The Cossack Comeback

By Denis Chrissikos

Last year, the city of Krasnodar in Russia announced the hiring of approximately 600 Cossacks, decked out in their traditional, intimidating clothing, to patrol the streets of Moscow along with the regular Russian police force. Today, Cossacks are used as security guards for the Sochi Winter Olympics; just this week a Cossack guard used his whip against members of Pussy Riot, the Russian dissident punk ground.

This is definitely something you wouldn’t expect to see everyday, but there is a much more interesting story behind it. This story stems from the historical background of the Cossacks, a background that draws from nearly seven centuries of Eastern European history.

Cossacks made their first appearance in the 14th and 15th centuries in Eastern Europe. The name “Cossack” comes from Turkic and means “free man.” Cossacks lived in loose military fraternities without a state of their own. They were brigands, horsemen and livestock-raisers who wandered the wild country (dikoe pole in Russian) left over by the dissolution of the Golden Horde. The wild country consisted of steppe territory surrounded by Muscovy, Poland, the Ottoman Empire, the Crimean Khanate, the Nogai Horde, and the north Caucasian tribal kingdoms. The Cossacks were surrounded by potential threats.

The first groups of Cossacks were located in the lower reaches of the Don and Dnieper rivers. Early on, most of them were Tatars and survivors of nomadic hosts, but Slavs, hunters, fishermen and traders, peasants, and even landowners could be found among them. These people strayed from the borders of Poland or Muscovy, or had fled from prosecution or injustice in their homeland, seeking freedom. Over time, the Slavic element became dominant and most of the Cossacks adopted Orthodox Christianity.

In terms of living habits and practices, Cossacks lived in settlements of tens akin to the nomadic iurty (yurt), that is, tends made of hides. As their lives became more stable, they started building wooden or clay houses (kuren) grouped in a stanitsa (a village or fortified camp). Islands or churches were used as strongholds if they were attacked. Cossacks were very proud of their status as “free men” and were ready to defend their liberty (volia) to the end. Cossack leaders were implicitly obeyed and indiscipline was severely punished, sometimes with a death sentence.

The Cossacks practiced a mix of “primitive democracy and ruthless authoritarianism, characteristic of communities that live in a highly vulnerable environment and whose members are dependent on each other to survive in it.” The basic political unit was the krug (circle), which was a gathering of all the members of a band or army unit. The krug elected the leader, the hetman (on the Dnieper) or the ataman (on the Don) and took decisions on the most pressing matters by consensus  instead of voting, whenever possible.

Over the centuries, the Cossacks were gradually assimilated into the Russian imperial army and administrative system, losing most of their self-governing institutions in the process. The Cossacks depended on trade and plunder to survive, disdaining agriculture as beneath free men. However, this dependence forced them to look to states for support and protection, often working as paid frontier troops for Poland or Muscovy. By the early seventeenth century, the Cossacks were serving the Russian government in exchange for a regular allowance of goods that otherwise could only have been obtained through exchange or raiding. With their independence gone, the Cossacks became a military unit in the service of the Russian state.

Sources:  Hosking, Geoffrey. Russia and the Russians, a History. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Mass. 2003, pp. 115-117.  

Subtelny, Orest. Ukraine, a History. 4th ed. University of Toronto Press: Toronto, On., 2009. 

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