Here in the West, the Cossacks consist partly of myth and legend, partly of reality; our impression of them borders on the fantastical. They were, and are, very real of course, although outside of the (almost) fantasy-warrior reputation that precedes them; I’d venture that most of us here in the West know very little else about their lives and history. We started looking at these intriguing people back on the 19th May. It’s time for a revisit.
With a little reading, one of the most striking factors emerges; the paradoxical, even contradictory aspects of their behaviour and existence. That’s by our standards of course (or are they just mine?) in a modern Western society, looking in from the outside with a telescope. It all contributes to make the Cossacks seem more fascinating, of course.
How does such a group become renowned for their good nature, honour and hospitality, whilst also at the same time: their readiness to kill, as ruthless mercenaries, to take (and sell) slaves, and to actively denigrate women? The extent of these excesses are (hopefully) consigned to history, and probably made perfect sense to the participants at the time. This is in much the same way that our, suited, “civilised” forebears bought and sold other races, relegated foreign populations to 2nd class citizens (or worse) within their own countries and consigned wives to the role of decorative, house-bound, baby making servants. It’s horrifying, just what has been – and often is – considered “normal”, isn’t it?
Cossacks as a group have loosely medieval origins, although estimates of their inception date from the 10th to 15th Centuries. They were born from the drawing together of the human strands that fell from mainstream society. The closest we had was the Outlaw, but these were not as historically successful. After all; the Cossacks were able to form several sub-nations of their own, whilst cultivating a military expertise -including exceptional horsemanship – that was sought after by the Tsars whenever certain (violent) deeds needed to be done. They enjoyed a camaraderie as “free-men” (from “Qazzaq”: a Turkic word that denotes as much), whether originally, runaway peasants, serfs, prisoners, lapsed military combatants or other forms of fugitive/outcast.
As befitting the outlaw, they gravitated towards the (then) frontier regions of the Dnieper, Don and Volga rivers and Western Kazakhstan, essentially as far away from established society and its laws as possible. Here they spread remarkably, establishing communities supported on a surprisingly mundane combination of animal husbandry, fishing, hunting, beekeeping and more, combined with opportune acts of banditry and plundering. Farming, proper, would be deemed acceptable within Cossack society during the 18th Century.
Their capabilities as fierce warriors grew from the inevitable need to protect themselves as outsiders to the state, plus the lucrative employment opportunities (money, goods, liquor, grain etc) available from a government that often needed mercenaries. As such they were instrumental in the expansion of Russian territories and in the conquest of Siberia, for the benefit of the Tsars (starting with Ivan the Terrible) but to the greater detriment, death and misery of the indigenous Siberian peoples themselves. Paradoxically (once more) this was largely under their group theological identity as Christians, having forged links with the Old Believers; a religious group seeking refuge themselves; after separating from the Orthodox Church in the mid 1600s. Of course, we have done similar as “Christian” nations historically, in various captured lands; euphemistically referred to as “colonies” for polite history’s sake.
To add another twist, the Cossacks also assimilated their Christianity with Pagan beliefs of a spirit pantheon, a hero cult and a mother goddess. Their multifaceted nature was also reflected in the acceptance of others outside of Slavic lineage or their religious creed. Theoretically, outsiders from various nationalities and/or faiths could assimilate into a Cossack host, though some were regarded as inferior; as compared to the dominant Christian profile.
To their (largely) accepting hosts, however, it didn’t matter where they were from; now they were a Cossack. Interestingly, they also held a democratic governmental system based upon the equality of the vote, in times when mainstream Russia was still governed by a family lineage of hereditary Tsars.
There are so many fascinating contradictions within Cossack culture; embracing both a mercenary ruthlessness and social concepts that were centuries ahead of their time. Their martial expertise is still utilised today as protectors or enforcers, depending on your point of view. We looked at their Sochi presence last time, but here’s another instance from 2011, as featured on the Open Democracy site:
“The local authorities and the population started believing in the Cossacks and treating them seriously. Sometimes they even managed to find the money to pay them to keep law and order, which is what the Cossacks have wanted to do for the last 20 years”.
And when the violence and brigandry was over, the Cossacks could be found heartily entertaining guests or even indulging in their cultural arts of poetry, dancing, singing, and the playing of traditional instruments. We’ve only just touched upon their cultural goldmine.