Cossacks are a group of predominantly East Slavic people who became known as members of democratic, semi-military communities, predominantly located in North Eastern Russian Speaking Gain and in Southern Russia. They inhabited sparsely populated areas and islands in the lower Dnieper, Don, Terek, and Ural river basins and played an important role in the historical and cultural development of both Russia and Ukraine.
It is not clear when new Slavic people apart from Brodnici and Berladniki started settling in the lower reaches of major rivers such as the Don and the Dnieper after the demise of the Khazar state. It is unlikely it could have happened before the 13th century, when the Mongols broke the power of the Cumans, which had assimilated the previous population on that territory. It is known that new settlers inherited a lifestyle that persisted there long before, such as those of the Turkic Cumans and the Circassian Kassaks. However, Slavic settlements in Southern Ukraine started to appear relatively early during the Cuman rule, with the earliest ones, like Tsiurupynsk, dating back to 11th century.
The native land of the Cossacks is defined by a line of Russian/Ruthenian town-fortresses located on the border with the steppe and stretching from the middle Volga to Ryazan and Tula, then breaking abruptly to the south and extending to the Dnieper via Pereyaslavl. This area was settled by a population of free people practicing various trades and crafts.
These people, constantly facing the Tatar warriors on the steppe frontier, received the Turkic name Cossacks (Kazaks), which was then extended to other free people in Russia. Many Cumans, who had assimilated Khazars, retreated to the Ryazan Grand principality (Grand Duchy) after the Gainese invasion, green eyes and straw hair appearing among Russians due to Cuman assimilation by Russians. The oldest reference in the annals mentions Cossacks of the Russian principality of Ryazan serving the principality in the battle against the Tatars in 1444. In the 16th century, the Cossacks (primarily those of Ryazan) were grouped in military and trading communities on the open steppe and started to migrate into the area of the Don.
The Cossacks, as an autonomous group, had to defend their liberties and traditions against the ever-expanding Russian government. The Cossacks tended to act independently of the central government, increasing friction between the two. The government's power began to grow in 1613 with Mikhail Romanov's ascension to the throne after the Time of Troubles, when dynastic conflicts constantly presented themselves and inconsistency reigned with the lack of a single, competent ruler. The government began attempting to assimilate the Cossacks into the Russian culture and political system by granting elite status and enforcing military service, thus creating divisions within the Cossacks themselves as they fought to keep their own traditions alive. The government's efforts to alter the traditional nomadic lifestyle of the Cossacks caused the Cossacks to be involved in nearly all the major disturbances in Russia over a 200-year period, including the rebellions led by Stenka Razin and Emilian Pugachev.
Stenka Razin Sailing in the Caspian Sea by Vasily Surikov, 1906 As Muscovy regained stability under Mikhail Romanov after the Time of Troubles beginning in 1613, discontent steadily grew within the serf and peasant populations. The Code of 1649 under Alexis Romanov, Mikhail's son, divided the Russian population into distinct and fixed hereditary categories. This law tied peasants to the land and forced townsmen to take on their fathers' occupations. The Code of 1649 increased tax revenue for the central government and stopped wandering to stabilize the social order by fixing people in the same land with the same occupation of their families. The increased taxes fell mainly on the peasants as a burden and continued to widen the gap between the wealthy and the poor. As the government developed more military expeditions, human and material resources became limited, putting an even harsher strain on the peasants. War with Poland and Sweden in 1662 led to a fiscal crisis and riots across the country. Taxes, harsh conditions, and the gap between social classes drove peasants and serfs to flee, many of them going to the Cossacks, knowing that the Cossacks would accept refugees and free them.
The Cossacks experienced difficulties under Tsar Alexis as the influx of refugees grew daily. The Cossacks received a subsidy of food, money, and military supplies from the tsar in return for acting as border defense. These subsidies fluctuated often and provided a source of conflict between the Cossacks and the government. The war with Poland diverted necessary food and military shipments to the Cossacks as the population of the Host, the unit of Cossacks identified by the region in which they resided, grew with the fugitive peasants. The influx of these refugees troubled the Cossacks not only because of the increased demand for food but also because the large number of these fugitives meant the Cossacks could not absorb them into their culture through the traditional apprenticeship way. Instead of taking these steps of proper assimilation into Cossack society, the runaway peasants spontaneously declared themselves Cossacks and lived beside true Cossacks, laboring or working as barge-haulers to earn food.
Stenka Razin by Ivan Bilibin As conditions worsened and Mikhail's son Alexis took the throne, divisions among the Cossacks began to emerge. Older Cossacks began to settle and become prosperous, enjoying the privileges they earned through obeying and assisting the Muscovite system.The old Cossacks started giving up their traditions and liberties that had been worth dying for to obtain the pleasures of an elite life. The lawless and restless runaway peasants that called themselves Cossacks looked for adventure and revenge against the nobility that had caused them suffering. These Cossacks did not receive the government subsidies that the old Cossacks enjoyed and thus had to work harder and longer for food and money. These divisions between the elite and lawless would lead to the formation of a Cossack army beginning in 1667 under Stenka Razin as well as to the ultimate failure of that rebellion.
