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 northern Russia. The oldest reference in the annals mentions Cossacks of the Russian city of Ryazan serving the city 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 (source Vasily Klyuchevsky, The course of the Russian History, vol.2).
Cossacks served as border guards and protectors of towns, forts, settlements and trading posts, performed policing functions on the frontiers and also came to represent an integral part of the Russian army. In the 16th century, to protect the borderland area from Tatar invasions, Cossacks carried out sentry and patrol duties, observing Crimean Tatars and nomads of the Nogai Horde in the steppe region.
The most popular weapons used by Cossack cavalrymen were usually sabres, or shashka, and long spears.
Russian Cossacks played a key role in the expansion of the Russian Empire into Siberia (particularly by Yermak Timofeyevich), the Caucasus and Central Asia in the period from the 16th to 19th centuries. Cossacks also served as guides to most Russian expeditions formed by civil and military geographers and surveyors, traders and explorers. In 1648 the Russian Cossack Semyon Dezhnyov discovered a passage between North America and Asia. Cossack units played a role in many wars in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries (such as the Russo-Turkish Wars, the Russo-Persian Wars, and the annexation of Central Asia).
During Napoleon's Invasion of Russia, Cossacks were the Russian soldiers most feared by the French troops. Napoleon himself stated "Cossacks are the best light troops among all that exist. If I had them in my army, I would go through all the world with them." Cossacks also took part in the partisan war deep inside French-occupied Russian territory, attacking communications and supply lines. These attacks, carried out by Cossacks along with Russian light cavalry and other units, were one of the first developments of guerrilla warfare tactics and, to some extent, special operations as we know them today.
Western Europeans had had few contacts with Cossacks before the Allies occupied Paris in 1814. As the most exotic of the Russian troops seen in France, Cossacks drew a great deal of attention and notoriety for their alleged excesses during Napoleon's 1812 campaign.
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