The Cossacks

Who were the Cossacks?

Encyclopedia of Ukraine says: “The name Cossack (kozak) is derived from the Turkic kazak (free man), meaning anyone who could not find his appropriate place in society and went into the steppes, where he acknowledged no authority. In European sources the term first appears in a dictionary of the Cuman language (see Cumans) in the mid-13th century. It is also found in Byzantine sources and in the instructions issued by Italian cities to their colonies on the Black Sea coast, where it is applied to armed men who were engaged in military service in frontier regions and protected trade caravans traveling the steppe routes. By the end of the 15th century the name acquired a wider sense and was applied to those Ukrainians who went into the steppes to practice various trades ….”

“In the mid-16th century the Cossack structure in the Zaporizhia was created in the process of the steppe settlers' struggle against Tatar raids. The Tatar raids forced the army of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to build fortresses in the southern region of Ukraine… A second category of Cossacks, known as town Cossacks (horodovi kozaky), was formed for the defense of the towns. …. In time the Cossacks acquired military strength and experience as well as prestige in their own society and fame throughout Europe, which at that time was resisting the Turkish onslaught….”

“Another important factor in the growth of the Ukrainian Cossacks was the socioeconomic changes taking place in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 16th century. This substantially worsened the lot of the peasantry: their land allotments were decreased, their freedom of movement was limited, and corvée was expanded. The nobility and the Polish government attempted to impose Catholicism and Polonization on the Ukrainian population. The basic form of opposition by the peasants, and to some extent by the burghers, was flight. The fugitive peasants and townspeople fled to the sparsely populated steppe, established settlements, received, for a specified period (up to 30 years), the right to a tax-exempt settlement (sloboda), and called themselves free men—Cossacks.”

But the nobles pushed an economy based on deeper serfdom on the local population—both peasants and Cossacks. By the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th century this pressure of the magnates and nobility led to bloody conflicts in which the Cossacks fought against the Ukrainian nobility and the Polish government: “the uprisings of Kryshtof Kosynsky (1591–3), Severyn Nalyvaiko (1594–6), Hryhorii Loboda (1596), Marko Zhmailo (1625), Taras Fedorovych (1630), Ivan Sulyma (1635), Pavlo Pavliuk and Dmytro Hunia (1637), and Yakiv Ostrianyn and Karpo Skydan (1638), all of them brutally suppressed.”

There had been several earlier rebellions, of which perhaps three were so wide scale that they had a chance of success. All were suppressed, and most were indeed, in the words of the Ukranian Encyclopedia, “brutally suppressed”. However, that term does not fit the results of the large peasant-Cossack revolt in March 1630 led by Taras Fedorovych. His forces defeated the Polish army at Korsun and the revolt ended with the Pereiaslav Treaty of 1630.

The encyclopedia continues: “The government tried to regulate and control ‘the Cossack problem’ by the establishment of a register, at first small, for up to 3000 persons; later, under the pressure of events, this was increased to 6,000 and then 8,000 persons.” …. “In 1578 King Stephen Báthory granted them certain rights and freedoms. Gradually, the Cossacks began to conduct their own external policy independent of the government and frequently contrary to its interests (for example, they took part in Moldavian affairs and arranged a treaty with Emperor Rudolf II in the 1590s). “

Before 1648 “The Cossack register was significantly decreased; the registered Cossacks (reiestrovi kozaky) were isolated from the ones who were excluded from the register and from the Zaporozhian Host. “

How the Cossacks were integrated/co-opted into the Grand Duchy of Lithuania 'system' exactly is lost in time, but we can imagine an interesting period of 'what to do' discussions, weighing options such as war, and ending in a clever solution that granted certain rights in exchange for control of brigandry and certain military benefits to the State.

The Cossacks were (as individuals) generally new to the area, as they or their parents or grandparents had immigrated, mostly from Poland or other parts of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.  Immigration of militarily capable folks to the under-populated borderlands was policy through the 1500s, and these new folks swamped the initial groups in numbers. As a matter of practical necessity, villages in these areas were often fortified, and men kept arms.  In effect, they formed armed settlements and militia in the dangerous borderlands, in exchange for the right to bear arms and to have a status higher than the native Ukrainian peasants. They were a sort of military settler in the Ukrainian badlands (a situation somewhat comparable to Israeli kibbutz).  Others came to the Ukraine as a land of opportunity - a wild east - much as others flooded to the American wild west more than a century later. The American west analogy also holds because the region, though rich, was both dangerous and isolated, the main way to move produce was by river, and all the rivers flowed toward Turkish or Tatar lands.  You could grow tons of wheat, but could not get it to market.  You could ranch cattle, but would have to drive them hundreds of miles past an impassible gauntlet of brigands. So the Cossack people were well fed and healthy, even if luxury goods were scarce, and if there were Tatar slaving raids to avoid.

They were of highly diverse ethnic background, but predominately Polish-Lithuanian- Ruthien.  Culturally, they were the same, and most spoke both Polish and Ruthien; they also picked up Tartar and other regional cultural influences.  By religion they were 70-80% Orthodox, 15-20% Catholic and Unitarian, and 5-10% Muslim, Lutheran and other.  Until the 1550s, they numbered only several thousand, but a heavy influx of new immigrants such as displaced petty-boyars from Lithuania, Smolensk, and Belarus greatly expanded their ranks.  A few more generations of prosperity as farmers, fighters, and part-time brigands, and their numbers passed 200,000.

