THE HISTORY OF UKRAINIAN COSSACKS
For almost 300 years the history of the middle and low Dnieper reaches was connected with the history of the Ukrainian Cossacks who came into being at the end of the XV-th century in a bloody contest between the East and the West. From the very beginning of their existence they presented a willful force which neither Polish nor Turkish sovereigns were able to subjugate. They were born together with the people which being enslaved seeked to be free and struggled for that.
The land situated near the Dnieper rapids had attracted people for a long time by then.
The mighty Dnieper clad in stony rocks, a diverse animal and vegetable kingdom -" those were the characters of the land called «Zaporozhye».
In the XV-th century Ukrainian cities and villages inhabitants seeking to escape from the yoke of serfdom and feudal oppression began to run to the low reaches of the Dnieper and settle there. The fugitives called themselves В"CossacksВ" that is free people. Nothing but an age-long aspiration for being free made them abandon their dwellings and open up new lands, cultivate them by the sweat of their brow and defend them. The Cossacks fought constantly for their right to exist against Turkish and Tartar conquerors on the one hand and the Polish gentry which had turned Ukraine into a Polish colony on the other.
The continuous threat of being attacked made the Cossacks build fortifications and defend their dwellings with arms in hand. The fugitives united into a military organization which was named Zaporozhskaya Sech. It united all the Cossacks garding the Zaporozhye land. The vast steppes of the now DnipropetrovsвЂ™k region and partially other Ukrainian regions made up those lands on both Dnieper banks. The Cossacks built their fortifications in the islands and at low bosky places by rivers. Oh, Mother Sech, Mother Sech And Father Great Meadow, — sings an old Dnieper Cossacks’ song. The left, gently sloping Dnieper Bank at the place where the Konka falls into the Dnieper often was the brave people’s haven and it was called Great Meadow and glorified in songs.
Cossacks built there their fortifications too. Later some of them became fortresses where the Dnieper Cossacks did their military duties and from where they raided nomads. Legends and contemporaries’ evidence mention Cossack fortifications in Chortitsa, Tomakovka, Bazavluk and Nikitinsky Rog as well as by the rivers Chertomlik and Podpolnaya. The Sech in Chortitsa island (within the bounds of modern Zaporozhye) which came into existence as early as 1553вЂ"1557 is considered to be the first. And the last Podpolnenskaya or Novaya Sech was demolished by Ekaterina the Great’s order in 1775.
Zaporozhskaya Sech presented a unique phenomenon which incarnated a protest against any oppression. It became a hotbed of the Ukrainian people’s struggle against feudal and national oppression. For many decades Zaporozhskaya Sech was not only military but also administrative, economic and political centre. Having to defend themselves without assistance from anywhere and in view of the continuous threat of being devoured by the adjoining powers the Ukrainians created an army of their own — Voisko Zaporozhshoe. Zaporozhskaya Sech was a peculiar political and administrative system determined by Marx as В"Cossack Christian RepublicВ" with inherent in it traditional right, social structure, morals and manners as well as military traditions. Sech became an important factor of forming the Ukrainian people through retaining and expanding its ethnic territory. Whoever came to Sech no matter what his origin or property statuses were was considered to be a free man and had the right to participate in the Voiskovaya Rada (council) and to use lands. The Voiskovaya Rada which was convened to decide the most important questions was the highest power body. All Cossacks gathered in the central square. An army drummer beat the kettledrum and its sound was the signal for the beginning of the council. The Cossacks present made a circle where the starshina (leaders) entered. The army’s symbols — colours, maces etc. — were brought there too. While the council was on the starshina held their power symbols. The ataman (Cossack Chieftain) held a mace, the judge — the stamp and the military clerk — an inkstand. They stood under the colours and bowed to all those present. If the Cossacks demanded that the starshina should be changed, the latter put down their caps and power symbols resigning their powers. At the end of the XVI-th century Zaporozhskaya Sech presented a harmonious military organization. The army was divided into regiments, sotni (cossack squadrons) and kurens (units of Zaporogian Cossack troops). The army was led by the hetman or the ataman. The army’s office was run by the chief military clerk and the court вЂ" by the judge. The ataman’s military assistants were esauls (Cossack captains), cornet (junior officer in the Cossack cavalry) and others. It was them who formed the starshina. From the very beginning Sech was not homogenous in its structure but was divided into rich Cossacks and rank and file members вЂ" В"the mobВ".
