|Face Music - History of the Cossacks
P & C December 1998
- last update 03-2016
The Cossackdom constitutes one of the most original and significant appearances of Russian history. In the 16th century Cossack communities developed in the southwest, southern and southeast, in the region of Moscow, in the Belarus and the Ukraine. They accomplished a great deal for Russia with the colonisation of conquered territories and the defense of the same. They also influenced the state's interior law-and-order and the historical evaluation of the country.
Sometimes, the Cossacks are considered to be the direct descendants of the non-Slavian tribes (Khasares, Cossogens, Tcherkesses, a.o.), who settled in some of the areas of southern Russia, in the period of the desintegration. This conclusion is only based on the origin of the word "Cossack" from the Tatarian language. The Tatars hereby described a minor armed force division. It often dealt with single horsemen or any armed units that were independent from the Khan (the commander of the Tatars). Ethnically, though, the Cossacks are Russians and Ukrainians, respectively, inspite of their rented name. In the 15th century, the constant danger of attacks by the Tatarian Golden Hordes meant a menace for the southern outer circuits of the Russian and the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom, which could not be put an end to by themselves. This made the inhabitants of the boderline areas become warriors, who learned the war-strategies of their opponents. The Tatarian horsemen were not only in opposition to the Russian horsemen, not only adapting the battle strategies of their enemies but rather also the name of the Cossacks.
The government in Moscow quickly realized the obvious advantages of a frontier protection by the aid of a minor cavalry. In the 16th century, special troupes were founded for this particular reason, the so-called urban Cossacks, being settled close to the frontier fortifications, who received land and pay for their guard services. Nearly simultaneously, the Polish-Lithuanian government put the Ukrainian Cossacks under the rule of a governor, in order to form a frontier police out of the developing Cossackdom at that time. Though, these urban Cossacks were not numerous and had no significant influence on the free Cossacks. On the contrary, number and importance of the free Cossacks increased considerably. The reinforcement of the centralized power in the Russian State was accompanied by the loss of the political rights of the local population and a steadily increasing pressure of taxes, which consequently led to the development of serfdom. That was the reason for the decision to get rid of the dependancy from the state and to begin a new, free lifestyle as Cossacks, taking their own risks. The situation for the Russian population in the areas belonging to Lithuania was even worse, since they did not only suffer from the social and religious opponents (Roman-Catholic governors against orthodox people from the countryside), but also from national intolerance.
From the 2nd half of the 16th century on, along the river Don, the community of the Don Cossacks developed, whereas during the very same period, Ukrainian Cossacks formed a similar community far out in the steppe: the Zaporoshyeskaya Setch (settlement of Zaporoshye at the lower course of the river Dnjepr). The other numerous Cossack communities are descendants from the latter, having inherited their changing names of the region of their settlements: the Yaik-Cossacks (later Ural-Cossacks) and the division of the Orenburg Cossacks, who had an important merit regarding the colonization of Siberia (see also in the booklet from the Ensemble Pesnokhorki vol. I - IV).
In 1732 the forces of the Don Cossacks built the Volga-Cossacks, who had been moved to the northern Caucasus in 1770. During the colonization and protection of the North Caucasian conquests, the Greben or Terek Cossacks were put into action, too. Out of the Ukrainian Cossacks who descended from the dispersed Zaporoshyer Setch Cossacks in the 18th century, the Black Sea Cossacks developed under Catherin II; later, the Asov Cossacks fought against the Turkish. They had primarily served under the Turkish Sultan; in 1828 the division was again transferred into Russian hands and put into action in the western North-Caucasus (Kuban region).
At the beginning, the Cossack communities subordinated only to the name of the state, but caused a lot of conflicts with the politics of the governments. When they did not content themselves anymore in attacking the Tatarian ships on the rivers Dnepr and Don, but also sailed for the Black-Sea, they brought the rulers into a diffcult spot, trying to avoid a war with the Turkish. The Turkish governors applied to the Tsar because of the devastation of their coastal-settlements; the reply told to them was that the Cossacks were not subordinates of the Tsar, but fleeing bands of robbers, who do not accept any masters. At the same time however, Moscow generally gave them pay. Making their living as warriors, the Cossacks incidently also attacked their own people or robbed Russian and Polish trade fleets.
Since the Cossackian communities were mainly gathered out of dissatisfied people of the law-and-order society of those days, there existed attempts to change this, which led to hostile relationships among the Cossacks and the state's governors, often enough, even to open battles. The Ukrainian Cossacks began to revolt against the Polish government more and more actively. Supported by the subjugated Ukrainian peasantries, they won the fight and separated the originally Russian regions from Poland. Hereby, most of the inhabitants became Cossacks. In the Russian State, where the already less crass social differences were not aggravated by religious and national motivation, their fight led to different results. The Tsars in Moscow achieved to regain the independence of the Russian as well as the Polish territories, having been conquered by the Cossackian communities, and to submit them again to the centralized rule of Moscow.
The Cossackdom was not only militarily but also politically and socially an important phenonemon. The Cossacks did not only serve as frontier protection and fore-troups in the colonization of primarily gained land, but they also signified the desire of the people for equality and self-administration, which was not attained in the official state's structures. But the Cossackian fight against the state was not directed against the state's order, but against its concrete form of that era.
At first, the main inner structures of all ancient communities of the Cossacks were equal. The Don Cossacks lived in family-like reinforced settlements at the river Don and its tributaries Medveditsa, Khoper, Donets and Sherebets. In the middle of the 17th century there existed about 30 of such settlements, at its end already 125. The property of land was a common ownership. Apart from their military campaigns they pursued, most of all, fishing and hunting. When cultivating the fields, which did not yet exist at the Don area, which began to devlop in 17th century, the Supreme Command decided to interdict the cultivation of the soil on penalty. The grain supplies were partly effected by the government, partly by the trade with the inhabitants of Russian neighbourhood areas, to which the Cossacks sold fish as well as Turkish and Tatarian merchandise.
