The Cossacks and the Genesis of Ukrainian Nationhood


Usually, when you ask a foreigner whether they think Ukraine is a young country or an old one, everyone will answer that it is very young. They will be technically right. Ukraine declared its independence in 1991- an almost newly created state on paper – but as a nation, it was born much later and, sadly, the world does not know this. That is why I am writing this article. I believe that every nation has its own great history, regardless of whether it challenged the whole world in an attempt to conquer it, or whether it tried for centuries to win independence from someone and failed to write itself into history globally. Ukraine did not just appear in 1991 as a new state that broke away from the USSR. If we consider the history of the predecessor states on the territory of modern Ukraine, history still stretches back to the ancient Kyivan Rus’. The confrontation against Russia and its predecessor states has not taken place since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, and not since 2022 when it began a full-scale invasion. Constant clashes have been going on since the 17th century, with the Cossacks – steppe warriors, who then tried to start their own independent state.

Cossack is a word of Turkic origin. The most famous interpretations of this word are: “free independent person,” “rider warrior,” and “steppe warrior.” (Chernichenko) The word Cossack first appears in the Italo-Tatar dictionary of 1330, a Genoese merchant, and its meaning is interpreted as “free armed men engaged in border service.” As for the first official documentary mention of the Ukrainian Cossacks, it dates back to 1489 in the “Chronicle of the World” by Marcin Bielski, a Polish writer and historiographer who lived from 1494-1575.

Cossack is a thing that belongs to Ukraine, Russia, and Kazakhstan. The difference between these Cossacks was in time, geography, languages, and the fact that only Ukrainian Cossacks tried to create their own independent state. This phenomenon – Cossacks can be compared to chivalry in Western Europe. Both Cossacks and knighthood were a social stratum and a way of life. Cossacks played a huge role in the history of Ukraine, domestic political and economic life, everyday life, and culture.

The Zaporizhia Sich appeared on the map in the 16th century as a military-political organization of the Zaporizhia Cossacks. Later, this became not only the center of the anti-feudal, national liberation struggle against the Polish lords and later against the Russian Empire, but also played an important role in the struggle against the Turkish-Tatar invaders a Cossack state was formed in Zaporizhzhia, where the system was extremely “democratic” for those times.

Officially, the organization grew into a state under the protectorate of the Russian Empire in 1649 under the name “Cossack Hetmanate.” Eventually, when the Cossacks wanted to secede from the Russian Empire in 1708, the Russian state suppressed it and reduced the autonomy of the Hetmanate to a minimum. Even later, during the time of Catherine II (Empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796), Zaporizhia Sich was completely destroyed and most of the Cossacks were resettled in the Kuban region of the Russian Empire.

A 1720 map by Johann Baptist Homann: Ukraine, or Cossack Land, Wikiwand

It is important to understand that, despite the historical and cultural ties of the Ukrainian Cossacks with Russia, they had their own identity as seen through language and Russian historical sources. The Cossacks mostly spoke the ancient Ukrainian, East Slavic language with its own linguistic features and literary traditions. In Russian historical narratives, Cossacks are referred to as “Little Russians” or “Smaller Russians” and try to present them as part of a larger Russian ethnic group. Such narratives undermine Ukrainian national identity and legitimize Russian domination in the region. However, the vivid linguistic and cultural representations of the Cossacks vividly demonstrate their unique identity and disprove the idea that they are simply a reduced copy of their eastern neighbors.

Earlier, I mentioned that the Ukrainian Cossacks were a kind of democratic republic, this is because they had many signs of this system. The highest body of legislative, executive, and judicial power was the Sichov Rada. Her decision was considered the opinion of the entire army and was binding. The Sichov Rada was the body of direct power of the people, where the troops gathered to discuss the most important issues of life. The General Government assisted the head (Hetman) in the performance of numerous functions assigned to him. An analogy can be drawn here. The Cossack general government resembled the modern Cabinet of Ministers. There was also a proper Cossack law in Sich, which was not a written law, but “an ancient tradition, verbal law and common sense.” This right, despite its oral form, actually fixed the relations established in Sich. 

Also, in Zaporizhzhia, there was no feudal ownership of land or serfdom, and equality reigned among the Cossacks. The most important feature of a democratic republic is the system of elected power. At that time, among the Cossacks, the election system was a national assembly, where all the Cossacks gathered and voted for the new head of the Sich – the Hetman. It is also worth noting that the Cossacks were extremely religious. Deep religiosity is a characteristic feature of the spiritual life of Zaporizhzhia. Suffice it to say that joining the Zaporizhzhia society began with the question “Do you believe in God?”.

However, the Cossacks failed to create their own state. The reasons for this are external factors, it is impossible to resist an entire empire when you only have horses, sabers, and guns. However, the Cossacks certainly left a bright mark in the formation of the national idea of Ukrainian statehood. The peculiarities of their political, economic, and social life, everyday habits, traditions, and religion can still be seen. Traditions in religion still remain today in Ukrainian society, For instance, Christmas and Easter are celebrated with the same Orthodox traditions as back then.

So is Ukraine a young country or an old state? From what we can see, the answer is not that simple. Although the modern-day Ukrainian state is very young, it has a rich and complex history that is deeply ingrained in its identity. Cossacks, with their unbroken sense of liberty, democratic traditions, and strong resistance to oppression, reflect the distinctive strength and resilience that continue to inspire Ukrainians today. Although the Cossacks did not create a strong and independent state, they left a big mark on Ukrainian identity. Their legacy lives on in the form of cultural traditions in religion even today.

Featured image by: Wikiwand

Stanislav Vynnytskyi
Stanislav Vynnytskyi
Hi there! My name is Stanislav. I am second-year BIR student. Ukrainian 🇺🇦. Occasionally write opinions as spicy as borscht (if enough spices are added).

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