History of the Cossacks - William Cresson - ebook

            THE level plains and steppes of South Russia were known to the ancients as the broad channel followed by the ebb and flow of every fresh wave of conquest or migration passing between Europe and Asia. The legions of Rome and Byzance found this territory as impossible to occupy by military force as the high seas. The little known history of "Scythia"  –  from the earliest times until the thirteenth century of the Christian era  –  presents a confused picture of barbarous tribes pressing one upon another, the stronger driving the weaker before them from the more favoured hunting grounds. Often, voluntarily or by force, the victors included the vanquished in their own "superior" civilization. There are many reasons why it is difficult or impossible to follow with any degree of certainty the national history of these races. "Their long-forgotten quarrels, their interminglings and separations, above all the constant changes in their names and habitat make the study of their history as difficult as it is unprofitable." (Lesur, Histoire des Kosaques.)            This ignorance of the changes  –  political and economical  –  which are constantly taking place along the amorphous racial frontiers of Eastern Europe, has continued to our own times. But at recurrent intervals these Slav borderlands separating the Occident from the Orient become the scene of political upheavals so vast in their consequences that the very foundations of European civilization are shaken in their turn...

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William Cresson


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Copyright © 2015 by William Cresson

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THE LEVEL PLAINS AND STEPPES of South Russia were known to the ancients as the broad channel followed by the ebb and flow of every fresh wave of conquest or migration passing between Europe and Asia. The legions of Rome and Byzance found this territory as impossible to occupy by military force as the high seas. The little known history of “Scythia” – from the earliest times until the thirteenth century of the Christian era – presents a confused picture of barbarous tribes pressing one upon another, the stronger driving the weaker before them from the more favoured hunting grounds. Often, voluntarily or by force, the victors included the vanquished in their own “superior” civilization. There are many reasons why it is difficult or impossible to follow with any degree of certainty the national history of these races. “Their long-forgotten quarrels, their interminglings and separations, above all the constant changes in their names and habitat make the study of their history as difficult as it is unprofitable.” (Lesur, Histoire des Kosaques.)

This ignorance of the changes – political and economical – which are constantly taking place along the amorphous racial frontiers of Eastern Europe, has continued to our own times. But at recurrent intervals these Slav borderlands separating the Occident from the Orient become the scene of political upheavals so vast in their consequences that the very foundations of European civilization are shaken in their turn.

The great Tartar invasion which, during the thirteenth century, swept out of Asia and spread across the steppes of Southern Russia, was an occurrence of such magnitude that its echoes travelled to the most distant states of Europe. The arrival of fugitive bands of Khomans, Black Bulgars, and other wild steppe tribesmen at the court of Bela IV, King of Hungary, first spread the fame and terror of these new invaders. From these refugees and their descriptions of the enemy the sovereigns of Christendom learned with horror of the fate which in the short space of a few months had overtaken the most powerful strongholds of the princes of Rus and Muscovy. Even the Poles – whose more civilized and warlike state was generally considered the bulwark separating the “barbarians” of ancient Scythia from the communities of Europe – had been forced to make the best terms possible: by paying a degrading tribute to the invaders. The powers of Europe now beheld upon the frontiers of their own empires an enemy far more redoubtable than the Saracen “infidels” against whom they had waged their mystical crusades. Turning from his dream of rescuing the Holy Sepulchre the Emperor Frederick II exercised all his eloquence to unite the Christian princes in a league against the Mongols. The Roman Pontiff, fearing for the Christian religion, preached a Holy War. Saint Louis prepared to march in person against the barbarians.

“All of civilized Europe was given over to anxiety and apprehension. The Tartars were represented, as monsters living upon human flesh.” “Even the most reasonable believed that the end of the world was at hand. The people of Gog and Magog advancing under the command of the Anti- christ were about to bring about the destruction of the universe.” Suddenly, as though by common agreement or following some general command, the widely scattered hordes of horsemen turned once more towards the East, finally settling in great armed camps upon the fertile steppes near the shores of the Volga. In this inexplicable action, as mysterious as their first appearance from the heart of Asia, the writers of the time perceived the hand of an unseen Providence. The avenging wrath of the Deity had been turned aside by the intercession of the priests and holy men of Christendom. Yet complete as the conquest of the Tartars appeared to be it was not destined to outlast the century which saw its rise. As usual in Oriental despotisms the seeds of its dissolution came from within.

