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A journey to the places associated with Ukrainian Cossacks and their exploits


Volodymyr SUPRUNENKO, a member of historical expedition, set on a journey along the Dnipro River, visiting places associated with the Cossack past, and now some of what he saw and heard he relates in a story written for WU.


The Island of Khortytsya, once the very heart of Zaporizka Sich, on the Dnipro River was our starting point. We travelled along the river, making stops here and there, enjoying the scenery and talking to people. What we were interested in most were the traces of the Cossack past that we hoped we would find on our way. And we did  but what we saw was not exactly what we had hoped to see.


One of the first stops was at a village called Ostriv. A seventy-something villager, Zinayida Budymko, came forward to show us around. Despite her age, she was so nimble and quick-paced we had to make an effort not to fall behind. She took us to a hill on the top of which stood a very old, big wooden cross, the symbolic centre of the village. Then the old villager led us to all those places in the village which, as far as she knew, had something to do with the Cossacks of old. She showed us a place close to a big communal garden, which, she claimed, used to be a Cossacks burial ground. From there we proceeded to a place the locals call Horodok, and which, they believed, used to be a fortified Cossack stronghold.

Over there, where that last house stands, there used to be a defensive wall, and further on there were other fortifications. I was told by old Baba Tertyshykha that in her young years she had once discovered an ancient oak door on the slope of that hill that faces the river. She opened that door and felt a powerful draught  there must have been a tunnel or something leading into the depths of the hill. Could have been a hiding place, or something. Also, they say that the Cossacks used to moor their chayky (boats) yonder, at the bank. There was a lot of fighting going around these places, and for years and years, during the floods, in spring, the water, they say, turned brown, as though coloured by old blood.


Our next stop was in the town of Nikopol that in the times of old used to be the village of Mykytyn Rih. About twenty-five hundred years ago there was a ford there which was used by the Scythians to deliver iron ore to the Scythian settlements further inland. In more recent times, the great Solony Shlyakh  Salt Trail passed there. Chumaky (Ukrainian salt merchants) delivered salt to various parts of Ukraine. A Cossack named Mykyta Tsyhan founded the village in the early sixteenth century. Later, it developed into a large Cossack settlement, another sich. The Cossacks fought with the Poles for the control of the ford. In 1648, Bohdan Khmelnytskys troops captured the ford and the Polish strongholds in the area. The very same year he was elected hetman at a sich rada (Cossack general assembly). There is a monument to Khmelnytsky right in the centre of Nikopol which got its name in 1782 after a victory of Russian troops over the Cossacks (Nike  is an ancient Greek word for victory). It is ironic that the town with such a name has a monument to one of the greatest Cossack leaders. Incidentally, some of the streets of Nikopol were recently renamed to honour Cossacks and their leaders.

On a deserted beach, with only river gulls for company, in the vicinity of the village of Kapulivka I found a lot of shards which I showed later to someone who knew local history and lore well. He said that most of these shards were from ancient Scythian pottery but some could have been of later Cossack times. The Cossacks founded in the vicinity of the present day village of Kapulivka their settlement, Chortomlytska Sich which became one of the most important Cossack centres until it was destroyed at the end of the eighteenth century.

The village boasts two monuments to one and the same Cossack leader, Ivan Sirko, who was said to have commanded Cossack units in more than fifty battles and not a single of those battles was lost. Also, he was said to be able to change his appearance at will, a sort of Cossack Proteus. This famous Cossack commander died peacefully in the village of Hrushivka where he tended his beehives. His body was taken to Chortomlytska Sich where it was buried with great pomp. In 1709, Russian troops raided Sich and destroyed many of the Cossack tombs, but the Cossacks had unearthed Sirkos remains and hidden them, together with the Cossack treasures. When, some time later, Cossacks returned to Sich, Sirkos body was reburied. At the site of the original tomb was placed a large rock; now you can see a memorial plaque there. Many villagers are great enthusiasts of the Cossack history and are eager to tell stories from the Cossack past and they do it with gusto and in great detail. Stories about Sirko are particularly popular and colourful. Volodymyr Salamakha, a much-respected senior inhabitant of Kapulivka, is a great storyteller. He told us stories about his ancestors being Cossacks and about his being a direct descendant of Mykhailo Salamakha, an orderly of Sirko, and about Sirkos last battle, and about his death among the bees, and about his tomb being destroyed by the Russian troops, and about Sirkos reburial. He got so emotional that he wept when he was reciting a poem about Sirko and his great military exploits. The poem said in part that Sirko is immortal and will come back to Sich.

The first monument, a bust, to Sirko was erected on Kapulivsky Mys (Promontory) at Sirkos grave in 1956. There was not a single portrait known to depict the likeness of Sirko, and the sculptor created an imaginary portrait. In 1967, when, because of the dam that was being built, the waters began to rise, the grave and the monument were moved elsewhere in the village of Kapulivka. The remains were interred but minus the skull which was sent to Leningrad (now St Petersburg, Russia) where in a special laboratory Sirkos face was reconstructed with the skull providing the basis for the reconstruction. In 1980, a new bust, based on the reconstructed face, was created and placed at Sirkos grave. The old one, instead of being destroyed, at the request of local history enthusiasts, was moved to the yard of a local school. Thus Kapulivka wound up with two monuments to Sirko. It was only in 1990 that the skull was returned to Ukraine but instead of being put back into the grave, it was kept in museums. It took the skull another ten years to find its way back into the grave.