The Union of Lublin 1569 was an important factor, because as a condition the Lithuanian and Ruthien Boyars and nobles - generally the landholders - became equal in status to the Polish nobles, a promotion except for the magnates.

The petty boyars, a professional military class who were generally not landowners (had been granted estates for their maintenance for some years or life) lost status and risked descent into peasantry, maybe not so much personally but they had reason to fear especially for their children and grandchildren. They could retain some of their status, freedom, and their right to bear arms by moving to the wild east and becoming Cossacks. Without this pressure relief 'valve', the Union might have sparked a rebellion.
The Muscovites retained the petty boyar system. One thing, if your population is growing, you need more land to distribute to your growing stock of boys reaching maturity - encourages constant wars
of expansion.

While the Ukraine was absorbing these new Cossacks, the Union also brought about a period of Polish colonization, which had been constrained earlier.


Many myths were later created to justify imperial Russian and Soviet Socialist rule that are entirely fantasy.  Other myths derive from fallaciously assuming that what is true today or a hundred years ago was the case 400 years ago.  The first is the Cossack as Noble Savage. Taras Bulba is an entertaining movie/video, but it is rather dubious in terms of history (but rather faithful to the official histories published during the Imperial Russian and Soviet era). The Cossacks are portrayed as some sort of native tribe - like so many Sioux Indians - noble savages fighting for independence and freedom from oppressive military and cultural invaders in the form of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Whereas the Cossacks – many or most of whom were first or second generation immigrants, ethnically and linguistically Polish, Mazurian, Byelorussian, and Lithuanian, and included more than a few Germans, Romanians, Hungarians and others from throughout the world in search of adventure and fortune in the wild east.

The second famous myth: Cossacks are heir of the Kievian Rus, which is motherland of Great Russia and,  therefore, are cultural and political siblings and soul mates of Muscovy, yearning to be reunited under the benevolent rule of their father, the Czar (or Joe Stalin).

Hrushevsky's monumental History of Ukraine argued that the period of the Kievan state (10th—13th cent.) belonged to Ukraine only, thus repudiating the Russian nationalist tradition that traced the history of Russia (Muscovy) from ancient Kiev. After that, this former President of the Ukraine (1918) was lucky that Stalin just exiled him, instead of the alternative.

The other part of the story is that the Mongols cleared out Kiev and the surrounding areas, twice, with extreme prejudice. Stories told of mountains of skulls.  The land was distinctly unpopulated for the next two centuries, and thus invited newcomers from all points of the compass. The Lithuanians, who had carefully cultivated a reputation as easy masters and hard enemies, found the scattered Principalities easy to digest, and generally to be willing partners.  However it came to pass, it seems that the 16th C. Kievians and Ukrainians saw the Muscovites as an alien culture, and, on the whole, as an enemy or at least as a rival. The language and costume was typical of the Commonwealth, not Muscovy, the writing was Roman not Cyrillic, their Orthodox primate sat in Kiev, not Moscow.  I stress this point, because it is a common error to assume that the close link between the Ukraine and Moscow -that was created after absorption and several generations of assimilation by the Russian empire- existed during an earlier period.

A third myth may have an element of truth.  It is sometime said that the 'The Cossack bands were created in the 1400s by the mixture of escaped serfs intermixed with Tartars.'  The 'escaped serf' aspect of this myth is anachronistic because the serf system was imposed mostly in the  17th C. Prior to then, peasants had legal freedom of movement, although not always in practice. While there may be something to the early Tatar influence, anyway, the Cossacks did not seem to generally have Tatar as a first language, the average Cossack was far more likely to be blond then Mongolian. The exact origin may not be very important, because their small initial cadre was ultimately swamped with a tide of newcomers.

A fourth myth is that the Cossacks were the finest light cavalry in the world – presumably along with those other Noble Savages, the American Plains Indians. As hinted in the Yellow River battle article, the Cossacks, associated today with Russian Cavalry, were famous then as fine infantry.  Only a small fraction of the professional military Cossacks were cavalry in the 17th C.

Fifth Myth: to be Cossack in the 1500s was to be Orthodox, while the majority were, and while this was part of the ideological basis for rebellion, Orthodoxy did not become a test of loyalty and assimilation until after the 1648 rebellion, just as {being Catholic = being a patriotic Pole} did not happen until after the 1655 Deluge.

The entire Commonwealth was religiously diverse, and (I was surprised to learn) virtually every town of over a thousand, even on the Baltic, had at least 3 houses of worship: synagogue, mosque, and Catholic Church. Most also had an Orthodox and Lutheran church, and Armenian, Quaker, and other sect's houses.



A certain small percentage of the best fighters were 'registered' as paid professional soldiers. Technically, by a late 16th C. law, a Cossack did not have the right to bear arms if he was not registered – a provision that was essentially ignored.  However, except for those few thousand registered, the rest of the Cossacks by not legally having this legal right were effectively demoted to peasant status. The fact that such positions were few caused both resentment and unemployment. Increased control by the regional (Voiviode) and Central government sparked more resentment and eventually Civil War.


Kozaki Living History

costume and gear

 Yermak in Siberia, 1580