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Who were the Ukrainian Cossacks?

by Alexandra Keeler March 28, 2024 7:32 PM 9 min read
(Illustration by Mari Kinovych/The Kyiv Independent)
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The word Cossack comes from the Turkic word meaning “free man” or “outlaw.”

True to this moniker, Ukraine’s Cossacks — a semi-nomadic militaristic group originating somewhere in the 15th century —  are renowned as sovereign warriors and pioneers of independence in Ukraine.

Deeply ingrained in Ukrainian national mythology, particularly through the works of revered figures like poet Taras Shevchenko, their historical significance transcends mere military prowess. The Cossacks embody ideals of freedom, strength, and democracy, and their legacy continues to shape Ukraine’s collective consciousness today.

This image of the Cossack “freedom fighter” has its origins in a historical manuscript called the “History of Rus,” which began circulating among the Ukrainian elite in the 19th century, according to Ukrainian historian Serhiy Plokhy.

A serviceman of the Cossack battalion, which has been defending the Zaporizhzhia direction since the first days of the full-scale war, Zaporizhzhia Region, southeastern Ukraine on Feb. 19, 2023. (Dmytro Smoliyenko / Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

In the manuscript, Cossacks are presented as distinct from Russians, and as heroic fighters who threw off their Polish and Russian overlords.

The history of Cossackdom presented as such “was transformed into a nation-building myth that helped split the monolith of Russian imperial identity and laid the foundations for the rise of the modern Ukrainian nation,” Plokhy writes in his book titled “The Cossack Myth.”

When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, some descendants of Cossacks joined Ukraine’s territorial defense battalion fighting on the southern front lines in Zaporizhzhia Oblast.

“If there’s a war, a Cossack goes to defend his country,” ‘Grandad,’ one Cossack soldier in the battalion said. “It’s better to carry heavy military equipment than the light collar of a slave.”

Despite Catherine II's decree aimed at extinguishing their warrior legacy nearly 250 years ago, the historical memory of the Zaporizhzhian Cossacks has lived on through centuries of upheaval.

Where did the Cossacks come from?

It is widely believed that the Ukrainian Cossacks were formed from a diverse mix of East Slavic free peasants, escaped serfs, and even nobles. Settling in the steppe regions, they played a crucial role as a defensive force against invaders, including Tatars and Ottomans.

Their history unfolds in three key periods.

Originating in the 15th century in Zaporizhzhia, they formed two types: steppe Cossacks and town Cossacks ("horodovi kozaky"). These Ukrainian units defended locals against Tatar and Turkish raids.

The Zaporozhian Cossacks. From a private collection. Artist Brandt, Jozef (1841-1915). (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Over time, these Cossack groups developed strong military skills, evolving into formidable combat units.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth controlled what is now modern-day Ukraine, Belarus, and parts of Lithuania. Socioeconomic changes within it catalyzed the growth of Ukrainian Cossacks, as they became a crucial defensive force against Crimean Tatar raids in the borderland region between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and territories to the east.

Eventually, their growth posed a dilemma for the Polish nobility, and the Cossacks were perceived as a threat. The Polish authorities tried to cap their growth by creating an official Cossack register, limiting their numbers, appointing leaders, and restricting their autonomy.

The Polish nobility also introduced the manorial system, consolidating land into large estates and prioritizing grain export to Western Europe. This negatively impacted the peasantry: their land decreased, movement was restricted, and mandatory labor increased.

Attempts to enforce Catholicism and Polonization further fueled their opposition, and the peasants and townspeople fled to the steppe to escape these oppressive policies. They established tax-exempt settlements known as "sloboda," where they could live freely and independently.

How did the Cossacks shape Ukrainian history?

In many renderings of the Cossacks, their traditions are characterized by a blend of martial prowess, romanticism, connection to nature, and a fervent commitment to freedom and independence.

Cossack songs are full of tales of bravery and determination on the battlefield, romance that defies societal norms, and the glory of an honorable death. “Death was their equivalent of marriage,” writes British historian Eric Hobsbawm in his 1969 book “Bandits.”

