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The Cossack Island


Volodymyr SUPRUNENKO, a great devotee of things Ukrainian, takes a look at the Island of Khortytsya in the Dnipro River and muses over the twists of historical fate which have turned what used to be the very center of the Ukrainian Cossack republic into a recently revived historical site.


There are quite a few islands to be found on the Dnipro River, the biggest of which is Khortytsya. It is over 12 kilometers long and over 2.5 kilometers wide. It used to be a very picturesque place but after becoming virtually a part of the city of Zaporizhzhya, which is located on the bank opposite it, the island has lost much of its natural beauty though preserving a considerable recreational potential.

The Island of Khortytsya also has a powerful culture tourist potential centuries ago, it used to be the very heart of what is known as Zaporizhska Sich, a loosely organized republic of Ukrainian Cossacks of the late sixteenth-seventeenth centuries.

Zaporizhzhya (now a town) literally, a place beyond the rapids was an area on the southern stretch of the Dnipro River, which attracted daredevils, adventurers, men of freedom-loving spirit and runaway serfs for several reasons, one of which was access to the river, favorable geographical location and the mighty rocks strung across the river as protection from a sudden attack from the north via the river.

The Dnipro, or in the traditional English spelling Dnieper, the forth major river by length in Europe, is the longest river in Ukraine. Its total length is 2,285 kilometers (1,420 miles), of which 1,095 kilometers lie within Ukraine. The ancient Slavic name for it was Slavutych, and the ancient Greeks called it Borysthenes (late Greek and Roman authors called it Danapris; the Huns called it Var, and the Bulgars Buri-Chai; Crimean Tartars call it O..zu..).

The Dnipro used to be much wider than it is now, so wide indeed that a mid-nineteenth century romantic author Mykola Gogol wrote that it is a rare bird that can fly as far as its midstream. Its a poetic exaggeration, of course, but also a testimonial to a once extraordinary width of the river.

Khortytsya and a couple of small islands nearby (Mala Khortytsya and Bayda) offered an excellent defense possibilities and the Cossacks surely used them.


Bits of history

Archeological excavations that were carried out over the years on Khortytsya and on the nearby small islands unearthed a lot of interesting artifacts which suggest that the island supported a small population as early as several thousand years ago.

It seems the island has never been deserted since then.

The first settlers among those who came to be called Cossacks date from the end of the fifteenth century. Several times the island changed hands, the Turks and the Poles vying for its possession with the Cossacks.

As early as the second half of the sixteenth century, Khortytsya boasted a fortress complete with houses for Cossacks and their leaders, a church, a well and an arsenal. There was a place assigned for punishment of criminals, wrongdoers and offenders of the faith.

In the eighteenth century, Khortytsya was an important Cossack base in the wars of the Russian and Ottoman empires.

The term Zaporizhska (Zaporozhian) Sich applies both to the original central Cossack settlement and, in a wider sense, to the loose military-political formation of Ukrainian Cossacks which, over the centuries, had several centers in various parts of Ukraine.

The word Sich itself seems to have been formed from the verb sekty to cut through, or its derivatives, which probably suggests that it is connected with the clearing of a place for a settlement.

Zaporizhska Sich found itself surrounded by several hostile powers hostile to the Sich and hostile to each other Muscovy, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Rzecz Pospolita), the Crimean Tartars, vassals of the Turkish Empire, and the Turks themselves.

Around the end of the 16th century, relations between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Ottoman Empire, which were not cordial to begin with, were further strained by increasing Cossack aggressiveness. From the second part of the 16th century, Cossacks started raiding Ottoman territories. The Polish government could not control the fiercely independent Cossacks, and it was held responsible for the raids. Cossacks were raiding wealthy merchant port cities in the heart of the Ottoman Empire, which were just two days away by boat from the mouth of the Dnipro. In the early seventeenth century, Cossacks had even managed to raze townships on the outskirts of Istanbul.

After the abolition of the Sich during the reign of the Russian Empress Catherine II (when most of free Cossacks were turned into serfs, except those, of course, who fled to places where they could remain relatively free Kuban in Russia, or to a more distant land beyond the Danube. The neglect and direct efforts to destroy even the memory of the once free Cossack times led to the gradual physical destruction of all the remnants of the Cossack centers and their fortresses. The soviet regime was even more radical in the destruction of anything that could remind the Ukrainians of their past and there was practically nothing left in Khortytsya that could evoke the memory of the former Cossack heroic glory.


