Who are the Cossacks?

It is very, very difficult to give a definition of what is the Cossack. The Cossacks know/sense who is a Cossacks and who is not, the way any members of any "tribe" know/sense who is one of them and who is not. But historians, anthropologists and even politicians are trying to come up with their own explanations and theories. And there so many of those... Here are just a few examples of definitions and descriptions of the Cossacks I've met:
- Russian/Ukrainian sub-tribe
- a mix of Slavs living on the steppe borders with the Turkic clans of the Golden Horde that made choice to become Christian
- a race group
- communities which had existed on the frontiers of the Russian Empire, forming a social and cultural entity without being a specific national group
- indigenous population of Dnieper and Don areas, descendants of Scythians, Sarmatians, Torks, Klobuks, Brodniks, etc., who experienced strong Slavic influence under the Kievan Rus
- russified leftovers of Genghis Khan's and Genghisides' undefeatable horsemen
- a "peasant-warrior" tradition
- a nationality
- military service people, something like a warrior cast
- run-away serfs who established their free communities on the borders back in 15th century
- pioneers of new lands
- descendants of all the waves of invaders who passed the route from Asia to Europe (through the area known as The Great Steppe), who settled down in the steppes of Southern Russia and Ukraine where they mixed with the Slavic people
- "Robin Hoods" of Russia and Ukraine
- the knights of Orthodoxy
- trappers with special duties to guard the borders
- legendary fighters on the service to the Tsars
- farmers with special duties to guard the borders
- leaders of all the major revolts against the tsars (Kondraty Bulavin, Stepan Razin, Emelyan Pugachev, etc.)
- major supporters of the tsars
- military tribesmen
- many other, sometimes very wild definitions and theories

As you can see, some of those definitions contradict to each other. Some of those definitions are ridiculous, some are partially true. Historians and anthropologists are arguing. Some consider the Cossacks to be a nationality, some think of them as a military service people, something like a warrior cast, some say it's just another group of Russians with their specific customs and traditions. But in fact, you can find inconsistencies in all those definitions, they are, at best, only partially correct. There were thirteen Cossack hosts by 1917, and they were all predominantly Slavic. At the same time, there were significant groups of Non-Slavic Cossacks, of Kalmyk, Caucasian and Turkic origin. The majority of the Cossacks, all the Slavic Cossack Hosts practiced the Orthodox Christianity, but later created Cossack units had Buddhists (Lamaists of Tibetan tradition) and Moslems. Therefore, you can't define the Cossacks simply by the ethnic or religious background.

The bottom line is, while historians and anthropologists are arguing, the Cossacks are not concerned that much with definitions. They perceive themselves as a special entity within Russia, and instead of definitions there is a simple sense of their unity, from the Black Sea to the Far East, and all over the world (wherever life brought them after all the revolutions and wars that hit Russia this century), regardless of the time zones and landscapes they live in. When a Russian Cossack meets another Cossack, let's say of Kalmyk or Bashkir origin, he doesn't see Kalmyk or Bashkir, he sees his Cossack Brother. There is something there that can be sensed but can't be defined. No matter what is the origin of the Cossacks back in the history, these days they represent a very strong segment of Russian society.

However, governments always want precise definitions. For the purposes of dealing with the Cossack phenomena on the state level, even Russian parliament deputies came up with a way to define the Cossacks. The bill on the Cossacks describes them as "a community of people...with their own traditions, areas of residence, culture, economic system, and a special attitude toward army service and their relationship with the state."


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