One folk song portrays Cossacks on a lively journey, drinking spirits beneath birch trees, and gathering beneath oak trees for a leader’s council, symbolizing their spirited nature and readiness to confront adversaries.

The Cossacks' Reply to the Sultan (Zaporozhtsy)', circa 1890, (1939). 'Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of Turkey', also known as 'Cossacks of Saporog Are Drafting a Manifesto', 19th-century imagining of a supposed historical event of 1676, based on the legend of Cossacks sending an apparently rude and insulting reply to an ultimatum from Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire. 'On the right is Taras Bulba (in a white cap), the hero of Gogol's tale of the same name; on the left is Andrei, Taras Bulba's son; almost in the centre sits Ataman (Chief) Serko with a pipe in his mouth'. (The Print Collector/Getty Images)

A love song describes a Cossack and his lover who, while others are asleep, plan to embark on an adventure together where they will sleep in the field under a stack of hay. Another song explores the conflict between a married Cossack's familial duties and societal expectations for a free-spirited lifestyle.

Horses, a Cossack's faithful companion, also feature prominently, symbolizing the nomadic warrior life.

In his work titled “Manifestations of the Cossack Idea in Modern History: The Cossack Legacy and its Impact,” Oleh Gerus highlights the Zaporozhian Cossacks’ military republic, characterized by a "rigid, almost Spartan, code of rules." Hobsbawm notes a unique “special language or argot” among them.

A photo showing the monument to Cossack leader Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky in front of the gold domes of the cathedral in Kyiv, Ukraine on Jan. 11, 2012. (Sergei Supinsky /AFP via Getty Images)

Hobsbawm also paints a portrait of the Cossacks as a collective embodiment of individual resistance, free-spirited and disdainful of servitude.

In portraying the noble bandit persona, Hobsbawm explores the challenge of discerning between "good" and "bad" actions committed by outlaw groups like the Cossacks. “Unlike the ‘avenger’ his cruelty is not his essential characteristic, but tolerated because of his services to the people,” he writes.

Their freedom, as perceived by Hobsbawm, inherently implied equality, and he wrote that the Zaporizhzhian Cossacks enjoyed a “male brotherhood.”

What happened to the Ukrainian Cossacks?

During the second period of Cossack history from 1648-1775, they encountered significant challenges, starting with uprisings in the 1630s that reduced registered Cossack numbers and caused societal divisions.

In 1648, the leader of the Zaporizhzhian Cossacks, Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, led a crucial uprising against the Polish Commonwealth, sparking the Cossack-Polish War (1648-57). Despite establishing the Hetman State, the war ended unfavorably for the Cossacks, with brutal suppression by the Poles.

Khmelnytsky’s signing of the Pereiaslav Treaty in 1654 marked a turning point as the Cossacks formed an alliance with Moscow against Poland. This triggered conflicts as Moscow sought more control over Ukraine, challenging Cossack autonomy.

In 1708, Hetman Ivan Mazepa’s unification movement aimed to unite a coalition of Ukrainian Cossacks, nobles, and other factions seeking to resist all external control. Joint Polish and Russian efforts suppressed the movement in 1714, marking a challenging period for Ukrainian autonomy.

The third period (1775-1917) saw the destruction of the Zaporozhian Sich in 1775 and the abolition of the Hetmanate — a Ukrainian Cossack state — in the 1780s.

Cossack Mamay, one of several national personifications of Ukrainians. (Wikimedia)

Russian success in the Black Sea and the elimination of the Crimean Tatar threat rendered the Zaporizhzhian Sich obsolete. In 1775, Russian empress Catherine II ordered the suppression of the Sich, leading to its official liquidation.

Gerus suggests that Catherine II feared the Sich for its historical defiance of authority, desire for freedom, and as a symbol of resistance against Russian autocracy.

A May 3, 1783 decree, part of a Russian administrative reform aiming to abolish the autonomy of the Cossack Hetmanate, resulted in officers losing authority, and common Cossacks faced the threat of losing privileges and potential serfdom. Discontent grew as the Cossack system was dismantled, fueling more uprisings, such as the ‘Ode on Slavery’ protest in 1782 and the Turbai revolt in 1789.

