Ukrainian Cossacks used to be a predominant driving force in Ukrainian history for more then 3 centuries, particularly from 1489 till complete liquidation in 1775.
The word ‘cossack’ (in Ukrainian is pronounced as ‘kozak’) originates from the Turkish ‘kazak’ – ‘free man’. Indeed, at the beginning cossacks were men who escaped from towns and villages of western and central Ukraine to unsettled steppes in the south where they were uncontrolled.
They united into self-organized military units in the lower basins of Dnieper and Don rivers. Thoses were free territories between Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Crimean Khanate and the Moscow Kingdom.
Cossacks were mostly engaged in war or or mmilitary conflicts. They defended Ukrainian lands from the Tatar and Turk forays; excited national rebellions against socio-economic and religious oppression of Ukrainian people under the Polish rule; controlled commercial roots; participated in military campaigns and defended borders of the neighboring countries.
Fight for Independence
However, their main historical merit is an attempt to construct an independent Ukrainian state.
By the end of the 15th – middle of 16th centuries Ukrainian Cossacks (who perhaps were not solely Ukrainians but of different nationalities) formedZaporizhya Sich – Cossacks’ military, administrative and cultural center. It was situated across the Dnieper rapids around today’s Kakhovka Reservoir.
Under the uprising against Polish magnates led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky in the middle of the 17th century Cossacks have established an Independent state, Hetmanat (led by Hetmans).
Fatal historical mistake
However, in 1654 as a result of the signed treaty between Khmelnytsky and Moscow embassy representatives, Zaporizhya Sich fell under the authority of Moscow and then Russian Tsar.
This treaty is regarded by many as the biggest mistake of the national hero Bohdan Khmelnytsky. Very soon the military strength of Cossacks (their number during the most glorious days reached 100,000), and authority of their Hetmans, with own vision of the Ukrainian future, became a threat for the ambitions of the Russian Empire.
In 1775 Zaporizhya Sich were abolished by Catherine II, Russian Empress, and all Cossacks’ leaders were either killed or expelled. The rest of cossacks spread along the cost of Black and Azov seas. Some of them were later sent to Kuban in modern Russia.
A bit of fun
Besides such virtues as courage, bravery, cleverness, fortitude, patriotism, fraternity, equality, Ukrainian cossacks are also valued nowadays for their sense of humor.
For example, the famous painting of Ilya Repin depicts how Cossacks are drafting a reply to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire, who demanded their submission of the Turkish rule.
The extant of that letter contains vulgarities and brutalities, but also very funny parodies: “the damned devil’s brother and friend”, “a secretary to Lucifer himself”, “swineherd of Greater and Lesser Egypt”, “the Zaporozhians declare, you lowlife” and etc.
Significance for Ukraine
Cossacks’ significance for Ukrainian development is still highly valued in culture. For example, there are many popular folk songs about Cossacks. Zaporizhya Sich, its heroic hetmans and cossacks are described in many novels, legends and movies.
Cossacks’ garb is regarded as the national Ukrainian clothing for men. Many young Ukrainians are fond of Boyoviy Hopak – modified Cossack’s martial art dance. Besides that, members of public organization the Ukrainian Registered Cossacks (established in 2002) are active participants of the contemporary political life.