Russian Cossacks Organisation

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Even though the origin of cossacks can be debatable and differs for various groups, there are some common elements about their history and identity.

Cossacks are a specific ethno-social group of Russians first mentioned in the XIVth century. By that time, many peasants who had left their feudal owners settled in the southern borderlands – ukraines (ukraina, okraina). On one hand, these lands, located outside the frontier lines of fortresses and abatis, were not controlled by the state government, but, on the other hand, they were not protected from raids of their nomad neighbors. Therefore, settlers had to assume their own protection and cossacks were to develop their military skills: horse riding, shooting, lance attacks and sabre fencing. These skills were essential for the type of warfare practiced in the steppes.

Through their lifestyle, cossacks were independent and adventurous. Because of these traits, they were hired by merchants and by government for difficult expeditions that significantly expanded Russian territory to the east from the XVIth to the XVIIIth centuries.

Cossacks incorporated into their society all people who wished to share their lifestyle – peasants, who fled from their owners, and other refugees, former nomads (usually Christianized) etc. The incorporating of fugitive peasants sometimes caused problems with Imperial government.

By the end of XVIIth century, in consequence of the expansion of Russian territories towards the Ural River, the Caucasus and the Black Sea; and of the successful wars against Poland-Lithuania; almost all original cossack territories had been amalgamated with Russia. Cossacks were incorporated into Russian social structure as an estate with the following privileges:

  • no taxation;
  • no trade duties;
  • land ownership.

By the mid of the XVIIIth century, the gradual transformation into this privileged estate had made cossacks more reluctant to the incorporation of new immigrants into their ranks.

Generalities about the military-administrative organisation

Cossacks were self-organized in military-administrative commonwealths for the effective protection of their lands. Since these commonwealths carried out both administrative and military functions, they usually had military designations. Large commonwealths were called Kazachje Vojsko (Cossack Army or Cossack Host). A Cossack Host was usually divided into Polk (regiments). The main tactical unit was the Sotnia (hundred).

Administratively the sotnia was a group of settlements which were to provide 100 cossacks in wartime. The regiment was a district consisting of a few sotnias. An administrative regiment was not necessarily transformed into military regiment at wartime, and the effective number of military regiments, fielded for a certain campaign, could be more or less than the number of administrative regiments (meanwhile an administrative regiment could count up to 20 or even more sotnias – too much for military purpose). Similarly, the administrative heads were not necessarily acting as leaders of the corresponding units during a military campaign. In fact, wartime leaders were usually elected among members of a commonwealth for their military experience.

Ranks in Cossack Units
Rank Description
Ataman head of a Cossack Host
Polkovnik (colonel) head of a regiment
Yesaul assistant commander, could be at the regimental level (polkovoy yesaul) or at the sotnia level (sotenniy yesaul)
Starshina administrative head of a regiment or of a sotnia
Sotnik commander of sotnia
Khorunzhyi color bearer

Insofar as the main tactical unit was called “a hundred”, we can determine that the number of cossacks indicated in reports did not necessarily reflect the real strength but most likely the number of units, e.g. “4,000 cossacks” most likely meant 40 sotnias than 4,000 men. On the other hand, each sotnia had a few supernumeraries of non-cossack servants who were to look after remount horses. These servants were usually peasants, who lived in Cossack lands but were not incorporated into Cossack estate.

Each sotnia usually had a khorugv' – a kind of banner or standard.

Each cossack had two service horses – a ride-horse and a pack-horse.



Roman Shlygin for the initial version of this article