What is a Cossack?



Zaparozhian Cossack

I sat in a restaurant in Saskatoon, Canada, enjoying a pub lunch with Harry (Dr. Harald Stadler, Professor at the Institute of Archaeology, Innsbruck), discussing the progress of our Cossack lecture tour, and an amiable young man overheard our conversation and asked, “What is a Cossack?”
Harry looked at me and asked me to answer his question.
I looked at the young man for a moment in silence. Where do I start? 
I countered his question with another question. “Have you seen the film ‘Taras Bulba,’ starring Yul Brynner and Tony Curtis?”
It’s a classic, and I was sure he had seen it at least on TV. Then I could explain a little further.
“No, I haven’t,” he answered.
This man was a generation younger than I am. I was speechless.
I tried another approach and asked, “Have you heard of Ukraine?”
He said, “Yes. I have worked with some Ukrainians.”
Ah! I thought. At least something of an answer.
Then I asked him, “What do you know of Ukraine.”
“Nothing,” was his reply.
Ouch! Where do I start explaining?
After babbling to him something of what I thought a Cossack was, I promised myself once I got back home, I would write a short specific explanation for those who do not know, or do not understand what Cossack heritage means. To understand what a Cossack is, one must understand their origin and history.

Here is my brief version of what a Cossack is:

Early Medieval Ukraine, which at the time was known as Rus, was open  to continual raids from the Tartars who had established themselves on the Crimean peninsula. The Tartars destroyed everything in their  path, killing the men, and capturing women and children for slaves. 


Writing the letter to the Sultan

The children were converted to the Muslim faith and became “janissaries,” elite well-trained loyal soldiers.

Most of Ukraine was ruled by Catholic Poland from the latter half of the 14th Century. In order to maintain their Orthodox culture, the Ukrainian people resisted the Polish attempt to force them to adopt the Catholic religion. In response, the King of Poland did little to ease the Ukrainian people’s misery under these brutal enemy invaders.

Consequently, compelled to defend themselves, they established a fighting force, and developed their own customs and traditions.
These freedom-loving men banded together and moved to the steppes beyond the Dnepr River. They settled along the banks of far-off rivers, such as the Don, Kuban, Ural, Ussuri, and Amur; or they settled on the coastal shores of the sea of Azov; or they travelled 
far into the Northern Caucasus, to guard the lands of the Princes of  Kyivan Rus.

They became known as Kozaky, or in English “Cossacks,” developed from the Turkish word “qazaq,” meaning guerrilla, or defender.
I prefer “Freedom Fighter.”

For the time being, these settlements became an ally of the Polish King, who had to accept the defiant audacity of these Cossacks as long his farthest outposts were safeguarded from the brutal Tatar and Turk invaders. He paid them to defend his borders.

The Cossacks themselves felt they were no longer bonded as serfs to the Polish king, and felt they were freemen.

They initiated self-rule and organised their own government, known as the Rada, where a Cossack council could meet. The head of this council was an elected supreme leader known as a Hetman. His symbol of power was a mace. The regions ruled by these Cossacks became known as a Host, and a settlement was called a Stanista, or habitat.

The first Cossack Hetman, Ukrainian Prince Dmytro Bayda Vyshnevetsky founded the Zaporozhian Sich in 1550 and built a fortress on the island of Khortytsia, on the Dnepr River.

From there he waged war on the Tartar and Turk invaders. He was captured during the battle of Wallachia, and later executed in Constantinople.

Due to their warring, the Cossacks gained rapidly not only in strength and but also in military experience. In 1621 the Cossacks were able to defeat the Turks at Khotyn, causing the Sultan to warn the Polish King that if these Cossacks were not subdued he would take drastic action. Fearing the Sultan, the Polish King tried to curb the power of the Cossacks. But having tasted autonomy for so long, the Cossacks were not willing to give up their freedom and naturally rebelled, forcing the Polish King into a truce.


The Zaporizhian Cossack Letter to the Sultan


In this agreement, the Polish King limited the Cossack army to 6,000 and constrained it to serve under Polish generals. However, many Cossacks revolted against these constrictions.

A large area of Ukraine suffered under feudal Poland, which subjected their underdogs to terror, serfdom, and persecution of the Orthodox religion.

In 1648, Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky mobilized the Cossacks and finally drove the Polish army out of Ukraine. This was the War of Liberation of 1648 – 1654, a war between the Ukrainian people and the Polish barons.


Cossacks of the 17th Century

The Vatican and the Royal families of France, Holland, Germany, Austria, Sweden, and England started to take a keen interest in the development of events in Ukraine and sent mercenaries and assistance to aid Catholic Poland.