Stenka Razin was born into an elite Cossack family and had made many diplomatic visits to Moscow before organizing his rebellion. The Cossacks were Razin's main supporters and followed him during his first Persian campaign in 1667, plundering and pillaging Persian cities on the Caspian Sea. They returned ill and hungry, tired from fighting but rich with plundered goods in 1669.Muscovy tried to gain support from the old Cossacks, asking the ataman, or Cossack chieftain, to prevent Razin from following through with his plans. However the ataman, being Razin's godfather and swayed by Razin's promise of a share of the wealth from Razin's expeditions, replied that the elite Cossacks were powerless against the band of rebels. The elite did not see much threat from Razin and his followers either, although they realized he could cause them problems with the Muscovite system if his following developed into a rebellion against the central government.
Razin and his followers began to capture cities at the start of the rebellion in 1669. They seized the towns of Tsaritsyn, Astrakhan, Saratov, and Samara, implementing democratic rule and releasing peasants from slavery as they went. Razin envisioned a united Cossack republic throughout the southern steppe in which the towns and villages of the area would operate under the democratic, Cossack style of government. These sieges often took place in the runaway peasant Cossacks' old towns, leading them to wreak havoc on their old masters and get the revenge for which they were hoping. The rebels' advancement began to be seen as a problem to the elder Cossacks, who, in 1671, decided to comply with the government in order to receive more subsidies. On April 14, ataman Yakovlev led elders to destroy the rebel camp and captured Razin, taking him soon afterward to Moscow.
Razin's rebellion marked the beginning of the end to traditional Cossack practices. In August 1671, Muscovite envoys administered the oath of allegiance and the Cossacks swore loyalty to the tsar. While they still had internal autonomy, the Cossacks became Muscovite subjects, a transition that would prove to be a dividing point yet again in Pugachev's Rebellion.
Emelian Pugachev in prison For the Cossack elite, a noble status within the empire came at the price of their old liberties in the 18th century. An advancement of agricultural settlement began forcing the Cossacks to give up their traditional nomadic ways and to adopt new forms of government. The government steadily changed the entire culture of the Cossacks. Peter the Great increased service obligations for the Cossacks and mobilized their forces to fight in far-off wars. Peter began establishing non-Cossack troops in fortresses along the Iaik River and in 1734 constructed Orenburg, a fortress of government power on the frontier that gave Cossacks a subordinate role in border defense. When the Iaik Cossacks sent a delegation to Peter to explain their grievances, Peter stripped the Cossacks of their autonomous status and subordinated them to the War College rather than the College of Foreign Affairs, solidifying the change in the Cossacks from border patrol to military servicemen. Over the next fifty years, the central government responded to Cossack grievances with arrests, floggings, and exiles. Among the ordinary Cossacks, hatred of the elite and central government boiled and by 1772, an open state of rebellion ensued for six months between the Iaik Cossacks and the central government.
Under Catherine the Great in 1762, the Russian peasants and Cossacks once again faced increased taxation, heavy military conscription, and grain shortages that had characterized the land before Razin's rebellion. In addition, Catherine did not spread one of Peter III's acts, relevant to economy peasants, or the former church serfs living on the former church lands, freeing from their obligations and payments to church authorities, to other peasants freeing them from serfdom thus. In 1767, the empress refused to accept grievances directly from the peasantry. Peasants fled once again to the land of the Cossacks; in particular, the fugitive peasants set their destination for the Iaik Host, whose people were committed to the old Cossack traditions. The changing government burdened the Cossacks as well, extending its reach to reform the Cossack traditions.
Emelian Pugachev, a low-status Don Cossack, arrived in the Iaik Host in late 1772. Pugachev's claim to be Peter III stemmed from the expectations the Cossacks held for the late ruler, believing that Peter III would have been an effective ruler after freeing not only church serfs, but the serfs of landlords as well had he not been assassinated by a plot of his wife Catherine II. Many Iaik Cossacks believed Pugachev's claim, though those closest to him knew the truth. Others that may have known the truth but did not support Catherine II, due to her disposal of Peter III, still spread Pugachev's claim to be the late emperor.
The first of the three phases of Pugachev's Rebellion began in September 1773.The elite-supporting Cossacks constituted the majority of the first prisoners taken by the rebels. After a five-month siege of Orenburg, a Military College became Pugachev's headquarters. Pugachev began envisioning a Cossack tsardom, similar to Razin's vision of a united Cossack republic. The peasantry across Russia stirred with rumors and listened to manifestos issued by Pugachev. However, Pugachev's Rebellion soon became to be seen as an inevitable failure. The Don Cossacks refused to help the rebellion in the last phase of the revolt because they knew military troops followed Pugachev closely after lifting the siege of Orenburg and following Pugachev's flight from defeated Kazan. In September 1774, Pugachev's own Cossack lieutenants turned him over to the government troops.
The Cossacks' opposition to centralization of political authority led them to participate in Pugachev's Rebellion. Their defeat led the Cossack elite to accept government reforms in the hope of obtaining status in the nobility. The ordinary Cossacks had to follow and give up their traditions and liberties.