Polish Cossacks
Written and researched by Margaret Odrowaz-Sypniewska

Lisowcyzyk by Józef Brandt (Museum Narodowe, Poznan, Poland).
This painting represents the Polish light horsemen named after Alekander Lisowski, who raised them in 1611. They were mercenaries in the Thirty Years War in 1620.

The last decade of the fifteenth (15th) century can be set as the date for the origin of the Cossacks in the Ukrainian steppes. The word kozak, in the Turkish tongue, meant "freeman," "freelancer," "warrior," or "adventurer." The ethnic name kas, refers to an old northern Caucasion people, now know as Circassians. The tern kazak, or kozak, in Russian, meant "a man without a home, a nomad, or a wanderer."

The Cossacks were thought to be akin to the Tartars, in that they developed into steppe fighters on a par with the raiding Tartars. They roamed over the land looking for adventure and plunder.

By 1508, chronicler Martin Bielski recorded that a group of Cossacks, under the leadership of Constantine Ostrozhsky, Starosta of Bratslav, was able to defeat a band of Tartars who occupied a portion of Lithuanian lands. In 1512, Ostrozhsky joined forces with Predslaw Lanckoronski, Starosta of Kamenets, and again had success in beating the Tartars. Then in 1516, Lanckoronski conducted another raid on Tartar lands by attacking Akkerman at the mouth of the Dniester river and taking as his booty large quantities of horses, cattle, and sheep. Then the Turks and Tartars intercepted the Cossacks and fought back to the frontier town of Cherkassy.

Cossacks then became a sort of border guards. They made the Dniepr River their base of operation against the Tatars. A garrison of 2000 men patrolled this area. Their purpose was to guard against Tartar raids.

In Count Henry Krasinski's The Cossacks of the Ukraine, he explains:


Cossacks began to emerge as popular heroes to the lower classes. When the gentry came, they claimed land, and since the settlers (poor) had no proof of ownership, they were thrown off until the Cossacks, who resented the gentry, took this land back.

The Cossacks had chosen leaders called ataman. The Cossacks practiced fishing and hunting (for beaver), and stole some wild horses (and some not so wild) between battles. Tatar raids were the result of Cossack raids, and the land was in turmoil. So King Sigismund I, of Poland (1506-1548) wanted help to control this constant raping and pillaging. Sigismund had the Starosta of Kiev and Cherkassy (in 1541) register all the local Cossacks, so as to have a list for accountability. However, Cossacks didn't like restrictions and refused to fight for those who sought to control them.

Dmitri Wisnowiecki was Starosta for Kiev and Kaner in 1550. The next ten years were very violent. Ivan IV of Moscow was sending two groups of Cossacks to war against the Tatars. One group went down the Don River and the other group patroled the Dniepr River. Three hundred (300) Cossacks were sent by Wisniowiecki under atamans Mlinski and Eskovich. These combined forces brought victory, and Wisniowiecki occupied the island of Khortitsa and built his encampment for the Zaporog Cossacks.

In the spring of 1557, the garrison was attacked and besieged for twenty-four days by Tartar troops under the leadership of Khan Devlet Giray (reigned from 1551-1577). The following December, the Cossacks raided the Tartar town of Islam-Kerman; and the Tartars retaliated in October 1558.

***note that Moscow had a similar relationship with the Don Cossacks.

Wisniowiecki was a land owner and had allegience to the Polish-Lithuanian state. He was a hero, and was celebrated in folk songs, as the leader of the Cossacks. Like most Cossacks, Wisniowiecki practiced the Orthodox faith.

On July 1, 1569; the Union of Lublin ceded the Dnieper basin of Lithuania to Poland proper. Poland was then dominated by the landed gentry. The gentry was well established by 1567. The Cossacks, who were also small land owners, refused to be regarded as peasants and serfs. The Cossacks refused to give up their lifestyle and migrated to the lower Dniepr and became known as the Cossacks of Zaporozhe. By 1572, the Cossacks were paid a salary, if they would serve to help the Polish Army, under the royal authority of the crown officials known as starshoi. This attempt failed because the Seym would not, or could not, secure the needed funds. By 1574, the Cossacks had made their way to the Black Sea, and they then began to become seafarers under ataman Foka Pokotila.

