Khortitsa Sich - A Day with the Cossacks
Cossacks - somewhat like dachas - have made plenty of appearances in Western popular culture, but most Americans (Chipp certainly included) don’t really know anything about their background. Fortunately, we’d have a chance to remedy this during our time in Zaporizhzhia, the historic heartland of the Cossacks.
Somewhat surprisingly - at least at a surface level - Cossacks seem to share a philosophical identity with early American settlers (to include more than a little killing of people in their way...). The word Cossack actually has its origins in a Turkic word meaning “free man.” And, per the Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine (if it’s online, it’s true, right?), this freedom described:
Anyone who could not find his appropriate place in society and went into the steppes, where he acknowledged no authority.
Swap “steppes” with “American west,” and you’ve got Manifest Destiny. Tongue-in-cheek? Yep, but there’s definitely a descriptive resemblance here.
Day of the City
For a little more context, we’d spend our day learning about the Cossacks on Zaporizhzhia’s Day of the City, a city-wide holiday with its origins in World War II.
Formerly known as the Day of Liberation, the day originally commemorated the city’s liberation from Nazi occupiers. Today, it’s become a yearly opportunity to take a day off work, celebrate Zaporizhzhia’s heritage, go to festivals and concerts, and just hang out with friends and family.
On this year’s holiday, we’d take advantage of the beautiful weather to do a little historical stuff, a little picnic stuff, and a little booze stuff - would be a great day.
Before talking about the Cossacks in Zaporizhzhia, it’s important to provide a geographic overview of the city itself.
Located in southeastern Ukraine and straddling both sides of the Dnieper River, Zaporizhzhia translates as “beyond the rapids.” Today this is a bit of a misnomer, as the eponymous rapids were flooded in the early 1930s to make way for a hydroelectric dam. Currently, Khortitsa Island serves as the most identifiable terrain feature on this stretch of the Dnieper, and it plays a central role in the city’s cultural life.
Roughly speaking, Khortitsa resembles Grand Island on the Niagara River, with two major differences. First, rather than separating two countries, Khortitsa separates Zap’s left and right banks. Second, due to its ecological and cultural importance, the island has been designated a national reserve (basically a national park), so most of it cannot be developed.
The island’s miles of trails, forests, and rocky coastline make for an outstanding escape from life in the city. It’s just a quick shot over a bridge getting there, so plenty of Zap residents see the island as an easy escape from the noise, chaos, and factory-heavy air of the city. And, of particular relevance to our story, the northern tip of the island hosts a museum and reenactment site highlighting the city’s Cossack heritage (more on that below).
NOTE: Named after the island, Khortitsa is also an outstanding brand of local vodka - if you ever see a bottle of the distillery’s hot pepper honey vodka, do yourself a favor and try it.
A Universal Barometer
The morning of the holiday, we loaded up on picnic supplies, met some family friends, and grabbed a couple taxis out to Khortitsa. Every year on the Day of the City, people flood to the island - both to spend some time in nature and to see all the festivities put on by the Cossack reenactors.
While not really related to anything beyond, well, A) its location on Khortitsa, and B) its entertainment value, the island’s also home to the “Universal Barometer” – one of the first things we saw there. Basically just a branch with a rope hanging from it and wooden sign, the barometer’s associated “instructions” roughly translate:
If the rope looks calm, the weather’s nice.
If it’s moving, it’s windy.
If it’s wet, it’s raining.
If it’s covered with frost, it’s cold.
If you can’t see it, it’s dark outside.
If it falls over, there’s an earthquake.
Pretty useful tool.
The Zaporizhzhian Cossacks and Khortitsa Sich
Here’s a fairly non-comprehensive, this-isn’t-a-historical-dissertation overview of the Cossacks.
Some of the first references to the term “Cossack” came from instructions Italian city-states gave to their Black Sea holdings, referring to bands of armed men engaged in military service in the frontier regions of the area. Moving into the 15th century, Cossack assumed a broader mantle, referring to the Ukrainians living out in the steppes and practicing a variety of trades.
