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Cossacks: 14th - 20th century

The Cossacks derive their name from a Turkish word kazak, meaning a vagabond - and by extension someone who is free. It is applied in the late Middle Ages to serfs, escaped from manors to which they are legally bound, who live a freebooting existence in the region of the Dnieper river. This open and sparsely populated area becomes known as the Ukraine, from a phrase meaning 'on the border' (u kraj).

In the 16th century, when Lithuania extends to this region, Polish kings enlist the Cossacks to fight on their behalf against the Tatars of the Crimea.

Fighting becomes the Cossack profession, and remains so even after the Cossacks are given rights to land of their own. Russian tsars follow the example of the Poles in making use of these professional warriors, particularly after Cossack territories to the east of the Dnieper are transferred to Russia in 1667. It becomes the custom that in return for Cossack privileges all males must serve twenty years in the imperial army from the age of eighteen.

Like any military caste the Cossacks often prove hard to control, but there are Cossack units in Russian armies into the 20th century. The violent and colourful Cossack way of life has been a favourite subject for novelists.

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