Fragments from a War Diary, Part #120
I have heard a lot of Ukrainian people describe themselves as “Cossacks”, which I initially found surprising, because my admittedly uneducated understanding of the Cossacks was that they were a band of mercenaries or paramilitary units used by the Russian Empire to enforce order in her outer reaches in the eighteenth century onwards. Imperial Russia even used them as a sort of Police Force in certain areas, and they were not the only Empire to do this. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth used the Cossacks for similar purposes. So I found myself wondering who the Cossacks really were and what their association with Ukraine really is.
The first thing I have learned is that the Cossacks are not an ethnic group defined by a specific language, religious affiliation or other indices of ethnic identity, but rather in historical terms a social group of serfs who escaped feudal rule under the Russian Empire and formed militarised autonomous communities for mutual self-defence and protection. They became associated with styles of appearance and dress, including long hair and bushy beards, and distinctive sorts of shirts. They were self-trained in military themes, and they fought on horseback. These groups of self-reliant warriors who lived nomadic existences and occupied regions within Europe’s empires in the early modern period, being afforded autonomy under arrangements of suzerainty in exchange for the provision of military service of various kinds. The Russians in particular used the Cossacks for the purposes of suppressing rebellions. The reason for their association with Ukraine is that a substantial proportion of the original Cossack communities was based in the regions of what we now call Zaporizhzhia and the Donbas. They initially occupied these regions precisely because the population was sparse and they could afford themselves substantial autonomy.
The history of the Cossacks seems exceptionally complicated and intricate and I am sure there are many books about their exploits battling eastern Europe’s various imperial forces and working for them, including their various struggles with the Tartars. Their distinctive culture, identity and militaristic traditions survived into the early twentieth century. They were one of the more effective components of the Imperial Russian Army in fighting Germany in World War One, particularly in the early stages of the war when fighting took place on horseback. Once trench warfare emerged, the Cossacks’ distinctive style of battle from horseback became less relevant. The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 split the Cossacks, enabling the Red Army to seize Cossack territories throughout what had been the Russian Empire in the ensuing Russian Civil War. Most Cossack fighters fought with the White Army, because the Red Army was insisting on seizing food from agricultural regions dominated by the Cossacks to supply cities as part of the Bolshevik strategy in the civil war.
Cossack fighter on horseback with Tatar head on a pike.
This Menshevik allegiance would be the source of the Cossacks’ demise when the Bolsheviks won the Russian Civil War and embarked upon a ruthless policy of “de-Cossackisation”. The Cossack communities were executed, murdered, starved or frozen across the Soviet Union, until 1936 when Stalin realised that another European war was on the horizon and Soviet defence policy conducted a volte-face, permitting the Cossacks to serve in the Red Army. The Cossacks had historically been the most effective fighters in the Russian Empire, and Stalin realised that the Soviet Union now needed them in the sudden urgency to bolster the Soviet Union’s armed forces as Hitler presented an existential threat to the European peace and the Soviet Union, Stalin realised, would sooner or later need to defend itself against a Nazi aggression. Horseback fighting, that had distinguished Cossack military methods, proved itself mostly irrelevant in the course of World War II and by the end of the war there was no further value to Cossack participation in modern warfare. Cossack soldiers were released back to rural areas and the Cossack movement was effectively disbanded, assimilated into agricultural living in the Soviet Union.
Although many Ukrainians now like to use the term “Cossack” as a form of historical identification and continuity in their struggle with Russia, it is important to emphasise that Cossacks were not a distinctively Ukrainian phenomenon. The greater majority of Cossacks were not Ukrainian at all, and Cossack communities existed throughout the Russian Empire, in particular in the Urals and in the region of the Volga-Don rivers as well as in some of the previously agricultural and/or deserted regions of what is now eastern Ukraine. As the forced collectivisation of agriculture in the 1930’s Soviet Union and the rapid industrialisation of Soviet society progressed, there was ever less social space for Cossack communities anywhere in the Soviet Union and their distinctive method of fighting ceased to be of contemporary relevance.
The reason, I suspect, why Ukrainians now identify with the Cossack movement is not just because some of the important first Cossacks were from the Zaporizhzhia and Donbas regions but because in the course of the Russian Revolution the Cossacks represented agricultural classes who were opposed to Bolshevism that Ukrainians in their current struggle with Russia associated with the worst excesses of Russian imperialism which Ukrainians now perceive themselves as fighting against. In other words the Cossacks were plucky horseback fighters representing rural people in their struggles with an imperial giant, and this contemporary image of Cossacks reinforces a Ukrainian political narrative of their own as being freedom-loving people in a predominantly agricultural nation fending off the Russian menace. For the Cossacks, the Russian menace lay in the imperial pretensions of Bolshevism; for the Ukrainians, the Russian menace lies in the totalitarian nationalism expounded by Russian President Vladimir Putin, which appears to them to be much the same kind of threat.
The fact that the Cossacks once served successive imperial Russian Tsars as their enforcers, police, and special military units to suppress rebellions in far-flung corners of the Russian Empire appears to have been conveniently forgotten. Nevertheless the image of the Cossack as a freedom fighter against serfdom in the Russian Empire remains an appealing one, and now Cossack imagery is used amidst much merriment amongst both the international community and Ukrainians in keeping up spirits in fighting against the imperialist Russian occupation of Ukrainian territory.