Moscow: The Cossacks

The word “cossack” (казак) comes from the Turkic and means approximately “free man”. Before it indicated any kind of organized group, it referred to migrant workers, men who cut ties with kin and village and moved from place to place, from job to job, and from opportunity to opportunity.

Little by little, the meaning narrowed to the bands that roamed the edges of the Muscovite state, raising horses, hunting, trapping, and often raiding and pilfering. The original groups seem to have consisted mostly of Mongols, remnants of the Golden Horde. But very soon, they were joined by Russians fleeing Muscovite law in some manner or other: either law-breakers, or malcontents, or victims of change and political storms. They espoused a nomadic lifestyle at first, inheriting many skills from the still-present Mongols. This gave them, obviously, mobility. It made them difficult to corner, difficult to catch, or even to identify.

They weren’t just mounted raiders, although the Cossacks’ riding skills soon became part of the Cossack myth. They were also river raiders, using light, fast, maneuverable boats suitable for swift incursions, but not to attack or to withstand an attack, from a significant opponent, such as a large, armed, and ready merchant ship, or a fortified settlement.

The first band of Cossacks to acquire a distinct identity was probably the Zaporozhskaia Sech.

Situated at the delta of the Dniepr and at the edge of the so-called “wild plain” (dikoe pole), a no-man’s land surrounded by the Polish kingdoms, the Crimean Khanate which remained after the dissolution of the Golden Horde, the Ottoman Turks, and Muscovite Russia, the Zaporozhtsy were an entity unto themselves, usually allied with Russia, but some parts occasionally shifted allegiance to Poland as their pride, or their sense of expediency, moved them.

Another early group settled on the Don river, also in a border region where Russians, Mongols, and other nomads and foreigners often clashed. Like the Sech, it was a disputed area, a frontier in flux, well-suited for the independent-minded Cossacks.

They were a militant group, later absorbed into the larger Russian army as distinct military units. But they were also an ethno-cultural entity, with traditions, rituals, and a defined social structure. Over time, the Cossacks changed from nomadic groups to permanent settlements, and from raiding bands of outlaws to organized communities.

As Russians outnumbered any other ethnicity very early in the history of the Cossacks, the society that evolved was based on Russian Orthodox principles. It was a very patriarchal society, women staying at home taking care of children and household while the men took care of business – and war. There was very little agriculture done by the Cossacks, even after they started building permanent settlements. Cattle, hunting, trade, and fighting remained their main occupations.

The Cossack units were self-governing, with elected leaders at their head (ataman or hetman, depending on the time or geographic location). The leaders had absolute authority in battle, under penalty of death, but in peacetime, most decisions were arrived by unanimous accord, in assemblies and councils.

The Tsars saw the value of the Cossacks as border units very early on. They courted them and rewarded them generously for their service. Especially in pre-Imperial Russia, it would have been impossible to control and dominate them completely, given their choice of territory – at the edge of the Russian lands – so to speak at the edge of the civilized world as they saw it. They were always willing to move further away, into the wild, out of Moscow’s reach.

Therefore the Tsar gave them self-rule and controlled them not by force or coercion, but by the allotment of needed goods such as grain, cloth, things they would otherwise obtain by trade – or by pillage. In exchange, for the care and the praise and the freedom of self-rule, they became faithful border units.

The Zaporozhskaia Sech had the most troubled history of all Cossack groups. Embroiled in the war between Russia and Poland in the 17th century, with their loyalties divided between the two countries, they eventually became more of a threat than a support to the Russian Tsar, until a final rebellion, and Peter the Great’s decision to disband the Sech – which of course didn’t happen peacefully.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, the Cossack groups multiplied.

They became a regular part of the Russian Imperial army, always stationed on the borders, always mounted and famed for their riding and scouting skills.

Host

Year est.

Don Cossacks

1570

Ural Cossacks

1571

Terek Cossacks

1577

Kuban Cossacks

1864

Orenburg Cossacks

1744

Astrakhan Cossacks

1750

Siberian Cossacks

1750s

Transbaikal Cossacks

1851

Amur Cossacks

1858

Semiryechensk Cossacks

1867

Ussuri Cossacks

1889

They retained much of their self-rule, internally at least, and continued to exist as much as an ethno-cultural entity as military units. They fought in wars all the way to the Revolution, until they were, like many other groups, forcefully disbanded. Today, there is a movement toward the revival of the Cossack identity and lifestyle. It’s been given, at least outwardly, some support by the government, and Cossack units have been re-formed since the late 1990s.

The whole mythology of the Cossack in Russian culture is that of the man free to make his own choices, strong and brave enough to live at the edge of civilization, ready to defend his family, his people, his land.

In some ways, the myth of the Cossack is not unlike the myth of the cowboy, but whereas the Western hero is the ultimate individualist, a loner who depends on himself and can survive without help, the Cossack is part of a culture, a society based on family, clan, Cossack unit, and country.