of them. Cossacks also have a parallel civil administration and police duties in their homelands and are now an integral part of Russian society. There are also Cossack organizations in Kazakhstan, Ukraine and other countries.

The name entered the English language via French Cosaque, which was a translation from the Polish, which was derived from the Ukrainian Kozak (In Russian Kazak). It is originally a Turkic word, qazaq, which means "adventurer" or "free man".

It is not clear when the Slavic people started settling in the lower reaches of major rivers such as the Don and the Dnieper. It is unlikely it could have happened before the 13th century, when the Mongol hordes broke the power of the Cumans and other Turkic tribes on that territory. It is known that they inherited a lifestyle that persisted there long before, such as those of the Turkic Cumans and the Circassian Kassaks. Proto-Cossack groups very likely came into existence within the territories of today's Ukraine in the mid-13th century. In 1261 some Slavic people living in the area between the Dniester and the Volga were mentioned in Ruthenian chronicles. Historical records of the Cossacks before the 16th century are scant. By the 16th century these Cossack societies merged into two independent territorial organisations as well as other smaller, still detached groups.

The Cossacks of Zaporizhia, centred around the lower bends of Dnieper, inside the territory of modern Ukraine, with the fortified capital of Zaporozhian Sich. They were formally recognised as a state, the Zaporozhian Host, by a treaty with Poland in 1649. The Don Cossack State, on the river Don, separating the Grand Duchy of Moscow from the Nogai states, vassals of the Ottoman Empire. The capital of the Don Cossack State was Cherkassk, later moved to Novocherkassk. Less well-known are the Polish Cossacks (Kozacy) and the Tatar Cossacks (Nagaybäklär). The name 'Cossacks' was also given to a kind of light cavalry in the army of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

The Cossacks of the Zaporozhian Host, who lived on the steppes of Ukraine, are another well known group of Cossacks. Their numbers increased greatly between the 15th to 17th centuries, led by poor Ruthenian boyar-nobility, merchants and runaway peasants from Poland-Lithuania. The Zaporozhian Cossacks played an important role in European geopolitics, undergoing a series of conflicts and alliances with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. As a result of the Khmelnytsky Uprising in the middle of the 17th century Zaporozhian Cossacks managed to briefly create an independent state, which later became the autonomous Cossack Hetmanate, a suzerainty under protection of the Russian Tsar but ruled by the local Hetmans for half a century. In the later half of the 18th century the Zaporozhian Host was dissolved by the Russian authorities. Some of Cossacks' descendants have moved to the Danube delta region and Kuban, although after 1828 most of the Danubians have moved to Russia as well, first to the Azov and later to the Kuban. Although today the Kuban Cossacks and their descendents do not consider themselves Ukrainians, their local dialect and folklore preserved the Ukrainian influence and many historians consider their predecessors, the Dnieper Cossacks, as founders of what became a modern Ukrainian nation. Some historical documents of that period refer to those states as sovereign nations with unique warrior cultures, whose main source of income was derived from the pillaging of their neighbours. They were renowned for their raids against the Ottoman Empire and its vassals, although they did not shy away from pillaging other neighbours.

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Around the end of the 16th century, relations between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Ottoman Empire, which were not cordial to begin with, were further strained by increasing Cossack aggressiveness. From the second part of the 16th century, Cossacks started raiding Ottoman territories. The Polish government could not control the fiercely independent Cossacks, but since they were nominally subjects of the Commonwealth, it was held responsible for the raids by their victims. Reciprocally, the Tatars living under Ottoman rule launched raids into the Commonwealth, mostly in the sparsely inhabited south-east territories. Cossack pirates, however, were raiding wealthy merchant port cities in the heart of the Ottoman Empire, which were just two days away by boat from the mouth of the Dnieper. Consecutive treaties between Ottoman Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth called for both parties to keep the Cossacks and Tatars in check, but enforcement was almost non-existent on both sides. In internal agreements, forced by the Polish side, Cossacks agreed to burn their boats and stop raiding. However, boats could be rebuilt quickly, and the Cossack lifestyle glorified raids and booty. During this time, the Habsburg Empire sometimes covertly employed Cossack raiders to ease Ottoman pressure on their own borders. Many Cossacks and Tatars shared an animosity towards each other due to the damage done by raids from both sides. Cossack raids followed by Tatar retaliation, or Tatar raids followed by Cossack retaliation were an almost regular occurrence. The ensuing chaos and string of retaliations often turned the entire south-eastern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth border into a low-intensity war zone and led to escalation of Commonwealth-Ottoman warfare, from the Moldavian Magnate Wars to the Battle of Cecora and Wars in 1633-1634.

