Systema Review

The Cossacks

Ask people for an image of Russia and you will most likely get the same few answers - Red Square, domed cathedrals and Cossacks. The image of the Cossack is one of the most enduring of Russian folklore, whether it be dancing, dazzling horsemanship or fierceness in battle But who are these people and where do they come from? The name Cossack derives from the Turk word "kazak", which means "free man" or "adventurer". Indeed, the Cossack's life was quite an adventure: this sub-ethnic group was formed and shaped in never ending wars and conflicts. There is no complete agreement among historians on who the Cossacks are, but regardless of that, Cossacks for centuries had very specific customs and traditions.

Cossack reply to the Sultan, Repin

Historical Roots

Historical documents clearly trace the role of the Cossacks in history of Russia. But it is also interesting to see how even the early folk tradition mentions the Cossacks. In the oldest Russian bylina cycle (traditional heroic narrative poetry), the main hero is "Cossack Ilya of Murom", who defended Rus from the nomads (see Issue One). He is the best of the best, he is the bravest and the strongest and it is stressed that he is a Cossack.

Over the years there have been many legends and definitions as to who or what the Cossacks are. Like any legend, some of those definitions are false, some are partially true. Amongst historians and anthropologists there is still disagreement. Some consider the Cossacks to be a nationality, some think of them as a military service people - something like a warrior caste, some say it's just a group of Russians with their own specific customs and traditions. In fact, you can find inconsistencies in all those definitions, they are at best, only partially correct. There were thirteen Cossack hosts by 1917, and they were all predominantly Slavic. At the same time, there were significant groups of non-Slavic Cossacks - of Kalmyk, Caucasian and Turkic origin.

The majority of the Cossacks - all of the Slavic Cossack Hosts - practiced Orthodox Christianity. But later created Cossack units had Buddhists (Lamaists of Tibetan tradition) and Moslems. Therefore, it is difficult to define Cossacks simply by the ethnic or religious background.

At the end of the day, while historians and anthropologists are arguing, the Cossacks are not concerned that much with definitions. They perceive themselves as a special entity within Russia, and instead of definitions there is a simple sense of unity, from the Black Sea to the Far East and all over the world. There is something here that can be sensed but can't be defined. Whatever the origins of the Cossacks back in history, these days they represent a very strong segment of Russian society.

Cossack Traditions

In the 15th century the term Cossack referred to self-governing warrior communities in the Dnieper and Don river regions. There is evidence that Cossacks would accept Tartars, Germans, Greeks or Turks into their communities. But, there was an important condition � belief in Christ. The last names of some Cossacks reveals their ancestry for example: Grekov from Greeks, Gruzinov from Georgians, Millerov from Germans, Serbinov from Serbs, Turchaninov from Turks, Tatarinov from Tartars, Polyakov from Poles and so on. All of these were assimilated by the Cossacks and only the names give a clue as to where their ancestors came from to the Don or Dnieper. However, these newcomers were just a fraction of the host, and were integrated into the Cossack community.

Training in warrior skills began literally from birth for the Cossack. As soon as a boy was born, an arrow (later a bullet) was put "on his tooth", and his hand would touch a bow (later a gun). On the 7th day a baby was baptised, and on the 40th day he was clothed into a little suit of mail armour and a little sabre hitched to his side, after which his father returned him back to his mother with the words "here is a Cossack to you".

Horse riding was introduced at a very young age, young kids would race on horseback in the streets, learn to use the bow and "play war". Some times all the children would be marched outside of the town, separated into two equal groups and made to do "battle". They desperately swung with wooden sabres, stabbed with reed spears, took banners away from each other and took prisoners. At the end of the day the ataman (head man) himself would came out to praise the bravest fighters.

The Cossack ideal was to serve his Homeland and Faith as a Warrior. In a way they became a living fence on the frontiers of Russia. It is significant, that most of the churches in Cossack regions were consecrated to the warrior saints St. George and Alexander Nevsky. The famous author Pushkin wrote about Cossacks: "Always on horseback, always ready to fight, always on the alert". The Cossacks of the frontier had to live on constant alert - . daggers were provided even for women and children, men carried firearms all the time, and even babies were carried in a special hood behind the back leaving the hands free to fight.

Ermak image

The Cossacks had a very strong tradition of independence. Though recognising the authority of the Russian Tsar, they would not let government officials arrest runaway serfs accepted into Cossack communities. Their freedom was formulated in two brief formulas: "There is no extradition from the Don" and "We do not bow to anybody, except Tsar". So, despite their free-spirited independence, the Cossacks had a special relationship with the Romanov Dynasty and a very specific relationship with the Russian State.

With support of Russia the Cossacks expanded eastward from their home in the Don and were early colonisers of Siberia. For example, Ermak, the conqueror of Siberia, was a Cossack. In 1648 the Cossack Semion Dezhnev rounded the north-eastern tip of Asia, way before Vitus Bering, who only in 1728 announced that Asia and America are separate. Many cities in Siberia were founded as Cossack settlements, in fact, Cossacks were the founders of almost all Siberian towns.