In their secular struggle against their enemies the Cossacks created a distinctive military art. Severe life conditions along with the continuous threat of annihilation made for cultivating such moral and physical qualities as courage, endurance and quick wit. They endured easily hardships of military life, learned to be content with little. When waging war they ate dried crusts and fish-soup mixed with flour. Resolution and valor shown by them in battles excited even their enemies’ admiration. G. S. de Boplan, a French memorialist of the second half of the XVII-th century, who has left a description of the Dnieper Cossacks’ traditions and mode of life. Mentioned their wit and pointed out that they didn’t seek riches and valued freedom most of all.
The Cossacks were armed with all kinds of cold steel and fire-arms and wielded them with equal perfection. They highly estimated the sabre calling it lovingly В"sabre-sisterВ". It was suspended from the belt by leather straps. Battle axes and knives were used widely as well. Powder and bullets were kept in powder-flasks cut of wood or bone. In their battles with Crimean Tartars and Turkish janissaries Cossacks often got rifles and pistols encrusted richly with ivory, silver, corals and mother-of-pearl. Now and then those valuable goods were brought by merchants from Russia and Persia. Sech gunsmithes made guns and sabres. The powder invented by the Cossacks was known far beyong the bounds of Zaporozhye. A mounted Cossack was always armed with a lance. Apart from fighting the ingenious Dnieper Cossacks used them to make deckings in marshland.
The Dnieper Cossacks were famous both for their courage and comradeship as well as for their constant readiness to rescue one another. Unwritten laws of brotherhood in arms didn’t let them leave a comrade in trouble. To perish, sacrificing oneself for the common cause was considered a matter of honour. At the most critical moments their innate intelligence, mother wit and experience acquired in the course of long years of battles came to their help. They could approach an enemy secretly and attack him from a short distance, could make ambushes and lay snares and, if necessary, disappear as it dissolving in the steppe. Long grass, a bush, a tree, a reed hid В"steppe comradesВ" and their pursuers could not find them. As an adage says: В"Behind each cane we have a Cossack and one or two hundred of them in every ravineВ". A scanty Cossack detachment was able to repulse superior enemy forces erecting a fortified camp using carts chained together. Consummate military skill won the Cossacks the fame of a courageous and tireless army. Western sovereigns turned to them for help more than once. Handling a sabre and an oar as well as a lance and a pole the Dnieper Cossacks each time managed to repulse those eager to rob and humiliate them not passing up a chance to revenge themselves on their offenders. His features, hand and dress’ pleats show through the darkened paints. Oseledets вЂ" a single lock вЂ" a worrier’s pride, such hearcut being characteristic of Cossack veterans, rests on his left ear. The Cossack’s clothes are rather plain: a shirt, sharovary (wide trousers), a zhupan (long tunic with waist-girdle), Morocco boots, a silk gay-coloured sash and a red-silk topped cap. That is how the people has perpetuated its hero.
It is long ago that the last bloody battle ended and nowadays earth doesn’t groan under innumerable hords, cries of slaves don’t float over the steppe expanse. And those who saturated this earth with their blood defending it donвЂ™t exist anymore. But they stay live in peopleвЂ™s memory. It is in ancient relics, in a drawling song of a bandure player. The Cossacks are the heroes of Ukrainian history.
In 1991 Ukraine regained its independence and the Cossack tradition was revived.
Today Cossack communities can be found throughout Ukraine and in other countries too. They have maintained their skills and their horsemanship. In Kiev a national Cossack display team was formed — The Ukrainian Cossacks. Iurchyshyn Oleg is the general manager of the Ukrainian Cossacks Horse Show and one of the original founders of the team.