Fate of the Cossacks

From Troubled Water: A Journey Around the Black Sea, by Jens Mühling (Armchair Traveller series; Haus, 2022), Kindle pp. 55-57:

As I listened to the customary monologue about the ‘Ukrainian fascists’ from whom they had saved their Russian brothers and sisters in Crimea, I wondered how Vassiliy could be so blind to the historical irony of his words. His ancestors, the Cossacks of the Russian Black Sea coast, had been driven out of Ukraine. Catherine the Great had resettled them here in the eighteenth century after crushing the centre of the Ukrainian Cossack state – the island of Khortytsia in the river Dnieper.

This expulsion was the decisive turning point in Cossack history. From the fifteenth century, they had lived as bandits on the steppes, in the disputed frontier region between the settled civilisations to the north and the nomadic peoples to the south. They gathered in the Wild Fields, a felt-bearded bunch of escaped serfs, runaway prisoners, army deserters, destitute farmers, and other outlaws who chose to lead a life as free barbarians rather than bow to the laws of their native civilisations. They picked up their riding skills from their nomad neighbours, but they were no less proficient as sailors. On land and water, they plundered what they needed to get by. Their most spectacular rampages took them east across the Urals to the Pacific coast of Siberia and south across the Black Sea into the Ottoman Empire, where their pirate ships even raided Istanbul on occasion.

In the Ukrainian borderlands between Russia, Poland, and the Crimean Tatar empire, they established their most powerful host, the Hetmanate of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, whose members dug in on a water-bound fortress downstream from the Dnieper Rapids. At the height of their power, the Cossacks ruled over an anarchic steppe state from here and were a constant thorn in the side of their enemies, who included not only the tsars in Moscow but also the kings in Warsaw and the khans on the Crimean peninsula. Catherine the Great’s predecessors had tried to defeat the Ukrainian Cossacks or forge alliances with them, with no lasting success. It was only when the tsarina advanced on the Black Sea coast that the Zaporozhian Hetmanate was finally vanquished, along with the other peoples of the steppe.

The Cossacks never recovered their former glory. Once Catherine had destroyed their fortress on the Dnieper and driven the Zaporozhians out of Ukraine, she increasingly harnessed their battle skills to her imperial ambitions. The Cossacks were employed as frontier guards protecting the southern borders of the tsarist empire against the remaining nomadic tribes and the mountain peoples of the Caucasus. They soon became a common sight in Russia’s cities too, patrolling the streets on horseback in their flamboyant uniforms. They were especially feared by Jews, Armenians, and other non-Russian city-dwellers for whom the Cossacks traditionally had no time. One of their most notorious roles was to crush popular uprisings by whipping protestors and riding roughshod over them – something they did more and more frequently in the latter days of the empire. Many workers dragged themselves home from an early-twentieth-century protest with horseshoe-shaped bruises on their bodies.

During the revolution, the Cossacks were divided into two parties: White and Red, monarchists and communists – the former loyal to the tsar’s murdered family beyond death itself, the others willing to defend the new regime in the Kremlin henceforth. After the civil war, the White Cossacks disappeared into Stalin’s camps, with the exception of those who had escaped abroad with the remnants of the counter-revolutionary troops. That was the end of their Cossack careers; from that day on, they no longer rode horses but drove omnibuses in Berlin or taxis in Paris instead.

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Filed under migration, military, nationalism, Russia, Ukraine, war

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