The first result of these disaffections – notably a revolt of the Nogai tribesmen against the princes of the Golden Horde – was the disappearance of the crude administrative system exercised by the Tartar rulers over the old tribes of the steppes. These began once more to reassert their independence. Bands of Scythian refugees, Khosars, Khomans and “Khosaks,” began to leave the marshy deltas of the great rivers such as the Don and Dnieper – where they had found in common a precarious refuge – and mounted on horses stolen from the Tartars returned to their familiar haunts. Here a terrible desolation spoke everywhere of “Tartar Peace.” How complete had been the destruction of whole tribes and settlements of the previous inhabitants – caught by the overwhelming avalanche of Tartar horsemen – is Pictured by the monkish chroniclers of a previous generation. In Hakluyt’s Voyages these travellers describe how “for over three hundred leagues” they passed through great fields of whitening bones, “the only signs that might recall the presence of previous inhabitants of the steppes.”

The wars of the princes of Tartary with the revolted Nogai and the struggles of the latter with the Russians now gave to the miserable remnants of the ancient lords of Scythia an opportunity to recover something of their ascendency, over the wildest and most deserted parts of the steppes. As these scattered tribesmen became more skilled in desert warfare; both Russians and Tartars occasionally sought their alliance and the aid of their ill-armed cavalry in settling their quarrels. But whether gathered in armed camps or Slovods, or else leading an errant nomad life, these “war bands,” composed of refugees and renegades of every origin, were a constant menace to the frontiers of their more civilized neighbours; pirating on the great rivers and attacking the caravans of Russian or Tartar merchants with indifferent zeal. In the precarious existence of these rovers, we find the first traces of the frontier “civilization” of the Cossacks.

No problem of Russian history has given rise to more controversy than that of the origin of the Cossack race. It now appears established that the influence of the geographic and climatic conditions which exist on the steppes, modifying to a common type the characteristics of the peoples and tribes (often of wholly different origin) who in turn have inhabited the ancient lands of the Seyths – is the paramount factor in solving this problem. The tracing of blood ties and relationships would therefore seem of less importance than an understading of the conditions under which the characteristic Cossack civilization has been developed.

The Russian word Kasak – of which “Cossack” is the English equivalent – still signifies in several Tartar dialects a “Horseman” or “Rover.” By a not unnatural association of ideas this term has been adopted at different times and in widely separated localities as a tribal name by nomad peoples of the steppes. But the attempt not infrequently made to trace a direct connection between these tribes and the famous Kasaki of modern Russia is generally based upon far-fetched historical analogies.

In Clarke’s famous “Travels in the Ukraine” the ingenious theory is advanced that the country of “Kasachia” mentioned by Constantine Porphyrogenetes was the original homeland of the modern “tribes” of Russia which have taken the general name of Kasak or Cossack. But the relative unimportance of this people lost among powerful neighbours whose history has survived to the present day is the strongest argument against such a supposition. Moreover, as we have already pointed out, other tribes of this name have more than once risen to temporary importance in the annals of the steppes.

It was not until the latter half of the fifteenth century that the ebbing tide of Tartar invasion, which for nearly two centuries had submerged the richest lands of the great Russian plain, once more opened to settlement from the North the rich steppes of the “Black Earth” district, and the scarcely less fertile lands to the South and East. During this long period of subjection the Russian nation had been held back from its richest heritage.

Scattered among the Finnish aborigines of the great northern forests – in that fabulous land of “Cimmerian darkness” where, as Herodotus states, the inhabitants “spend half their time in slumber” – the men of “Rus” had kept alive the faith of their ancestors while learning their long lesson of patience and endurance. Thus it came about that so many of the old centres and cities of Holy Russia are found today in the most barren and unattractive parts of the great Russian plain.

When the prairies of the Ukraine – the “border land” – had ceased to be the hunting grounds of roving nomads, and the Asiatic hordes had withdrawn with their flocks and herds to the oases of their native deserts, the peasant population of Northern Russia became filled with a restless fever for emigration. Out of the dark fir wilderness came bands of pioneers, – dazzled by the bright sunlight of the steppes, – pressing ever southward. Thus settlers of true Russian blood began once more to populate the war-worn plains of Scythia where free land and, dearer still, personal freedom rewarded the daring of the adventurer.

