The Long History of Ukraine's Eastern Territories: What Role Did the Cossacks Play?

May 8, 2024
The Cossacks contributed a lot to the development of the eastern parts of Ukraine.
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How? UkraineWorld asked Dmytro Bilyi, Ukrainian historian and writer.

How did the Cossacks shape eastern Ukraine?

Of course, the history of eastern Ukraine extends beyond the Cossacks to the times of Kyivan Rus, the Cossacks largely shaped eastern Ukraine. The Sich emerged from separate Cossack groups, from which a single structure was already forming.

Russia tried to portray that the Muscovites began to create a civilisation, a "Novorossiya", out of an uninhabited field. Under the term “Novorossiya”, Russia meant the southern Ukrainian lands, which included the territories annexed by the Russian Empire in the 18th century, namely the lands of the Northern Black Sea, Azov and Crimea lands.

Russians live in the paradigm of "the main thing is to capture the city, and then historians will say that it has always belonged to us."

To better understand the discourse, let's take a look at the campaign of Ihor Sviatoslavych and the battle with the Polovtsians that took place in the Kalmius area.

He was going to reclaim the Tmutorokan principality (overseas lands of Kyivan Rus and was probably located in Kerch and a little bit on the Taman), and according to local mythology, Homer's Troy was located on the principality's territory.

That is, the eastern territories were not some wild land, an uninhabited field.

The Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts reached their peak during the Zaporizhzhia Cossacks' control when disparate Cossack units were intensely unified. After all, who are these Cossacks?

They were people who went to free lands and developed them. Ivan Lysiak Rudnytskyi aptly dubbed them free-armed farms. If we draw a parallel with the founding of the United States, these are the "armed farmers".

The trade routes that ran through eastern Ukraine were critical, including the later-named Muravskiy Trail.

The Cossacks fished, hunted, and worked in the salt mines. And, like oil today, salt played a strategic role back then. Cossack settlements and winter camps were established, and the region experienced rapid growth.

The Zaporizhzhia Army's Kalmius Palanka served as the main Cossack centre on these lands. Many settlements have preserved their names and locations. For example, Zemlianky and Yasenivka.

Mariupol was also founded as the Domakha fortress, which was the main naval outpost of the Zaporizhzhia Army. They built their carbines (Chaikas) there and then sailed to the Kuban. The place names of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are often mentioned in Cossack songs. For example, Savur Mohyla.

The middle of the seventeenth century saw the formation of the Sloboda Cossack army, i.e., the formation of Slobozhanshchyna.

Who were the Don Cossacks?

There were also Don Cossacks, who formed on Lower Don territory and spoke Ukrainian. The first capital was Cherkasy. At the time, the Zaporizhzhia Cossacks went by the name Cherkasy.

The Russian imperial government was concerned that the union of Zaporizhzhia, Sloboda, and Don Cossacks would weaken the empire's hold on this strategically important region.

And the empire started to drive a wedge. The land issue is artificially created when the Azov region was redistributed and given to the Don Cossacks, including Mariupol, in the first half of the 18th century.

It was divided by the Kalmius River, with the Don Cossacks occupying the left bank and the Cossacks occupying the right.

Can we consider the Cossack era, which preceded Kyivan Rus, to be an episode of Ukrainian unity?

Absolutely. Ukraine could not have become Ukraine without the East, and the Cossacks largely created this unified Ukrainian space, from an economic point of view, through to the development of farming and fishing.

The Cossack state was already a precursor to the creation of a modern Ukrainian state. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Cossack state was often invoked during the national liberation struggle, the creation of the Ukrainian People's Republic, and the Hetmanate.

Even at the family level, for example, the parents of iconic figures such as Khmelnytsky or Sahaidachny were from western Ukraine, so no contradictions between the west and the east were considered.

The Ukrainian Cossacks had always been one of the main threats to Moscow.

Daria Synhaievska
Analyst and journalist at UkraineWorld