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The sixteenth century and seventeenth centuries were a brilliant and colorful age, an age of high thinking and of great adventure. Not since the age of the Vikings had men of courage and of determination dared so much upon the high seas. The Spanish conquistadores settled the whole of South America. They laid their hands upon the fabulous wealth of Mexico and Peru. Well armed and fearless, a handful of Europeans dared to face thousands of the Aztecs and the Incas and came off victorious in the name of the Christian religion. The English in still smaller and more manageable boats swarmed across the Atlantic Ocean and attacked the rich and treasure-laden galleons wherever they found them and then, early in the seventeenth century, they laid the foundations of their colonies in America. Europe meanwhile was torn by religious wars, as the new ideas of Protestantism sought to extend their sphere of influence.
That same spirit and that same daring, that same zeal for the Faith which they had received from their fathers, that same longing for a freedom which they no longer had burst out in the east of Europe and started the Kozaks on their historic mission. Where the Atlantic seaboard saw men of courage and of action put out to sea in small and scarcely seaworthy craft, in the east men of similar character swept across the steppes, ready to fight and to sell their lives for liberty. They formed a force that was difficult to control and impossible to check. They revived the courage and the bravery of the early rulers of Kiev and they left an imperishable mark upon their surroundings. The Kozak Host became p60 in a few years an object of terror and concern to all of their neighbors, be they Poles, Muscovites, Turks, Tatars or whoever else attempted to restrain their unbridled energy and to reduce them to the status of serfs. It was an outpouring of the human spirit that has scarcely been equalled at any time or in any region and the Kozaks were praised or hated, according as they met with friend or foe.
The name Kozak is borrowed from the Turkish word meaning "free warrior" and the meaning of the word amply expresses the dominant characteristic of these people. They were in essence the frontiersmen of eastern Europe, living in those areas where there was no law but the sword and where no man could be called to account except by one who was stronger than he. They reacted fiercely against every invasion of their rights and in the beginning co‑operated only for defence or attack.
The stories of the first Kozaks have much in common with the legends of some of the American pioneers who crossed into Kentucky, the dark and bloody ground, as it was known in the eighteenth century. There was only the difference that the Kozaks were operating not in mountainous and wooded territory but on the open plains and that their opponents were not small bands of Indians, hardly more numerous than themselves, but large masses of well-mounted troops eager for plunder and for slave collecting.
The weakening of the Golden Horde and conflicts between the Khan and the Sultan of Turkey had relaxed control over the black earth region across the Dnyeper. In that no man's land there were few or no permanent residents. It offered an ideal place for men who had no fear of death and who valued their personal liberty above everything else, to live a lawless and carefree life without personal obligations. The prospect appealed to many who were suffering under the oppressive rule of the feudal lords in both Poland and p61 Lithuania. Likewise men streamed out of the Muscovite lands into the lower Don and the lower Volga areas. Out of these groups of men there developed the Don Cossacks, who were nominally subject to Moscow, and the Zaporozhian Kozaks, who were originally required to pay some sort of allegiance to Poland.
We first hear of the Kozaks of the Dnyeper at the end of the fifteenth century, when men from various sections of Rus′ went into the wilderness which had already received the name of Ukraine and passed their time hunting, collecting honey, and fishing. They did not disdain any opportunity of plundering Tatar raiding detachments, caravans crossing the country or messengers passing between the Sultan and the Khan, and the Kings of Poland and of Lithuania. Very often they were able to return to their homes at the approach of winter with rich spoils which far outvalued the natural products even of a favorably rich land.
From these more or less accidental encounters, it was not long before the little bands gathered together in larger groups and set out deliberately to plunder their enemies. The frontier guards of Poland and Lithuania tried to levy taxes on the booty which they brought back. Then the obvious thing was not to return but to pass the winter in small fortresses built beyond the settled frontier.