Cossacks lifestyle

The Cossack lifestyle glorified raids and booty. Cossack numbers expanded with peasants running from serfdom. Anybody could join the Sich provided he was zealous in his Orthodox faith and was brave, strong and athletic enough to become a warrior.

Practically no women were suffered in the Sich itself, but many Cossacks did marry though outside the Sich domain.

The Sich had an administrative structure, with the general kozatska rada Cossack Council, being the central legislative body at which the matters of internal and external policies were decided, and hetman, head of the Sich, was elected. Hetman had dictatorial powers but could be dismissed at any moment by the kozatska rada if his policies and activities met with a general Cossack disapproval.

Rada starshyn Elders Council took care of the current matters. Kurin was the principal administrative-military unit of the Sich.

The classic of Ukrainian music Mykola Lysenko (18421912) visited Khortytsya in the end of the nineteenth century and described his visit in his memoirs: I would wander to a secluded place from which the river could be glimpsed in the distance. There were many wild pear trees around. I would lie down on the dry grass on the slope of a knoll, close my eyes and imagine that a Cossack wearing the traditional Ukrainian Cossack dress, may come riding his steed any moment, a scabbarded saber on his side, and a gun over his shoulder. I would even burst into a song to attract the imaginary Cossacks attention but alas, he did not come. Falling silent, I would listen to the quiet pierced with the distant sounds of the mighty river which looked rather like a sea. Then Cossacks voices and the clatter of their horses hooves reemerged in my head and I would concentrate on them and gradually these sounds would form into music thats how I wrote a scene for one of my operas


Khortytsya today

It was only fairly recently that a plan to reconstruct the fortified center on the island of Khortytsya began to be realized. Since not a single Cossack fortress survived (the very idea of free Cossacks was repugnant both to the Russian Empire and to its successor, Soviet empire), it was not easy to figure out what Cossack fortifications could have looked like.

Historians did a lot of research and then offered their ideas which were later put into practice thanks to the enthusiasts of Ukrainian history and culture.

The Historical-Cultural Sich Complex has already become a big tourist attraction. The central part of it, Kosh, contains Maydan, the central square, which was the place of general meetings of Cossacks at which the elections of hetmans and commanders were held, matters of internal and external policies were discussed and decided, the time for marches and raids was announced, and many other matters argued and settled.

Maydan is graced with a three-dome church which is dedicated to the Pokrov Svyatoyi Bohorodytsi (The Protective Veil of the Holy Mother of God). The church is a replica of the eighteenth-century Trinity Church in the village of Pustovoytivka in the Land of Sumshchyna.

On various sides of Maydan Square one can see the house of the otaman Cossack leader, an administrative building, an arsenal, a treasure house, a school, and kureni Cossack dormitories. All the constructions are made of wood, as they were in the old times, and decorated with wood carvings. A palisade of big oak logs and a moat run around Kosh, with three defense and observation towers located at strategic points.

There must have been a settlement, Peredmistya, around Kosh too and it has been recreated as well. This Peredmistya was populated mostly by craftsmen and traders, and among their houses one can see an inn, a smithy and a tavern.

The Cossack spirit is also reflected in the Zaporizhski Kozaky Theater which is located nearby. The shows staged there include various stunts on horses and Cossack athletic games which invariably produce a lot of excited cheering in capacity audiences.

The Museum of Dnipro Shipping is another feature on the island popular with tourists where you can see Cossack boats recovered from the bottom of the river.

Wherever you go in Khortytsya, you come across places and spots that bear names that have come from the Cossack past urochyshche Sahaydachnoho, Sichovi vorota, Kozacha mohyla, Sovutyna skelya, to name just a few that come to mind. The atmosphere of the island is permeated with the Cossack past. Some visitors claim to have seen Cossack ghosts.

A visit to Khortytsya does give an idea what the Cossack life must have looked like in the seventeenth century. In fact, it gives you more you begin to understand what it felt like to be a free Cossack.


The Historical and Cultural Complex Zaporizhska Sich, the Island of Khortytsya.


A recreated Cossack village.


Descendants of Zaporizhski Cossacks.



Horsemanship and horse-riding stunts performed by the Cossacks from the Zaporizhski Kozaky Theater in Khortytsya.


The tradition to bake such loaves of bread has come from the times of old.



Cossacks in their chayka (seagull)-boats sailed up and down the Dnipro River and even across the Black Sea.


A replica of an old Cossack gun.



At the set during the shooting of the film Taras Bulba (directed by V. Bortko) in Khortytsya.


Zaporizhska Sich by the painter D. Narbut (from the collection of the Zaporizhzhya Art Museum).




Photos by the author

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