This essay makes an argument about who the Zaporozhian Cossacks were and what their political and social impact was on the various stages of Ukrainian history, in order to understand how they are used in today’s politics. This essay attempts to separate the Cossacks’ mythology from their history by explaining what the Zaporozhian Cossacks were not, notwithstanding today’s new national identity that makes claims to the contrary. The Zaporozhian Cossacks were not representatives of the Ukrainian community and not Orthodox Crusaders. They did not fight for the Ukrainian people and were not at any point Ukrainian nationalists. Even though the Zaporozhian brotherhood was at times self-consciously Ukrainian, their members came from many different ethnic, religious and linguistic groups. This study challenges some of the traditional interpretations of the Zaporozhian Cossacks’ role in Ukrainian history as well as in the development of modern Ukrainian nationalism.
The area described as Ukraine was mostly a plain on the direct route from the Southern Asian lowlands to the heart of Europa, meaning that it was also a buffer between Occidental and Oriental civilizations. From its early days Ukraine was a corridor for many migrations, such as Huns, Bulgars, Scandinavians, Mongols, Jews, Tatars, Turks, Poles, Russians, French, and Germans. Among these were also several distinct sub-ethnic groups, especially in western Ukraine.01 The most commonly known are the Hutsuls, Volhynians, Books, and Lemkos. On a large part of the Eurasian plain, nomadic tribes remained dominant well into the modern era.
01. Linda Gordon, Cossack Rebellions-Social Turmoil in the Sixteenth-Century Ukraine, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1983.
02. The second oldest surviving manuscript of the Primary Chronicle (1425), after the Laurentian Codex. It incorporates precious information from the 12th-century Kievan and 13th-century Galician chronicles.
03. Also known as the “land of the Rus” (Ро́усьская земля). It was a loose federation of East Slavic and Finnic peoples in Europe from the late 9th to the mid-13th century. The modern nations of Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine all claim Kievan Rus as their cultural ancestors.
It is not clear when exactly the first Cossack communities on the Lower Dnieper appeared. There are stories about similar people living in the steppes as early as the 12th century BC. The steppes north of the Black Sea were inhabited by nomadic tribes such as the Cumans, Pechenegs, and Khazars. There were also groups of people who escaped into those wild steppes from Kievan Rus in order to avoid oppression or criminal pursuit.04
The name—Cossack appears both among Ukrainian and Russian people. However, it refers to two completely different groups. Furthermore, in Ukraine itself, there are a few different Cossack groups that are usually divided by region, but have developed different kinds of self-governing-military communities. Among many examples, there are Kuban Cossacks, Don Cossacks, Ural Cossacks and Crimean Tatars. This essay refers only to the Zaporozhian Cossacks, who had the most substantial impact on the Ukrainian society and simultaneously took the Cossacks’ values regarding isolation and freedom to the most extreme level among all of the Cossack groups.
In claiming the right of self-government, the Zaporozhian Cossacks did not call themselves a nation but rather a brotherhood. They acknowledged the king of Poland as their sovereign but maintained the right to choose their employers and to define their membership. Beyond that, the Zaporozhian Cossacks presented themselves as strong brothers-in-arms. They created their own set of rules and style of governing. Among these rules were the exclusion of women and children, neither of which were allowed to set foot in the Zaporozhian Sich. Respect between Cossacks themselves had an extremely high value. For instance, when one Cossack is caught stealing from another in Nikolai Gogol’s historical novella Taras Bulba,08 he is punished by being buried alive by all the members of the Zaporozhian brotherhood.