The long reign of Sigmund-Augustus ended one year earlier (in 1573) as did the Jagiellon dynasty. Now the Polish throne was elected. The successor. Henry of Valois, paid well for his throne, but he returned to France after his brother, Charles IX's death. After a confusing period, Stephan Batory, the Transylvania Prince, was elected, in 1575, and the Polish-Lithuanian state consisted of towns like Kiev, Kanev, and Cherkassy and continued through Belaia Tserkov and Bratslav. Other small settlements were Pereiaslavl, Chigirin, Korsun, Uman, and Bar. Batory, who was coronated on May 1, 1576; received a deputation from the Dniepr Cossacks and presented them with gold coins.

Before his election, Bogdan Ruzhinsky, a Volynian nobleman, led one of the most brutal Cossack raids in their history. In 1575, a Tartar group raided the southern borders of Poland, and as they headed home, Ruzhinsky's men followed. They went to the Crimea and freed Christian slaves, and in his wake no man, woman, or child was spared. Ruzhinsky continued along the Asia Minor coast through Trabzon, Sinop, and a surburb of Constantinople. On his way home, he attacked Aslam-Gorod.

***Cossack seamen took their small chaiki (boats) on the Black Sea at the turn of the century.

After Batory's cornation, Cossacks burned Tiagin and devastated Khaslan-Gorodok and Lower Region Cossacks attacked the Tartars who raided Muscovite lands. Ataman Jacob Shakh attacked Tartars in January in the following year. The Tartars were stripped of presents given them in Moscow (as payment for services rendered them). The Tartars returned the favor by attacking Kiev and Belaia Tserkov. War went back and forth for another year, as the Tartars destroyed Bar and other small outposts. In October, Prince Yanush Zbarazhsky, the Voevode of Bratslaw, retaliated and defeated the Tartar.

In 1577, there were a few Cossacks pretenders to the Moldavian throne, the first was Ivan Podkova. However, he was overturned, imprisoned, and later beheaded. In 1578, his brother, Alexander, was elected the leader of the Cossacks and invaded Moldavia. Stephen Batory's brother defeated them near the town of Jassy. The Cossacks were led by a man named Peter (brother of Alexander Podkova?). He also was defeated while trying to seize the Moldavian crown. The Cossacks were driven out of Moldavia. The Turks wanted Batory to execute Padkova. March 1578, a Turkish emissary came to Krakow:

    Their talks concluded that:

  • (1) Cossack raids had broken agreements between the Polish State and its principalities. Jan Tarlo was sent to find out which Cossack leader was responsible for the contant wars.
  • (2)They reminded Prince Constantine Ostrozhsky that he was asked to search the lower regions, to help build good relationships between the Khan and Batory.
  • (3)All starostas were asked to assist Ostrozhsky in his operations. They were told not to grant refuge for, or give supplies to the Lower Region Cossacks. The Tartars named Shakh and Arkovski were leaders in the 1577 raids. Batory warned that if the Tartars were further provoked that nothing would ease their wrath (the wrath of the Tartars).
  • (4) Martin Bronevsky, royal envoy to the Khan, was instructed to make sure the Lower Region Don Cossacks were exterminated.

These laws were set in place to pacify Poland's neighbors, as the Livonian War was about to erupt.

Jan Tarlo had little luck with the frontier officials (summer 1578), and could discover only one culprit. Yanchi-Beger came to Batory with five envoys of the Lower Region Cossacks. They offered their services to Batory. Six hundred (600) Cossacks were to receive fifteen florins and a yarmak (an outer garment or coat) annually.

The Starosta of Cherkassy, Prince Michael Wisniowiecki, was appointed their commander. His assistant was Jan Oryshewski, Yanchi-Beger was to serve as his pisar(secretary). On December 6, 1578; these Cossacks took their oath to King Stephen Batory and agreed not to raid Turkish lands, unless there were direct orders from the Polish monarch.

