Zaporizhian Sich and the Cossacks: Meet the feared warriors from Ukraine

Nowadays, many people wonder what a real democracy should look like. Meanwhile, a functional (though peculiar) model of a democratic society was formed among the Cossacks of the Zaporozhian Sich. The skilled warriors and horsemen were the academic focus of a historian Andrii Brodskyi, one of the refugees who have shared their story with us. In cooperation with Yevhen Kolot, a researcher of the Cossacks, we have prepared an article introducing the spirited group, which consisted not only of Ukrainians, but also Czechs and other nations.

Warriors with strong sense of hierarchy

What image comes to your mind when you hear the word “Cossacks”? For many, the group is mainly associated with impressive warrior skills. The Cossacks have always been adventurers both in military actions and in foreign policy, but they have remained free masters of their native land of Ukraine.

The Cossacks were always threatened by attacks from the West-North, South and from the lands of Moscow. They might ally with the Tatars to strike at the Rzeczpospolita, then ally with Poland to strike at Moscow, then ally with Moscow and the Tatars to strike at Poland again. The military carousel led to the fact that absolutely everyone had to reckon with the Cossack force.

Their struggle for freedom and justice has begun long ago, in the 16th century, when their semi-autonomous state of the Zaporozhian Sich still existed.

The term “Cossack” was first used in 1395.

Zaporozhian Sich was a strict military organization, a bastion where young Cossacks were trained by old Cossacks, hardened by the many marches and battles they had experienced. Sich was led by the Kish – a community consisting of 38 kurins (a military-administrative unit of several hundred Cossacks), headed by otamans.

The head of the Kish, the Kish otaman, was elected for a term of one year, and unless he was re-elected the next year, he then returned as an ordinary Cossack to his native kurin. A strong sense of hierarchy was essential for the Cossacks. They needed to remain disciplined and believe in their authorities, because during the wartime, the otaman had virtually unlimited powers.

The word “Cossack” is of Turkish origin and means “free, independent person”.

The Zaporozhian Cossack Army also had its capital – Sich – located on the island of Khortytsia. Sich was founded in 1552 by Dmytro (Baida) Vyshnevetsky, the hetman (military leader) and headman of Kaniv and Cherkasy. Later, the capital was headed by the ataman. Many figures were essential for the Cossack society, such as a judge, an osavul (military and administrative official), a clerk, and kurin otamans.

The Council of Zaporozhian Cossacks was the highest administrative, legislative, and judicial body. Despite the complicated hierarchy described above, the Cossacks believed everyone should be treated equally before the court in Sich – no matter whether they are the chief or an ordinary Cossack.

Many nationalities, one faith

Until the middle of the 17th century, the national structure of the Zaporozhian Cossack Army was diverse. In their work History of Ukraine, Valeriy Semenenko and Lyudmila Radchenko provided the following statistics on the nationality of the Cossacks. In those days, the group consisted of many different nations living on the Ukrainian territory.

Nationalities of the Cossacks 


Slavs (Ukrainians, Czechs, Poles, Croats, Slovaks, Belarusians, Serbs, Bulgarians)

Up to 30%

Asians (Turks, Tatars, Persians, Arabs, Kyrgyz, Kalmyks)


 People of the Caucasus (Circassians, Georgians, Armenians, etc.)


Mediterranean nations (Italians, Spaniards, French, Greeks, Portuguese, Albanians)

While the Cossacks were diverse in terms of nationality, they all had one thing in common. To join the Zaporozhian Sich, any potential candidate must have publicly declared their Christian Orthodox faith – even those of a different religion had to accept Orthodoxy. Without fulfilling this condition, immigrants had no right to join the group and live in the Zaporozhian Sich .

Status symbolized by “kleinody”

Cossack “kleinody” (meaning jewels or treasures) were the attributes of military and civilian authorities and powers. They were first granted to the Zaporozhian Army by the Polish King Stephen Báthory as a sign of the Cossacks’ independence from the Polish government.

Understandably, kleinody were viewed as items of great importance and they were also treated as such. Kept under lock and key in Sich Church of the Intercession or in the military treasury, kleinody were only taken out on command of the ataman.

What were the Cossack kleinody?

 They included: a mace (“bulava”), a bunchuk, a flag (“khoruhva”) and a seal.

 Bulava was the main and the highest symbol of the hetman’s and the Sich Kish otaman’s power. It was a silver ball on a metal or wooden stick, sometimes decorated with precious stones.

 Bunchuk was a simple black stick on the upper end of which a copper ball was placed. Under the ball, there was hair from a horse’s tail. Bunchuk served as a distinction of the hetman and the Kish otaman.

 A flag or khoruhva was a bright red silk fabric with the image of a double-headed eagle in the middle, accompanied by the Savior and the Archangel Michael on the sides. The khoruhva symbolized the power of the Hetman of Ukraine, the otaman of the Zaporozhian Sich, the colonel, and the centurion.

 There were several different types of the seal: military, Sich, colonel, or centurion. It was round, made of silver, and included an image of a Cossack in a traditional hat, with a saber and gunpowder on his side, a rifle over his left shoulder, and a spear.

Skilled horsemen who appreciate quality

When it comes to fashion, Zaporozhian Cossacks wore simple clothes in the beginning of their historical existence. Of course, they had no time to think about their appearance and dress up in expensive “outfits” back then. They also had no money – at that time, poverty and the Cossacks were synonymous.

However, as the Cossacks built their status, they started to demonstrate their appreciation for luxury. The most expensive clothes of the Zaporozhian Cossacks were made of silk, damask, velvet, and fabrics from Turkey, Poland, and England.

Unsurprisingly, the Cossacks also appreciated high quality weapons. The Zaporozhian army was equipped with advanced armament, often taken by the Cossacks from the enemies they have defeated.

The Cossacks mastered guns, but they mainly honored cold weapons, such as the classic Turkish sword and a spear, which was handled both by the infantry and the cavalry. Some spears were even made with pointed heads at both ends and used to hit multiple enemies at once.

Among the many types of Cossack weapons, we should not forget to mention bows and arrows. These were not inferior in efficiency to guns, but, of course, they did not have the same rapidity and reliability.

Cossacks, who spent more than half of their lives in camps, greatly valued and adored their horses – and the affection seemed mutual. The harmony of the Cossacks and their animals was such that the owners could jump over their horses at full gallop, ride the animals while standing on the saddle, or crawl under the horse’s belly.

Undoubtedly, the Cossacks were impressive warriors and knew the military business perfectly. They repeatedly inflicted heavy defeats on their enemies and often fought abroad as mercenaries, proving their skill and determination.

Andrii Brodskyi, historian

Graduated from Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv with a degree in History of the Ancient Slavs and History of the Cossacks. Andrii Brodskyi fled the war from Kyiv with his autistic son Mark (12) and daughter Sofia (17). Nowadays, they are living in Křižanov, a cozy Czech town.

 Yevhen Kolot, researcher

Cossack researcher and the founder of the Cossack combat arts school. He has a YouTube and a TikTok channel dedicated to the Cossacks. Yevhen Kolot continues to live in Ukraine and he provided us with all the information online.


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