Cossacks (Ukrainian: козаки́, kozaky, Russian: казаки́, kazaki; ) are a group of predominantly East Slavic people who originally were members of democratic, semi-military communities in Ukraine and Southern Russia. They inhabited sparsely populated areas and islands in the lower Dnieper and Don basins, and played an important role in the historical development of both Ukraine and Russia.

The origins of the first Cossacks are disputed. Traditional historiography dates the emergence of Cossacks to the 14th to 15th centuries. Towards the end of the 15th century, the Ukrainian Cossacks formed the Zaporozhian Sich centered on the fortified Dnipro islands. Initially a vassal of Poland-Lithuania, the increasing social and religious pressure from the Commonwealth caused them to proclaim an independent Cossack Hetmanate, initiated by a rebellion under Bohdan Khmelnytsky in the mid-17th century. Afterwards, the Treaty of Pereyaslav brought most of the Ukrainian Cossack state under Russian rule for the next 300 years.

The Don Cossack Host, which had been established by the 16th century, allied itself with the Muscovite Tsardom. Together they began a systematic conquest and colonisation of lands in order to secure the borders on the Volga, the whole of Siberia (see Yermak Timofeyevich), the Yaik and the Terek Rivers. By the 18th century, Cossack hosts in the Russian Empire served as buffer zones on her borders. However, the expansionist ambitions of the empire relied on ensuring the loyalty of Cossacks, which caused tension with their traditional freedom and independence. In the 17th and 18th centuries this resulted in anti-imperial rebellions and wars led by Stenka Razin, Kondraty Bulavin and Yemelyan Pugachev. In extreme cases, whole Hosts could be dissolved, as was the fate of the Zaporozhian Sich in 1775. By the end of the 18th century, Cossacks were transformed into a special social estate (Sosloviye); they served as border guards on national and internal ethnic borders (as was the case in the Caucasus War) and regularly supplied men to conflicts such as the numerous Russo-Turkish Wars. In return, they enjoyed vast social autonomy. This caused them to be a part of a stereotypical portrayal of the 19th century Russian Empire both abroad and domestically.

During the Russian Civil War, Cossack regions became centres for the Anti-Bolshevik White movement, a portion of whom would form the White emigration. The Cossacks even formed short-lived independent states, the Ukrainian State, the Don Republic and the Kuban People's Republic. With the victory of the Red Army, the Cossack lands were subjected to extensive repression and the famine of 1932-33 (Holodomor). After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Cossack lifestyle and its ideas have made a return in Russia. In Russia's 2010 Population Census, Cossacks have been recognized as an ethnicity. There are Cossack organizations in Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and the USA.

Read more about Cossacks:  Name, Early History, Russian Cossacks, Culture and Organization, Modern Day Russian Cossack Identity

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