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Twenty-first-century travellers go around the Black Sea, visiting places their Cossack ancestors used to go to in the seventeenth century
What follows is a story told by descendants of the Ukrainian Cossacks who traveled around and across the Black Sea visiting the places which had seen the Cossacks hundreds of years ago — in the Crimea, in Turkey, in Bulgaria, in Rumania, on the northern, southern, eastern and western shores of the sea.
The author of this article is Volodymyr Suprunenko, a writer, ethnographer, traveller and photographer; he has authored many travelogues, popular science and social-political books, and books of fiction. His articles have been published in Ukraine and in Russia. He has travelled extensively in Siberia, in the areas beyond the Arctic circle, in Far East, the Altai, the Pamirs, the Caucuses, and Central Asia. He has organized and participated in a number of ethnographic and tourist expeditions: Kozatska khvylya (Cossack Wave; boating down the Dnipro to the Black Sea and to the estuary of the Danube); Ukrayinsky kordon (Ukrainian Border; bicycling along the borders of Ukraine); Velyky looh i Dniprovsky som (Great Meadow and Dnipro Catfish; exploring the shallows and diving); Chumatsky shlyakh (Chumak-Trade Route; bicycling in southern Ukraine); Nabute (Achievements; ethnographic expeditions to the Lands of Poltavshchyna, Naddnipryanshchyna and Sumshchyna to study folklore and folk art); Karpatska duha (Carpathian Crescent; travelling on foot through the mountainous regions of Poland, Slovakia, Rumania and Ukraine); Shlyakh iz varyahiv v hreky (Roads from the Varangians-Vikings to the Greeks; an expedition in a replica of an ancient Scandinavian boat “drakkara” from Kyiv down the Dnipro River across the Black Sea to Istanbul); Azovske kolo (The Sea of Azov Ring; bicycling around the Sea of Azov); Chornomorske kiltse druzhby (Black Sea Ring of Friendship; bicycling around the Black Sea).
Boats with traders and warriors from the country that went down in history as Kyivan Rus began making regular appearances in the sea which we now call “Black” (and the Greeks called “Euxine”) in the ninth century and in the tenth, the Byzantines often referred to the Euxine Sea as the Sea of the Rus. Several centuries later, in the late sixteenth and in the seventeenth centuries, Cossacks from Zaporizhian Sich and from the Don River began plying the waters of the Black Sea. They quickly learned the art and skills of sea navigation, borrowing a lot of their initial experience from the Greeks and the Turks, and soon they became expert sailors, “frothing the seas” in all directions. The Prefect of Kafa (now Feodosiya, a town on the south-eastern coast of the Crimea) wrote thus about the state of things in 1614: “The Black Sea was always menacing and angry, but in recent times it has become, no doubt, even more minatory because of the chayky (literally: seagulls; here — swift Cossacks vessels — tr.) which are practicing piracy in the sea all summer long and make raids along the shores.” The Black Sea in the coastal areas all around it was gradually becoming to be known as “the Cossack Sea.” Cossack chayky, swift and maneuverable, left their bases in the Dnipro River, the Don River, on the Crimean coast and in the Sea of Azov, and travelled as far as Sinop, Trabzon (historically: Trapezus, later — Trebizond) and Istanbul, and then through Bosporus into the Sea of Marmara and then into the Mediterranean and further to the shores of Egypt. On their way, they laid siege to and often captured towns, “raising them down to the foundation.” Many a place on the Black Sea coasts experienced the fury of Cossack attacks. They let the people of large and small coastal towns “smell the burning powder from their muskets,” “check how sharp their sabers were” or flee from their unstoppable fury. Even Istanbul, the Turkish capital, was not immune from Cossack raids, and though it was never seized by the Cossacks, the defenders on the walls were “every so often subjected to the Cossacks’ rapid gun fire.”
We wanted to visit as many of those places as possible. The northern shores of Anatolia in Turkey are particularly rich in places in whose history the Cossacks played a role, and it was to Anatolia that we went first. As we bicycled through Anatolia along the coast we often remembered the Turkish saying, “Hardly a bird, hardly a caravan will cross the deserts of Anatolia.” It was never as bad as this saying suggests though. The winding roads on the mountains slopes rarely took us too far away from the sea and we could either see it most of the time or hear it in the distance.