In the beginning men of every class who loved adventure joined in these raids. There were gentry who craved adventure and excitement. There were townspeople who were bored by the monotonous hardships of declining trade. There were peasants who had suffered at the hands of their landlords. There were men who innocently or for due cause were sought by the authorities of the law. Yet when they once came into this unsettled country, they realized that they had to work together. Neither birth nor wealth nor training counted for anything except in so far as it assisted a man p62 in asserting his own power and in persuading his comrades to work with him.
It was a free society in a free world. Gradually all the little fortresses and hangouts felt the need for closer cooperation, and step by step there was built up a rough organization which represented in general all the various groups. If this was to be effective, it had to have some sort of permanent headquarters and the ideal place was finally found to be the islands below the rapids of the Dnyeper River. Hence came the name Zaporozhe, the place below the rapids.
About 1552 one Prince Dmytro Vyshnevetsky, a gentleman Kozak, took the initiative in building as this centre a fortress on the island of Khortytsya, in this general region. This was the beginning of the celebrated Sich which was to inspire terror in the hearts of all the surrounding lands. Here the Kozaks could gather in relative security. Here they could store the cannon which they captured on their various raids, the booty which they acquired. Here they could meet for deliberation and decide what enterprise they would next undertake.
The Kozaks of the Sich, eternally ready for battle or for raids, became as it were a replica of the various orders of military knights that had played such a role in the area of Baltic Sea and in the crusades. Here was a group of men ready to fight the battle for Christianity and the Orthodox faith against the apparently invincible Mohammedans.
Yet it was also a democratic system. In the general gatherings of the Kozaks every man was free to speak his own mind, depending only on the permission of his fellows. There was no set rule of procedure. Human life was cheap and a man might easily pay with his own for an unpremeditated insult. He had only himself to blame and no one else cared a rap, if one Kozak or another perished in a brawl. Any man could rise to prominence if he was able in one way or p63 another to sway the assembly. There was no post barred to him because of age or rank or previous existence. It was a man's world in the full sense of the . It was a free world in a way that was not true of life anywhere else in the conquered and subjugated Ukraine.
Yet when we emphasize this side of life at the Sich, we can never forget that the Sich was located in an exposed position subject at any moment to the attack of powerful and unscrupulous enemies. It was absolutely essential that there should be unrelenting vigilance and strict discipline. If the Kozaks were to live at all in the area which they had picked out, they could not engage in meaningless squabbles, in martial disorder, and in perfect anarchy.
They met the situation in a democratic way. The general assembly would meet and formally elect a hetman to whom they gave the horsetail standard and the mace of office. His word was law. He had all the powers of an army commander. He could punish even with death any who disobeyed his orders or showed cowardice in the face of danger. His power was absolute and limited by no constitutional restrictions. Yet at the ending of his term of office, he was liable to be questioned by the assembly and if he had not used his powers for the good of the Sich, he could be tried by the rough justice of his comrades and receive whatever punishment they desired to inflict.
It was a rough system administered by rough, brave men, and while it was not fitted for a normal community of peaceful citizens, it was admirably suited to men living beyond the established frontier, every one of whom had faced death many times both from the enemy and from the storms of nature. It was a new system which had nothing in common with the elaborate system of aristocratic feudalism and the aristocratic republic of the squires of Poland or with the personal autocracy of the Muscovite tsar. The Kozak Host of the Zaporozhian Sich was a law unto itself.
p64 Vyshnevetsky had offered to combine with the Tsar against the Tatars of the Crimea and had taken part in one expedition with the Muscovites but had not received any support and it was a long while before the offer was repeated. His successors as hetmans preferred to go their own ways and build up and strengthen their Kozak system until it could stand alone.
The Kozaks could not escape the attention of the Kings of Poland. They were uncomfortable neighbors but they were also useful. The King and the gentry of Poland had no taste for building up a military establishment strong enough to protect the country. In earlier days the bulk of the army was composed of Lithuanian forces, largely recruited from Ukraine and White Ruthenia. Once the full union of Poland and Lithuania had taken place and the golden liberty of the Polish szlachta had been extended throughout the land, this resource was gone. Between the weak Polish army and the Tatar and Turkish raiders there stood only the Kozaks.