While fear and hunger had kept them submissively huddled about the wooden fortresses of the boyars, no laws had been necessary to chain the peasants to the glebe. Serfdom now began in Russia at the time when the feudal system of Europe was sinking into decay. For when the princes and nobles of these northern principalities found their apanages and broad grants of forest land fast reverting to wilderness through the flight of the agricultural laborers, legal steps were taken to preserve their “rights.” In edicts of Ivan the Terrible and Boris Godounov, we find the legislative traces of this great southern movement. Yet, in spite of terrible punishments and laws enacted to keep the peasants from roving, the moujiki continued to join themselves to the remnants of the wild Asiatic tribes and the no less barbarous “Cossacks” of their own race, who had established themselves in vagabond communities following close upon the receding frontier of Tartar invasion.

It would appear that about this time the term Cossack or Kasak was first used to describe a “masterless man,” one who refused to identify himself with the Krestianin or ordinary agricultural laborer (a class about to fall wholly into the condition of serfdom). The same word may previously have been used by the Tartars after their conquest of Russia to denote tribesmen who, refusing to settle in towns or colonies, preferred to continue the nomad and adventurous life of their ancestors. The name also began to be applied to soldier-mercenaries from the steppe “war bands,” who, while maintaining the warlike traditions of this wandering life, refused to become incorporated among the men-at-arms attached to the great boyars or to take permanent service in the paid militia formed by the Tsars after the reign of Ivan IV.

To the brutal methods of Tartar dominion may be ascribed traits which have left a deep mark on the government and policy of the empire of the Tsars. Russian historians are now the first to recognize the depth and force of this influence. Naturally democratic in their ideals and personal relations, long subjection to the Tartars taught the Slav people subservience, and (together with later principles borrowed by Peter the Great from the Prussian system) furnished their rulers a model of greedy despotism and autocratic power. Even the excesses of revolution in our own day show the persistence in the Russian state of these pernicious alien influences.

Under the ruthless sword-strokes of Czar Vasili, and his successor Ivan the Terrible, began the up. building of the great modern state of Russia – engulfing in an ever-widening circle of dominion the liberties of lesser princelings and the bourgeoisie of the forest “City Republics.” Such was the fate of Pskov, of the Free Republic of Vologda and the city of “LordNovgorod the Great.”

Meanwhile, on the vast southern plains, under the leadership of dispossessed boyars, renegade Polish nobles, Turkish janissaries, or even some far-wandering French or German adventurer, the characteristic civilization of the Ukraine Cossack communities steadily grew and strengthened. Recruited from sturdy vagabonds of every race and clan, “stolen youths, thieves and patriots” armed with the weapons they had brought with them from Russia or with the bows and arrows of their Tartar neighbours, they fought for and gradually obtained the right to exist and to remain free.

In view of the importance of geographical conditions upon the inhabitants of these plains, it now becomes necessary to consider at greater length some of the phenomena peculiar to the South Russian Steppes. For thousands of years – until the coming of the railways in recent times – the problems of life on the Russian prairies must have presented themselves again and again under the same inevitable forms. The nations who established their permanent home in this fertile “smiling wilderness” were all endowed with similar characteristics. Their lives were passed on horseback and their existence depended on their skill as breeders of half- wild cattle and hunters of wary game. The Greek legend of the Centaurs was, in their case, scarcely an exaggeration. In plains so vast as to be almost without natural limits or defensible frontiers a necessary factor of effective occupation became the ability to defend a chosen area at any moment in hand to hand encounters with a mobile foe. Highways of trade and communication could be shifted – in the absence of all natural obstacles – with the same ease that a new course can be steered at sea. For this reason, the objects of steppe warfare were different from those of ordinary strategy. In reading of the military campaigns of the Ukraine we must often be prepared to draw our comparisons from naval rather than from land operations.