Clouds in Anatolia have a curious peculiarity of turning into dense fog that drastically reduces visibility. Also, the winds are very whimsical there — they unpredictably change directions every so often and chase the clouds hither and thither, or build them into shapes that look like mountains or enormous castles. The raiding Cossacks knew of this frolicsome behavior of the Anatolia winds and always took with them experienced pilots and fishermen who “felt in their guts the coming slightest changes in weather” and gave their warnings for the Cossacks to act accordingly.
Haze and fog could be very welcome when you planned to approach an enemy vessel or the shore as stealthily as possible in order to launch a surprise attack, or when you had to escape in the face of the enemy’s overwhelming numerical superiority. “May the fog descend on the sea — the enemy will go blind but the Cossacks will still see,” the Cossack warriors used to say. Of course, there were occasions when the fog turned from friend into foe, particularly when new shores were being explored. The Cossacks raiders knew a thousand ways of orienting themselves and finding their way to their destination. In unknown waters, they could figure out the distance to the shore by the colour of the water or the height of the waves. They knew the currents and they knew the winds. They knew when to massively attack a large navy ship with a good chance of winning by many chayky at the same time — in the dead calm, for example, or when the ship was caught in crosscurrents, and when to leave such ships alone.
When we stopped for the night to pitch camp and have dinner, we often thought that probably it was at that very spot that Cossacks spent the night at the waterfront some three hundred years ago. They must have gathered wood to make the fire, they must have cooked their simple meals very much like we did it… I imagined myself to be one of them as I gathered driftwood, built the fire, cooked kasha (porridge-like dish), picked mussels in the shallow water, fried them, bit onto a sour apple after dinner — the smells must have been the same, the food must have tasted the same, the pebbles on the beach looked the same, the stars in the dark firmament of the sky were the same.
My friends and I decided to see the places the Cossacks of old had visited or raided and we often wondered what drove them to sail across the sea in small boats, hundreds upon hundreds of miles away from home? Plunder? Booty to take home? Hunger? Or sheer adventurism? Desire to explore the world? To earn fame? Or were they driven by restlessness? Most likely, all of these motivations were present. “I’ll go all the way down there, to live a life free and fair,” the Cossacks of old used to say.
We had started our trip by crossing the Kerch Strait on a ferry. Kerch peninsula is a part of the Crimea; Taman Peninsula where we found ourselves after crossing the Strait is a part of the Russian Federation. In the times of old, Taman was a part of the Tmutarakan kingdom. One of the first landmarks we saw in Taman was a monument — a bronze Zaporizhian Cossack stands on a granite pedestal, holding a banner; the bas-relief shows waves, steep shore, two navy sail ships and chayky boats with Cossacks in them. The inscription says: “To the first Zaporizhians who landed at this spot under the command of Colonel Savva Bely; erected in 1911 by their grateful descendants, Cossacks of the Kuban Cossack Army, on the initiative of the Taman Cossack community to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the historic landing.” In Taman, Zaporizhian Cossacks came to be called Kuban Cossacks who became loyal subjects of the Russian tsar.
As we bicycled along the Anatolian coast, we often stopped at the edge of the precipitous bluff to look down at the sea, and when we saw a secluded cove or a stretch of beach suitable for landing, we invariably discussed the possibility of Cossacks once actually stopping there. Though I’ve listed possible motivations for Cossacks to come such a long way across the sea, I am inclined to think that the major driving force was their desire to experience the dangers of free and adventurous life rather than material considerations.