Common sense would have advised the King and the magnates of Poland to come to terms with the organization or to have secured enough forces of their own to render it useless and to destroy it. They did neither. In times of war with Turkey or the Tatars they willingly took the Kozaks into their service and welcomed their assistance. In times of peace they were constantly striving to prevent their growth. They did go so far as to register a few thousand Kozaks and consider them as a separate part of the Polish army but even then they rarely paid them the sums promised, because of the opposition of the gentry and the lack of money in the treasury.
Even this slight support, however, gave the Kozaks the idea that they owed only a general loyalty to the King and they were bound only to obey their own elected hetmans. They came to feel that they were free from all taxes levied p65 by the Polish government and they refused to draw a line of demarcation between registered and unregistered Kozaks, for they well knew that at the first sign of trouble on any Polish border, all the Kozaks, registered and unregistered alike, would be called into service on the same footing.
The Polish policy was more than shortsighted but it was in line with the general attitude of the state. As the upper Dnyeper valley was resettled and as agriculture began to revive, the magnates were able to put forth claims for vast estates. They parcelled out among themselves the new lands as they had done the older lands of Rus′ over which they had assumed control centuries before. They shuddered at the idea that the Sich might embrace all the liberty-loving Ukrainians who were dissatisfied with their harsh rule. The Kozaks were furiously Orthodox. They were zealous supporters of the Orthodox Church. Poland prided itself on its Catholicism and particularly after the successful work of the Jesuits and the establishment of the Church Union, the Polish leaders did not want to do anything that would revive the Orthodox Church.
The very existence of the Sich was a direct challenge to all for which the Polish state, with its theories of the equality of the szlachta and its religious interests, stood. The more the Sich became organized and turned from a handful of bold frontiersmen into a definite military force, the more it became the mouthpiece of the Ukrainian population and a refuge for them against oppression. The more it protected the Dnyeper valley and the regions to the east, the more it became a menace and a problem for the Polish rulers. The free republic of the warriors of the Sich was the direct antithesis of the aristocratic life of the great estates which were known throughout Europe for their luxury and their culture.
There was more than this involved. The Kozaks, though nominal subjects of the King of Poland, maintained full p66 freedom to harry the Turks and Tatars at will. Every spring, with almost unfailing regularity, they set out on expeditions down the Dnyeper to attack the Turkish and Tatar settlements on the shores of the Black Sea. They invaded Wallachia and Moldavia and interfered in the civil wars that were raging intermittently in both lands. They constantly attacked Ochakiv and plundered almost at will whatever city they wished to. They rescued thousands of Christian Slavs from the Crimean slave mart of Kaffa.
As they grew more experienced, during the early part of the seventeenth century, they dared to set out on longer expeditions, which carried them into the harbors of Constantinople and Sinope. In their light boats, which were barely a few feet above the water, they defied the storms of the Black Sea, made sudden raids into the great Turkish cities, left a small guard for the boats and plundered for periods as long as three days before they saw fit to gather up the booty which they desired and, having burned the rest, put out to sea. The larger Turkish ships, if they attacked the Kozak boats in the daytime, could deal terrible damage to them; but if the Kozaks could surprise them or come upon them unexpectedly at dawn, their fierce bravery would carry them to the decks of the better armed Turkish ships and in hand to hand fighting, the Turks would be compelled to yield. Then, after plundering at will, the Kozaks would sink them and their crews and return home triumphantly. Of course their losses were terrific but the spoils which were brought back from these raids well paid the survivors for their hardships and their dangers.
It was in vain that the Khan of the Crimea and the Sultan of Turkey remonstrated with the King of Poland and threatened war. The King had no more power to restrain these raids than he had to wipe out the Sich itself. Now and then he could capture some of the leaders and execute them to satisfy the threats of the Turkish ambassador but p67 this only fanned the ill feelings between the Kozaks and the Poles. The next spring the Kozaks would start again on their raids and the process would be repeated.
