The Cossacks – Russian Travel

Originally, the Cossacks were divided into the two great branches of Cossacks of the Don and of the Dnieper; the former of these became incorporated with Russia as early as the time of Ivan the Terrible, but the latter were nominally subject to Poland. Both divisions, from their habit of kidnapping Tartar women, had a strong admixture of Tartar blood. In the middle of the seventeenth century, an attempt of the King of Poland to enforce Catholicism upon the Cossacks, and to make their prince a hetman, delegate of his power, roused the indignation of the people, and they began a war with Poland which continued to the middle of the seventeenth century, with terrible reprisals on both sides. Being “left orphans, and seeing their country left like a widow after the loss of a mighty husband, they held out their hands to one another as brothers.” They first sought refuge amid the wooded islands of the Dnieper, whence the name of the rebel community Zaporoghian Ssieche; Zaporoghian meaning “beyond the rapids,” Ssieche meaning a spot in a forest where trees have been cut down, and a slaughter in the thick of a fight, a name inseparable from deeds of valor and cruelty.

The Zaporoghian Cossacks lived by the sword and had no fear of death. No woman was permitted to dwell in their island colonies, and in memory of their fallen no tears were shed, but their exploits were sung in triumph. Their bra-vest member was elected as their chief, and bore the title of ataman (quite different to the hetman, or elective prince of Little Russia). They were subdivided into “koorens” (from kooren, to smoke), communities whose fires smoked and cooked in common, and each of these had a “koorennoi ataman,” subordinate to the ataman of the Ssieche, and who could be deposed at will, except during absence in war, when the ” koschevoi ataman” (chief ataman) had dictatorial power.

After they had established their freedom, the Zaporoghians united themselves with the rest of the Cossacks, as the whole of the inhabitants of the Ukraine were henceforth called, and in 1654, all Little Russia submitted to the Czar Alexis. But, to the Russian, the very name of Cossack has continued to be emblematic of freedom, and the Cossacks have always been ready to fight on the first notice of their country or their faith being in danger. In later times the Ssieche became merely encampments of Cossacks, ready to answer to the call of the hetman of Little Russia. Peter the Great treated the Cossacks with great severity, especially after their hetman Mazeppa joined Charles XII. The hetmanship itself was abolished by Catherine II., and in her reign the last Zaporoghians, under their ataman Nekrassoff, emigrated to Turkey, and then, as the Ssieche finally ceased to exist, the romance of the Cossacks vanished.

At the present day the Cossacks are a standing militia, living on their own lands in the southeast of Russia. They are bound to maintain a fiat number of regiments at their own cost, and are governed by their representative atamans—of the Don, the Black Sea, the Caucasus, Astrakhan, Orenburg, the Ural, Siberia, and the trans-Baikalian Cossacks, who guard the Russian frontier toward China. The dress of a Cossack, called cossakin, is a closely-fitting coat, fastened by hooks down the middle of the breast. Strong, handsome, and active, the Cossacks are capable of great endurance of fatigue and privation. They have a peculiar power of self-adaptation, and are perhaps the most valuable troops the Czar possesses. They are even more fond of spirituous liquors than ether Russians.