Initially, the concept of “Cossacks” meant an independent armed population in sparsely populated territories, and this still exists in different countries, like Russia, Poland, and Belarus. Ukrainian Cossacks formed around the middle of the 15th century on the territory between the banks of the Dnipro and Don rivers. However, it is traditionally associated with Zaporizhian Sich, with its center in the Sich fortress, constructed by Prince Baida Vyshnevetsky on the island of Malaya Khortytsya.
Zaporizhian Cossack, or Zaporozhets, is already a common name, a collective image, most vividly manifested in the legendary figure of Mamay: a warrior without fear and reproach, a carouser and a merry fellow, an able and mean fighter, philosophical about life and death, a loyal comrade. These Cossack attributes remain unchanged: a shaved head with a long forelock on top (“oselededets”), baggy red trousers (“sharovary”), a curved saber at his side, and a rich silk caftan (“zupan”).


The Cossacks were engaged in military craft: they were hired by foreign sovereigns, including in the service of Cardinal Mazarin under the command of Prince Conde; made independent sorties under the leadership of their commanders against the Crimean Tatars and Turks; sailed high-speed “seagull” vessels on the Black Sea and attacked the fleets of the Ottoman Empire; fought under the banner of the Polish kings and against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, repeatedly raising revolts. One of them, under the leaders of Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, completely changed the history of Ukraine by leading to reunification with Russia. The glory days of the Ukrainian Cossacks were in the 17th-18th centuries. They had a huge impact on the culture and traditions that have survived to our time (see “Ukrainian Baroque”), as well as on social and political life. The Cossacks were disbanded by Empress Catherine II, but the word “Cossack” remained a symbol of the people’s defender, a synonym for freedom and independence.

Victoria Ugryumova


This article was published in the book Interesting Ukraine.
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© Sky Horse Publishing House (Kyiv) / Nahs Haus, 2019
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