In the little town of Pokrovske, one of the most beautiful places Ive ever seen in the words of the Ukrainian film director Oleksandr Dovzhenko, there was very little, indeed, that indicated that once it had been a Cossack place through and through, except for two plaques, one of which said in a few, formal words that the town had once been a Cossack centre, a sich, and the other mentioned a Cossack leader, Petro Kalnyshevsky. And, probably, a third reminder was the name of a store, Nova Sich. An old man I talked to knew of the heroic past of Pokrovske but concluded with a sigh, But now its all gone, even the memory about it is hardly alive.

I knew from the reading I had done before the trip that Pokrovske was one of the most important Cossack centres of Zaporizka Sich. Cossacks were warriors but with the passage of time they were settling down, becoming land tillers and cattle-raisers, preserving at the same time their freedom-loving and independent spirit. The Imperial power was not content to destroy Sich as an autonomous unit  it wanted to destroy its spirit too.

The central Sich church is now underwater, several yards away from the bank. At the time when the dam at Kakhovka across the Dnipro was finished, a huge artificial lake was created, and its waters covered a big territory. Many places and landmarks found themselves on the bottom of that lake. The church in Pokrovske was one of them. Some of the icons were saved by the locals but no one, when I started asking around, admitted to having any. The place, where the underwater church stood, had been marked with a buoy but then even this reminder was soon gone.


The village of Respublikanets in Kherson Oblast used to be a major Cossack centre, Kamyanska Sich, called so because of a nearby small river, Kamyanka. I found an old stone cross at the grave of Kost Hordiyenko, a Cossack leader (I could even make several letters incised into it, which said otaman, or leader), a plaque at the place of archaeological excavations in which a Cossack had been unearthed, a cave on the slope of a hill facing the Dnipro, which was said to have been a hiding place, and ruins of a nineteenth-century landowners estate. I was shown another stone cross, almost completely sunk into the ground, at the outskirts of the village. I was told it had once stood at a Cossack grave. I made an attempt to clean its surface but the inscription remained illegible. Not much for a place once associated with the Cossack glory.

Kamyanska Sich was founded by Hordiyenko in 1709 after the destruction of Chortomlytska Sich. In those times it stood on the border with the Turkish empire and the Cossacks at first had to fight off Turks, but later, when the Russian troops in a series of military campaigns moved the border further away, they had to deal with a new threat which proved to be much more destructive.


Some dates from the history of the Ukrainian Cossacks

14191437. Religious Hussite wars in Bohemia (now Czech Republic), in which Ukrainian troops took part as mercenaries.

1482. A devastating raid of the Crimean Tartars into Ukraine; Kyiv is taken and pillaged; a great many people are captured and driven off to captivity.

The Tartar raids of the second half of the 15th  first half of the 16th centuries caused depopulation of the vast areas of southern-eastern Ukraine. This territory remained unclaimed either by Poland or by Muscovy and gradually it began to be settled by those people who later came to be known as Cossacks.

Among the settlers were many refugees from the lands of Ukraine which became the target of Polands expansionist policies; in the second half of the 16th century, they were joined by certain numbers of disgruntled nobility who formed the upper layer of the nascent Cossack community.

Late 15th  first half of the 16th centuries. A new martial society  the Cossacks  is beginning to evolve in Ukraines southern steppe frontier.

The term was applied initially to venturesome men who entered the steppe seasonally for hunting, fishing, and gathering of honey. Their numbers were continually augmented by peasants fleeing serfdom and adventurers from other social strata, including the nobility. Banding together for mutual protection, the Cossacks by the mid-16th century had developed a military organization of a peculiarly democratic kind, with a rada (a general assembly) as the supreme authority and elected officers, including the commander-in-chief, or hetman. Their centre was the Sich, an armed camp in the lands of the lower Dnipro beyond the rapids (za porohamy  hence, Zaporizhzhya; adjective  Zaporizka). The Cossacks defended Ukraines frontier population from Tartar incursions, conducted their own campaigns into Crimean territory and, in their flotillas of light craft, even raided Turkish coastal cities in Anatolia.

1550. Dmitry Vyshnevetsky (alias Bayda), a scion of the Gedyminovyches, princes and rulers of Volyn, is elected by the Cossacks starosta (governor) of Cherkasy and Kaniv.

1556. Establishment of Zaporizka Sich.

15581560. Joint campaigns of Cossacks and Muscovy troops, led by Bayda, in the Crimea.

First half of the 17th century. Cossacks become involved in the raging religious conflict. In 1620 the entire Zaporizka host joins the Kyivan Orthodox brotherhood; in the same year a new Orthodox hierarchy is consecrated in Kyiv under their military protection. Thus, in the great religious divide, the Cossacks become identified with staunch support of Orthodoxy and uncompromising opposition to the Uniate church.

