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Those warlike people, the Cossacks, * who constitute the most important irregular troops of the Emperor of Russia, are distinguished into three tribes, named after the countries they inhabit-namely, the Don Cossacks, the Cossacks of the Ukraine, and the Zaporavian Cossacks, or Cossacks of the falls of the Zaporah, or Borysthenes. These all sprung from the same origin, being formerly Polish peasants--according to Lord Whitworth, who, residing in the country at the beginning of the last century, had the best opportunity of obtaining correct information and being formed into a militia, under their own officers and discipline, they were placed in the Ukraine,f as a military cordon, to protect the frontier of the Polish commonwealth from the incursions of the Tartars. There they increased so fast in numbers and wealth, that the Polish nobles became jealous of them, and endeavoured to
The term Cossack is derived from a Tartar word, signifying, light troops living on plunder,
+ This was in the year 1506, under Sigismond I.
reduce them to slavery, which gave rise to several wars, in one of which, the Cossacks being defeated, a body of them determined to migrate rather than submit to the Polish yoke. They accordingly removed to the banks of the Don, or Tanais, then scarcely inhabited or noticed by the Russian Government, where they formed a settlement.
In the year 1637 another body of them migrated, after a defeat, with the view of settling on the borders of the Caspian Sea. In their way thither, however, having visited their old friends on the Don, they were persuaded to join them in an attack on Asoph (formerly the site of Tanais), at the mouth of the Don. They took this place, and retained it until 1642, when, upon the approach of a Turkish army, they burned the town, and removed their commonwealth to Circasky, or Tchirkask, a town situated on a small island on the Don. They then placed themselves under the protection of the Muscovite Government, and at the commencement of the last century bad thirty-nine towns on the Dun, from Ribna to Asoph, chiefly on the north-east side.
Such is the account of the origin of the Don Cossacks, according to Lord Whitworth, whose work on the subject was first published in 1758. Clark, however, gives a different account of their origin, and represents them as a mixed race, comprising Circassians, Malo-Russians, Russians, Tartars, Poles, Greeks, Turks, Kalmuks, and Armenians; whilst others assert that they had a Sclavonic origin, which substantially agrees with Lord Whitworth's account. Certainly there is nothing in their physiognomy to indicate, in whole or part, a Mongolian or Kalmuk descent, whilst their energetic and enterprising character is equally decisive against a Russian or Turkish origin.
Of all the tribes subject to the dominion of the Czar of Russia, the Cossacks of the Don are reckoned the most bold, active, and independent. Situated at a remote corner of the empire, and enjoying privileges, by virtue of their original warlike spirit, beyond those of any other portion of the subjects of Russia, they have in a great measure retained their nationality and peculiarities intact; and to this day are so far removed from the slavery to which other nations have been reduced by Russia, that they may be said to enjoy a constitution of their own, and to govern themselves by their own laws and customs. They pay no tax or tribute, furnish no recruits ; and if a peasant or slave can reach their territory, he is free, and camot be reclained by his master or the Government.
Their system of policy is that of a military democracy, and their chief hetman,or colonel, resides at New Tchirkask, which was founded in 1806 by the celebrated Platoff, in consequence of the liability of the former town to inundation, which rendered it necessary to remove the seat of government to a more elevated spot. They have, however, gone to another extreme, and chosen a site for the new town eight miles from the Don, and on the summit of a hill almost inaccessible, from the steepness of the approaches. This place contains ten thousand inhabitants; the streets are broad, but the houses are mean, and built on posts, like corn-stacks in our farmyards, which, having been the practice in the old town, on account of the swelling of the Don, they have absurdly adopted it in the new.
The country of the Don Cossacks embraces an extent of three thousand German square miles, over which is spread a population of seven hundred thousand inhabitants, or two hundred and forty to the square mile, which allows forty acres of excellent pasturage to each individual. Upon an average, eight acres of this is cultivated for the growth of wheat and other grain. The country consists of a series of steppes, or prairies, on which scarcely a tree is to be seen, but an abundance of grass, flowers, sweet herbs, wild asparagus, &c. Immense herds of cattle, sheep, and goats, are grazed in these steppes. The chief diet is meat and fish, but they have much more cattle than they can consume, and frequently kill them for the sake of the tallow alone, burying the flesh. They cultivate the vine extensively, and make a large quantity of excellent wine—the soil being a rich, black loam, upon a chalk subsoil, which runs nearly throughout the country. They breed a vast number of horses, which are remarkable for their spirit and fleetness, and their hardy endurance of toil.
