In 1615, a fleet of 80 Zaporozhian Cossack boats, called chaiky, slipped into the harbor of Constantinople and razed the entire area around the harbor to the ground. This was the culmination of a hundred years of naval raids that the Cossacks were conducting against various ports of the Ottoman Empire.
At that time, the Ottoman Empire was the most powerful state in Europe and was on the offensive on all fronts. That did not deter the Cossacks. They were fearless and in subsequent years conducted a few more raids on Ottoman ports. The bigger the challenge, the more likely they were to attempt it. The Zaporozhians were not afraid to take risks, even doing things that seemed impossible.
The year following that raid on Constantinople, they raided the port of Trebizond. The Ottoman Sultan sent a fleet to the mouth of the Dnieper River in order to try to destroy their fleet. However in a show of the ultimate “f*%k you,” the Cossacks who were returning from their successful raid decided to turn around and once again attacked Constantinople. They caused a lot of havoc, even rampaging through the official palace of the Sultan himself.
Brave warriors who cherished their freedom
The Cossacks were brave warriors who cherished their freedom. They had a strict code of honor and valued courage above all else. A Venetian envoy once compared them to the Spartans, only more drunk: “This republic (the Zaporozhian Sich) could be compared to the Spartan, if the Cossacks respected sobriety as highly as did the Spartans.”
The Cossacks learned how to endure many hardships from early on. Their code of honor preached that they always needed to help a friend in trouble. They would often sacrifice themselves in order to save others. Their skills and abilities in horsemanship and with different arms (swords, guns) were legendary.
They could crawl up on an enemy undetected, as well as charge on horseback gun in hand, being able to hit a far-away target with exact precision. They could ride a horse, go on long marches, but also take an oar in hands and battle on the sea. The Cossacks were masters of multiple ways of warfare.
History of the Zaporozhian Cossacks
There were various types of Cossacks. This essay will focus on the Ukrainian Cossacks, particularly the Cossacks of the Zaporozhian Sich. These were probably the most freedom loving and the fiercest of all the Cossack groups.
The first Cossack communities began forming on the wild Ukrainian steppes around the Dnieper River. Many Ukrainian peasants, outlaws, clergy, even nobles began trying to escape from the harsh rule of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and joined people already inhabiting the area called the Wild Fields. This was a virtual no-man’s land stuck between the lands controlled by the Poles, Russians and the Crimean Tatars.
There they could live free. In order to protect themselves, they began to form fortified camps, one of which was founded on the island of Khortytsia in an area called “beyond the rapids,” Zaporozhie. This was the start of the Zaporozhian Cossacks.
The Zaporozhian society was one based on freedom. Anyone from any walk of life could come in and join the Cossacks. Every Cossack was considered a free man. Their system also relied on elections. All officers were elected for a one year term. This was quite a difference from other systems in Europe at that time, where power was based on feudal relationships. For a Zaporozhian, his freedom was sacred.
Soon after their foundation, the Zaporozhian Cossacks began making raids on the territories of the Crimean Tatars, capturing booty and freeing the slaves. The Cossack way of life also began spreading into the lands controlled by the Polish.
The Poles saw this development and quickly adapted to it, setting up an institution known as the Registered Cossacks. They noticed the advantages of having these types of formations in their armies, especially when guarding their frontier. The Registered Cossacks formed several units in the armies of the Commonwealth. However thousands more unregistered Cossacks continued to exist as well.
What is very important to note about the Cossacks is the fluidity of their identity. Different people floated between the different Cossack groups and it was very easy to join them. While the Ukrainian ethnic predominated among them, the Cossacks were also sometimes joined by Poles, Jews, Moldovans, Tatars, Russians, and Germans from all walks of life, from escaped serfs to nobles.
More and more, the Zaporozhian Cossacks began allying themselves with the Eastern Orthodox clergy and the Ukrainian peasantry, forming a sort of proto-national movement of the Ukrainians.
The Khmelnitsky uprising
All these class, national, and religious conflicts culminated in the figure of Bohdan Khmelnitsky and his uprising. In 1648, Khmelnitsky rose up against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Quickly thereafter, he was elected as the Hetman of the Cossacks and led their armies in the fight. The battles were quite bloody and led to heavy losses on both sides.
In 1654, Khmelnitsky made the fateful decision to ally himself with the Russian tsar and signed the Treaty of Peryaslav. This led to the creation of the Cossack Hetmanate, an independent Cossack state, allied with Russia.
This was not to last long however. Ten years after the death of Khmelnitsky, the Hetmanate as an entity spanning both sides of the Dnieper was no more. In 1667, Russia and Poland signed the Treaty of Andrusovo, which divided up the Hetmanate between themselves, forming a Right-Bank Ukraine (for Poland) and a Left-Bank Ukraine (for Russia), each country taking the Cossacks who inhabited those territories for themselves.
The Left-Bank Hetmanate joined the Sloboda Ukraine territory as Cossack territories falling under the Russian tsar. Cossack Hetmans continued to be elected, however now they had to fall under the authority of the Russian tsar.