1616. A massive Cossack raid, led by Hetman Petro Sahaydachny on the Crimea and into the Ottoman Empire; Varna, Synop and Kaffa, important Turkish strongholds are taken.

1617. A Cossack army, led by Petro Sahaydachny, joins the Polish troops in a military action against Moscow.

16161622. Under Petro Sahaydachny, Hetman of the Ukrainian Cossacks, a regular Ukrainian army is formed.

1621. Turkish-Polish war, in which the Turkish army is routed mostly thanks to the Ukrainian army led by Petro Sahaydachny.

16231628. Mykhailo Doroshenko, Hetman of Ukraine, makes attempts to establish better relations with Poland and avoid conflicts.

1635. Fortress Kodak is built on the Dnipro River to prevent run-away peasants from joining the Zaporizka Sich.

1648. Tensions stemming from social discontent, religious strife, and Cossack resentment of Polish authority finally coalesce and come to a head in January 1648. Beginning with a seemingly typical Cossack revolt, under the leadership of Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, Ukraine is quickly engulfed in an unprecedented war and revolution.

1648, May. A Polish army is defeated by the Cossack army near Korsun; a considerable part of Ukraine is cleared of Polish troops.

1646, August. Cossacks defeat another Polish army at Zborov; a peace treaty with Poland is signed; a census conducted in the Sich shows that the number of free Cossacks is about 40,000 people.

1654. At a Great Assembly convened at Pereyaslav (Pereyaslavska Rada), Khmelnytsky concludes with Muscovy an agreement whose precise nature has generated enormous controversy.

Some historians have emphasized Ukraines acceptance of the tsars suzerainty, which subsequently legitimized Russian rule; others have stressed Moscows recognition of Ukraines autonomy (including an elective hetmancy, self-government, and the right to conduct foreign relations) that was virtually tantamount to independence; Khmelnytsky becomes increasingly disillusioned with the Muscovite alliance.

16581659. War with Russia; Hetman Vyhovsky attempts to break relations with Muscovy whose aggressive policies are aimed at doing away with Ukraines independence.

1660. Hetman Yury Khmelnytsky signs an agreement with Poland that places Ukraine under Polish protectorate; Ukraine is politically split along the Dnipro into Pravoberezhna (Right Bank) and Livoberezhna (Left Bank) Ukraine.

1667, January. A peace treaty is signed between Muscovy and Poland; Livoberezhna Ukraine stays under Muscovy, and Pravoberezhna goes to Poland.

After the partition of 1667, the autonomous hetman state, or Hetmanate, was limited territorially to Left Bank Ukraine; at the head of the state stood the hetman, elected theoretically by a general Cossack assembly but in effect by senior officers, who, in turn, were largely swayed by the tsars preference; the terms of autonomy were renegotiated at each election of a new hetman, and over time this led to a steady erosion of his prerogatives; nevertheless, for a century the Hetmanate enjoyed a large measure of self-government, as well as considerable economic and cultural development.

1670, June. A Cossack army led by I. Sirko takes the Turkish fortress of Ochakov.

16871689. A joint Russian-Ukrainian army conducts military operations in the Crimea; the Ukrainian units commanded by I. Samoylovych, numbered 2030,000 troops.

16871709, Ivan Mazepa, Hetman of Ukraine. The hetman state reaches its zenith in the hetmancy of Ivan Mazepa.

Relying at first on the support of Tsar Peter I, Mazepa exercised near monarchical powers in the Hetmanate. Literature, art, and architecture in the distinctive Cossack Baroque style flourished under his patronage, and the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, the first Ukrainian institution of higher learning, experienced its golden age. Mazepa aspired to annex the Right Bank and re-create a united Ukrainian state, initially still under the tsars sovereignty. But Peters centralizing reforms and the exactions imposed on the Hetmanate in connection with the Second Northern War appeared to threaten Ukrainian autonomy. In 1708, in furtherance of his plans for independence, Mazepa made a secret alliance with Charles XII of Sweden, but in the decisive Battle of Poltava (1709) their allied forces were defeated. Mazepa fled to Moldavia, where he died shortly thereafter.

1708. The town of Baturyn, residence of hetmans of Livoberezhna Ukraine, is taken by Russian troops commanded by Menshikov and its population is put to the sword.

1709. Chortomlytska Sich, a major Cossack settlement, is destroyed by Russian forces.

1710. First constitution of Ukraine, compiled by Hetman Pylyp Orlyk.

17341750. Haydamaky insurrections on Pravoberezhna Ukraine against Polish rule; uprisings in Livoberezhna Ukraine are put down.

1764, November. Hetmanate is abolished in Livoberezhna Ukraine.

1775, August. Empress Catherine II issues a manifesto that proclaims abolishment of Zaporizhska Sich, and this bastion of the Cossacks is destroyed by Russian troops.


Based on The Ukrainian Historical Calendar 95; edited by P. Tolochko, the academician of the National Academy of Ukraine

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