To help obtain recognition of Cossack sovereignty, Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky agreed to a pact with the Muscovites in 1654, known as the Treaty of Pereyaslav.

Unfortunately, the Tsar interpreted the treaty as licence to rule Ukraine himself.

In 1658, fearing further Muscovite invasion, the newly-elected Hetman Ivan Vyhovsky, made another pact with the King of Poland, resulting in the Union of Hadiach, which provided a reconstruction of the Polish state into a federation of three autonomous nations: Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine.

The Muscovites protested, and in 1659 at the Battle of Konotop, the Cossacks defeated the Tsar’s army. This victory, however, was short- lived.

A group of Cossack officers, unable to accept a union with Catholic Poland, betrayed their Cossack brothers by negotiating a separate agreement with the Orthodox Muscovites. A separate treaty was devised with the Poles agreeing to partition Ukraine along the Dnepr River.


Siege of Vienna

Life for Ukrainians under the Muscovites was just as difficult as it was under the Poles, and in 1686, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church was officially absorbed by the Muscovite Orthodox Church.

In 1709, the Cossacks made one more attempt to free Ukraine from Muscovite control.

In a secret alliance with Sweden’s Charles XII, whose aim was to curb Muscovite expansion, Hetman Ivan Mazepa combined forces with the Swedes at Poltava to wage battle against them. Unfortunately, the Swedish-Ukrainian forces were defeated.

After the Battle of Poltava, the Muscovites absorbed the name Rus, calling themselves Russians. To maintain a defined difference of identity, the name Ukraine was then adopted by Ukrainians. The Ukrainian Cossack free spirit was still very much alive.


Cossacks in the Napoleon wars:


It is reported that Napoleon said,
“If I had the Cossacks in my army, I could rule the world.”

By 1738, the Atamans, (Russian title for Hetman) were appointed by the Tsar, and their council was represented by village elders. The Hosts (Astrakhan, Bug, Black See, Don, Orenburg, Serbian, Terek, Ural) had grown in size, and their population divided in three ranks:  “vyborni” – landowners, “pidpomichnyky” – landowners’ helpers, and “pidsusidky” – land workers.

Males of each group were divided into two categories: “razryady” - those eligible for military service, from 19 years of age, and “kazaky sluzhilye i nesluzhilye” - non-serving Cossacks.

By the end of the 18th Century a new Cossack nobility was emerging.

This nobility pressured or bribed the vyborni into giving up their land, thus accumulating more wealth and so increasing the number of land workers.

In 1775, the role of the village elders was replaced by a Cossack government formed by their elite, to discuss civil and judicial policies. This government was later disbanded by Tsar Paul I, (1779-1801) substituting it with a military chancellery, headed by an appointed Voishovy Ataman, who held the rank of Lieutenant General, and was simultaneously in charge of civil affairs.

This change in administration deprived the village Atamans of their military authority. Their role was now restricted to providing men for the troops.

For the Tsar, raising a regiment was now a simple task.

The heads of the Hosts’ military office sent out orders via their assistants to the village Atamans, ordering a certain number of men to meet at a given point where they were marched to the scene of battle.

Depending on the Host, the size of these regiments varied between 500 – 1,000 men.

At nineteen, these young men were to serve the Tsar for twenty-five years, mostly under Russian officers appointed by the Crown. Tsar Paul I also commissioned Cossacks for the officers’ ranks, giving them and their family a noble status. This was a move deplored by most Cossacks as it was seen as introducing an unconstitutional aristocracy.

The introduction of these colonels and captains also had another effect. It diminished the importance of the village Ataman even more.

In 1802, it was estimated that 100,000 Cossacks were on active service, making up nearly 23 percent of the entire Russian army.
Nevertheless, there was an exception to the Cossack conscription policy.

The richer Cossacks were able to purchase an exemption from military service, while the poorer had to serve, unless they were traders or craftsmen needed by their community. Not all Cossacks were brought up as soldiers.

In 1812 when Napoleon declared war on Russia, the size of the Cossack regiments shrank to 80 – 320 men.

Generally, most of these young men had ridden since they were three or four years of age and were skilled horseman who could ride all night if need be. During their march, the Cossacks sang, and were taught the ways of Cossack service.

The lance was the weapon the Cossack understood best. Although a foot and a half longer than European lances, the Cossacks use of it was incredibly dexterous. Then came the sabre, which was managed just as skillfully.