To the south of those lands, the territories of the Zaporozhian Sich continued to exist, stretching from central Ukraine, through the territories of today’s Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporozhia and Donetsk oblasts all the way to areas above the Sea of Azov. These territories, while in Russian orbit, retained a lot of their independence and served as a beacon of hope for all oppressed Ukrainian peasants.
The period after the death of Khmelnitsky is known by the Ukrainians as the “Ruin.” The entire territory descended into chaos, as the Poles, the Russians and the Ottoman Turks (and their allies the Crimean Tatars), were all vying for supremacy. The Cossacks fought on all sides of the conflict, sometimes switching sides, but oftentimes different Cossack groups standing against each other on the opposite fields of battle.
While the other Cossack lands became more and more repressed, the Cossacks of the Zaporozhian Sich still continued to retain a lot of their freedoms. They were fierce warriors who would never back down from a challenge and continued to guard their territories with a huge ferocity, knowing that they were not fighting just for themselves, but for their comrades as well.
How to be a bad-ass
The Zaporozhian Cossacks were also bad-asses who took no shit from anybody. In 1676, the Zaporozhian Sich was led by Ivan Sirko, who had been elected as their kosh otaman. In that year, they won a battle against the Ottoman armies, however the Sultan decided to bring more troops into the Ukraine and subjugate the entire country.
He sent the Zaporozhian Cossacks this letter:
“Sultan Mehmed IV to the Zaporozhian Cossacks:
As the Sultan; son of Muhammad; brother of the sun and moon; grandson and viceroy of God; ruler of the kingdoms of Macedonia, Babylon, Jerusalem, Upper and Lower Egypt; emperor of emperors; sovereign of sovereigns; extraordinary knight, never defeated; steadfast guardian of the tomb of Jesus Christ; trustee chosen by God Himself; the hope and comfort of Muslims; confounder and great defender of Christians – I command you, the Zaporozhian Cossacks, to submit to me voluntarily and without any resistance, and to desist from troubling me with your attacks.
–Turkish Sultan Mehmed IV”
The Cossacks sat down and wrote a reply:
“Zaporozhian Cossacks to the Turkish Sultan!
O sultan, Turkish devil and damned devil’s kith and kin, secretary to Lucifer himself. What the devil kind of knight are you, that can’t slay a hedgehog with your naked ass? The devil excretes, and your army eats. You will not, you son of a bitch, make subjects of Christian sons; we’ve no fear of your army, by land and by sea we will battle with thee, fuck your mother.
You Babylonian scullion, Macedonian wheelwright, brewer of Jerusalem, goat-fucker of Alexandria, swineherd of Greater and Lesser Egypt, pig of Armenia, Podolian thief, catamite of Tartary, hangman of Kamyanets, 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 ass, slaughterhouse cur, unchristened brow, screw your 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 is in the sky, the year with the Lord, the day is the same over here as it is over there; for this kiss our ass!
– Koshovyi Otaman Ivan Sirko, with the whole Zaporozhian Host”
The Zaporozhian Cossacks were not afraid of anyone and were willing to fight to the death to defend their freedom. More than 200 years later, Ilya Repin, a Russian painter, would immortalize this moment in a painting.
The Mazepa Uprising and the Bendery Constitution
Life under the Russian tsar was harsh, as little by little the traditional rights of the Ukrainian Cossacks were taken away. In 1709, the Russian tsar was locked in a war with Sweden. The Cossack Hetman of Left-Bank Ukraine Ivan Mazepa, who until now had been very pro-Russian, however decided to take one last gamble on the independence of the Ukraine and the Cossacks and rebelled against the Russian Empire.
He allied himself with the Swedish King who was campaigning in the Ukraine. The Zaporozhian Cossacks immediately joined the forces of Mazepa.
The rebellion was short-lived, as the combined Swedish and Cossack forces were defeated by the Russian army at the Battle of Poltava. The Swedish King, Mazepa and a few thousand Cossacks (some from the Hetmanate, but most being Zaporozhians) escaped to the town of Bendery in today’s Moldova, then controlled by the Ottomans.
Shortly thereafter, Ivan Mazepa died in exile. After his death, the Cossacks did not give up, but continued to struggle to keep their freedom. The Bendery exile period resulted in one piece of very remarkable history. In 1710, the newly elected Hetman, Pylyp Orlyk, wrote the Constitution of the Zaporozhian Host.
It was one of the oldest democratic constitutions in Europe and established the separation of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, many years before Montesquieu and way before the American Constitution.
End of the Zaporozhian Host
From then on, the Ukrainian Cossacks remained under Russian rule. The Zaporozhian Host managed to survive until 1775, when Russian Empress Catherine II ordered a sneak attack on their fort, razing the Sich to the ground. The Cossack Hetmanate was dissolved a few years later.
This ended the free privileges of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, but did not spell the end of the Cossacks. The Cossacks themselves survived and most importantly their legacy lived on. Their courage and love of freedom served as examples to be emulated and their stories continue to be retold from generation to generation.