Amid these challenges, various attempts emerged to restore Cossack rights, with former Cossacks forming the Musketeer Corps in Kyiv in 1796, known as the Little Russian Musketeer Corps. Similar restoration efforts took place during threats to the Russian Empire, such as the war with Napoleon in 1812.

It was against this backdrop that the mysterious “History of the Rus,' manuscript began circulating among Ukrainian elites.

In Plokhy's book, “The Cossack Myth: History and Nationhood in the Age of Empires,” he examines how interpretations of this manuscript by figures like Russian poet Alexander Pushkin and Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko reflected divergent views on Russian and Ukrainian national identity.

Pushkin viewed it as a manifestation of the Russian spirit, while Shevchenko saw it as a call for Ukrainian liberation. Plokhy's book unveils Russia's appropriation of Ukrainian history into a broader national identity, highlighting the manuscript’s influence on the narrative and identity associated with the Cossack legacy in Ukraine.

A Ukrainian Cossack, named Paliy, wearing traditional Cossack clothes on Sept. 6, 2023 in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. Paliy is a member of a group of eight Ukrainian Cossacks, two of whom died fighting Russian forces on the frontline. The other members are currently enrolled in the Ukrainian forces. (Pierre Crom/Getty Images)

Despite Russian influence, the Cossack legacy persisted until the 1917 Revolution, with various Cossack units formed in different regions.

The lasting impact of Cossack traditions influenced the fight for independence from 1917 to 1920.

The Free Cossacks, a grassroots movement formed in 1917 and consisting of volunteer militia, played a vital role in battles against the Bolsheviks but faced disarming by the German command in 1918.

Many Free Cossacks participated in the political developments following the Ukrainian Central Rada's dissolution in 1918 and took part in the broader war against the Bolsheviks from 1918 to 1922.

Do Cossacks still exist?

In contemporary Ukraine, the influence of the Cossack legacy persists. Poet Taras Shevchenko's romanticization of the Cossack era fueled patriotic pride, and even Ukrainian immigrants carry this cultural heritage in folklore, music, and dance.

The Hopak, a traditionally celebratory post-battle dance, emerged in 17th-century Ukrainian military communities. Accompanied by lively music, the improvisational dance features high kicks, arm raises, and symbolic gestures.

Today, it is still performed at events, recitals, and weddings. The hopak is similar to the Kozachok – named after the Cossacks. This dance has less acrobatics and is viewed as smoother and more lyrical, often performed by girls.

A man in Ukrainian traditional cossack clothes holds the Ukrainian flag during the anniversary of the proclamation of the Act of Ukrainian State on June 30, 2023 in Lviv, Ukraine. On June 30, 1941 during WWII, Yaroslav Stetsko declared an independent Ukrainian State in Lviv from the balcony of the “Prosvita” (“Education”) society. (Les Kasyanov/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

Kulish, a millet-based pottage with high nutritional value, is an ancient Ukrainian dish popularized by Zaporizhzhian Cossacks. It served as a convenient substitute for a full dinner during military marches, believed to be best prepared over an open fire.

The classic Cossack hairstyle, seen in contemporary Ukraine, features a shaved head with long hair on top tied into a braid or ponytail.

Originally practical for Cossack warriors, this style offered protection while ensuring mobility in battle. The Russian ethnic slur for Ukrainians, ‘Khokhol,’ literally translates to a sheaf or tuft of cereal stalks, and is believed to have originally referred to the distinctive tufts of hair worn by Cossacks.

Festivals and reenactments celebrating Cossack heritage still take place across Ukraine, showcasing traditional Cossack clothing, weaponry, and skills.

Kyivan Rus, then and now
Kyivan Rus was one of the most developed states of medieval Europe, lasting from around the late ninth to the mid-thirteenth century. It played a significant role in the history of the continent and the future East Slavic nations. The territories of Kyivan Rus included much of modern-day Ukraine, B…
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