Revolution and War

During the Russian Civil War (1918-20), Cossack lands became a cradle of the White Movement and a main centre of resistance to the Bolsheviks (though some Cossacks did fight for the Red Army). It was a very bloody war, and the Cossacks experienced particularly heavy losses. Tens of thousands of Cossacks and their families left Russia and the Ukraine with the White armies and settled instead in the US, Germany, Canada, Australia, etc.

Cossack Charge, Rittmann

The Bolsheviks saw organised and armed Cossacks as a threat to the communist state, and under Soviet rule the Cossack communities ceased to function as administrative units. Land and property was confiscated, over 1.5 million Cossacks were killed. Cossack traditions and unions were associated with the pre-communist Russia and were abolished. For a time it would seem as though the Cossacks would cease to exist. History, however, was to intervene.

As it became more and more clear that Hitler had serious intentions in the East, Stalin realised that he had to at least imitate a return of certain military traditions. In 1936 he ordered the introduction of Cossack units in the Red Army, dressed in Cossack uniform. One of the first Soviet Cossack units was lead by future marshal G.K.Zhukov, who was at the time the commanding officer of the 4th Cavalry Division. The division was renamed the 4th Don Cossack Division, the soldiers received traditional uniforms with the stripes on the side of uniform trousers and a coloured cap-band on the service cap. Zhukov wore the Cossack uniform on too. However it should be remembered that though the division was called "Cossack", many of its soldiers were not of Cossack origin - Stalin tried to form Cossack units without re-creating the Cossack structures and principles of unit mobilisation.

During WWII Cossacks were again, as they were during the Civil War, fighting on both sides. Some formed cavalry units and supported the Germans, sincerely believing that the German mission was to free the people of Russia from Stalin's tyranny. Others courageously fought against the nazis with the cavalry units of the Red/Soviet Army, considering that the war was first of all a war against Russia and the people living there.

It was a tough choice - to pick sides in a fight between Hitler and Stalin. The Cossacks who fought on the Soviet side never got their liberties and special status back. Those who supported the Germans, knowing what lay in store for them from Stalin, tried to surrender to the Western allies instead of the Soviet Army in 1945. Unfortunately, in a shameful episode of allied history, the western powers went back on their promises and gave the POW Cossacks over to Stalin. Most of these people were executed or died later in gulags.


Cossacks never forgot who they are, and always waited for a chance to restore their pre-soviet status. Currently there are hundreds of Cossack organisations with hundreds of thousands participants in Russia. Current Cossack movements seek the revival of the Cossack traditions and structures, and bringing up new generations of Cossacks as their most important goals.

Today the Cossack population is estimated at around 4-5 million people. It is difficult to be more precise as many Cossack descendants live outside of their traditional areas. Some found themselves outside of Russia after the split of USSR, many Cossacks emigrated with the White Army right after the Civil War, many left the Soviet Union during WWII.

The first formally registered Cossack organisation was founded in 1990 under the Moscow Chapter of the VOOPIK - All-Union Society for Preservation of the Monuments of History and Culture. After that Cossack cultural centres and societies began to spread rapidly. The location of Cossack communities pretty much corresponds to the pre-revolution traditional areas, but now there are significant groups in Moscow, St. Petersburg and other major cities. These days one can sometimes see people in Cossack uniforms on the streets.

The Cossack movement now has three major dimensions:

  1. Military (forming Cossack military units)
  2. Socio-political (representing Cossack interest in local and central government)
  3. Economical

The Cossack movement shouldn�t be thought of as monolithic, there are all kinds of unions and associations, and different ideas of what Russia should be like and how it should proceed with the economical and political development. But there is an increasing trend to stay away from non-Cossack movements. Cossacks view themselves as servants to Mother Russia, not to political parties. There is a strong sense of unity, however, and all groups are likely to act as a single unit in the face of opposition.

In the regions where they have strong communities, Cossacks are capable of generating popular support of their demands (e.g., Northern Caucasus). The more Russians get disappointed with the Russian government, the more they look to the Cossacks, who are seen as defenders of interests of ethnic Russians both within and outside of the borders of the Russian Federation.

In some areas Cossacks already participate in law enforcement - acting on a voluntary basis, they maintain order in their communities. In the area of the Don host, for example, they patrol the streets, railway stations, etc In the Northern Caucasus, Southern Siberia, Far East Cossacks are taking up border guard duties and it seems that this role may grow, during "time off" from the usual role of being farmers or hunters. In one of the ironies of history, it would seem that the Cossacks, following many years of hardship and repression will once again return to their traditional role as protectors of the borders and defenders of their homeland.

This article was obtained from the Systema UK articles section.

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