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A History on the Cossack People of Eastern Europe:

Centuries ago the forefathers of the present day Cossacks settled in the steppes of the southeastern corner of Europe, bordering on the Black Sea and the Caucasian Mountains on the south, the Caspian Sea and the river Volga on the east, the forests of the Great Russian Plain on the north and the river Dniester on the west. Since the dawn of civilization these steppes had been crossed again and again by the peoples of the Great Migration. The original Cossacks were the product of an intermixture of all these peoples with the previous settlers of the Slavic race. Byzantine writers of the Tenth Century described the Cossacks as a separate people who lived on the river Don, and called them "the brave and strong people." In old Russian chronicles they were similarly described for the first time in 1261. The Don Cossacks fought on the side of the Russian Grand Duke Dimitry against the Tartars in 1380. In all the records of that period the Cossacks were described as a series of independent communities, loosely bound into larger units of a military character, entirely separate from the Russian State. The Russian historian Karamzin wrote: "Where the Cossacks came from cannot be said with certainty, but, in any event, it [their State] existed prior to the Tartar invasion of 1223. These knights lived separately, without pledging allegiance to the Russians, the Poles or the Tartars." Their tribal units, organizations similar to Scottish clans, occupied the whole area between the rivers Dniester on the West and the Volga on the East. At the head of each tribe was an Ataman, or Hetman, elected by the people; the people also elected, for a specifically limited term, the other administrative officers of the tribe: the judge, the scribe, the lesser officials, and even the clergy. Supreme legislative authority rested in the Tribal Assembly (the King, or the Rada). Executive powers were vested in the Ataman; at time of war he was the supreme commander in the field. In the absence of written laws, the Cossacks were governed by the "Cossack Traditions," the Common, unwritten law.

In the Sixteenth Century these numerous Cossack clans consolidated into two large republics: one, known as the Zaporojie, on the lower bends of the river Dnieper, sandwiched between Russia, Poland and the Tartars of the Crimea; the other, the Don Cossack State, on the river Don, separating the then weak Russian State from the Mongol and Tartar tribes, which were at that time vassals of the powerful Sultan of Turkey. Numerous Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, Turkish and other historical documents of that period contain mentions of these two states, always referring to them as sovereign republics. For instance, in 1549 the famous Czar of Russia, Ivan the Terrible, replying to a request of the Turkish Sultan to stop the aggressive actions of the Don Cossacks, stated, "The Cossacks of the Don are not my subjects, and they go to war or live in peace without my knowledge." Ten years before that, in a reverse situation, when Czar Vassily the Third asked the Sultan to curb the Cossacks, the Sultan replied. "The Cossacks do not swear allegiance to me, and they live as they themselves please."

This was the period during which the expansion of Russia intensified and the consolidation of Poland took place. Both states were enforcing the feudal system which attached peasants to the land and made them the property of the nobles. This policy, coupled with the territorial expansion of these two states and their conquest of their weaker neighbors, created a condition in which all men who did not relish the idea of becoming somebody's slave, and all who valued personal freedom, fled to the southeast and found refuge in the land of the Cossacks where they could be free. All protests and ultimatums of the Czars and the Kings to return their subjects were of no avail; the Cossacks then coined their famous motto: "There is no extradition from the Don."
Incidentally, this exodus of freedom-loving people from medieval Russia to the land of the Cossacks is the foundation for the official Russian historians' assertion that Cossackdom originated in that period, and that the Cossacks were nothing more than the hordes of Russian peasants who had run away from their masters, the Russian boyars. On this ground some Russian politicians of the later Imperial period refused to recognize the Cossacks as separate and distinct from the Russians proper as an ethnical group. At the present moment, however, this theory is supported only by the most reactionary circles of the Russian emigration, who in this respect are in perfect accord with the Kremlin. All other historians and political leaders recognize that the Cossacks, as an independent ethnic and political entity, existed long before this exodus of the freedom loving element from Muskovite Russia and the Poland of the Nobles. It should be noted, in passing, that the very word "Kazak" (Cossack) means, in Tartar "The Freeman."
The two great Cossack States of that period, the Don and the Zaporojie, constituted unique military orders whose main raison d'etre was to protect the Eastern Catholic Church from Roman Catholicism and Mohammedanism. It can be truly said that but for the fanatical resistance of the Cossacks of Zaporojie, militant Roman Catholicism would have taken over and conquered the whole of Eastern Europe, while at the same time, unless the Don Cossacks had been in its way, Mohammedanism might have become the dominant religion everywhere east of Poland.