Cossack numbers expanded with peasants running from serfdom in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Attempts by the szlachta to turn the Zaporozhian Cossacks into serfs eroded the Cossacks' once fairly strong loyalty towards the Commonwealth. Cossack ambitions to be recognised as equal to the szlachta were constantly rebuffed, and plans for transforming the Polish-Lithuanian Two-Nations Commonwealth into Three Nations (with the Ruthenian Cossack people) made little progress due to the Cossacks' unpopularity. The Cossack's strong historic allegiance to the Eastern Orthodox Christianity put them at odds with the Catholic-dominated Commonwealth. Tensions increased when Commonwealth policies turned from relative tolerance to suppression of the Orthodox church, making the Cossacks strongly anti-Catholic.

The waning loyalty of the Cossacks and the szlachta's arrogance towards them resulted in several Cossack uprisings against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the early 17th century. Finally, the King's adamant refusal to cede to the Cossack's demand to expand the Cossack Registry was the last straw that prompted the largest and most successful of these: the Khmelnytsky uprising that started in 1648. The uprising became one of a series of catastrophic events for the Commonwealth known as The Deluge, which greatly weakened the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and set the stage for its disintegration 100 years later. The rebellion ended with the 1654 Treaty of Pereyaslav in which Cossacks pledged their loyalty to the Russian Tsar with the latter guaranteeing Cossacks his protection, recognition of Cossack starshyna (nobility) and the autonomy under his rule, freeing the Cossacks from the Polish sphere of influence. The last, ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to rebuild the Polish-Cossack alliance and create a Polish-Lithuanian-Ruthenian Commonwealth was the 1658 Treaty of Hadiach, which was approved by the Polish King and Sejm as well as by some of the Cossack starshyna, including Hetman Ivan Vyhovsky. The starshyna were, however, divided on the issue and the treaty had even less support among Cossack rank-and-file; thus it failed.

Under Russian rule the Cossack nation of the Zaporozhian Host was divided into two autonomous republics of the Grand Duchy of Moscow: the Cossack Hetmanate, and the more independent Zaporizhia. A Cossack organisation was also established in the Russian colony of Sloboda Ukraine. These organisations gradually lost their autonomy, and were abolished by Catherine II by the late 18th century. The Hetmanate became the governorship of Little Russia, Sloboda Ukraine the Kharkiv province, and Zaporizhia was absorbed into New Russia. In 1775 the Zaporozhian Host was dissolved and high ranking Cossack leaders were granted titles of nobility (dvoryanstvo). Most of the Zaporozhians resettled to colonise the Kuban steppe which was a crucial foothold for Russian expansion in the Caucasus. Some however ran away across the Danube (territory under the control of the Ottoman Empire) to form a new host before rejoining the others in the Kuban.

During their stay there, a new host was founded which by the end of 1778 numbered around 12000 Cossacks. Their settlement at the border with Russia was approved by the Ottoman Empire after the Cossacks officially vowed to serve the Sultan. Yet the conflict inside the new host of the new loyalty, and the political manoeuvres used by the Russian Empire, led to a split in the Cossacks. After a portion of the runaway Cossacks returned to Russia they were used by the Russian army to form new military bodies that also incorporated Greek Albanians and Crimean Tatars. However after the Russo-Turkish war of 1787-1792, most of them were incorporated into the Black Sea Cossack Host which moved to the Kuban steppes. Most of the remaining Cossacks that stayed in the Danube delta returned to Russia in 1828 and created the Azov Cossack Host between Berdyansk and Mariupol. In 1860 all of them were resettled to the North Caucasus and merged into the Kuban Cossack Host.