The administration of the troups was in the hands of the Ataman (leader of the troups), who, like his assistant, the Yessaul (captain), and one military official writer, who was responible for the correspondence, were elected by the Cossacks' Common Legislative Assembly, ("Krug", literally Russian for: circle), and could be removed from office at any time. The assembly decided all significant questions. The Ataman and his assistant only executed the directives given by the assembly. Among the mutual responsabilities of the Ataman and the assembly, all affairs of the forces as well as court procedures were included. Persons commiting severe, especially political crimes, were sentenced to death by drowning, officially described as "setting into the water". Within all Cossackian settlements, a proper supreme assembly was elected, and chosen eldest were responsible for the interior community life.
During the military campaigns, these democratic institutions were replaced by the Atamans' despotic ruling. But the latter was obliged to give a report on his activities during a battle after returning home.
In the 17th century the growing power of Moscow and the Cossackian incapability to resist hostile offensives by their own forces, their communities were forced to accept the protectorate of the Moscow government and to submit their activities on the outside, according to the politics of Moscow. In the 18th century, the Ukrainian Cossacks, who did not belong to Poland anymore, either having other possibilties to assert the independence of their native country, were obligated to become subordinates of the Russian Tsar.
The inner order of the Cossackian communities was not damaged hereof, but gradually altered, which relieved the government, allowing control of the Cossacks. Particularily, by this time, for economic reasons, a social distinction had been made among the communities. Cossacks, who, due to their talents and audacity, were awarded in particular, as they had been elected to the Council of Elders since the beginning and hereby had gained a priviliged position in the forces. A special class was built up by those whose members held the voting committee. Among the simple Cossacks there were also two class-related groups: One of them were the wealthy, so-called economic Cossacks, descending from the first settlers and holding stable economic positions; the others were the have-nots, having become Cossacks lately. These, namely, formed the troups of robbers and thieves (as they were called in the State of Moscow); they moved to the Volga, in order to rob the trade ships, and, sometimes they robbed towns, too, reasons for which were not only to ensure their material providing, but also a non-forgiven hatred against the Russian government and against the state's public law, from which these people had deliberated themselves.
These Cossack groups established a basis for all those, who were dissatisfied with the circumstances of the country, while the wealthy Cossacks, in the first mean the Council of Elders, were drawn towards closer relationship with the Tsar's government. The decreasing everyday life of the peasantries during the 17th century caused a considerable flight of the population at the river Don and an increase of the Cossacks' marauding at the river Volga. Supported by the poor Cossacks, Stenka Rasin organized the insurrection in 1669. When he was overcome by the Tsar's troups, he escaped to the Don; he was forced, however, to drop out and delivered by the Don Cossacks' Ataman.
In 1667 the conservative faithfuls, who rejected church reforms, were declared heretics by the Russian Orthodox Church. Persecuted conservatives were brought to the region of the Don Cossacks, and there they established some retreats in the 70's and 80's, especially at the river Medveditsa. Soon a major part of the Cossacks was seized by the conservatives' propaganda (Old Believer) campaign. Plans for a revolt in favour of the old belief arose; connections to the Yaik-Cossacks in the Ural area were knotted. By means of troups from Moscow, sent to the Don in 1688, the Ataman Frol Minayev put an end to these plans. The conservative (Old Believer) were expulsed. A part of them tried to escape under the protection of the Tatarian Khans on the Isle of Krim, or onto the area of Kuban; on their way, however, they were exhausted by the south Caucasian Tcherkesses; others found a refuge at the Terek (north Caucasus). In consequence of these turmoils, the Cossacks lost the right to vote for the local clergyman. The religious life in their force communities was no longer under the rule of a patriarch, but of the bishop.
One of the most important liberties the Cossacks possessed, the right not to deliver refugees to the government, was lost under Peter the Great (1682-1725). The attempt to prevail the delivery of escaped men by force caused the revolt of the Don Cossacks initiated by Kondraty Bulavin, which was, with difficulty, suppressed by the government. Again, a part of the conquered rebels seeked the protection of the Khan of the Isle of Krim.
Later on, when the Russian troups had occupied the new settlements at the mouth area of the Danube, they recruited a special Cossack Army in the duty of the Turkish Sultan for a certain period. The insurrection of Bulavin led to a further decrease of the old rights: Step by step, the free elections for the Ataman were abolished. In the mid-18th century the position of the "Eldest in the Forces" was modified. This title, in former times, lasted a lifetime, but from this point of time on, it became a position that was appointed by the government.
During this period the Cossacks armies, little by little, lost the possibility to stand up against governmental politics. They did not figure as a danger anymore for the state, since in the 18th century a regular army had been set up, the defense budget for which was essentially strenghtened. At the same time, the state's frontiers were more and more shifted south, and by means of the numerous fortresses along the borders, the government was given another reason to keep the independent Cossackdom alive. Cossacks were increasingly put into action for military reasons outside of their own territories, which caused changes within the interior law-and-order of the Cossack communities. The corporative sections as well as private properties of land became legal, the self-administration was restricted to assemblies of the communities only, in other words, the citizens' life style of the other Russians gained acceptance with the Cossacks, too. The only ancient significant pecularities of the Cossackdom left were the force's duties, although they were adapted to the needs of a contemporary army.
English translation: Karin Wild