Cossacks: A Paramilitary Society

Details the history of the Cossacks including where the originated, how their society was structured, and what is occurring with them currently.

The Cossacks, pronounced kahs´aks, refers to a group of people that lived predominantly in the former U.S.S.R, specifically in the states of Russia and the Ukraine. They represent a societal group that is comprised of different cultures and lineage including Russian, Polish, Tatar, and others. Because of this diverse ethnic background, they received the name "Cossacks", which can be translated to mean vagabond.

To sustain a livelihood, the Cossacks worked as mercenaries, for which they received land and other benefits, such as exemption from paying taxes. The Cossacks also worked on their privately owned lands and raised animals, although primary agricultural functions were usually delegated to the Cossack women while the men went off to engage in warfare and to perform other military-related duties.

The Cossacks were an extremely close-knit patriarchal society with each separate Cossack clan ruled by a chief, who was called a "hetman". Other members of the clan looked upon the hetman as if he were a noble, and treated him with all the respect due to a member of upper society. Cossack population rose in number during the 15th and 16th centuries as both peasants and landowners fled their homelands when Polish forces began attacking and killing the local residents as well as destroying their homes. The people displaced from these struggles formed additional Cossack units, which in turn banded with other existing Cossack groups to form a strong and unified Cossack military force. During this time, one Ukrainian Cossack chief, named Bohdan Khmelnytsky, was able to rouse Cossack groups to fight against the attacking Polish forces. Sensing a need, however, for additional military assistance from the Russian government, he established an alliance with Moscow in order to join military forces to expel the Poles from the Ukraine. This alliance did not come without a cost, though, as prior to rendering assistance to the Cossacks the Russian government made them pledge allegiance to the current czar, Michael. The Cossacks agreed to the pledge and from that point on they became an important, and influential, factor in the growth and development of the military forces within the U.S.S.R.

Although the Cossacks outwardly acknowledged a czar as the countries leader, inwardly they remained extremely independent people who continued to follow the rule of their hetman and to govern themselves within their own communities. Because of this, on many occasions they attempted to revolt against the czar's regime, most notably in 1670, 1707, and 1773. The Don Cossacks, who were a Cossack group that lived along the Don River located in southwest Russia, often initiated attempts at such a revolution. Seeing the signs of unrest continually stirring among the Cossacks, the Russian government thus kept a close and guarded watch on the Cossacks. It was not until Catherine II came to the Russian throne and the Yemelian Pugachev revolt occurred from 1773 to 1775 that the Cossacks were acknowledged for their military strengths and welcomed into the formal ranks of the Russian army. This was done in order to both pacify the Cossacks, and thus stop any future revolts, and to ensure the security and safety of the whole Russian nation.

As time progressed, the Cossacks gained a higher military status within the Russian army. They were even assigned unique uniforms to identify them, which consisted of a long coat with bullet pockets and a tall, Caucasian hat. Because of their skill with horses, by the 1800s thirteen elite army cavalry units had been established to monitor both Russian borders and urban areas. Typically, the Cossacks were used to suppress political uprisings and unrest within the country. By the early 1900s, over 200,000 Cossack men were employed in service to the country. However, when the Russian revolution occurred in 1917 the Cossacks sided with the White Russians. Ultimately, when the Bolshevik forces took control of the country, the Cossacks were removed from the army and disbanded. They were then sent to work on their farms, which were now setup as collectives. Because of this, the Cossacks did not easily accept the Bolshevik rule. With the outbreak of World War II, however, the Cossacks were once again allowed to join the ranks of the military.

Today, there are at least 2 million Cossacks living throughout various regions of the world, with many Cossacks moving from their traditional homelands into Europe and North America to begin new lives. Due to the recent breakup of the Soviet Union, Cossack groups have also begun to re-unite in Russia and in the Ukraine. Many groups, however, have been associated with civil wars that occurred within the former Soviet states. Cossack groups still consist of organized and strong units with membership as high as 15,000 to 20,000 people per unit. Because of this, the Cossacks represent a rising political and economic force to contend with, both now, and in the future.

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