On the other hand, in time of war, the Poles were only too glad of their assistance. During the Troublous Times of Moscow, after the death of Boris Godunov, the Kozaks were encouraged to interfere in Muscovite affairs. Over forty thousand took part in the effort to make Wladyslaw Tsar of Moscow in 1610. Despite the similarity in religion the Kozaks fought as willingly against Moscow as they did at any time. They brought back to their homes the richest spoils of the tsardom and remained a continuous menace until the accession of Michael Romanov in 1613.
At the same time they were no peaceful citizens of Poland. They turned with equal fury against the princes, Orthodox and Roman Catholic, who were carving out estates in territory which they had made safe. Even the great Orthodox lord, Konstantin Ostrozky, the bulwark of the Orthodox in Poland, had to see his estates plundered and his serfs freed by the invincible Kozaks, who cared nothing for the pattern of rights set out by the King and the magnates.
The Polish government paid no attention until the Kozaks began to plunder the land of the Roman Catholic lords, like the Potockis to the east of the Dnyeper, and until they began to advance to the west and plunder in Volynia and White Ruthenia. Then it sent against them the Hetman of the Republic, Zolkiewski, and finally defeated them at the battle of Lubny in 1596. It was a crushing blow for the Kozaks but it was only temporary, for it was not long before the King, in sore need of troops for foreign wars, called again upon the Kozaks for support and again the whole process of endeavoring to use them in war and suppress them in peace was resumed.
p68 In actual practice the Kozaks controlled practically all of Eastern Ukraine and much territory west of the Dnyeper. They represented the conscious active elements of the Ukrainian people and it was no accident that the Archimandrite of the Monastery of the Caves called in the followers of Nalyvayko to protect the Monastery when the King of Poland was trying to seize it for the Union. Had they formed a consistent policy, they could at any time have dominated a large part of Poland and forced their will upon the lords.
Yet the very strength of the Kozak movement as a military organization was its main weakness. The Kozaks had developed as frontiersmen but it was a long while before they definitely tried to influence the government or to take over the administration of the territory which they controlled. The rough democracy of the Sich was little interested in problems of administration. Even the families of many of the leading Kozaks lived on farms not far from the estates which they were plundering. They had a purely military organization divided into regiments and companies, formed on a territorial basis and they called it the Zaporozhian Host. Thus this powerful force which might cooperate with the various townsmen and interfere in behalf of the peasants rarely went further and it did not attempt to take over many functions of the Polish local administration that it could have done.
For its part the Polish government contented itself with sending commissioners to represent it at the meetings of the Host. At times it sent parts of its regular army to discipline the Host or to garrison forts in the areas where it dominated. Yet most of these troops were registered Kozaks and it was a fairly general rule that in case of any emergency, the registered Kozaks would abandon their Polish commanders and take sides with the unregistered.
p69 It seems incredible that neither the King nor the magnates saw the danger inherent in the possibility that the Kozaks with their fanatical Orthodoxy would interfere in the struggle between the Orthodox and Uniats, after the first attempts of the Kozaks to prevent the turning over of the monasteries and churches. Yet they did not. The magnates and the Roman Catholic authorities continued to think that the Kozak movement was unable to think of anything but plunder and war. Perhaps they relied upon the fact that many of the Ukrainian townspeople and the last of the Ukrainian Orthodox lords shared the same opinion. The Zaporozhians had pillaged many of the estates of Prince Ostrozky and others of his friends and it may have seemed that there was no possibility that anything constructive would come out of the movement.
It was however as a result of the understanding between the Kievan Brotherhood and the Hetman Sahaydachny that this was finally brought about. For its part the brotherhood insisted that the Kozaks were the direct descendants of the people of Rus′ who had fought against Byzantium on land and sea, the same people whose ancestors had fought with Volodymyr and with Volodymyr Monomakh and who were still devoutly Orthodox.
