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Russian Cossacks are typically seen as agile cavalry armed with lances and sabres, while Ukrainian Cossacks mostly fought on feet and were notorious for their mastery of musketeer tactics.
There were two main groups of cossacks:
- Zaporozhian Cossacks, named so because their stronghold (Zaporozhian Sich) was located on an island beyond ("Za") the rapids ("porogi") of the river Dnieper. For a while the Zaporozhians helped (for Sich Cossacks) or served (for Registered Cossacks) Poland fighting off Crimean Tatars -- not that Poland had much control over them. They played a big role in the history of Ukraine, at one point liberating it from Poland and creating the Cossack Hetmanate - a Ukrainian state in 1648-1764, a vassal of Muscovy and later Russian Empire during most of its history. Russian government, while seeing the value of mighty Zaporozhian Cossack troops, barely tolerated Sich's and Hetmanate's existence, as their regions were free of serfdom and too autonomous for The Empire. Considering it to be a separatist element, Russian Empire under Catherine II annexed Cossack Hetmanate in 1764, then ordered to destroy the Sich in 1775. After the fall of Sich, many Zaporozhian cossacks migrated to the Kuban river valley, and these ones became the Black Sea Cossack Host, later known as Kuban Cossacks. Other Cossacks either intermingled with other parts of Ukrainian society, or escaped to the Osman Empire where they were organised into the Danube Cossack Host (Zadunays'ka Sich), which later returned to Russian-ruled Ukraine and became the Azov Cossack Host, that existed until 1866.
- Don Cossacks, named because of the river Don. Gradually formed after Brodnici ("ford men", a large multi-ethnic group in southern Ruthenia) intermingled with Mongols and Cumans (traditional seminomad rivals and allies of Ruthenian princes) in the Steppe and thus adopted independent steppe-wandering style of life, as well as their name (the word "Cossack" has Turkic origins, usually reffering to "free men", who could not find their place in society and went into the steppes, where they acknowledged no authority - some other Turkic names have the same etymology - the Kazakh people for example) from these nomads. Joined by adventorous Russian nobles and runaway peasants, the Don Host became an important part of Muscovite Tsarsdom's politics, while staying independent from the Tsar until the beginning of 18th century. After the suppression of Bulavin's revolt by the Russians, the Don Host was absolutely incorporated into Russia as an irregular military organization with some privileges, but less autonomy.
Other groups included Terek Cossacks, Ussuri Cossacks, Ural Cossacks etc. Cossacks were exempt from tax and were granted some land in exchange for military service, and as such considered minor nobility (that was especially the case with Registered Cossacks in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth). Cossack settlements were called "stanitsa" in Russia and "sloboda" or "zymivnik" in Ukraine. These settlements enjoyed higher liberties than common villages, e.g. a serf who managed to join the Cossacks was free from his former owner's pursuit.
Zaporozhian Cossacks were "stationed" between the core Ukrainian lands and the peninsula oof Crimea, with the Registired or Town Cossacks moving into core Ukraine after the creation of Hetmanate. Kuban Cossacks settled between the Russian European core lands and the North Caucasus. Those Cossacks were away from Russian bureaucrats, but in return took the first hit from any southern attackers.
In XVI century, a group of Don Cossacks led by the famous ataman Yermak embarked on a campaign to conquer Siberia. Yermak perished during this campaign, but it started the Cossack colonization of the Siberian frontier, and Siberian cossacks becoming a new large Cossack group.
In XIX century, the cossacks became a military force trusted by the Empire. Many new cossack hosts were recognized in south-eastern border regions of Russia, such as the Zabaikalski and Amurski cossack hosts in Siberia, and the cossacks became some kind of Russian equivalent to the Texas Rangers.
During the Civil War, the cossacks divided; the poorer ones fought for the Reds, the richer ones for the Whites, though there were also the idea of independent Don and Kuban Republics. In Soviet Russia, the Cossack hosts were eliminated in 1920. During WWII some old Cossack commanders from the Civil War supported the Nazis (and were recognised as "Ostrogoths" by Hitler's regime to mask the idea of working together with the Slavs), while Soviet Union also "restored" old Russian Cossack Hosts, even though these were mostly formed from new guys, with many Cossacks eliminated uner Stalin regime's oppresion. After WWII ended, the "Cossacks" were dismissed once again. After the fall of Soviet Union many organisations yearned for the restoration of Cossacks. Today, the "Cossack organizations" exist, but have little military or law-enforcement powers, other than the right to bear sabers in Russia, or acting as some honorary mounted policemen functions in Ukraine. In some cities and towns they patrol the streets as voluntary police assistance corps, still relying on cadre policemen for paperwork. Still, the Cossack Hosts, while being mostly a farce movement nowadays, greatly influenced the history and culture of Eastern Europe. Dnieper Cossacks formed the basis for the creation of Modern Ukrainian nation and culture, while Russian Cossacks created a separate ethnographic group in South-Western Russia, with culture and traditions that persist to this day.
- Ogniem i Mieczem Polish historical novel from 1884, set during the Khmelnytsky Uprising of the Zaporozhian cossacks.
- Taras Bulba 2009 Russian film featuring Zaporozhian cossacks, based on novel of the same name by N.Gogol.
- The Cossacks series of historical RTS games aptly features an entire faction of these, representing 17. and 18. century Ukraine in the game. There is also a mercenary Cossack unit available to all factions, and a Don Cossack light cavalry unit for the Russian faction.
- One can only assume this is where the Russian Dr. Cossack got his name from in the Megaman series.
- The Cossacks are Russian unique national units in the recent Civilization games.
- In the James Bond film Goldeneye, the Big Bad is the son of Lienz Cossacks, a group of cossacks who fought for Nazi Germany (or perhaps more accurately, with the Nazis against the Soviets, in their eyes anyway) and were forcefully repatriated to the USSR (where they would be tried for treason) by the British.
- Cossacks are one of the units for the Russian civilization in Age of Empires III.
- In Mount and Blade the addon "With Fire and Sword" futures Cossack Hetmanate as one of the main factions, central to the plot of the game.
- In The Most Dangerous Game General Zaroff says that Ivan is a Cossack, and considering that Ivan is a Husky Russkie this seems to be used as a form of Mother Russia Makes You Strong, which is followed up by a similar comment about himself.
- An American Tail opens with the Jewish village of Shostka being subjected to a pogrom by Cossacks, while the equivalent cat versions of the Cossacks terrorize Jewish mice.