Who are the Cossacks?


I came to Russia to work. Of course, I also came to study Russian martial arts. There was a third reason as well: to learn more about the Cossacks. I have my reasons for this, but that’s for another post. Here, I want to establish what we mean when we use the term “Cossack”. This is quite important, because there are some big misconceptions about them.

This will be quite a long article, based on writing I did elsewhere. The tl;dr version, though, is this:

  1. Cossack communities originally occupied empty or disputed territories between empires (the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Russian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire). The largest communities were in Ukraine, of which the most famous were the Zaporozhians. However, there were others in southern Russia and the Caucasus. The name “Cossack” comes from a Turkish word or phrase  meaning “free man”, and this was the single defining feature of the Cossacks: that they were not subject to any State or government other than their own. These communities came to an end in the 17th century.
  2. After being absorbed by the expanding Russian empire, the Cossacks were promised autonomy and freedom from taxation for their communities in return for military service. The communities were mostly relocated to areas then on the Empire’s borderlands, usually along rivers. Some were ‘steppe Cossacks” such as the Don and Ural hosts, which wore variants of Russian military uniform. Others were ‘mountain Cossacks’ such as the Kuban and Terek hosts, which wore styles borrowed from their Muslim ‘mountaineer’ neighbours – the Circassians, Dagestanis, and Chechens.During this period, “Cossack” was a legal status: one had to be registered as a Cossack, and then assumed the rights and obligations of that status. Although many Cossack groups were continuations of historical Cossack communities, not all were. Being a Cossack was not dependent on race or religion: there were Cossack hosts in Siberia and the Russian Far East composed of ethnically Mongolian, Buddhist troops. Individuals from elsewhere in Russia could register as Cossacks. Because of their free status, all Cossacks regarded themselves as distinct from, and superior to, ‘the Russians’; for most of Russian history to be a Russian meant to be a serf, literally the property of their noble masters. This period of Cossack history ended during, or shortly after, the Russian Civil War, when Cossack culture was banned, many Cossacks were executed, and whole populations were deported to Siberia, where they lost their distinct identity.
  3. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cossack culture has been undergoing a revival. Some of this is based on the traditions of surviving Cossack communities. However, to a great extent it has been driven by Russians seeking a new national identity to replace the tarnished values of the Communist period and the unacceptable autocratic values of the Tsarist period. This ‘neo-Cossack’ identity is based on ethnicity and religion to a significantly greater extent than that of the Tsarist Cossacks.

So, with that out of the way, here’s the longer piece:

I’d always associated Cossacks with Russia, but it turned out that their origins are very largely in Ukraine, in the gap between competing 16th century empires: the Russian empire, the Ottoman empire, the Tatar Khanate of the Crimea, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Between them, these encircled the Black Sea, but their borders weren’t always fixed or clearly defined. In the flat steppes of southern Ukraine, and inland from the mouth of the Don river, the geography made it difficult for any of these powers to exert a permanent control, and so they became a no-man’s land, subject to no-one’s law or authority. This made them a haven for those who wanted, or needed, to live beyond the reach of government.

Russia and Poland practised the condition of serfdom, which made peasants the property of the local nobility in exactly the same way that dogs and horses were property. Serfdom tied the peasants to their master’s estate, which they were forbidden to leave without permission, and required them to provide free labour for the noble’s land on top of the work on the village’s communal farmland (Russian serfs rarely had their own land). Orlando Figes writes about a peasant representative elected to the Duma, or Parliament in 1905, just over forty years after serfdom had finally been abolished. Hearing an aristocrat talking about property rights, the man shouted out: “We know about your property. We have been your property. My uncle was traded for a greyhound”. The Russian nobility talked about “owning souls”; the more serfs they owned, the higher their prestige.

Many of the peasants found this situation intolerable, and ran away. Almost always men, they had no choice but to flee beyond the borders, where they formed autonomous communities. They were joined by criminals on the run, by the excommunicated, the exiled, and the adventurous. To survive, they became bandits, raiding the Turks and Tatars – or the Poles, or the Russians, whatever was most profitable. They became known by a nickname derived from Turkish: they were “the free men”. They were the Cossacks, and they were defined by their freedom from Imperial rule, on not being serfs bound to the soil, and by the martial culture which kept them free.

As their size and power increased, they became a force to be reckoned with. The most important was the Zaporozhian host in Ukraine. With their baggy pantaloons and heads shaved apart from a flowing forelock they were ferocious raiders and, eventually, a regional power wooed by both Poland and Russia. Over time, however, the power of Poland declined while that of Russia grew. Russia occupied more and more territory in Ukraine; the tsars granted land there to nobles, who turned the free peasants into serfs. Repeated Cossack rebellions tried the Russians’ patience, until finally Catherine the Great’s armies destroyed the Ukrainian hosts completely as political entities. Catherine also conquered the Crimea, which in 1783 became part of Russia. It remained in Russia for the next century and a half, until Nikita Khrushchev arbitrarily transferred it to Ukraine in 1954 – an act that was going to have significant consequences during my stay in St. Petersburg.

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