The Registered Cossacks were never really utilized and their salaries ended with the end of the Livonian War.Many peasants and serfs suddenly wanted to be registered, hoping to improve their situation in life. During the Livonian War many Lower Region (Zaporog) Cossacks had served Poland against Muscovy. In late 1582, an attack on the Tartar envoy returning from Moscow was reported, however, Batory had no hold on these men, and the Khan was free to deal with them in his own way. Batory stated that he would not tolerate Tartar reprisals against Polish towns.

During the last four years of his life, Batory saw the Zaporog Cossacks thriving and growing in numbers and strength. In 1584, he sent Gregory Glebocki to the Lower Region Cossacks. The Cossacks tortured him to death and threw him in the Dnieper River. In 1585, the Sejm met to work out controls of the Zaporog Cossacks to oust the Turks from Europe. The Poles built a fortress at Kudek (in 1638) and it lasted until 1652. Its location was near the mouth of the Podpilnaia River opposite Kamenny Zatou, the spot where Bogdan Khmelnitsky fled, in 1647, to escape the Polish authorities.

  • ***"In the third, fourth, and fifth decades of the seventeenth century there were increasing frequent examples of the Don and Zaporog Cossacks acting in concert in Black Sea raids, even in the successful attack on Azov in 1637. At the same time there was a steady migration of settlers into the eastern Ukraine, and this trend was accelerated by the Cossack Wars fought between Khmelnitsky and the Poles. In fact, many areas of Galicia, Volynia and Podolia were subjected to such devastation that there was a mass exodus eastward into lands nominally under the sovereignty of Moscow. It became apparent that Khmelnitsky's movement might well end in an amagamation of all Cossack elements centered in the eastern Ukraine"(March, Patrick G. Cossacks of the Brotherhood).

    With war between Poland and Russia in the air, Boghan Khmelnitsky took the oath of allegiance to the Tsar on January 18, 1654; in the cathedral of Pereciaslavl.

    The Agreement of Pereciaslavl was made as a petition from Khmelnitsky published in Moscow on March 31, 1654. This agreement recognized the old rights established by Russian Princes and Polish Kings.

Another sech was located at Chartomlyk Rog at the mouth of the River Chortomlyk in 1652, This was referred to as the "Old Sech." Their leader was Ivan Sirko until Peter the Great destroyed them in 1709.

The Zaporog Cossacks never discontinued raids against the Tartar/Tatar; until another treaty was drawn up. The Thirty (30) year Karlowicz peace treaty was between Moscow and Turkey. It was signed on July 3, 1700. This time there were tweleve articles, and four referred to the Zaporog Cossacks:

  • (1) Any Cossacks making war on the Tartars/Tatars and Turks for the duration of the peace would be executed.
  • (2)Cossacks could hunt and fish to the mouth of the Dniepr river.
  • (3)No settlements could be made on the Dniepr river from Chortomlyk Sech to the Dnieper estuary.
  • (4)All Moslem sites on the Dnieper, captured by Moscow, were to be razed.

From 1686-1700 the Zaporag Cossacks supported Moscow's policies. They worked with Hetman Ivan Mazeppa of the Ukraine.

The Zaporog Cossacks survived the destruction of the Sech in 1709. Not until sixty-six (66) years after the battle of Poltava would the Zaporog Cossacks be dissolved. The Zaporog Cossacks built more seches while they were in exile and worked for Empress Anne of Russia in their "Old Sech" home. Catherine the Great of Russia destroyed them in 1775.



The Cossack Web ... The Cossack Store


Frost, Robert. After the Deluge: Poland-Lithuania and the Second Northern War 1655-1660. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Krasinski, Count Henry. The Cossacks of the Ukraine. London: Partridge and Oakley, Paternoster Row, 1985.

March, G. Patrick. Cossacks of the Brotherhood: The Zaporoz Kosh of the Dniepr River. New York: Peter Lang, 1990.

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