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When serfs, paupers and dropouts fled to the south in the 15th century they established communities in the Don River basin and their capital at Starocherkassk. Known as Don Cossacks, these communities elected their own ataman (leader), formed armies and gained a degree of autonomy.

Their relationship with the central Russian government was turbulent: they initiated three major uprisings in the 17th and 18th centuries and put up furious resistance to the October Revolution. At other times they formed the backbone of armies securing Russia's southern borders.