The Cossacks are an amorphous culture with old origins, descendants of escaped serfs and outcasts who formed societies on the fringes of medieval Russia in the 15th and 16th centuries. They were free-spirited and excellent warriors, prizing their independence and democratic rule. Good horsemen, Cossacks were often employed in the services of the Muscovy, and later Russia, as scouts, police, and cavalrymen. They upheld the autocratic rule of the Tsars, often brutally.
Over 350,000 Cossacks fought in the Russian Army during World War One. They terrified their enemies and enchanted their allies with their ferocious and exotic appearance. On the Eastern Front their prowess was demonstrated in reconnaissance and countless cavalry skirmishes, and when called upon to fight as infantry in the trenches they preferred to die fighting rather than surrender. In battle they used sabres and lances, their carbines slung over the shoulder.
When the Russian Empire collapsed in 1917, Cossacks were to be found on both sides of the burgeoning civil war. However, the vast majority fought on the side of the Whites against the Bolsheviks, for which they were punished by the victorious Reds after the end of the war in 1921. A harsh policy of “decossackization” wracked the Cossack community, and under Stalin the Cossacks were mercilessly purged. When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 during the Second World War, many Cossacks chose to fight alongside the invaders in hopes of ending communist rule and restoring their traditional privileges.