The pistol was the Cossacks’ weakest weapon. They would not take aim, but used it rather to create alarm and startle the enemy.

Their small Cossack mounts were swift and agile, enabling the Cossacks to develop a shrewd tactic. When the enemy were in mass, the Cossacks would surround them. If the enemy extended their line, as quick as lightning the Cossacks would gather and attack and penetrate their centre.

These Cossacks had been taught survival, how to live off the land since they could walk, making them ideal couriers. When there was no food and soldiers were dying of starvation the Cossack always found something to put in a soup, and something for his horse.

However, not all officers trusted the Cossacks, especially as scouts.

They preferred to use their own less able regular soldiers for outpost duties. They looked down on the Cossacks and used them as lackeys and baggage carriers. They believed the Cossack was only good at plundering and chasing the enemy.

In June 1812, Napoleon’s Grand Army crossed the Russian frontier, and it was the Cossacks who first reported the invasion.


The first blood of the campaign went to the Don Cossacks in September,
 at the Battle of Mir against a Polish Lancer brigade.

20th Century Cossacks

Fearful that Ukrainian freedom fighters could get themselves organised, the Russian Minister of the Interior denied the existence of a separate Ukrainian people, declaring that Ukrainians were in fact “little Russians” speaking a language that was really a Russian dialect. Tsar Alexander II issued a proclamation prohibiting the publication of all books and materials in the Ukrainian language.

Ukrainian literature fuelled Ukraine’s strive for independence. Works like Enida, by Ivan Kotliarevsky, published in 1798 told the tales of wandering Cossack heroes, and later, and most relevant, the works of  Taras Schevchenko were important. His call for freedom could not be stopped, causing many other writers to follow his example.


Taras Schevschenko

Thanks to these writers, Russian efforts to obliterate Ukrainian identity failed.

When the Tsarist empire collapsed in 1917, eastern Ukraine formed a Rada, and established a Ukrainian National Republic.

On January 22, 1918, the Rada with its new President, Mykhaylo Hrushevsky, declared that the newly-created republic was to be “the independent free and sovereign state of the Ukrainian people.” To commemorate the occasion, a new national emblem was created with the Trident, displaying the  various provinces.

One year later, Western Ukraine, which until its collapse was ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, joined Eastern Ukraine, formally uniting into one Ukrainian National Republic.

With the proclamation of national independence, the Ukrainian people affirmed their will and abolished capital punishment, freed political prisoners, offered peasants land, gave a guarantee of rights to minorities, and created sub-cabinet level posts for Jewish, Polish 
and Russian affairs. Ukrainian publications multiplied, Ukrainian language schools were organised, Ukrainian cultural activities thrived, and Ukrainian Orthodoxy was revived with the birth of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

Unfortunately, this sweet taste of independence did not last long enough to be savoured.

In 1920, an Allied-backed Russian White Army, whose plan for Ukraine was to make it a part of the new non-socialist Russian Empire, attacked Ukraine from the south while Poland attacked from the west, to re-establish their claim to Galicia.


A Red Cossack

Receiving no support from the outside world, the disease-ridden, out-manned, and poorly equipped Ukrainian army was no match for such formidable opposition. By late 1920, the free and sovereign Ukrainian National Republic no longer existed.

Eastern Ukraine was now under Bolshevik control and became the Ukrainian  Soviet Socialist Republic.

Savage persecution and arrests of Ukraine’s intellectuals began in 1929. For the next ten years Stalin instituted a campaign of mass terror and genocide in Ukraine unequalled in world history.

For Stalin’s plan of collectivisation he sent 120,000 non-Ukrainian police to Ukraine to shut down food import and distribution centres, to confiscate all the grain and groceries they could find, and transfer private lands to the State. Between seven and ten million died of starvation



1932 –33, The Holodomor, genocide by famine.


For Cossacks in WW II, see Raising the Regiments





The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church progressed so rapidly that in 1927 it had 36 Bishops, 3,000 priests, with a congregation of approximately ten million. Stalin arrested and murdered almost all of  the bishops and priests, as well as millions of UAOC Ukrainians.



Estimated Ukrainians Living in Exile:


The World Congress of Free Ukrainians reported that more than three 
million Ukrainians and their descendants live around the world.

USA-2 Million
Argentina-125,000 – 150,000
Paraguay-6,000 – 10,000
United Kingdom-55,000

Unknown numbers in Cuba, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and Mexico, ex-
Soviet Union, Central Asia, far East, Poland, Czech Republic, 
Slovakia, Rumania, Bulgaria, and ex-Yugoslavia.