In the course of time the Cossacks grew in numbers and became a nation of professional soldiers; they established an endless chain of posts and settlements, protecting Russian towns and villages from the raids and invasions of the militant Mongol and Tartar tribes from the south and the east. The Cossacks knew that passive defense alone could not stop and prevent these raids, and they often carried the war to the enemy. Afoot and on their swift horses, and quite often in their crude boats, they raided the settlements and camps of the neighboring Tartars of Crimea and Astrakhan; they sacked border towns and fortresses of Polcfid; at times they joined with the Poles and Crimean Tartars and waged war against various Russian Principalities; they pillaged and burned the Black Sea ports of Turkey and those of Persia on the Caspian Sea. As an example of their daring and prowess, historians recite the exploits of a band of Zaporojie Cossacks who in the Sixteenth Century penetrated the Straits of the Bosphorus, crossed the Sea of Marmora, squeezed through the Dardanelles, sailed the long Mediterranean Sea, captured the Spanish city of Saragossa, and held it against all comers for a full two years. Again, in 1696, the Don Cossacks, sailing the Sea of Azov in their flimsy rowboats, in the presence of the Russian Czar Peter the Great, met and destroyed the powerful Turkish fleet. Similarly, though much later, in 1828 the Cossacks of Zaporojie, in the war of Russia against Turkey, sailed the Black Sea in their light boats (they called them "chaikes," the seagulls) and took by assault the powerful Turkish fortress Brailov.

As mentioned before, during the Fourteenth, Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries the principal role of the Cossacks consisted of the protection of Russia and, occasionally, of Poland from the aggressive Mohammedan peoples. The next, the Seventeenth Century, was for them an era of colonization when the frontiers of Russia were moved southward and eastward. Originally their penetration was at the expense of the Tartars, who lived along the northern shores of the Black Sea; then they crossed the Volga and built their towns and forts in the foothills of the Urals; then the famous Ataman of the Don Cossacks, Ermak, crossed the Urals, conquered the Tartars of Siberia and "presented" that vast land to Ivan the Terrible. At the same time other Cossacks moved southward and established the Terek clan on the northern slopes of the Caucasian mountains. Following Ermak, who was killed in a skirmish with the nomads, roving Cossack bands continued their penetration eastward, until finally they discovered and colonized for Russia the remote provinces of the Far East. This process of penetration and discovery, of scouting and acquisition, is similar to the "Westward Ho" expansion in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries in America: the same wilderness, hostile natives, hardships, and the urge to get a little further and to see what lies beyond each successive hill. Just as the discovery of the American West was made possible through the toil and sweat and blood of the intrepid bands of frontiersmen, whose names were often unknown to the settlers who followed them, so the discovery and conquest of Siberia and the Far East called for superhuman efforts — to cross mile-wide rivers, to penetrate virgin taiga forests, always short of food and amunition. It should be noted that for the most part this drive toward the broad Pacific was on the Cossacks own initiative; all they got (and that infrequently) from the Russian power was some lead and powder. Yet every newly discovered land was taken by the Cossacks in the name of the Russian Czar and "presented" to him by the conquerors. Without written commissions these men served the Czar as his diplomats, settlers and border guards.

In this process of moving the borders of the Russia State outward, the to camp on frozen tundra, always facing resistance from the aborigines, Cossacks customarily set military posts and forts, garrisoned by a few wounded and crippled men and some friendly natives; soon they would get themselves wives from among the local belles; then a town would be built around the fort, roads be laid out to the nearest forts (stanitzas) ; and finally, a new clan (voisko) would be established, guarding the new subjects of the Russian Czar and protecting the new border. Eleven such clans existed in Russia before the revolution of 1917, strung from the Black Sea to the shores of the Pacific, "eleven pearls in the crown of the Russian Emperor."

It was in 1646 that the Cossacks came to the shores of the Pacific Ocean; two years later Dejnev, a Cossack ataman, discovered the Bering Strait; within a few years the Cossacks had crossed this ribbon of water and established settlements in Alaska, Kamchatka and all through the Pacific Northwest. Still later the Cossacks, moving southward toward China, took for Russia the rich Amur, Ussuri and Maritime Provinces., establishing contact with China, Korea and Japan. In the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries the Cossack regiments were incorporated in the Russian Army, and as part of it fought against Napoleon and in the Crimea and four Turkish Wars. They bore the brunt of the struggle for conquest and possession of the Caucasus and Turkestan. When the major wars with the neighboring states were over and the borders of the Empire had become stabilized, the Cossacks were given another, not less arduous, task: to keep the new frontiers inviolate and to protect peaceful settlers from hostile actions by Turks, Persians, Afghans, Mongols and Manchus. Other Cossack regiments were strung along the borders separating Russia from her western neighbors, the Austrians and Germans. The exploits of the Cossacks in World War I are too well known to be dwelt upon here. It will suffice to state that the Cossacks were in the vanguard of the Russian Army when it was advancing and the same Cossacks were covering the army at the time of retreats. Notwithstanding such exposure, Cossack prisoners of war were so rare an event, that in 1914 and 1915 the few captured Cossacks were carried in special cages through distant Hungarian towns to show people that even Cossacks could be taken prisoners.