When there came the desire to restore the Orthodox hierarchy which had almost completely died out, it was Sahaydachny who came to the assistance of the brotherhood. When the Orthodox learned that the Patriarch Theophanes was going to Moscow, they induced him to come to Kiev. For a time the Patriarch hesitated from fear of the King and the Poles but Sahaydachny as Hetman promised him safe conduct and under armed protection, the Patriarch consecrated new bishops for the Orthodox. Still not influenced by this fact, the government refused to allow the new bishops to enter their dioceses.
p70 The government may have counted on the fact that there was a certain conflict within the Kozak organization. On several occasions, the Kozaks below the rapids, the Zaporozhians in the strict sense of the word, had chosen hetmans who were different from the hetmans elected by the Kozaks in the more settled portions of the country, were often deeply interested in the cultural and religious aspects of the problem. They were more settled people who were more interested in the cultural development of the Orthodox Ukrainians than were the Zaporozhians, who in this respect were nearer to the original conception of the Kozaks.
Throughout the first half of the seventeenth century, there continued more or less constant disturbances. There were a number of armed outbreaks of the Kozaks against the Poles in which the Kozaks presented modifications of their essential demand, a constant increase in the number of registered Kozaks. Most of these were finally put down by the Poles under the leadership of Koniecpolski and Potocki and after each new setback the Poles carefully restricted the number of registered Kozaks. More important than that, they worked constantly to weaken the rules about the election of the Kozak hetmans and sought to restrict their choice to the Kozaks of good family, who came of gentry stock. In this way they hoped to drive a wedge between the Kozak officers and the rank and file and thus to prevent the movement from taking a more serious turn. They also arranged to build a fort near the rapids of the Dnyeper, so as to prevent free passage between the Zaporozhian Sich and the rest of the Kozaks.
This perpetual conflict seriously weakened Poland, which still declined to take any measures which would either solve the Kozak problem or put the state in a position to p71 defy them. In general the King was more inclined to support or compromise with the Kozaks than were the magnates and the gentry, who usually demanded severe measures against both the Kozaks and the Orthodox, but who were equally against any measure that would carry their policy into effect. It was no more favorable to the Kozaks, for the hetmans were continually forced to sign agreements which they could not and did not wish to carry out, while at the same time no hetman was strong enough to plan and carry through any policy which might allow him to win any real concession from the Poles. The ordinary Kozaks could not secure any permanent improvement in their status, and so there commenced a general exodus of the lesser Kozaks from the Ukraine and the Dnyeper valley to the so‑called Slobidshchina, the land of free communes, a region in the neighborhood of Kharkiv but which was under the jurisdiction of Moscow. For years this region was weakly governed for it was still on the border of the Muscovite state and it offered many of the same advantages that Ukraine and the Dnyeper valley had a century earlier.
A definite defeat of the Kozaks in 1638 finally brought this series of wars to an end. For ten years of peace there was little change in the situation. The Poles had succeeded in forcing the bulk of the unregistered Kozaks back into the hands of their masters and the member of registered Kozaks was not full. It seemed as if the problem had finally been settled and that it would not arise again. On the other hand, the Orthodox had succeeded in recovering their bishops and in getting them at least in part restored to their dioceses. The educational policies had taken a new lease on life with the development of the Kiev Academy under the leadership of Peter Mohyla. There were, however, grave doubts as to the extent to which the cultural and religious movements and the Kozaks were integrated.
p72 All this was but a preliminary to a new struggle which was destined to start, for there soon appeared at this moment of apparent quiescence a new leader, who was to take a long step forward in coordinating all the movements and also in outlining a definite program for the Ukrainian people, Kozak and non‑Kozak, which was to give them temporary success and then lead to a more complete fiasco. This new leader was Bohdan Khmelnitsky.
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Page updated: 25 Apr 22