Today the Cossacks are regarded as the archetype of the Russian being. But the history show us a completely different story.
As the name suggests (Cossack means “free warrior”) they were communities of free horsemen who lived as farmers or highwaymen in the steppe and in constant conflict with their neighbours.
However, they were not a separate people who settled here, but fleeing Russian and Ukrainian serfs who came together here in the southern steppes and formed free communities for which the umbrella term Cossacks was used.
Essentially, two large groups can be distinguished.
On the one hand there are the people who fled from the power of the Polish king and the nobility and who came together on the rapids of the Dnieper and in the black earth regions of Ukraine.
In the 17th century there were so many that they formed a real state between Poland, Russia and the Ottoman Empire and fought a constant small war with the Polish crown.
In the countries further east, on the Don and Volga, it was mainly refugees from the Russian Empire who fled.
Here, from the 16th century onwards, they founded their own communities and settlements and became regular defensive peasants, who opposed the Asian equestrian nomads, also in the sense of the Tsar.
Until the 18th century, both the Russian and Ukrainian Cossacks remained independent of the tsarist empire, which can be explained by their history alone.
Then, however, their military value was noticed and they gradually were incorporated into the Russian army, where in the course of the 19th century they developed into one of the main pillars of the empire.
This was achieved above all by the Cossacks saw themselves as a kind of hereditary warrior class that embodied the true Russianity and felt obliged only to the tsar.
During the coalition wars and Napoleon’s Russian campaign, they played a leading role in the final victory over the usurper.
This was also recognized by the aristocratic officers, for whom the Cossack intervention was part of the general popular uprising, which they saw as the real reason for the triumph.
For them, the free horsemen of the steppes were role models who offered a counter-project to the autocratic system of their time, and the curious situation arose that those very people who had fled from old Russian society were transfigured into the healthy root.
“I understood that in a people’s war it is not enough to speak a common language; one must also go down to the level of the people in behaviour and clothing. I began to wear a peasant caftan, left a beard in my hand and wore the image of St. Nicholas instead of the Order of St. Anne,” confessed a senior officer who had commanded a Cossack unit.
By now being widely regarded as the archetype of true Russianity and proclaiming the Tsar the supreme “Hetman” of all Cossacks, the “free warriors” of the steppe made a spiritually bond with the Tsarist Empire.
But they did not become civilized members of society for a long time.
For the few Cossacks who appeared in Central Europe in 1813 as persecutors of Napoleon’s troops were enough to make Northern Germany talk of the “Cossack winter” even after a hundred years of fear and disgust.