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Ukrainian Cossacks were brave warriors who, under the leadership of great commanders, defended the independence of the Ukrainian state for centuries. They were called “free people” and “knights of the Ukrainian steppes” for their bravery, desire for freedom, and immortal courage.

Cossacks can be called “brothers in arms” of Japanese samurai, European knights, and cowboys of the Wild West for their fighting excellence, loyalty, heroism, and short temper.

Who were the Ukrainian Cossacks: definition 

Ukrainian Cossacks were nomads who led a military lifestyle and earned their livelihood through war and crafts (hunting, fishing, later trade, and agriculture). These people took part in military campaigns and were part of the state troops or outside guards of wealthy people. 

Cossack army on the march
Painting: Polish artist Józef Brandt

Cossacks are an ancient phenomenon. As the Ukrainian professor Mykhailo Hrushevskyi wrote, the first official mention of the Cossacks appeared in 1492, when warriors attacked a Turkish galley near Tiahyn Castle (the Kherson region) and freed the Ukrainians who had been sold into slavery.

In the 16th century, Cossack people united in various military-political groups, the most famous of which was the Zaporizhzhia Host (or Sich), under the leadership of hetmans and kish otamans such as Dmytro “Baida” Vyshnevetskyi and Ivan Sirko, who fought against the invaders. 

In the 17th century, the Cossacks founded their own Cossack state and called it the Cossack Hetmanate or Hetmanshchyna under the leadership of the first Hetman, Bohdan Khmelnytskyi. 

What do we know about the everyday life and traditions of the Cossacks?

To live and conduct military affairs, the Cossacks built the so-called Sich, the center of Cossack life. The most famous is Zaporizhzhia Sich on the island of Khortytsia in the Dnipro river, but at least eight more are mentioned in history. The highest authority in each Sich was a council, in which all Cossacks had the right to participate. High ramparts surrounded Sich with a barrier and log cabins for guns. Cossacks lived in huts (“kureni”). There was also a church, a foreman’s residence, a school, and the market for trade in Sich.

Reconstruction of Zaporizhzhia Sich on the island of Khortytsia
Graphical model of Sich

The Cossacks lived a very disciplined life, strictly following the daily routine, which included morning prayer and combat training. They also highly valued literature and education and created their folklore — the texts of Cossack songs, epic dumas, and legends have been preserved to this day.

What did the Cossacks look like? 

Depending on the group the Cossacks belonged to and their status in the community, they could look different. However, we know the following bright characteristics of their appearance:

  1. Ukrainian Cossacks had different hairstyles because they followed the European fashion trends of the time in their appearance. But chub, or oseledets, is considered the most popular — a long strand of hair left on a completely shaved head.
  2. A traditional attribute of every respected Cossack was a lush, thick, and long mustache. 
  3. Steppe knights dressed very ascetically. They could tie the body with a rag, pull on a sleeveless cloak, and put on the remnants of worn-out pigskin shoes. Over time, their financial situation enhanced, and expensive fabrics appeared in the wardrobe. However, the Cossacks always went to war dressed in what was not a pity to lose.

The image of a Cossack in wide red or blue sirwal and with an unbuttoned vyshyvanka or red zhupan is viral in Ukrainian mass culture. However, this is more of a myth than the truth. Cossacks valued simplicity, and only hetmans and chieftains could wear expensive, bright clothes.

Ukrainian actor Ivan Mykolaichuk in the role of the Cossack Vasyl in the film “The Lost Letter”, 1972

What happened to the Ukrainian Cossacks?

The noble and impressive history of the Cossack army ended tragically. In 1775, the Russian empress Catherine II (the Great) ordered the destruction of Zaporizhzhia Sich and the liquidation of the Cossack people. The Russian Empire saw danger in the freedom-loving Cossacks, who could start revolutions and undermine the empire. By her order, the soldiers were deported to the Caucasus to carry out Russian orders. The Cossacks who managed to escape moved to the mouth of the Danube River and, later, to the Kuban.

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