In response, the Cossacks wrote a letter to the Sultan, replete with insults and profanities. The original letter, if it ever existed, has not survived. However, in 1870 an amateur ethnographer found a copy made in the 18th century:
“O sultan, Turkish devil and damned devil’s kith and kin, secretary to Lucifer himself. What the devil kind of knight are thou (modern English—you), that canst not slay a hedgehog with your naked arse? The devil shits, and your army eats. Thou shalt not, thou son of a whore, make subjects of Christian sons; we have no fear of your army, by land and by sea we will battle with thee, fuck thy mother.Thou Babylonian scullion, Macedonian wheelwright (mechanic), brewer of Jerusalem, goat-fucker of Alexandria, swineherd of Greater and Lesser Egypt, pig of Armenia, Podolian13 thief, catamite14 of Tartary, hangman of Kamyanets15, and fool of all the world and underworld, an idiot before God, grandson of the Serpent, and the crick in our dick. Pig’s snout, mare’s arse, slaughterhouse cur, unchristened brow, screw thine own mother!So the Zaporozhians declare, you lowlife. You won’t even be herding pigs for the Christians. Now we’ll conclude, for we don’t know the date and don’t own a calendar; the moon’s in the sky, the year with the Lord, the day’s the same over here as it is over there; for this kiss our arse!”16
04. Linda Gordon, Cossack Rebellions-Social Turmoil in the Sixteenth-Century Ukraine, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1983.
05. Philip Longworth, The Cossacks, Constable, 1969.
06. Genghis Khan; first Great Khan of the Mongol Empire who emerged the mongol homeland from several nomadic tribes.07. Borys Krupnytsky and Arkadii Zhukovsky, The Zaporizhia, Encyclopedia of Ukraine, 1993.
08. Nikolai Gogol, Taras Bulba, 1835. A romanticized historical novella that describes the life of an old Zaporozhian Cossack, Taras Bulba, and his two sons, Andriy and Ostap.
09. The decision to liquidate the Sich, the main Zaporozhian fortress, was adopted at by the court council of Catherine the Great on May 7, 1775. After the Cossack troops came back from the Russo-Turkish War, on May 15, they were ambushed by the Russians.
10. The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (also the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania), was a dual state of Poland and Lithuania ruled by a common monarch, who was both King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania.The Zaporozhian Cossacks remained under the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth until 1654, when they signed a military and political alliance with Russia that acknowledged loyalty to the Russian Tsar.
11. Linda Gordon, Cossack Rebellions-Social Turmoil in the Sixteenth-Century Ukraine, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1983.
12. Victor A. Friedman, The Zaporozhian Letter to the Turkish Sultan: Historical Commentary and Linguistic Analysis, Slavica Hierosolymitana, Vol.2, Jerusalem: Magnes, 1978. 25-138.
13. A historical region in Eastern Europe (Поді́лля), located in the west-central and south-western parts of Ukraine.
14. In ancient Greece and Rome, a catamite was a boy or youth kept for homosexual practices.
15. A city on the Smotrych River in western Ukraine, to the north-east of Chernivtsi (Ка́м'яне́ць-Поді́льський).
16. Victor A. Friedman, The Zaporozhian Letter to the Turkish Sultan: Historical Commentary and Linguistic Analysis, Slavica Hierosolymitana, Vol.2, Jerusalem: Magnes, 1978. 25-138.
In today’s Ukraine, the Zaporozhian Cossacks are represented as the Robin Hoods of their times—seekers for justice against the rule of the unjust, robbing the rich and giving to the poor. This is however, not by any means an accurate portrayal of the Zaporozhian Cossacks. The social element of their banditry was mostly coincidental and exclusively oppositional.
Their criminality then becomes a model of self-help for escaping caste and status restrictions. A critical part of the Zaporozhian Cossacks’ appeal was their success in causing loss and distress to hated authority figures while at the same time remaining free. As Hobsbawm wrote: “banditry is freedom, but in peasant society, few can be free.”
Since Ukraine was gathered into the Lithuanian Grand Duchy,18 the Ukrainian peasants faced a class struggle which continues to this day. Cossack participation in this struggle was mainly coincidental—they were loyal exclusively to their own brotherhood and had only opportunistic relations to all other social groups. Yet both authorities and peasants used Cossacks as a kind of security force. Although Zaporozhian Cossacks did not have any desire to protect either the authorities or the peasants, they “accidentally” did so. This situation created a one-sided relationship of solidarity between the Zaporozhian Cossacks and the other ethnic groups around the steppe.
All of these circumstances forced the Cossacks to become involved in the growing Ukrainian class struggle, of the peasants against the rulers, from the middle of the sixteenth century. Although this was not at any point the Cossacks’ free choice, this turn of events led them to become the Robin Hoods of the Ukrainian peasants.
17. Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits, Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd, United Kingdom, 1969.
