Cossacks, warlike tribes of S. and S. E. Russia, those of Little Russia (Malorussians) and those of the Don forming the chief divisions. In their own as well as in the Russian language they are called Kazaks, which in Turkish designates robbers, and in the dialect of the Tartars free, light mounted warriors. Whether this is the origin of their name, or whether they have inherited it from a more eastern people, is a matter of controversy, as well as whether they came into Russia as a horde from the east, and spread as far as the Dnieper, or whether they have been conglomerated into a national body through a long course of time, from various fragments of roving or fugitive neighboring tribes. Certain it is that about the middle of the 14th century the banks of the southern Dnieper and of its tributaries were settled by Russians, who fled before the invading Poles, built villages and towns, were joined by people from the neighboring borders, and thus formed the bulk of the warlike Malorussian tribe, which so often appears in the border wars of the Poles, Russians, and Crimean Tartars. Stephen Ba-thori, one of the ablest kings of Poland (1576-'86), constituted these Cossacks of the Ukraine the guards of the S. E. Polish frontier, giving them a regular military organization under hetmans (Russ. attamans, or chiefs). But the extortions of Polish officials, and the persecutions by Polish Jesuits under the following reigns, exasperated the Cossacks, who belonged to the Greek church, and their insurrection under Chmielnicki (1648) was stained with the wildest deeds, and ended with their submission to Russia (1654). But the new rule proved no less oppressive, and a part of the tribe was ready to follow Mazeppa, their attaman, and to join Charles XII. against Peter the Great. For this attempt, which failed, the czar took bloody revenge after his victory at Poltava, and many of the Cossacks fled to the Crimea, whence they were allowed to return under the reign of Anna. Of these western Cossacks, the Zaporogians (in Slavic, those beyond the cascades, viz., of the Dnieper) were regarded at all times as the boldest, fiercest, and most predatory.
They despised marriage, and recruited their numbers by kidnapping children. The eastern Cossacks appear in the service of the Russian czars as early as the first half of the 16th century. Before the severity of Ivan the Terrible, the adventurer Yermak fled with a small band of Cossacks to Siberia, roved over its vast plains, and gave it to Russia for his pardon. Some of their revolts were as dangerous to Russia as were those of the western Cossacks to Poland; and that under Puga-tcheff, during the reign of Catharine II., shook the empire to its very foundation. Since the bloody suppression of this revolt, the chief object of the government has been gradually to deprive them of their independence, by transforming their bodies into more regular military organizations; and the dignity of chief attaman is now vested in the crown prince of Russia. The eastern division, which has been strengthened by transplantations from the western under Catharine II., forms now the great bulk of the Cossacks. Their chief province is the vast steppes W. of the Don, which gives the name to the tribe, with Tcherkask, a kind of Venice near the mouth of that river, as capital, now constituting a government of European Russia, with an area of 59,654 sq. m., and a population in 1867 of 1,010,135. Southeast of them live the Tchernomoreans (in Russian, those of the Black sea); east of these the Terekians; the Yolgaic and Uralian tribes live near the lower course of the rivers from which their names are derived; others still further east.
They are divided into districts and stanitzas (settlements). By a ukase of Oct. 21,1868, the districts E. of the Ural and Siberian Cossacks were, conjointly with the districts of the Orenburg and Siberian Kirghizes, organized into the four provinces of Ural, Tur-gai, Akmolinsk, and Semipalatinsk. - The Cossacks are equal among themselves, elect their officers, excepting the attaman (see Attaman), and are free from taxation. Their chief occupations in time of peace are fishing and breeding of cattle; agriculture, commerce, and industry are little developed. Horses form their chief riches. In times of war all men from 18 to 50 years of age are bound to serve on horseback. They provide their armor at their own expense, but have the free choice of their dress. Their arms are a lance 10 to 12 feet long, a carbine, pistols, and a sabre. Their horses are small, but swift and indefatigable. They are divided into polks (regiments), subdivided into hundreds, fifties, and tens. They are particularly expert in surprising and intercepting small detachments, in annoying an army on the march, and in deranging or pursuing an enemy in retreat or in flight.
It is well known how dreadful they were to the French retreating from Moscow. The number of all the Cossacks of Russia is variously estimated at 1 1/2 to 3 millions. Their language is the Russian intermixed with Polish and Tartar words. They adhere to the Greek creed. They are strong, hardy, and active. They wear beards, round caps, and wide trousers.
Cossack Man and Woman.