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The Cossacks

An introduction to the last of the great Eurasian horse riding nomads.

The Cossacks were the last of the great Eurasian horse-based tribes that had such an enormous influence on the politics and culture of the region over the centuries. From the Scythians to the Xiongnu (the Huns) to the Sarmatians to the Seljuks, the nomads (whose nomadic features declined in line with the rise of state power and the increase in the amount of land used for organized agriculture) displayed mobility and martial prowess sufficient to defeat endless numbers of sedentary-state armies.

The Cossacks derive their name from the Turkic word kazak, meaning a free person or an adventurer (another of the great nomadic tribes has come to be known as the Kazakhs) and they first came to historical prominence in the north of the Black and Caspian Seas in the C15th. The name kazak was also applied to serfs (peasants or slaves) who escaped from the rule of their Polish or Russian masters during the same period and hid in mostly small groups in the endless forests and marshes of Eastern Europe at the time. However, the horse-based Cossacks were quite a separate group who emerged as previous overlords (i.e. the final remnants of the Mongol Empire and its derivatives, including the army of Timur the Lame) declined or waned in power. They settled into first six tribes or groups and, at the height of their powers in the C18th, eleven separate and powerful groups ranging across much of modern Poland and what was the western half of the former Soviet Union. Both the Polish and the Russian states enlisted Cossacks in their armies because of their military effectiveness and speed across the ground, not to mention their Genghis-inherited ability to co-ordinate large military forces across enormous expanses of space and time. At one stage, every male Cossack born into a village within Russia was obliged to serve for twenty years in the imperial military service in return for being given the autonomy that they craved. Russia was preferable to Poland in this context, since the Polish monarchs and bureaucracy had a reputation (well-earned) for repressive manipulation.

Eventually, the desire for freedom that each Cossack expressed (and was certainly expected to express) made them a victim of the Communist Revolution of 1917, after they had split into pro- and anti- White factions. Their period of semi-independence was ended and there is now no or at least no more than very weak organized Cossack independence movement or sentiment.

The Cossacks have often been resurrected or recreated or, as the current phrase has it, re-imagined by subsequent Russian or Soviet era writers who wanted to counterpoint the freedoms that they represented (or desired) with the lack of freedom they themselves were forced to accept. Tolstoy, Lermontov and the ethnic Cossack Sholokhov were among the most prominent Russian authors to consider the role of the Cossacks and freedom, among other themes.

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