How to Stop Paying Taxes: Become a Cossack


This post earned a “Comrade’s Corner” award from the editorial team.

Edited (2/4/19): Sergeĭ Mikhaĭlovich Prokudin-Gorskiĭ was the photographer who took the featured image above. Prokudin-Gorskiĭ is the man on the far right with the hunting rifle and a cigarette. To his right, two northern Caucasus men with traditional high fur hats. The man on the farthest left has a noticeable shoulder pad of military status. This man in black is most likely a Cossack. These men were the monarchist of the late Imperial Russia; conservative and rural. They were loyal to the czar for their given heightened status and decentralization of their home regions in the Pontic Steppes.

Cossacks are a Slavic ethnic group that are native to certain parts around southern Russia, most notably around the Black Sea. Originally, they lived a nomadic, decentralized, and strongly independent way of life. They were fierce raiders and had their own unique culture compared to the Russians. However, they were eventually absorbed into Imperial Russia. By the Napoleonic wars, they had a special privileged relationship with the empire. These privileges included: continued autonomy from St. Petersburg, given the ethnic “green light”, and tax exemptions. In return for their status, they provided the Imperial Russian Army with their highly trained cavalry, for they are known across the empire for their skilled and hardy horsemen. They were employed into the southern frontier of the Russian borders, stationed in towns to protect from Tartar incursions in the Pontic Steppe and Ukraine.

British cartoon (1814) of a Cossack snuffing out a tiny Napoleon as a candle.

However, by the turn of the 20th century, most European cavalry (even the Russians) had weapons and their training have gotten significantly better, compared to the Cossacks who still have the same tactics and training for the last two centuries. Because of this, the army delegated the Cossacks to a more ceremonial, policing, and crowd control role. This was shown in the 1905 revolution, when they broke up the demonstrations during Bloody Sunday in St. Petersburg. They were fit for this job for they are staunch loyalist to the czar and had no familial, cultural, nor emotional ties to the cities of Russia. This lack of connection made them better at crowd control than the normal soldier, however they were more likely to use force against civilians, which burnished to their reputation of being uniquely dangerous foes.

“Cossack Cavalry Dance” was filmed in 1965, Cossacks were romanticized during the USSR for their colorful and one of a kind culture

21 Replies to “How to Stop Paying Taxes: Become a Cossack”

  1. Hi Peter, this a good analysis of the Cossacks! I like that noted their loyalty to the tsar and connected it to events that we’ll be discussing soon, like Bloody Sunday. You also found some fantastic pictures that clearly how the world viewed Cossacks. It might be interesting to explore the implications of their violent reputations. Great job citing your images!

    1. Thank you! I’m glad you liked it so much! It was very enjoyable to read about the Cossacks because of how unique they are and their role in Russian history. To be overly blunt, they were like an ethnic nobility that followed Russia into the 20th century.

    1. Done! I originally had this photo, but changed it because it was talked about in the last class. The references were added also. I thought the picture of the Avar man was a Cossack at first because of the Caucasian sword he was holding was the same as the sword being held by the railroad Cossack. I can see the difference in their actual military uniform now (ie shoulder pads). Thank you for the help.

  2. It was very interesting to read the comparison between Cossacks and regular soldiers, that the Cossacks were better at controlling crowds and were not as opposed to violence because they did not have strong ties to Russian cities.

    When you write ethnic “green light’, do you mean that the Cossacks were given cultural freedom in exchange for their loyalty to the tsar?

    1. Yes! It was St. Petersburg allowing the Cossacks to be a more integrated ethnic group in the Russian society, mostly in the military. It could somewhat be compared to the Scottish in UK and how they were at war with the English for many years, but later became a part of the British society. It is not a perfect analogy, but shows my idea of a ethnic “green light”.

  3. Hello,

    I am also in the HIST 3644 class at Virginia Tech.

    Something that jumped at me while reading this was in your second paragraph. You write that the Cossacks were previously a nomadic culture. I actually looked further into that culture on my blog post. It appears that the Cossacks had more freedoms than the group I studied, and I’m curious why they gave so many exemptions. I understand that those freedoms were in return for their army. Do you think that they would have received these benefits if they had offered other commodities to the government, such as cotton or factory workers? I guess what I’m getting at is whether this group was treated better specifically due to their army.

    I think what I enjoyed most about this assignment was reading about the different ways that the Russian Empire treated its various peoples. I wasn’t sure if what happened to the group I studied mirrored what happened in other countries.

    1. This seems like a what if question, so I can only assume that the driving factors would have been the location of the Cossacks (around the Black Sea) and their horseback riding skills. For their time, they were great horsemen with superior tactics and training, and were perfectly settled in a conflict-zone of southern Russia, where they fought Poles and Ottomans. Russia needed a warm-water port and it was probably easier for the Czar to allow the Cossacks their freedoms, for protection of the Russian southern boarder. It was like a symbiotic relationship.

  4. This is such an interesting post! I like the background you provided with the video. This is a very interesting picture you have chosen. I find it so powerful when the pictures of these people, it is hard to imagine their struggle during this time. I like your insight into the history and implications of the 1905 revolution!

  5. This was really interesting and informative to me. I knew about the cossack’s military acumen and fierce loyalty to the Tsars, but their status within society was new to me. In an imperial system, I’m sure tax exemptions were pretty tremendously sought after. Like Matthew, I’d be interested to know what the cultural, societal, and military status of cossacks is today compared to the 20th century. Do they still enjoy the ceremonial role you described? Had to imagine even a strongman like Putin using blade-wielding cavalry for violent crowd control today!

    1. Sadly, there is modern day Cossack horseman equivalent, but their people still fight in wars around Russia, mostly around the Black Sea. They have no ceremonial roles in the modern day, but have formed paramilitary groups in the unrest in Ukraine that are pro-Russian.

  6. This was a really interesting post and I really like the image you chose! Why did Russia make these exceptions for the Cossacks? Was it just because the Cossacks could aid their military?

    1. Thank you! Cossacks were trained horsemen, but also were native to the Russian southern boarder around their enemies (Poland and the Ottoman Empire) and their prized warm-water port of Crimea/Azov. Cossacks were adopted into the Russian army because of their skills and their willingness to defend their land to the south.

  7. So interesting! You do a great job of explaining the history of Cossack culture. It’s something that I never knew much about, but your post gives great information on how they were a significant part of Russian history. Thanks for sharing.

  8. I like the incorporation of the dance. Honestly I’m more interested in learning more about that part of the culture. I curious how you came across it and what role it played historically – maybe when it was first practiced and for what reasons – and if it’s still around today.

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