The Ukrainian Cossacks would also go on to play a role in the struggle to establish an autonomous Ukrainian state prior to the formation of the Soviet Union. Though unsuccessful, this push towards independence remains a point of pride for Ukrainians today, especially following the Russian annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbas in eastern Ukraine.
In Zap, particularly, this pride is strong. The Zaporizhzhian Cossacks, based out of their stronghold – or “sich” – on Khortitsa, comprised one of the most powerful Cossack hosts in the region.
Khortitsa Sich grew rapidly beginning in the 15th century, with numbers swelling from serfs fleeing the more controlled lands of the surrounding empires. Up to its eventual destruction in 1775 – as ordered by Catherine the Great – the sich served as an influential political entity employing a parliamentary government.
Today, the reconstructed Khortitsa Sich serves as a symbol of Ukrainian independence. From a practical perspective, the museum and rebuilt grounds provide visitors an awesome, interactive way to see and feel what life in a Cossack camp was like. If you’ve been to Colonial Williamsburg, think that, but replace life in colonial America with camp life for the Ukrainian Cossacks.
Once you enter the timbered outer walls of the sich, you can spend hours (and still need more time!) inside the stronghold learning about the Cossacks’ system of governance, economic and trading traditions, military technology, adherence to Orthodox Christianity, and just how they lived, in general.
Awesome “going back in time” and wandering through the sich. Sure, you can certainly read about all this history. But it’s far cooler to watch a Cossack blacksmith beat a glowing hot sword into shape in front of you than read about their manufacturing techniques in a textbook.
One of the absolute highlights of the day involved a show put on by the Cossack military reenactors. Despite all of their contributions in trading and governance, the legacy most central to the Cossack narrative is one of military prowess and valor.
Once again, studying Cossack military techniques only takes you so far. In an incredible feat of historical reenactment, the Khortitsa Sich includes expert reenactors in the traditional martial arts of the Cossack warriors – both as means to show these techniques to visitors and, through the training the reenactors receive – keep these traditions alive.
For all of us non-bow-and-arrow-shooting-while-on-horseback mortals, all this training means we get to watch a wildly entertaining demonstration of Cossack military techniques. Shooting targets while galloping full-tilt on a horse, using spears to knock charging riders from their own steeds, hurling axes into wooden targets, bringing running troops down with a whip around their ankles – just some of the wild demonstrations we saw.
And, to make it even more entertaining, the Cossack reenactor narrating the show made sure to keep the audience involved. After an impressive show of whip (think Indiana Jones style) work, he asked for a volunteer. Not sure whether she volunteered herself – or was volunteered by her friends – but a pretty Ukrainian girl ended up as the “victim.”
With showman-like flair that would do Las Vegas magicians proud, this Cossack convinced the gal to place a wheat stalk in her mouth, with the grains extending a couple feet in front of her face.
As the whip broke the sound barrier – the audience seeming to gasp as one – the girl took the stalk of wheat from her mouth, with the grain at its tip having been cut clean off, and sportingly gave a bow to the crowd. Still nervous thinking about it.
A Ukrainian Picnic
No Ukrainian holiday’s complete without plenty of food (and maybe a drink or two), and our day on Khortitsa would be no different.
We’d carried a very-not-traditional-Ukrainian-but-absolutely-delicious meal around in a backpack all day, so it felt like a reward to post up at a picturesque picnic site late afternoon to finally enjoy it.
Shawarma – kind of like a Middle Eastern, shaved-meat version of a burrito – pretty much always makes for a delicious treat. Jenna’s dad had picked up a bunch of takeout that morning, her mom cut up fresh veggies, and we loaded up some beer, wine, and - just a little – vodka.
Sitting in a shaded grove on the slopes of Khortitsa Island, looking down at the Dnieper River, and enjoying a delicious meal with some good drinks and great people makes for quite a day. This may have been Chipp’s first Day of the City, but it definitely won’t be his last.