The country known as the Ukraine, where the characteristic Cossack civilization arose and developed, is, as the name indicates, a continental “border land,” neither European nor Asiatic. On the wide steppes of the Black Sea basin even the climatic influences of north and south meet without blending. Thus, while during the short summer months a true southern climate prevails, yet the return of winter is marked by a cold nearly subarctic in its intensity.

In the famous Black Earth region about Kiev and Poltava, the brief harvest season forms the climax of a miracle of growth. Under the rays of an almost tropical sun the wide fields of grain change from silvery green to tawny gold in the space of days rather than weeks. But with the advent of another season the arctic winds sweep straight from the Polar seas, unchecked by hill or mountain range, all conquering, across the whole level expanse of New Russia. Upon the sunny steppes tightens once more the icy grip of the Empire of the North. There can be no softening of the fibre, no slackening of the powers of sturdy resistance which above all else characterize the Russian race in the population of such a land. Both in physique and temperament the lithe dark inhabitant of the Ukraine presents the type of a southerner. While sprung from the same stock he is as distinct from the blond dweller of the north as the Provenqal of France is different from the blue-eyed Norman. To his Slav nature the brief vision of southern summer has added a touch of imagination, a capacity for boisterous enjoyment, lacking, at any rate less apparent, in the Russian of “Muscovy.”

Before the coming of the farmer and his plough the plains of the Ukraine were everywhere covered by high waving grasses, similar to the vanished prairies of far western America, or the vegas of southern Andalusia. Often this growth is so thick that a horseman can only with difficulty force his way, and the half-wild cattle almost disappear in the richness of their pasture. Not even a tree or bush breaks the straight sky line of the horizon. Meandering in wide curves, often with a scarcely perceptible fall from north to south, four great rivers form the most striking geographical features of these plains: the Dnieper, the Don, and farther eastward the mighty “Mother Volga” and her lesser companion, the Ural. “Her rivers,” says Rambaud, “are the only allies of man against Russia’s great enemy – distance.” In winter their frozen surface, and in summer their broad tide, are the principal pathways from one part of this great land to another.

It was upon the shores of the great river Dnieper, known to the Ancients as the Borysthenes, that the first permanent Cossack communities established had their settlements.


By slow degrees, under the increasing influence of peasant immigration from the North (bringing with it the religion of Russia and such rude civilization as the northern woods had developed) the Asiatic and “tribal” features of Cossack life began to disappear. During the early days of the XVIth century they had so strengthened their hold upon the broad lands lying between the Dnieper and the Don, that we find the terms “Free Cossacks of the Ukraine” and even “The Republic of the Don” used to describe their settlements. But the early condition of these wandering Cossack communities must have been a matter of scorn even to the primitive tribes of the Boujiak Tartars who were their neighbours. Family life or social organization were all but impossible under the conditions of their harried existence. Some of these steppe bands (as we shall later observe in the case of the “Brotherhood” of the Zaporogian Cossacks, inhabiting the shores and islands of the Dnieper) even appear to have forbidden the presence of women in their camps.

In the growing Cossack settlements or slovods only the sturdiest of the children were allowed to survive. As a preparation for a lifelong struggle with the forces of the steppes “their mothers were wont to plunge them at birth either into a snowdrift or in a mixture of salt and water.” None of the scanty provisions of the tribe could be wasted upon weaklings or those of unpromising physique. When scarcely able to walk, the young Cossacks were placed on horseback and “soon learned to swim wide rivers thus mounted” (ibid). At an early age they were only allowed food when by their unaided skill with bow and arrow they had brought down the wild game which supplied the family cook-pot. The clothing of the first Cossack tribesmen was contrived from sheepskins or the hides of wild beasts. Only the chieftains of the highest rank were able to afford garments of coarsely woven cloth dyed in brilliant colours (ibid). In case of sickness the Cossack remedy was to mount on horseback and, after galloping across the plain until both steed and rider were exhausted, to open a small vein in the shoulder of their mount and drink the warm blood.