Once in a while we stopped for the night at the mouths of small rivers emptying into the sea, and every time we did so we talked about Cossack chayky that could have possibly entered these rivers to penetrate further inland for several miles. Since they were almost flat-bottomed they could navigate easily in shallow waters. As they approached the mouth of a river, the Cossacks must have been checking the depth under the keel every few yards they travelled; I could visualize them moving cautiously up the stream, guns and sabers at the ready, their ears picking suspicious noises, their oars going in and out of water without a splash…
It was by penetrating such rivers that Cossacks stormed and captured fortresses, towns and settlements situated rather far from the sea. When Cossacks attacked and seized Varna, a Bulgarian city in the Turkish hands (Bulgaria remained part of the Ottoman Empire from the end of the fourteenth to the end of the nineteenth century), it happened thanks to their river tactics which made their appearance at the walls of Varna a complete surprise for the Turks.
In the words of an old folk song: “Varna was a tough nut to crack — Hey, the Turks, try to get it back!” “It was a glorious victory — great fame and a good story!” The song goes on to describe how the fortress of Varna was stormed; the Cossack leaders hold a counsel: “How do we attack it? From which direction? First, let’s give it a good inspection.”; “Shall we move straight from the sea? Or from that field? Wait, there’s a small river, can’t you see? And never mind running across the field — that forest will serve us as a shield!” The Cossacks went upstream along the River Kamchiya avoiding detection until they got very close to Varna. Then they dragged their chayky from the river, carried them overland, launched them into the Varna Lake, and stormed into the city from the side at which they were least expected.
When we were in Varna, the Ukrainian consul there, Oleh Baranovsky, told us that the story of the Cossack storming passed from generation to generation; the story has it that local fishermen helped the Cossacks to get close to the fortress without being spotted, serving as guides. The consul himself acted as our guide taking us around the lake and showing a big rock in the park where a monument to the Cossacks was going to be erected.
Once, we found shelter for the night in the ruins of an old fortress. On our way around the Black Sea we saw a lot of fortresses in different states of ruin. The most ancient ones, built several thousand years ago, are no more than little mounds or depressions in the ground, overgrown with grass and bush. Only archeologists, songs and legends tell their stories. Some of fortresses built in the times of the Greek colonization in the middle of the first millennium B.C. have survived in the form of picturesque ruins with parts of the walls and even towers still standing. Many fortresses on the Black Sea coasts were built “after the Greeks” too by other nations and peoples. Some of them are in such a state of preservation that you can actually walk around them, look into the loopholes in the walls, get inside and climb the stairs of the defensive towers. It is not difficult at all to visualize what they looked like in their heyday. Walls and buildings of some of the fortresses have become part of the buildings built in much later times. We saw one of the most impressive old fortresses in Bilhorod-Dnistrovksy (it used to be called Akkerman). All kinds of words can be used to describe it but “it’s so beautiful, powerful and majestic, it is not to be told!” In fact, we did not see anywhere else anything like it. It was built on the ruins of an ancient Greek town. There is no consensus among historians as to who actually built it. Some say it was the Turks, others insist that the Moldavians did it, and some are of the opinion that at least part of it was erected by the Genoese. Looking at its powerful fortifications we could not figure out how the Cossacks managed to storm it. They must have known a lot of military stratagems and ways of breaking resistance of the enemy fortresses. Here is how the Cossacks stormed the Turkish fortress of Kafa. After they had arrived in the vicinity of Kafa in their chayky, the Cossacks captured a Turkish boat with Turkish merchants in it. Several of the Cossacks put on the Turkish dress and in this disguise they went into the fortress. They took a good look everywhere where it mattered. While they were looking around inside the fortress, they met a poturnak (a Ukrainian who had been captured by the Turks and had settled down to live among the Turks), and got him to help them. This poturnak was to offer the guards at the gate a lot of horilka (vodka) as “a gesture of good will,” and once they were drunk, he was to open the gate for the Cossacks. The poturnak, faithful to his word and to his Ukrainianness did as he had promised. To add to the confusion, the Cossacks set many stacks of hey that sat near the walls on fire and the smoke concealed their approach. The attackers burst into Kafa, slaughtered the Turkish garrison and set free the Ukrainian captives of whom there were many in the fortress.
