Throughout Ukraine history, the Ukrainian Cossacks have played a part in the fight to maintain Ukraine's autonomy and culture. A few things you may not know about these historic warriors:
- Cossacks got their name from kozak, a Turkish word that means “free man.” The term was applied to anyone who migrated to the Ukrainian steppes, where people acknowledged no royal authority.
- The Cossacks first created their military, the Zaporizhia, to resist Tatar invaders. This group was active in the area beyond the Dnieper Rapids. A second contingent of “town Cossacks” defended the local towns.
- The Cossack population grew as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth continued to intrude on Ukrainian lands. Polish nobles were granted rich farmland worked by local serfs. Many serfs fled to the steppes. The number of registered Cossacks grew over time from 300 to over 8000.
- The leader of the Cossack state, and the highest military office was called the “hetman.” Hetmen were elected leaders with broad powers.
- By the 18th century, a hierarchal system had developed within the Cossacks. Those who could afford weapons could be soldiers, but those who could not were considered merely helpers, and did not have the same rights. Eventually, the role of Cossack soldier became an inherited one.
- Russia’s Catherine II dissolved the office of Cossack Hetman. The last hetman of Ukraine was Kyrylo Rozumovsky, who ruled until 1764.
- The Free Cossacks, which formed in 1917, were a civilian army that sought to defend Ukraine’s national identity from encroachment by the Soviet Union.
- In modern Ukraine, there are 500,000 people from 300 different groups who consider themselves Cossack. They maintain the traditional uniforms, dances and festivals of the historic Cossacks.
Photo: Guillaume Herbaut