18. European state that was founded by the Lithuaniansa polytheistic Baltic tribe from Aukštaitija. It endured from the 13th century to 1795, and included vast portions of the former Kievan Rus and what is today Belarus, parts of Ukraine, Poland, and Russia. At the hight of its power—the 15th century—it was the largest state in Europe.
19. Dmytro Yavornytsky, The History of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, Russia, 1892-1897.
20. Linda Gordon, Cossack Rebellions - Social Turmoil in the Sixteenth-Century Ukraine, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1983.
For Ukraine, all aspects of investigating its own history have usually been in the service of establishing its right for national independence. This begins with the fundamental question of who the Ukrainians ethnically are. When examining the Zaporozhian Cossacks, the discussion is equally fundamental. It begins with the question—are the Zaporozhian Cossacks Ukrainians? Nowadays, raising a question about whether the Zaporozhian Cossacks were Ukrainians aloud in a public space in Ukraine can cause someone trouble. By saying that, one refers to his or her pro-Russian political and social views on the current Russian-Ukrainian war.21 In recent years, the Zaporozhian Cossacks have become a very sharp image of Ukraine and the right of Ukrainians to independence. There is no more option, in the minds of the Ukrainian people, to make the separation between the two groups.
At the end of the 18th century the leaders of the Ukrainian national revival faced the difficulty of inspiring national consciousness in a stateless people that did not even live in a single administrative unit called Ukraine. For them, the Cossack brotherhood provided a political, social and cultural model. The Ukrainian political leaders found great comfort in the Cossack’s image, as did artists. Romantic Ukrainian poetry was considered revived in 1798 by Ivan Kotlyarevsky’s mock-heroic poem Eneyida, a parody of Virgil’s Aeneid in which Kotlyarevsky transformed the Trojan heroes into Zaporozhian Cossacks. This poem is considered to be the first work published in the modern Ukrainian language. Although Ukrainian was an everyday language to millions of people in Ukraine, it was officially discouraged from literary use in the area controlled by Imperial Russia. Critics believe that the poem was written in the light of the destruction of the Zaporozhian Sich by order of Catherine the Second in 1775.
During the Soviet period, academic researchers and archaeological excavations regarding the Cossacks were strictly forbidden due to the anti-national campaigns of the Soviet authorities. Although more than 42 million people in the USSR called themselves Ukrainians, they did not form a cohesive national community. Many generations in Eastern Ukrainian cities had been raised and schooled in Russian, and some did not even speak Ukrainian. Collective loyalty to the Soviet Union pushed aside the Ukrainian identity, which suffered from a lack of linguistic, cultural and historical content.22
Since the beginning of the war in Donbass and Luhansk,23 the Ukranian government has been striving to gather her people under one strong nation and has been looking, as many other governments have before, for a symbol. A hero, an image, and eventually a purpose. This magical something that consistently makes people believe that they are connected one another. This magical something that makes people willingly give their lives in its name. The Zaporozhian Cossacks have been chosen to fulfill this mission again—to represent the romantic image of the Ukranian nation seeking freedom and independence.
21. Frank Sysyn, The Reemergence of the Ukrainian Nation and Cossack Mythology, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.
22. Frank Sysyn, The Reemergence of the Ukrainian Nation and Cossack Mythology, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.
23.From early March 2014, protests by pro-Russian groups took place in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine, as a result of the 2014 Ukrainian revolution and the Euromaidan movement.These protests, which followed the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, escalated into an armed conflict that continues until today.
Nowdays, western historians argue that nationality is imagined. Like most other communities, nationalities exist primarily in the minds of the people; a large group of people who believe that they are ancestrally related, belonging to a particular nation. History has crucial importance to the existing of a nationality. No nationality can exist without coherent and firmly held beliefs about national identity—those are historical myths. Whether those myths are true or false does not play a significant role in the creation of a nationality. Subversion of those constitutive myths can stop and even reverse the process of nationality building.24
The annexation of the Zaporozhian Cossacks phenomenon by the Ukrainian leaders might look entirely natural as Ukraine has for a long time been fighting for a freedom that has been continuously debated and denied, while the Zaporozhian Cossacks were probably the best representations of freedom in the eastern European region.
24. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, Verso, 1983.