The Pontic steppe, land known to the ancient Greeks as Scythia, now modern Ukraine, has played a crucial role in the development of civilisation throughout Europe and beyond. It’s believed to have been where the Indo-European languages originated around 6-7 millennia ago, the area where the horse was domesticated, and the site of origin of the wheel and carts. Fast forward a few thousand years, and the lands on the banks of major rivers like the Dnipro (Dneiper) were populated by a group we now associate more with Russia: Cossacks, the subject of this weekend’s paintings.
No one is too sure when the Cossacks first arrived, but from the early thirteenth century they seem to have started occupying the land on both sides of the Dnipro. Initially, they were mainly nomadic hunters who preyed on merchants travelling on the trade routes crossing the steppe. By the end of the fifteenth century they had organised into expeditions that plundered the richer lands along the north coast of the Black Sea.
By the end of the next century, Cossacks were being registered into organised armies, and mounted their first rebellion. Many centred on a fortified settlement or Sich, forming the Zaporozhian Cossacks, the subject of most of the paintings in this article. In the Spring of 1648, with the seventh major uprising of Cossacks that century, the Great Revolt under the leadership of Bohdan Khmelnytsky resulted in the formation of a Cossack state, viewed by some as the foundation of Ukraine.
Mykola Ivasiuk’s huge undated painting of the Entry of Bohdan Khmelnytskyi to Kyiv in 1649 shows the victorious Cossack hetman (leader), riding his white horse to be greeted by the metropolitan of Kyiv and patriarch of Jerusalem. The Cossacks had gone from the margins of society to its centre.
About fifty years later, a commander of the Cossack Lubny regiment, Leontiy Svichka, was depicted as the donor of this Crucifixion (c 1699) in Pyriatyn, Ukraine. He stands on the left.
When the Zaporozhian Sich was razed to the ground on the orders of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, in 1775, the legend of Cossack Mamay became popular, and he appeared in many folk paintings. He is typically shown with a kobza, a lute-like musical instrument that has become symbolic of the Ukrainian soul, a horse for freedom and fidelity, and an oak tree on which his weapons are hung.
This version of a Zaporozhian Cossack from Crimea (Cossack Mamai) is thought to have been painted between 1780-1840, and even shows his pipe hanging with his weapons.
By the late nineteenth century, Ukrainian Cossacks had attracted the attention of fine artists, including the Polish military painter Józef Brandt (1841–1915).
Brandt’s Cossack and a Girl at the Well from 1875 shows a couple in late summer, with their horses outside the stockade around their thatched cottage.
The Capture of a Caucasian Chief shows the successful outcome of battle, as Cossacks escort a leader of their opposing forces from the Caucasus. The prisoner’s hands are bound behind a finely decorated gun. At the far right is the corpse of a horse, and the column of Cossacks and their prisoners stretches as far as the eye can see.
Brandt’s Zaporozhians shows a small gathering, with horses and carts at what appears to be a temporary encampment. Most of the Cossacks are well armed.
Cossacks Fighting Tatars from the Crimean Khanate from about 1890 shows one of the many skirmishes between Cossacks and Tatars living in the Ottoman strip of the Crimean peninsula and nearby coastal lands. Although the Cossacks carry guns, weapons in use are more traditional, including long spears, with the Tatars using longbows from the saddle.
By far the best-known painting of Ukrainian Cossacks is Ilya Repin’s huge masterpiece of the Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks. painted in 1878-91. Repin was born in Chuguyev, Ukraine, although he trained in Saint Petersburg and painted for most of his career in Russia.
The event depicted is supposed to have taken place in 1676, but is probably largely legendary. After the Zaporozhian Cossacks had defeated Ottoman forces in battle, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire Mehmed IV is claimed to have sent the Cossacks a letter demanding that they submit to his rule. Repin here shows the Cossacks under their leader Taras Bulba, and his general Ivan Sirko, composing their forthright and explicit reply. Repin’s rich assembly of faces is shown in the detail below.
Another Ukrainian artist who painted the Cossacks was Serhii Vasylkivsky (1854–1917), who was more interested in recording individuals.
Vasylkivsky’s undated Zaporozhian Cossack shows an older man, alone with his horse, leaning on his gun and staring into the distance.
Cossack Senior from the Zaporozhian Host is one of Vasylkivsky’s many full portraits, here of an older man in tattered clothing, a pipe held in his left hand.
The Russian Revolution led to both Ukrainian and Russian Cossacks being assimilated into the Communist state, dispersed, and supplanting their heritage and culture with a new sanitised Russian model of Cossack. Ilya Repin left Russia for Finland, where he remained until his death.
Serhii Plokhy (2015) The Gates of Europe, A History of Ukraine, Penguin. ISBN 978 0 141 98061 4.
Andrey Kurkov and others (2022) Treasures of Ukraine, A Nation’s Cultural Heritage, Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978 0 500 02603 8.