From the start, relations of Cossacks with the Tsardom of Russia were very much varied, at times this involved combined military operations, and at others there were famous Cossack uprisings. One particular example was the dissolution of the Zaporozhian Host, which took place at the end of the 18th century. The divisions of the Cossacks within was clearly visible between those that chose to stay loyal to the Russian Monarch and continue the service (who later moved to the Kuban) and those that chose to continue their pro-mercenary role and ran off the Danube delta. Nevertheless by the 19th century, the Russian Empire managed to fully annex all the control over the hosts and instead rewarded the Cossacks with privileges for their service. At this time the Cossacks were actively participating in many Russian wars. Although Cossack tactics in open battles were generally inferior to those of regular soldiers such as the Dragoons, nevertheless Cossacks were excellent for scouting and reconnaissance duties, as well as undertaking ambushes.

The Cossack sense of being a separate and elite community gave them a strong sense of loyalty to the Tsarist government and Cossack units were frequently used to suppress domestic disorder, especially during the Russian Revolution of 1905. The Imperial Government depended heavily on the perceived reliability of the Cossacks, although by the early 20th century their separate communities and semi-feudal military service were increasingly being seen as obsolete. The Cossack qualities of initiative and rough-riding skills were not always fully appreciated. As a result, Cossack units were frequently broken up into small detachments for use as scouts, messengers or picturesque escorts. During the February Revolution of 1917, the Cossacks appear to have shared the general disillusionment with Tsarist leadership and the Cossack regiments in Saint Petersburg joined the uprising. While only a few units were involved, their defection (and that of the Konvoi) came as a stunning psychological blow to the Government of Nicholas II and sped his abdication.

At the end of the 19th century, the Cossack communities enjoyed a privileged tax-free status in the Russian Empire, although having a military service commitment of twenty years (reduced to eighteen years from 1909). Only five years had to be spent in full time service, the remainder of the commitment being spent with the reserves. In the beginning of the twentieth century Russian Cossacks counted 4.5 million and were organised into separate regional Hosts, each comprising a number of regiments.

In the Russian Civil War that followed the October Revolution, the Cossacks found themselves on both sides of the conflict. Many officers and experienced Cossacks fought for the White Army, and some of the other ones joined the Red Army. Following the defeat of the White Army, a policy of Decossackization (Raskazachivaniye) took place on the surviving Cossacks and their homelands since they were viewed as potential threat to the new regime. This mostly involved dividing their territory amongst other divisions and giving it to new autonomous republics of minorities, and then actively encouraging settlement of these territories with those peoples. This was especially true for the Terek Cossacks land. The Cossack homelands were often very fertile, and during the collectivisation campaign many Cossacks shared the fate of kulaks. The Soviet famine of 1932-1933 hit the Don and Kuban territory the hardest. Nevertheless, in 1936, under pressure from former Cossack descendants, it was decided to reintroduce Cossack forces into the Red Army.

During the Second World War Cossacks found themselves on both sides of the conflict once again. While most historians agree that the majority of the Russian Cossacks fought in the ranks of the Red Army, a number of them also served with the Germans.

The Cossack National Movement of Liberation was set in the hope of creating an independent Cossack state, Cossackia. It was not until 1943 that the 1st Cossack Division was formed under the command of General Helmuth von Pannwitz, where Cossack emigrees, like Andrei Shkuro and Pyotr Krasnov, took leading positions. The 2nd Cossack Division under the command of Colonel Hans-Joachim von Schultz, formed in 1944, existed only for a year, as both Cossack divisions were transferred into the Waffen-SS and merged into the XVth SS Cossack Cavalry Corps in 1945. The Corps contained regiments of different Cossack groups: Don, Kuban, Terek and Siberian Cossacks. At the end of the war in 1945, they surrendered to the British Army in Allied-administered Austria, hoping to join the British to fight Communism. There was little sympathy at the time for a group who were seen as German collaborators and who were reported to have committed atrocities against resistance fighters in Eastern Europe. They were accordingly handed over to the Soviet Government. At the end of the war, British commanders repatriated between 40 to 50 thousand Cossacks, including their families, to the Soviet Union. The majority of the Cossacks fought in the ranks of the Red Army on the Southern theatre of the Eastern Front, where open steppes made them ideal for frontal patrols and logistics. A Cossack detachment marched in Red Square during the Moscow Victory Parade of 1945.