As their flocks and herds multiplied upon the generous pasturage there grew up in the former “Tartar desert” a characteristic light-hearted civilization peculiar to the steppes. In the Little Russians of the present day we may still trace the manners and customs of this Free Cossack ancestry. Moreover as their ability to resist the encroaching tyranny of the Russian boyars increased, the Free Cossacks sought an early opportunity to renew relations with their European kinsmen. A common danger and their mutual hatred of the Turks and Tartars were forces tending to unite them with their Christian kindred the Russians and Poles. But in Poland the feudal land holders could find no place in their aristocratic state for freemen not of the noble classes, while in Russia the condition of the moujiki warned the Cossacks against the dangers of a too binding alliance with the Tsar.

In order to secure the military aid of the Cossacks, the Polish kings were forced to allow them to establish lists or “Registers” of “Free Soldiers” to whom claim of serfage was relinquished by the feudal lords. These latter, however, always claimed possession of the lands occupied by the Cossacks and their right to liberty as a caste was never recognized. This, as we shall later see, was the cause of the great uprising ending in the separation of the Cossack Ukraine from the Polish crown.

In spite of these differences, however, the eastern Cossack steppes began, soon after the downfall of the Tartars, to be considered the defensive frontiers of both Poland and the Muscovite empire. The Cossack warriors of the Polish Ukraine, though clinging tenaciously to their liberties and denying any right on the part of an alien government to claim their services, often entered the feudal military companies of the Polish nobles as volunteers or paid men-at-arms, while farther to the eastward, their kindred entered the service of the Tsar.

The last stronghold of the Tartars in Russia – Kazan – was captured by Ivan the Terrible after a long siege ending October 2, 1551. We find in the list of troops taking part in these operations the presence noted of a large contingent of Cossacks: “Cossacks of the town and Cossacks of the country.” These together with the newly-formed Russian streltzi or regular troops took a prominent part in the assault. From 1553 to 1555 Ivan completed his conquests along the whole course of the Volga, finally capturing Astrakhan near the shores of the Caspian. Their admiration for the Tsar’s exploits against the common enemy, and perhaps a wholesome realization of the fact that his armies now controlled an easy base of approach to the strongholds of their “republic,” led the Cossacks inhabiting the shores of the Don to place themselves under his protection. The Cossacks of the Dnieper remained, however, in the pay of Poland. Thus occurred the first great separation in the loose confederation of the “Free Companions of the Steppes.”

After the more or less voluntary submission of the “Free Cossacks of the Don” the Russian Tsars soon began to make use of their matchless skill in frontier warfare. An arrangement mutually favorable was now perfected and the Cossacks became the basis of a system of defensive militia policing the steppes against the Crimean Tartars. Although the Muscovite peasants were brave and (above all) docile foot soldiers, their usefulness as cavalry was limited. Previous to the time when Cossacks were enrolled for this purpose, it had been found necessary – in order to defend the open frontiers of Muscovy – to mobilize every year a force of about 65,000 men. Owing to the fact that the rendezvous chosen lay on the banks of the river Oka, this was called the annual “banks service.” In the early days this duty had been performed by the feudal levies of the great boyars, whose serf and peasant troops attended the annual musters unwillingly and often at great inconvenience to themselves during the harvest season (a time therefore usually chosen by the Tartars for their raids). As early as 1571 a Russian boyar, Prince Borotinsky, began to employ a system of mixed Cossack and militia patrols which appears to have differed but little from the military colonies or stanitzi of the later Cossack “armies.” During the seasons less favorable to the Tartar raids a protective service alone was maintained. This was called the “Watch and Post Service” and consisted of Cossacks living in rude block- houses linked together by small fortified camps. This first line of defense was intended, however, rather to impede the march of the Tartar raiders – and to give warning of their sudden coming – than to attempt any serious resistance.

Mobile outposts composed of squads of two, four or six horsemen, to each of which was assigned a regular “ride” of about a day’s journey, joined together the Cossack encampments or settlements which were generally set upon high places from whence an outlook – could be kept across the plains. In each of these encampments horses stood ready saddled, so that upon the appearance of suspicious signs – the distant black dots in the yellow waste, denoting the scouts of the enemy, or the inevitable clouds of dust raised by the hoofs of their horses the news could be immediately communicated to the nearest fortified town.

The importance of the services thus rendered will be realized when we consider that according to a contemporary English writer – Fletcher – the Tartars of the Crimea Were accustomed to attack the confines of the Muscovite empire in considerable force once or twice every year.

