Ride or Die

03.12.14

Cossacks: The Cowboys of Crimea

Crimea’s history is packed with Tatar slave traders, Ottoman empresses and martial Cossacks; the original cowboys whose lifestyle has been co-opted as a symbol by Russia.

Aleksandra Lisowska was kidnapped from a small town not far from Lviv. The men who took her were a group of Tatars. They knew they would get a good price, because they had picked her out for her looks. They took her to Crimea, where she was put on a boat to Istanbul. There, it turned out that her new captor was the most powerful person in the country, one of the richest in the world, and reputedly a very dangerous man.

Then, like the heroine of some implausible Hollywood fable, the girl who had been sold into slavery stole her master’s heart. He freed her, and asked her to become his bride. (She said yes.) This is, in a nutshell, the true story of Hürrem Sultan, also known as Roxelana, the Ukrainian queen of the 16th-century Ottoman ruler, Suleiman the Magnificent.

Normally prone to ordering gruesome murders to get what he wanted, Suleiman now turned to the softest of love poetry:

Throne of my lonely niche, my wealth, my love, my moonlight.
My most sincere friend, my confidant, my very existence, my Sultan
The most beautiful among the beautiful...
My springtime, my merry faced love, my daytime, my sweetheart, laughing leaf...
My plants, my sweet, my rose, the one only who does not distress me in this world...
My Istanbul, my Caraman, the earth of my Anatolia

My Badakhshan, my Baghdad, my Khorasan

My woman of the beautiful hair, my love of the slanted brow, my love of eyes full of mischief...
I'll sing your praises always I, lover of the tormented heart, Muhibbi of the eyes full of tears, I am happy.

Hürrem rose to become a power broker in her own right. She acted as Suleiman’s foreign policy advisor and arranged a long-lasting peace treaty between the Ottoman Empire and her native country, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which incorporated most of what is today’s Ukraine. In doing so, she curbed the trade in European slaves, which each year had seen thousands of her people taken off by Tatar raiders to be sold at their markets in Crimea.

This extraordinary biography is of course a centrepiece of Ukrainian culture, but like so much else in Eastern Europe, it is little-known in the English speaking world. (Some say that Captain John Smith, founder of the Jamestown Settlement, who was himself a slave in Crimea before he sailed to America, reworked it for his Pocahontas yarn.)  Still, thanks to the standoff between Kiev and Moscow over the past few weeks, we’re getting to know about Ukraine and its stories a whole lot better.

Slowly but surely, the chilling echoes of Chamberlain’s ‘faraway place of which we know little’ are getting quieter. We know that the Russian government would prefer us to think that Ukraine isn't a proper country, with its own ideals, dreams and complexities. We know that Ukrainian nationalists and Ukrainian Jews can man the same barricade in Kiev. We know that people who speak Russian can be devoted Ukrainian patriots, and are willing to put their lives on the line to stop themselves being incorporated into the Russian state. Our television news is using words we’ve rarely heard before, such as ‘Tatar’ and ‘Cossack’.

Centralized Russian power has always been in tension with what the Cossacks stood for.

This last one is especially important. When Vladimir Putin wakes with a start in the middle of the night, what has been frightening him is certainly not a British banker (Putin’s friends keep their money in London), a German industrialist (who buys Putin’s gas) or a French arms dealer (who sells Putin warships). The ghoul that keeps Putin awake at night is a Ukrainian Cossack. 

But who exactly are the Cossacks? They have sometimes been referred to as a nation in their own right. Perhaps uniquely, it can be argued that this people is not defined by ethnicity, statehood, religion, language or even location—but lifestyle.

Historically, the Cossack way of living was one of disorder and adaption, of individualism and egalitarianism. Above all, the Cossacks defined themselves as a ‘free people’ with a healthy resistance to established authority. 

Centralized Russian power has always been in tension with what the Cossacks stood for. With origins as a tributary to the bloodthirsty Mongol empire that stretched from China to Europe, its masters have never quite shaken off the imprint of autocracy. From the earliest days in Muscovy, through to Imperial Russia, the Soviet Union and Putinland, tight control and conformity has been established through deliberately terrifying means.

It was a steady emigration of ordinary people fleeing northern Russia for the personal freedom on the prairies around the Dnieper and Don rivers who formed the first lifeblood of the Cossacks. There, in Europe’s ‘Wild East’, they were joined by renegades and misfits from across the continent, without national preference. It is also where they came into contact with the Tatars. 

Eventually, government caught up with the Cossacks. The Tsars used them to push the frontiers of Russia southwards and east, through Siberia and as far as the Pacific Ocean. In an area called Zaporozhia, meaning ‘beyond the rapids’, The Kings of Poland operated a system of registered Cossacks to serve as borderland ‘self-defence units’ protecting Ukraine against Tatar slave raids (they also learned Tatar tactics and made surprise amphibious attacks deep into the Ottoman Empire, even on its capital).

Ironically, the closest thing the Zaporozhian Cossacks ever got to an independent state was thanks to an alliance with their previously sworn enemies, the Tatars, against the Polish crown (fictionalized in Gogol’s Taras Bulba, and adapted into a movie starring Yul Brenner).

And surely the most colourful episode of the Zaporozhian Cossacks is their fabulously rude letter to Suleiman’s descendant, Sultan Mohammed IV, in response to him trying to tell them what to do (a famous oil painting of the scene by Ilya Repin hangs in The Russian Museum in Putin’s native St. Petersburg). According to the politest version, the Cossacks replied:

Thou Turkish Devil! Babylonian cook! Brewer of Jerusalem! Goat-keeper of the herds of Alexandria! Swineherd of Great and Lesser Egypt! Armenian sow and Tartar Goat! Insolent Unbeliever! May the Devil Take you! The Cossacks refuse every demand and petition that you now make to them – or that you may in future invent. Thank us for condescending to answer you!

Zaporozhian Cossack autonomy declined as the Russian Empire grew in power and reach, imposing its might over the Tatars. With the Cossacks’ role as frontiersmen now redundant, they were forced to make way for the aristocracy’s farming estates. Yet this was not enough for the Tsars, who saw a risk of the Cossack worldview catching on. So the Cossack mystique itself was appropriated by the Russian state, which applied the term to its shock troops and counter-insurgency units (a tradition maintained in Soviet times). The Cossacks were respun to connote militarism, control and obedience to central authority; perversely, in many parts, the symbol of freedom became the symbol of tyranny.

The archetype of the disobedient Cossack who will not stoop to intimidation remains an important part of Ukrainian identity. But in the current crisis, appropriately enough, the nature of a Cossack remains hard to pin down.

There are men referred to as Cossacks in Crimea; they carry whips to beat the rebel spirit out of the protestors. There also are men referred to as Cossacks on the Maidan; they carry drums to beat out a rhythm to try to lift the rebel spirit of the protestors. So who is the real Cossack? Well, that depends on your understanding of the word, and who you think a genuine Cossack would be taking orders from.