Following the war, Cossack units, along with cavalry in general, were rendered obsolete and released from the Soviet Army. In the post-war years many Cossack descendants were thought of as simple peasants, and those who lived inside an autonomous republic usually gave way to the particular minority and migrated elsewhere (notably, to the Baltic region). In the Perestroika-enlightened Soviet Union of the late 1980s, many successors of the Cossacks became enthusiastic about reviving their national traditions. In 1988 the Soviet Union passed a law which allowed formation of former hosts and the creation of new ones. The ataman of the largest, the All-Mighty Don Host, was granted Marshal rank and the right to form a new host. The Cossacks have taken an active part in many of the conflicts that took place afterwards:the War of Transnistria, the Georgian-Abkhazian conflict, the Georgian-Ossetian conflict, the Kosovo War, the First Chechen War and the Second Chechen War. At the same time many attempts were made to increase the Cossack impact on Russian society and throughout the 1990s many regional authorities agreed to hand over some local administration and policing duties to the Cossacks.

The native land of the Cossacks is defined by a line of Russian/Ruthenian town-fortresses located on the border with the steppe and stretching from the middle Volga to Ryazan and Tula, then breaking abruptly to the south and extending to the Dnieper via Pereyaslavl. This area was settled by a population of free people practicing various trades and crafts. These people, constantly facing the Tatar warriors on the steppe frontier, received the Turkic name Cossacks, which was then extended to other free people in northern Russia.

Cossacks served as border guards and protectors of towns, forts, settlements and trading posts, performed policing functions on the frontiers and also came to represent an integral part of the Russian army. In the 16th century, to protect the borderland area from Tatar invasions, Cossacks carried out sentry and patrol duties, observing Crimean Tatars and nomads of the Nogai Horde in the steppe region. The most popular weapons used by Cossack cavalrymen were usually sabres, or shashka, and long spears. Russian Cossacks played a key role in the expansion of the Russian Empire into Siberia (particularly by Yermak Timofeyevich), the Caucasus and Central Asia in the period from the 16th to 19th centuries. Cossacks also served as guides to most Russian expeditions formed by civil and military geographers and surveyors, traders and explorers. In 1648 the Russian Cossack Simeon Dezhnev discovered a passage between North America and Asia. Cossack units played a role in many wars in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries (such as the Russo-Turkish Wars, the Russo-Persian Wars, and the annexation of Central Asia). During Napoleon's Invasion of Russia, Cossacks were the Russian soldiers most feared by the French troops. Cossacks also took part in the partisan war deep inside French-occupied Russian territory, attacking communications and supply lines. These attacks, carried out by Cossacks along with Russian light cavalry and other units, were one of the first developments of guerrilla warfare tactics and, to some extent, special operations as we know them today. Western Europeans had had few contacts with Cossacks before the Allies occupied Paris in 1814. As the most exotic of the Russian troops seen in France, Cossacks drew a great deal of attention and notoriety for their alleged excesses during Napoleon's 1812 campaign.

In early times, Cossack bands were commanded by an ataman (later called hetman). He was elected by the tribe members at a Cossack rada, as were the other important band officials: the judge, the scribe, the lesser officials, and even the clergy. The ataman's symbol of power was a ceremonial mace, a bulava.

After the split of Ukraine along the Dnieper River by the Polish-Russian Treaty of Andrusovo, 1667, Ukrainian Cossacks were known as Left-bank Cossacks and Right-bank Cossacks. The ataman had executive powers and at time of war he was the supreme commander in the field. Legislative power was given to the Band Assembly (Rada). The senior officers were called starshyna. In the absence of written laws, the Cossacks were governed by the "Cossack Traditions," the common, unwritten law. Cossack society and government were heavily militarized. The nation was called a host (vois’ko, translated as 'army'), and subdivided into regimental and company districts, and village posts (polky, sotni, and stanytsi). Each Cossack settlement, alone or in conjunction with neighboring settlements, formed military units and regiments of light cavalry (or mounted infantry, for Siberian Cossacks) ready to respond to a threat on very short notice.

Russian Cossacks founded numerous settlements (called stanitsas) and fortresses along troublesome borders such as forts Verny (Almaty, Kazakhstan) in south Central Asia, Grozny in North Caucasus, Fort Alexandrovsk (Fort Shevchenko, Kazakhstan), Krasnovodsk (Turkmenbashi, Turkmenistan) Novonikolayevskaya stanitsa (Bautino, Kazakhstan), Blagoveshchensk, towns and settlements at Ural, Ishim, Irtysh, Ob, Yenisei, Lena, Amur, Anadyr (Chukotka), and Ussuri Rivers. A group of Albazin Cossacks settled in China as early as 1685.

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