Zaporozhian Kozak

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Repin's "The Cossacks"

Zaporozhian Kozaks (also known as Dnieper Kozaks) (Ukrainian: Козак; English: Cossack) were Ukrainians who lived in the Steppes. The Sich (Ukrainian: Запорізька Січ) was their political, social, and military organization. Kozakdom had previously existed in Eastern European lands and in Ukraine, but the Zaporozhian Sich existed from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. The term Kozak can also be applied to the many different Russian Kozak Hosts, who are distinctly different in both history and culture than their Ukrainian counterparts. The Ukrainian Kozaks were known for fighting fiercely to protected or gain their independence.



The word Kozak comes from the Turko-Tatar word “Kazak”, which means “free man”. The name was given to those who went to live in the steppe where they lived in settlements and abided by no laws[1].

Khmelnytsky at Lviv by Jan Matejko

Early History

The first Kozaks settled the steppes of Ukraine many centuries ago. The first mention of a distinct Kozak people was made by Byzantine chroniclers in the tenth century. The first mention of Russian Kozaks was made in the year 1444. The earliest Kozaks had no loyalty to anyone. They had no written laws, rather they followed unwritten traditions[2]. During the 15th century, the Kozaks of Ukraine, in response to frequent Turkish, Tatar, and Polish raids, began building systems of fortifications. The first fortification, or Sich, was built in Khortytsia Island in 1553 by Vyshnevetsky[3]. Most of these fortifications were built on the islands of the Dnieper River. In the mid-16th century, these fortifications united to form the Zaporozhian Sich. From the Sich, the Zaporozhian Kozaks launched devastating invasions on the Tatars and Turks, even going as far as sacking Constantinople (Istanbul)[4]

Zaporozhian Sich

The Zaporozhian Sich was the military, administrative, economic and political center of the Ukrainian Kozaks. The leaders of the Sich were known as Hetmans and Atamans. The elected legislature was known as the Rada. These leaders were elected by the people. All men, no matter what his former legal status or origins may be, was free to vote[5]. The Zaporozhian army was divided into regiments, sotni which were Kozak squadrons, and kurens which were units of Zaporozhian Kozak troops. The leader of the army was either the Hetman or the Ataman. The army's office was run by the chief military clerk and the court. The ataman's military assistants were known as Esauls. The Sich was divided into the rich Kozaks and the poorer ones, who were known as Kozak helpers[6].


Polish Intrusion

Soon the Expanding Polish Empire came in contact with the Ukrainian peasantry. The Poles tried to turn Ukraine into a colony. They introduced the manorial system. They tried to convert the Orthodox Ukrainians to Catholicism and to Polonism. This caused many peasants to flee and join the Zaporozhians. The Poles intruded on Ukraine and attempted to take away the Kozaks ancient rights. Some concessions were made, such as the creation of the Kozak register which numbered 6000 men and was referred to as “His majesty’s royal Zaporozhian army”, and in 1578 Polish King Stephan Batory gave them limited freedoms[7]. It was not, however, enough. The Polish landowners were very brutal and oppressive. In the 17th century, a series of Kozak revolts began. None of them were successful, and most were brutally stopped. These revolts were led by: Kryshtof Kosynsky (1591–3), Severyn Nalyvaiko (1594–6), Hryhorii Loboda (1596), Marko Zhmailo (1625), Taras Fedorovych (1630), Ivan Sulyma (1635), Pavlo Pavliuk and Dmytro Hunia (1637), and Yakiv Ostrianyn and Karpo Skydan (1638). Even though the Kozaks were engaged in struggles with the Poles, they also aided them against the Russians in 1618 and at the Battle of Khotyn in 1621[8].

Ukrainian War of Liberation

Bohdan Khmelnytsky

The most famous uprising against the Poles occurred in 1648 and lasted until 1654. It was led by the Kozaks most famous Hetman, Bohdan Khmelnytsky(right). With the aid of the Crimean Tatars, Khmelnytsky dealt the Polish Commonwealth disastrous defeats in early 1648, and these victories attracted many peasants to join the rebellion. At the height of this rebellion, Khmelnytsky commanded over 150,000 men[9]. The Kozaks and Poles dealt with each other ruthlessly, with the Kozaks massacring the Polish landowners and the Jews, and the Poles massacring the Ukrainian peasants. In the union of Pereiaslavl in 1654 the Ukrainians pledged there loyalty to the Russian Tsar Alexie, in turn for protection from the Poles. This proved to be a mistake, as the Russians had no plans for a free Kozak Ukraine. Khmelnytsky died in 1657, and his successors, Ivan Vykhovsky, Petro Doroshenko, and Ivan Mazepa, tried to separate Ukraine from Russia but failed. Ukraine was then split into two areas: left-bank and right-bank. Neither was fully independent[10].

Destruction of the Sich

The Kozaks lived with limited independence until the year 1775, when Russian Empress Catherine the Great abolished the Sich. The Hetmanate also was destroyed. Over time the Russians created various Kozak regiments when they needed them[11]. Future attempts by others to revive Ukrainian Kozakdom failed, but the spirit of the Kozaks remained as the Ukrainians fought for their independence which they finally gained in 1918. Many Ukrainian leaders were the descendents of Kozak families. Ukraines national anthem makes a reference to their Kozak heritage, calling Ukraine the "Kozak Nation".

Kozaks in Literature

The most famous instances of Kozaks in literature are in the novels “Taras Bulba” by Ukrainian author Mykola Hohol, and the novel “With Fire and Sword” by Polish nationalist Henryk Sienkiewicz. “With Fire and Sword” is very controversial, as it portrays the Kozaks in a negative light. The book is not widely appreciated in Ukraine. “With Fire and Sword” was also made into a movie in 1999.

See Also

List of Hetmans of Ukraine


  3. Полонська-Василенко Н. Історія Україна: У 2т. Київ 2002.
  4. Roberts, J.M. "The Penguin History of Europe". London: Penguin 1996.
  5. Ivan Krypyakevych. "History of Ukraine". New York: Shkilnoyi Rady, 1961.
  7. Lukowski, Jerzy. A Concise History of Poland. Cambridge: University Press, 2001.
  8. Subtelny, Orest. Ukraine - A History. Toronto; University of Toronto Press, 1993
  9. Zamoyski, Adam. The Polish Way. New York: Hippocrene, 1987
  10. Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. “A History of Russia” Oxford: University Press, 2005. Page 165.
  11. Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. “A History of Russia” Oxford: University Press, 2005. Page 244.

External Links

With Fire and Sword

History of Ukrainian Military

Ukraines National Anthem

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