Every Ukrainian from a young age know these words from the State Anthem of Ukraine: 

Soul and body shall we lay down for our freedom, 

And we will show, brothers, that we are of the Cossack nation!

The image of Ukraine is very closely related to the idea of Cossacks, who are associated with freedom, great courage, and perseverance.

Although not every Ukrainian has Cossack origin, their role in Ukrainian self-identification is the largest of all ethnic groups that have ever lived in the territory of Ukraine. 

If you or someone among your Ukrainian friends have a surname like Kryvonis (crooked nose), Perebyinis (break a nose), Nebida (not a misfortune), Nepyivodu (don’t drink water), Sotnyk (a head of 100 Cossacks), Khorunzhyi (standard-bearer), Teteria (popular Cossack dish), Serdiuk (guard), etc.  you or they have Cossack origin. 

Opanas Slastion. Parting for the Sich 
The Cossack Phenomenon

If we look at Ukrainian history as a part of European history, we see the Cossackdom as a phenomenon similar to the knighthood and later musketeers in western Europe. Cossacks were free men with good military skills fighting for their private interests, suzerain’s interests, or faith. Many of them also were educated and ambitious. The commanders often were noble. The Cossack state was built on the principles of democracy and self-government, which was very different from the neighbouring Muscovite system. 

The Cossack movement wasn’t presented only along the Dnipro river but also in Don, Ural, Terek, the Azov and the Black Sea, and Kuban region. But only Ukrainian Cossacks worked a way to an Early Modern state.

Artur Orlionov. Вattel of Berestechko 


Who were they, and what did they fight for?

The word “cossack” itself is of Turkic origin and, depending on the context, could refer to a guard, a freeman, or a freebooter. The first Cossacks were nomads and lived on steppes. Most of them were refugees from central or western Ukraine that were escaping from so-called  “second serfdom.”

Living on the steppe, they launched frequent raids on neighbouring Tatar communities or merchants, but Cossacks also rescued captives from the slave traders. Another group of Cossacks were engaged in fishing, hunting, or beekeeping. Some of them were returning home for the winter. The magnates tried to attract new settlers to their newly acquired estates in the Ukrainian borderlands, which were dangerous to live in because of the continuing threat of Tatar raids, by promising tax-free periods. 

Serhii Vasylkivsky Cossack house


Later the Cossackdom became the characteristic mode of existence in this borderland, which was far removed from any centre of state authority. 

The name “Ukraine” was created then as the name of the borderland territory. Autonomy and Cossack democracy developed even at the land that was a Wild Field (Dyke Pole), part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and finally an autonomous Cossack state (Hetmanshuna).

Livonian Wars increased the demand for fighting men on the Lithuanian border with Muscovy, and a number of Cossack units were formed in the 1570s. The new era in the history of Cossackdom as organised military units had begun. 

Yeallow colour is the territory of Wild Field


The term “registered Cossack” came into use. Cossacks taken into military service and thus included in the “register” were exempted from paying taxes and received a salary. The Cossacks elected their own commander, whom they followed in battle, but once the expedition was over, they were free to remove or even execute him if he acted against their interests. 

There were also “unregistered” Zaporozhian Cossacks, many of them former peasants, who had a fortified settlement called the Sich (after the wooden barrier that protected it) on the islands beyond the Dnipro river rapids. 

Józef Brandt. Zaporozhtsi


At the end of the 17th century, the Cossacks appeared in the military arena of central and western European powers. In particular, Cossacks fought together with French, defeated Spanish in Dunkirk, and defended Vienna from the Ottomans being a part of the Christian Coalition.

During the Cossack uprising against the Poles, who didn’t want to satisfy their social and political demands, they claimed to be fighting not only for Cossack’s liberties but also for the Orthodox faith. 

Mykola Ivasyuk. Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s entry to Kyiv


In the 17th century, there was no understanding of the nation yet, but the common lifestyle, faith, culture, and language united the population of Ukraine to fight for a better life, rights, privileges, and independence. 

Cossacks worked their way up from steppe tradesmen to become the main agent of colonization of the vast Dnipro steppelands; from adventurers to a threat to neighbouring rulers, and saviours of the Commonwealth in wars with the Ottoman Empire.

Impact of the Cossacks on nowadays Ukraine

Cossack state introduced Ukraine, a new player to the world’s political arena, the prototype of today’s biggest country in Eastern Europe. Ukraine appeared on the world’s maps and the authorities of different states treated Cossacks as equals.

Józef Brandt. Cossack and young woman near well


The importance of the electoral system, criticism of the authorities, respect for individuality and private property, proactive life position, and diligence, but also negative characteristics such as a predisposition to destructive quarrels, populism, and the pursuit of profit are the characteristics of Cossack society that are seen in Ukraine even nowadays. 

Ukrainians regard Cossacks as embodiments of their distinct national spirit: heroic, nonconformist, and fiercely independent, defending Ukrainian sovereignty against all threats.

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