Identification. Originally the Cossacks were free mercenaries who resided in a no-man's-land. They eventually became a part of the Russian irregular military with the main objective of defending Russia's borderlands. As such, they were identified by their area of residence. The Don Cossacks, the earliest known in Russia, appeared in the fifteenth century and the host was established during the early sixteenth century. About the same time the Zaporozhian Cossacks formed in the Dnieper River region. In the late sixteenth century, two offshoots of the Don Cossacks emerged: the Terek Cossack Host along the lower Terek River in the northern Caucasus and the Iaik (Yaik) Host along the lower Iaik River (now known as the Ural River). With the expansion of the Russian state and the government's encouragement, the Cossack hosts proliferated, forming a defensive belt along the borders of the empire. By the late nineteenth century, in addition to the earlier hosts, there were the Amur, the Baikal, the Kuban, the Orenburg, the Semirechensk, the Siberia, the Volga, the Ussuriisk, and, on the Dnieper River, the Zaporozhian Cossack hosts. The Don Cossacks remained, however, the most numerous and significant host. In pre-Revolutionary Russia, the Don Cossacks enjoyed an administrative and territorial autonomy.
With the creation of the USSR, their lands were incorporated into the present Rostov, Volgograd, Voronezh, and Voroshilovograd regions, as well as the Kalmyk Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic.
Location. The Don Cossacks resided along the 800 kilometers of the Don River and its tributaries between 46°07′ and 51°18′ N and 37° and 45° E. "Father Don," as the Don Cossacks refer to the river, bisects a region of rolling hills. The river is generally frozen until spring, since winters are hard. Snow falls as early as November. Midwinter thaws do occur, however, and may be accompanied by weeks of rainfall. In the spring, fields sometimes flood. Summers are very hot, with a yellow haze of dust hanging over the wheat fields. The eastern part of the region, which constitutes the left bank of the Don and its tributary, the Medveditsa, is a steppe, the soil is barren and there are only a few shallow creeks. In the springtime, however, the steppe area is brilliantly green. In the west, on the right bank of the Don and in the adjoining area in the north, the steppes give way to hills. The most fertile land is found north of the Medveditsa River. Trees include oak, ash, fir, poplar, and, near the water, willows and pussy willows. Reeds grow along the edge of the river, which is sandy in some places. Birds to be found include geese, ducks (including teals), grebes, swans, bustards, eagles, crows, quails, sparrows, and magpies. Among indigenous smaller plants are thistles, thorns, wormwood, and spear grass. Fish include whitefish, sterlet, and carp.
Demography. In 1897 about 30,000 Kalmyks resided in Don Cossack territory. By 1917 the population of the Don area was 3.5 million, of which almost half were Cossacks, a quarter "native" peasants, and the rest "newcomers." Today the ethnic boundaries between Cossack and non-Cossack are relatively blurred.
Ethnic and Linguistic Affiliation. Whereas most of the Don Cossacks are of Russian or, to a far lesser extent, Ukrainian extraction, others are Turkic or descendants of Kalmyks who settled in the Don region in the seventeenth century. The language is a distinct variant of the southern Great Russian dialect and shows heavy influence from Ukrainian, Turkish, and Tatar. The name "Cossack," incidentally, is from the Turkic word hazak, meaning "free-booter, vagabond" (which should not be confused with the Kazakh ethnic name that appears in Kazakhstan).