These raids were sometimes carried out at Trinity time, but more often during the harvest season. Now and again a winter raid was undertaken, when the frozen surface of the swamps and rivers facilitated long marches, which only the endurance of the sturdy little Tartar ponies rendered possible. Through constant familiarity with the Russian borderland and the intervening steppes the Tartars learned to know the best trails and bridle tracks, and, most important of all, where the richest booty could most easily be obtained. “Avoiding all river crossings and picking their way along the trackless plateaus – at the same time carefully hiding their movements from the Muscovite steppe riders – they – would suddenly penetrate in a solid mass into some populous district for a distance of about a hundred versts. Then turning in their track and, throwing out long wings to either side of the main body like a flock of wild geese – they would sweep away everything that lay in the path.”

Kaffa, in the Crimea, was the principal slave market where the prisoners captured in these raids, men, girls and children, (the latter carefully transported in panniers carried for the purpose) were sold to the Turkish markets.

In protecting the Tsar’s dominions against the intolerable suffering caused by these raids, the Cossack became an invaluable adjunct to the armies of the empire. When the Tartars ceased to be a menace a new era of discovery opened to Cossack enterprise; when, after absorbing all neighboring Russian states, the power of the Great Princes of Moscow was turned towards the East in an irresistible movement of expansion which was to extend across Asia to the continent of the New World. Cossack troops played the principal part in these expeditions. Leaders – of whom the Donskoi hetman Yermak was the chief and prototype – crossed Siberia looking for a land passage. An obscure Cossack adventurer engaged in this quest was the first European to set eyes upon the Western coast of the great Alaskan peninsula. Had not the grey waters of the Straits of Behring rolled between – the matchless energy of these frontiersmen might have claimed the western coast of America for the Tsar.



WHETHER THE POLITICAL CONDITION OF the early Cossack settlements of the Ukraine – the wide debatable frontier region lying between Poland, Russia and the Mussulman states to the south and west – ever entitled the “Free People” to be considered a separate state or nationality has been a subject of long and fruitless controversy. Matchless frontiersmen, the Cossacks could neither defend nor define the vague boundaries of their own “Free Steppes.” At every crisis their undisciplined ways and hatred of a central authority led to internal divisions – and these in turn to inevitable subjection by one of the stronger nations surrounding them.

During the reign of Ivan the Terrible the majority of the Don Cossacks of their own will became subjects of the Russian Tsar while claiming privileges and immunities which have differentiated them from the Russian moujik to the present day. The Eastern branch of the Cossack race thus became part of the great Muscovite empire (although they appear to have continued to use the title of “republic” among themselves until a recent date.) During the first half of the sixteenth century the Cossacks inhabiting the shores of the Dnieper, found themselves inevitably drawn into more or less close “alliance” with the Poles against the raids of the Turks and Tartars. While resisting to the utmost the claims of the Polish magnates, whose vague feudal rights extended over a great part of the lands tilled and defended by the Cossacks, the border stanitzi or settlements remained generally subject to the Polish crown.

The kings of Poland soon sought to direct to their own advantage the courage and warlike capacity which their Cossack neighbors had developed through generations of warfare against the common enemy. Under King Sigismond a Cossack hetman (called by the Polish chroniclers Ostaphæus) proposed to the Polish Senate that his countrymen be formed into a border guard or militia to defend the frontiers of the kingdom against the Tartars.

His plan contemplated the building of a flotilla on the Dnieper below the cataracts, capable of transporting two thousand men and four hundred horses to any threatened point on the long line of river frontier “which it was necessary to hold against these invaders.” He assured the Polish king that even this small force disciplined in Cossack fashion could effectually stop the hordes of the Ghirai Khans of the Crimea, who “were everywhere forced to cross the broad stream by swimming their horses and could thus be taken at a disadvantage.”

Under a successor of Ostaphæus, the Hetman Ruchinskov, the Cossacks of the Dneiper in return for a promised subsidy of lands and money from the Polish crown, adopted a method of frontier defense, which later formed the basis of the celebrated military organization of the “Zaporogians.” The general plan of this military system in many ways recalls the conditions of modern Cossack military service. To the older men, the weaklings and to the veterans of several campaigns was reserved the privilege of family life in the Cossack settlements or stanitzi