Who are they?

The Brief History of the Cossacks

Have you ever heard about the Cossacks? Very many people tend to think they know something about them. But if you decide to ask around, for some reason you will never find two persons whose concepts about this subject would be the same.

From the one side there is a lot of information about the Cossacks, their origins and the roles they played in history. This abundance of information causes numerous contradictions which leads to the big arguing.

From the other side great public interest to this period of Russian history has brought to life a lot of opuses which don’t stay even close to the real historical facts. It is necessary to have an honest and objective scientific analysis in order to understand and interpret the true history of this period of our history.

In pre-revolutionary Russia Cossacks were considered as the Czars’ most trusted ‘ guardians and the protectors of the Russian lands. After the Great October Revolution in 1917 when the «true Bolshevics» came to power, the Cossacks suddenly became a symbol of the class enemies and the suppressors of the liberal protests and manifestation. We are not able to change the history, but perhaps the truth, as it commonly happens, is located somewhere in between these two statements.

The earlier existence of the Cossacks is dated to the 10th century. Most researchers agree that these people are an inter-mixture of the settled Slavic races who lived in the vast steppe area that stretched from southern Europe to Asia and the migrating Turks and Tatars people.

In old Russian chronicles they were described as «the brave and strong knights», who lived separately from Russians, Tatars or Poles. An Ataman or Hetman, elected by the people was at the head of each tribal unit. At times of war the Hetman became their supreme commander.

The structure of the Cossacks’ state did not have any official laws, but everyone largely obeyed the unwritten «Cossack Traditions», which declared principles of everyday life, social behavior, and traditions of war. During the 16th century separate clans were consolidated into two large centers — Zaporojian Sich, on the river Dniepr and the Don State on the river Don.

The Don and Zaporojie military settlements were the sovereign nation of the professional soldiers with its own unique structure, spirit of freedom and warrior culture. These two independent States became a protecting barrier for the villages and towns from the militant invaders from the East and South. At the same time they were the place where men who didn’t like the idea of becoming somebody’s slave could find refuge and freedom.

For almost 300 years Ukrainian history was connected with the history of Cossacks. In Ukraine you still can hear folklore songs about the glorious days of Zaporozhskaya Sech, its legendary Hetmans and their heroic military raids and actions.

Ukrainian youth maintains a great interest to this period of state history. In 1985 the new and very popular type of the Cossack’s martial art — Boyoviy Hopak was introduced in Ukraine and furthered the interest of many young Ukrainians in Cossack heritage.

During the centuries of their struggle against enemies, difficult life conditions refined the physical and moral qualities which made these warriors the first rate military organization that they had become. They were taught to be content with little and easily endured the rough and tough conditions of military life. They were highly-skilled, brave, quick-witted solders whose major life value was freedom.

The fast growing Russian Empire was wary of having these military settlements as an independent state on their borders. Their historical existence was a chain of raids, wars and invasions into hostile areas, expanding Russia’s borders at the expense of their neighbors. In 1709 Peter the Great annexed the Don region to his Empire and put an end to the Don Cossack’s freedom. The last Hetman of Ukraine was forced to resign in 1764 by Empress Catherine II.

Many years have passed since those days, but they are alive in people’s memories through drawling songs, bandura music, ancient relics and numerous monuments to preserve that glorious period of history. And while people remember the national heroes of those times of our history, they still argue about the role they played in Russia’s and Ukraine’s history.

More information about the Cossacks concerning their origin, their history, military duties and their fight for freedom and liberty can be found in the very interesting article on the Central Armed Forces Museum Russia site. (Under reconstruction, October 2008). There is also some fairly interesting information about Cossack History, presented at Wikipedia also.