The country is divided into stanitzas, or cantons, over each of which is a hetman, or colonel, who exercises a patriarchal authority. When employed in the execution of his office, he is treated with the utmost reverence and respect ; but as soon as this is over, his official character merges at once into the citizen, and he is accosted with the same familiarity as any other person. Appeal may be made from his decisions to the Chancery at Tchirkask. Every Cossack is entitled to an allotment of land and a fishery, which is settled by the hetman and the inhabitants. The possessors may let off their land and fishery, and frequently do so.
The services rendered by the Cossacks to the Imperial Government, in return for the privileges and immunities they enjoy, are
entirely military. They form the body of troops of the cordon around the Caucasus, and from Siberia to the Black Sea. Being all trained to arms from their youth, and constantly on horseback, they are the most ready and convenient military resource in Russia, and effectually protect the eastern frontier from the attacks of the hostile tribes of Tartars beyond. They are bound, also, to serve at a day's notice in any part of the world. They receive no pay,
and furnish their own arms, clothes, horses, and accoutrements, but are allowed rations, ammunition, and plunder ad libitum.
The process of raising a regiment of Cossacks consists simply in ordering a certain number to meet at a certain place at a given time, from whence they are, sans cérémonie, marched off to the appointed destination. Every male Cossack is considered as a soldier from his birth by the Russian Governinent, and as brought into the world for no other purpose than to fight their battles for them. The number of Cossacks generally enrolled in the Russian service is one hundred thousand.
The appearance of the Cossack is at all times dignified and respectable, or, rather, majestic. His brow is elevated, his dark moustachios neatly trimmed, and on his head he wears a cap or helmet of black wool, terminated by a crimson sack and a plume and white cockade. His erect posture, and the ease and elegance of his gait, give him an air of great importance. The uniform dress worn by all the men consists of a blue jacket, edged with gold, and lined with silk, and fastened with hooks across the chest. Beneath the jacket appears a silķ waistcoat, the lower part of which is concealed by the sash. Their large and long trousers, either of the same material as the jacket, or of white dimity, are kept scrupulously clean, and fastened high above the waist, covering their boots. The sabre is not worn except on horseback, on a journey, or in war ; and its place is supplied by a switch, or cane with an ivory head, which every Cossack carries in his hand, as an appendage of his dress, being at all times ready to mount his horse at a moment's notice. Their cap, or helmet, is the most beautiful part of their costume, and is becoming to any set of features. It adds considerably to their height, and, with the addition of whiskers, imparts a martial air to the most insignificant figure.
It can hardly be expected but that the continual intercourse with Russia would produce a gradual change in the manners of the Cossacks. Oliphant asserts that since the Don has ceased to be the boundary between Europe and Asia, they have become in some degree “occidentalized," and that he could not recognise
those striking costumes described by early travellers; that with the manners and customs by which they were once distinguished, they are also losing all traces of their former independence ; and that as they become gradually absorbed into the Russian empire, their identity as a separate race must soon cease.
We can scarcely think such a result probable to the full extent he anticipates, unless they lose their extensive privileges, which is not likely to be the case. They are too formidable, by their warlike character and their numbers, for the Russian Government to attempt to deprive them of those peculiar advantages they possess ; and unless they can corrupt, they cannot enslave them.
During the last war, from the invasion of Russia by Buonaparte to the surrender of Paris to the allied armies, the Cossacks played a conspicuous part. Whilst they are not calculated to encounter regular troops in a pitched battle, they are peculiarly adapted to harass an army in retreat, or on the march, or suddenly to take it in flank when engaged. By this desultory mode of fighting they contributed greatly to the success of the allies, and the defeat of the French, who had a great horror of them; and even Buonaparte himself spoke of them as “the terrible Cossacks.”
As all their movements are rapid and sudden, they make no prisoners, and are not very scrupulous of taking life. An instance of this in the retreat of the French from Waterloo occurs to our recollection, as related by an officer who witnessed it. A French officer had been taken prisoner, and was standing with his captor at the gate of a hotel, in a town on the road to Paris. The English officer, seeing a Cossack enter the street, advised his prisoner to retire for safety. Thinking himself safe with his new friend, he declined doing so; but the Cossack espying him when within a few yards, couched his lance, clapped his spurs to his horse, and before the Frenchman could retreat, ran him through the body, and he dropped dead at the feet of the Englishman.
Terrible as these people are in war, there are none more kind and hospitable to strangers who visit them in their own country. Their houses are neat and clean inside, and many of them comfortably furnished. They have no poor, the abundance of provisions of all kinds being distributed amongst them by a system of equality, secured in the division of the land ; by which every Cossack possesses the means of supporting himself and his family. They profess the Greek religion, and are very strict in the observ ance of its rites.