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You might have come across several similar words in English: cossack, kazakh, perhaps even kozak or kazak. You probably know they refer to groups of people, but which groups? Are they interchangeable?
This post will explain the corresponding words and their definitions in Russian so next time you come across any of them, it will be a little clearer.
The word казак (Cossack, fem. казачка, plural казаки or казаки) refers to a member of self-governing military societies in what is now the south of Russia and Ukraine. Note that their name in Ukrainian is козаки́, which is why you might have seen the spelling kozak in English or the last name Kozakov.
The best-known Cossack societies are Zaporizhia Cossacks (запорожские казаки) and Don Cossacks (донские казаки), named after the geographical areas they lived in. It seems that Cossacks came from various ethnic backgrounds, such as Belorussians, Russians, Ukrainians, Turks, and Tatars. Modern-day Cossacks may speak Russian or Ukrainian, depending on where they live.
Наве́рное, настоя́щих ковбо́ев в Аме́рике встре́тить сложне́е, чем настоя́щих казако́в в Росси́и.
It is probably harder to meet a real cowboy in America than a real Cossack in Russia.
[Ольга Панфилова. Америка от А до Я (2003) // «Богатей» (Саратов), 2003.03.20]
Казах (Kazakh, fem. казашка, plural казахи) is the name of an ethnic group living in the Urals and Central Asia. You may recognize this name from the country Kazakhstan (Казахстан). Note that казах is the Russian name for this group; the corresponding word in the Kazakh language is qɑzɑ́q. Kazakhs are thought to be of Turkic and Mongol origins.
Apart from the nation of Kazakhstan, Kazakhs also live in Russia (Россия), China (Китай), and Mongolia (Монголия). In addition to the Kazakh language (казахский язык; a Turkic language), some Kazakhs speak Russian and Mandarin.
Сего́дня во всех междунаро́дно-правовы́х докуме́нтах э́того госуда́рства испо́льзуется полити́ческая («казахста́нцы»), а не этни́ческая («каза́хи») идентифика́ция.
Today all international legal documents of this state include a political identity (“Kazakhstani”) as opposed to an ethnic identity (“Kazakh”).
[Сергей Маркедонов. Кавказские приоритеты внешней политики Казахстана // «Неприкосновенный запас», 2009]