Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky was well known in the late Imperial, and even early Soviet, period of Russia for his work in photography. He spent ten years of his life chronographing Russia in color photographs.
Prokudin-Gorsky often photographed different people of Russian. In the photograph above, he is sitting with two men wearing traditional Cossack garb. While I can’t cover everything about the Cossacks, I can at least brush over their colorful history (doesn’t everything in Russia have a colorful history?).
Russia is a melting pot of culture, merging east and west. A large part of this is due to the Mongol invasion during the 13th century. Using the Eurasian Steppe as a highway, and being master cavalry warriors, the Mongols were able to easily defeat Kievan Rus’.
Eventually, the Russians were able to beat back the Khans, and a large reason for that is that they decided to fight fire with fire, so to speak.
As I look at the Cossacks, I think that they are quite similar to other cultures. Take the American Gunslinger, for example: He is romanticized as this individual who has this freedom. He may not always be in agreement with authority and will fight for what he truly believes in. The Cossack is similar in a couple of ways to this.
In a nutshell, Cossacks are semi-autonomous. In exchange for their military service, they are granted special privileges. There were many times when the personal freedoms of the Cossacks came into conflict (real or otherwise) with the central Russian government. This was especially true once the Bolshevik’s came to power.
During WWII, there were many Cossack groups that decided to fight against the Soviets and their allies. Not only did the Cossacks take issue with government’s consolidation of power, but some saw this fighting as a continuation of the Russian Revolution from 20 years prior.
After the war, the Western allies made a deal to send the Cossack POW’s back to the USSR. Many Cossack POW’s were captured in Lienz, Austria by the British were sent back to Russia, despite promises that they would not. This incident is known as the betrayal of Cossacks at Lienz.
It wasn’t until the Perestroika period that Cossacks became an integral part of Russian culture once again, and they were given a lot of the privileges that they once enjoyed.
Cossacks in Lienz: