Education and Communications

A Day In The Life Of A Cossack Warrior – Alex Gendler

Despite a serene sunset
on the Dnipro river, the mood is tense for the
Zaporozhian Cossacks. The year is 1676, and the Treaty of
Żurawno has officially ended hostilities between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
and the Ottoman Empire. But as Stepan and his men ride
towards their stronghold, peace is far from their minds. Having made their home in the Wild Fields
north of the Black Sea, these cossacks— derived from a Turkic
word for “free man”— are renowned as one of Europe’s most
formidable military forces. Composed of hunters, fishermen,
nomads and outlaws, the Cossacks found freedom in these
fertile unclaimed lands. Yet this freedom has proven increasingly
difficult to maintain. Their decades-long strategy of shifting
alliances between Poland and Moscow has led to the partitioning
of their lands. In a desperate bid to reclaim independence
and reunite the fractured Cossack state, their most recent leader, hetman Petro
Doroshenko allied with the Ottoman Empire. This alliance successfully freed the
Zaporozhian Cossacks in the west from Polish dominion, but
their victory was a bitter one. Doroshenko’s Ottoman allies
ravaged the countryside, carrying off peasants into slavery. And outrage at allying with Muslims
against fellow Christians cost him any remaining local support. Now, with Doroshenko deposed and exiled, the Cossacks are at odds, disagreeing
on what their next move should be. Until then, Stepan must keep order. With his musket and curved saber,
he cuts an imposing figure. He surveys his battalion of 180 men. Most are Orthodox Christians
and speak a Slavic language that will become modern Ukrainian. But there are also Greeks, Tatars,
and even some Mongolian Kalmyks, many with different opinions
on recent events. Officially, all of Stepan’s men have
sworn to uphold the Cossack code by undergoing seven years of military
training and remaining unmarried. In practice, some are part-timers, holding
more closely to their own traditions, and maintaining families in nearby
villages, outside Cossack lands. Thankfully, the tenuous peace is not
broken before they reach the Sich— the center of Cossack military life. Currently located at Chortomlyk, the Sich’s location shifts with
the tide of military action. The settlement is remarkably well-
organized, with administrative buildings, officers’ quarters, and even schools,
as Cossacks prize literacy. Stepan and his men make their way
to the barracks where they live and train alongside several other
battalions or kurins, all of which make up a several
hundred man regiment. Inside, the men dine on dried fish,
sheep’s cheese, and salted pork fat— along with plenty of wine. Stepan instructs his friend Yuri to
lighten the mood with his bandura. But before long, an argument
has broken out. One of his men has raised
a toast to Doroshenko. Stepan cuts him off. The room is silent until he raises
his own toast to Ivan Sirko, the new hetman who favors an alliance
with Moscow against the Turks. Stepan plans to support him, and
he expects his men to do the same. Suddenly, one of Sirko’s men rushes in, calling an emergency Rada,
or general council meeting. Stepan and the others make their
way towards the church square— the center of Sich life. Ivan Sirko welcomes the confused
crowd with exciting news— scouts have located a large Ottoman
camp completely vulnerable on one side. Sirko vows that tomorrow, they will
ride against their common enemy, defend the Cossacks’ autonomy,
and bring unity to the Wild Fields. As the men cheer in unison, Stepan is relieved at their renewed
sense of brotherhood. Over the next 200 years, these
freedom fighters would take on many foes. And tragically, they would eventually become the
oppressive hand of the Russian government they once opposed. But today, these 17th century Cossacks are remembered for their spirit of
independence and defiance. As the Russian painter
Ilya Repin once said: “No people in the world held freedom,
equality, and fraternity so deeply.”
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