This is not an unusual story, and although it depicts this group of independents in a rosy light, other accounts also exist where these outlaws were painted a very different hue. But putting their heroic past aside for a moment, most of these men were simple people. Yes, they had power and influence over hundreds if not thousands, but they also had faults and failings of their own. Even still, we continue to remember them, as heroes of our Ukrainian past: those men who fought for our independence when we couldn’t do it ourselves, the many who stole from the rich to feed the poor and every one of whom supported the freedom to which each man, woman and child was, is and always should be entitled.
As far as history is concerned, bands of Cossacks are first mentioned around more or less the beginning of the 15th century, where Ukrainians generally referred to Cossacks as ‘free, independent persons, making their living through military service’. Depending on who you ask, however, very different interpretations can be included in that definition. In Turkish for example, the word itself is translated as ‘free traveler’, while its meaning is something closer to ‘robber’ or ‘thief’. And as Cossacks could quite often be found stealing from the travelling caravans of their southern neighbours, that other, less attractive name, is not at all one of accident…
Now that we know approximately when they appeared, there are several more versions about the how and why. One reason has to do with protection and specifically the protection of lands from foreign invasion. As agricultural processes continued to develop in these earlier times, Ukrainian lands were turning into a honey-pot for rulers from Poland, Turkey and Russia. To ensure that invasion and theft were minimalised, many men formed groups to fortify and secure their lands. The development of slavery in Turkey was also a reason forcing these men to fight, not only for their own lives, but also to save the lives and freedoms of their friends and relatives.
Year after year, the title of Cossack was becoming more and more embedded into the vocabulary of society. They were organising themselves better and preparations for battle, should the need arise, was becoming less problematic. Weapons and armour were easier to come by and while in the middle of the 15th century, this band of outlaws was simply a group of men protecting their homes and family, by the end of that century, they were real and true Cossacks: organised, armed, ready and able to fight.
Fighting against the remnants of what was left of the Golden Horde, their impact in conflicts and alliances between Russia, the Ottoman Empire and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth also became hugely significant. As their power increased, so too did their ardent and ravenous behaviour. Razing townships and raiding territories, these groups had become fiercely independent and were no longer controllable; living, as legend says, all for one and one for all.
Heading into the 16th century, their numbers only continued to increase as inhabitants of different villages began running from serfdom and the oppression that seemed to be a rampant force at the time. As an age-long aspiration to be and remain free, the Cossacks fought constantly against Turkish and Tatar conquerors as well as the Polish gentry who were trying to turn Ukraine into a colony.
Their movement into the south toward lands where Zaporizhia is situated now, signalled the creation of the Zaporizhska Sich – the capital of Cossack establishment on Hortytsya Island. At the time, thoughts of independence were nonexistent and instead, the realisation of freedom from outside influence was the goal. This move would be a crucial point in their history which resulted in several uprisings, making the Cossacks, or the Zaporizhian Sich, very difficult for the Commonwealth to control.
Heading into the 17th century, the backdrop for the War of Independence was drawn up as Cossacks’ demands for expansion of the Cossack Registry – a privileged elite within the Commonwealth Army – were being persistently ignored. Waiting for the right leader to be able to show them the way, it was in 1648 when Bohdan Khmelnytskiy came to power and all hell broke loose for the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. A new aristocracy appeared as Cossack leaders found autonomy under the Russian Tsar which freed them from the Poles. They became the top legions within society, holding ruling positions within the state and attempting to retain hold of their independence right up until the end of the 18th century.
This, however, is not the way everyone understands their history. One of Ukraine’s greatest historians, Mykhailo Hrushevskiy, often wrote about Ukraine’s chronicles, focusing specifically on the roots of Cossack uprisings. Revealing a more self-serving aspect of Cossack behaviour, Hrushevskiy often depicted the lack of national interest these characters had. Many Cossack Otamans (generals) were Polish, for example, and there existed considerable infighting among each other for lands granted by the Polish King. More specifically, according to Hrushevskiy, the first Cossack War was started by Krishtof Kossynskiy, a Cossack Otaman who had been assigned by the King to manage lands on the Ros’ river in 1590. Not long after, they were commandeered by the mayor and Otaman Cossack of Bila Tserkva, Yanush Ostrozhskiy, claiming that they were not Kossynskiy’s lands to control.
He talks pointedly about the middle class interests the Cossacks of Poland and Ukraine represented; often mentioning acts which occurred before the appearance of Khmelnytskiy, questioning whether their actions really had occurred in the name of patriotism. Fighting for different classes, but not always for the whole of the country, their armies were a powerful force, used by different regions as each region saw fit. But the opposite was also true, where, should the Cossacks have run into trouble, their alliance with one or other country, namely Poland, Turkey or Russia, would last as long as it was needed, or until a new alliance could be made with someone else.
Their resistance against outside authority, their military exploits and their ideas about freedom is what keeps them popular in today’s culture. It is however a romantic perception, as these men could often be quite savage and cruel. And so, while their idolisation within our history books proliferates a notion of martyrdom, it is also important to understand a history that is often omitted.
While their influence surely, is felt less today than 500 years ago, their ancestry still lives on. Modern Ukrainian Cossacks of 2009 are united, more or less, as one group with one Hetman for the entire territory of Ukraine: President Victor Yushchenko. Cossacks remains an important piece of history for many as there are approximately 700 Cossack organisations worldwide with more than 300 thousand people working in cooperation. Their goal is to keep this history alive as well as to work in connection with local police - aiding and maintaining order during events that require assistance. There also continue to be events in association with the proliferation of Cossack society, culture and tradition and groups within Kyiv itself are available to enlighten the Ukrainian public about what it truly meant to be a Cossack.
Taking the good with the bad, their primitive nature is what has kept their spirit alive in the past, but perhaps it will be their natural propensity toward the assurance of freedom that will make their future just as enigmatic. Whatever the case, they continue to enlighten and enthrall and their ethno-cultural entity continues to be a potent military force for Ukraine and country.