History of the Cossacks
They were the fiercest and finest soldiers the Russians ever met!
Origin of the Cossacks
The Cossack nation had their origins from the Slavic and Turkic peoples. In order to escape the serfdom imposed on them, they left their towns and villages and made their to the Dnieper River where they settled during the 15th century. The word Cossack means free people.
Distance, however, did not prevent them from being constantly attacked by Tartars and Turks. As a consequence, they developed strategies to defend themselves and became the finest and fiercest horsemen ever known.
The Development of the Cossack Nation — 15th Century to 17th Century
Over a period of time, they organized their villages into military structures and built fortifications to ensure their safety. Whenever new people arrived, they were accepted into these structures, and they had the same rights as others to vote and to use the land.
For the next two hundred years, the harshness of the conditions they lived under forced them to become self reliant and deadly in their defense of their people. They became known for their bravery, quick intelligence, ability to endure under extreme hardship, outstanding horsemanship, and their willingness to live on very little. In addition, they were loyal to one another and had a close bond. Each Cossack was willing to die for the common good. Even their enemies admired them.
History of the Cossacks
The history of the Cossacks spans several centuries. There are several theories about the origins of the Cossacks…
Maturity of the Cossack Nation
By the end of the 17th century, the Cossacks had evolved into an excellent military organization. Their weapons consisted of sabers, spears, axes, knives and guns, and they were highly skilled in using them all. Women and children carried Kindjals (daggers) and were well able to use them. Their military lifestyle was highly valued by them, as it was the means to their freedom. Their weapons were often highly decorated. Cossacks became legendary for their ability to sneak up on enemies quickly, quietly and easily make the kill. Then they would vanish.
One of the reasons they won so many battles was a result of stunt riding — jighitovka! Often, enemy soldiers were amazed to see Cossacks control the horse with their thighs and legs and use their arms to do battle. Not only that, but Cossacks would swing under their horses and shoot from underneath the horse! When they needed to rescue a wounded fellow soldier who lay on the ground, they would bend down to pick him up while the horse was at full gallop. They could fight standing up on the horse, plus turn around on the horse to face anyone chasing them, and shoot! In that way, although frequently outnumbered, they tended to win the skirmish.
Cossacks began to learn these equestrian battle skills at the age of seven.
In the early 20th century, Cossacks immigrated to America, and that is the origin of the Rodeo riding tricks.
Cossack Societal Democracy
Both men and women were given the same right to vote. There was no class distinction, and the leader of the Cossack nation, known as the Hetman, was only for one year, and then a new leader would be elected. This was to ensure that no one ever became powerful. Cossacks were well educated and a higher percentage of them could read and write than the Russians.
Cossacks in Service to the Tzar of Russia
The Russians wished to have the battle skills of the Cossacks at their disposal, but the Cossacks would not submit, so war after war was fought until the Russians finally conquered the Cossacks in the early part of the 17th century. As a consequence, not only did the Cossacks have to be available to fight for the Tzar whenever there was a war, but each Cossack had to provide their own horse, weapons, and clothing.
A sad loss of being assimilated into Russian culture was that Cossacks lost their culture of Common Wealth where everything was owned collectively. Eventually, some Cossacks became very rich and others were once more serfs — only this time to fellow Cossacks.
Cossacks became known for their cruelty, often wiping out entire communities of Jews, peasants, and Roman Catholics. They were universally feared.
Land, Wealth, Numbers of the Cossack People
Towards the end of the 19th century, Cossacks numbered nearly three million, and they owned some 146,500,000 acres of land. That equates to about 600,000 km² of land. They had become a wealthy people with large horse-breeding ranches, as well as interests in beekeeping, hunting, and fishing.
Civic disturbances increased during the early part of the 20th century, and the Tzar increasingly called upon the Cossacks to put down the unrest. A few years before the murder the Tzar and his family, the Cossacks decided that enough was enough, and they were no longer prepared to fight what seemed increasingly growing odds. So, in 1918, they declined to defend the Tzar anymore.
During the revolution, the Bolsheviks killed some 15% of the three million Cossacks alive at the time. Those who fought on the side of the Bolsheviks didn’t have as many losses.
World War II
During the second world war, there were Cossacks on both sides of the fence. However, most fought against Hitler. Those who didn’t resented their treatment by the Bolsheviks, and sided with the Axis (Rome–Berlin–Tokyo Axis). The bitterness of the two divides, both during the Russian Revolution and WWII still continues to haunt modern day Cossacks.
Cossacks in Modern Times
In 1991, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Ukraine regained its independence. Cossack communities began to come out into the open and began to thrive. In Russia, Cossack communities began to establish themselves, reintroducing Cossack skills as well as cultural skills like dancing and costume.
According to a Russian census in 2002, there were 140,028 Cossacks in Russia. Internationally, there are between 3.5 and 5 million people who identify as Cossacks.
They still retain the equestrian and military skills passed down from their forebears and are known as the best horsemen in the world.