This fortress which used to be called Akkerman (now Bilhorod-Dnistrovsky)
Sinop is a place that has been written about more than probably any other site on the Black Sea coasts in connection with Cossack raids. Now it is a provincial Turkish town but it has a long history. The peninsula it is located at has a shape that looks like a giant antediluvian fish that has risen to the surface from the murky depths. It is there at the tale of the stone monster, or in geographical terms, at the isthmus of Boztepe Peninsula, overlooking a cozy bay where Sinop now sits. Historical chronicles describe the rise of Sinop, its days of glory, its being the capital of a powerful state and its decline. One of such chronicles calls it “a wonderful place with a wonderfully healthy climate.” Sinop was often called a dream city, “a city born out of the salubrious air and gentle sea, caressed by the life-giving sun.” It was also called “the city of lovers,” but it was “a city of trade” too. It had trading links with the Balkans, the Crimea, northern and eastern shores of the Black Sea. Sailors used to say — and continue to affirm it — that the harbour of Sinop is the best-protected place on the Anatolian coast — best protected from the winds and storms that is. The sea water in the bay of Sinop is particularly clean and transparent and attracts a lot of divers.
At a local tourist agency I struck up a conversation with a man called Aisher who turned out to be a professional diver. When he learned I was from Ukraine, he enthusiastically shared with me his plans of a diving expedition in which, he hoped, he could involve Turkish, Ukrainian and Russian divers. There is a lot to discover indeed on the bottom of the sea in the vicinity of Sinop — merchant and navy ships of many nations, Cossack chayky included, have been sunk at the Anatolian shores by storms and in war. In 1853, it was near Sinop that a major naval battle was fought between the Turkish and Russian fleets, the last historic naval battle in which sail ships were involved — the new age of steel battleships was on the threshold. Underwater search expeditions have a good chance of making sensational discoveries. One of them could well be Cossack “submarines” which, according to some sources, Cossacks used as long ago as in the end of the sixteenth century. A French itinerant philosopher, Fournier, who visited Istanbul in the sixteenth century, wrote in his memoirs, “I heard remarkable stories about northern Slavs attacking Turkish coastal towns and fortress — the attackers were said to appear all of a sudden, out of the sea, rising to the surface and striking terror into the local people and warriors.”
Sinop is full of historical reminders of the past times. At one of the drinking water sources I saw an inscription above the tap that said that the money for the construction of the source was taken from the pockets of the soldiers who were killed during a Turkish-Russian war. Diving and searching the bottom you almost can’t help discovering ancient pottery shards, pieces of chains and anchors. Walking around Sinop, you find what looks like a set of crumbling steps and they take to a summit where you discover ruins of a watchtower.
From such a summit you can see very far. You can even look deep into history. Say, what was the situation here, in Sinop, four centuries ago? In 1614, the Zaporizhian Sich Cossacks launched “two raids upon the Turk.” During the first raid, a storm scattered their small vessels, sunk some of them or washed them ashore. At the end of summer, the Cossacks launched another expedition. They sailed straight from the mouth of the Dnipro River to Sinop where their arrival was completely unexpected. They, in a surprise attack, boldly stormed the fortress of Sinop and destroyed the garrison. Their own losses were insignificant. The Cossacks blew up the arsenal, destroyed the mosques, and burned down the ships that were anchored in the harbour. A Polish historian, Stanislaw Zolkiewski, wrote that the Cossacks were at the greatest menace to the Turks since they had come to Asia Minor. The sultan when he learned of the ignominious defeat and a capture of Sinop by the Cossacks, had his vizier executed.
On the distant shores the evidence of the historic events, of which our ancestors were direct participants, is growing more scarce with the passage of time — ruins sink into the ground, traces of battles and camping sites disappear in the sands and are blown away by the winds from the cliffs. But the memory, like sturdy nails in the age old wood of the ships, remains lodged fast. When, at night, I looked up into the starry sky, at the Milky Way which in Ukrainian is called Chumatsky Shlyakh (Chumak-Trade Route), I often ran the words of a poem I once read through my mind, “Where does this way lead us? It does not matter — but lo and behold! — there, in the distance I can already see the reeds and still further — Zaporizhzhya with the Cossack banners and locks of hair on the Cossacks’ heads fluttering in the wind!”
By Volodymyr Suprunenko
Photos by the author
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