Cossacks… What Are We and Where Do We Originate From?

«Cossacks have made the entire history of Russia. Not for nothing do the Europeans call us Cossacks. The Russian people all desire to be Cossacks».

Leo Tolstoy, 1870

«…initially the Cossacks were from ancient Scythians. No doubt! »

Anatoly Olovintsov, 2014


The WUCA Elder and a member of the National Congress of Historians of Kazakhstan Anatoly Grigorievich Olovintsov has made extensive research of historical materials referring to Cossacks and their origin.

“According to “the Father of History” Herodotus (c.484-c.425 BC), nomadic tribes had inhabited the territory of the Black Sea and the Azov Sea steppes since ancient times. Those tribes used to be called the Scythians.

The Greeks had been familiar with the Scythians since the VIII century BC. Herodotus wrote: “Having neither cities nor forts, and carrying their dwellings with them wher­ever they go: accustomed, moreover, one and all of them, to shoot from horseback: and living not by husbandry but on their cattle, their wagons the only houses that they possess, how can they fail of being unconquerable, and unassailable even?”.

Learning from the Greeks the Scythians created their own proto-states similar to the Kingdom of the Cimmerian Bosporus.

By trade agreements, the Greeks received gold, copper, bronze, horses, grain, fine fur, boilers and, above all, iron weapons from Scythia. Archaeological research and evidence show that copper and iron were first produced in the Eurasian Steppe in prehistoric times.

According to Dr. Chernykh, the first geologist to explore the Kargaly copper field in the Orenburg region, the earliest exploration works in Kargaly took place in the IV-III millennia BC. Copper ore had been continuously mined at Kargaly for almost two thousand years.

In 1961, in Altai, an archaeologist Okladnikov (1908-1981) found the oldest cast-iron ploughshare, which scientists estimate being 2.5 thousand years old. The artifact agrees with the ancient Scythian myth: “When golden objects fell out of the sky onto the Scythian land: a plow, a yoke, a pole ax, and a bowl.” Thus, part of the Scythians were plowmen, farmers and their product – grain, was sent to Greece for export, as evidenced by other archaeological sources of the Kuban.

The Syrian satirist Lucian of Samosata (c.120-180 AD) in his dialogue “The Scythian. Toxaris and Friendship” says: "Our ancestors wrote on copperplates ... the children had to memorize what is written on it". It turns out that the Scythians had schools for children, where the younger generation was taught literacy and the rules of behavior in society.

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The Scythian gold plates (the so-called “animalistic style”) found in burial grounds suggest that the Scythians in their everyday life stood well above the neighbouring tribes and peoples.

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There is a widespread concern and argument about lack of direct Cossack primary sources. Firstly, the Don Archives with a lot of valuable material were burnt to ashes in Cherkassk in 1744. Secondly, all the documents that might have had any indication of our people were destroyed in the XX c. to hide any evidence of the Cossack genocide as “the tsar’s satraps and the enemies of the proletariat”.

And despite the abundance of historical literary sources, the history of the Cossacks is not yet unearthed. Both under the tsarist and under the bolshevik regimes, the Cossack unique identity was suppressed and distorted in every possible way. A few times, the latest being after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution the task was to completely exterminate the Cossacks, i.e. the genocide of the Cossacks as a people. As a result, historians had to adapt to the wishes of the ruling elite, hush up many a brutal act of the totalitarian regime towards the most legendary and recalcitrant people of Russia.

Let us continue our excursus on the peoples of ancient times. Historians of antiquity reported that the maps of Ptolemy (II century), a major scientist who lived and worked in the Alexandria Library in Egypt, marked the land of the Cossacks in Kuban, with its capital Cherkasy.

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An eyewitness to the meeting of Prince Svyatoslav of Kiev with the Byzantine Emperor John I Tzimiskes left us a colorful portrait of the prince: “He sailed on a Scythian boat ... He was of medium height, with thick eyebrows and blue eyes, flat nose, shaved head and long hanging mustaches... His head was completely bald, with just one lock of hair hanging sideways, meaning nobility of the family ... In one ear he had a gold earring decorated with a carbuncle and two pearls ...”. Well, looks just like Zaporozhe Cossack of Ilya Repin’s picture! And this was, mind you, X century. The author of the portrait is a Byzantine chronicler. A bit earlier, at the beginning of the same century, the Cossacks were mentioned in the works of the Byzantine emperor Constantine «the Purple-born». Thus, there was evidence of the Cossack existence in the IX and X centuries.

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I must mention the portrait of a Hun of the IV century AD painted on silk cloth, or rather what has survived of it. It was discovered by a well-known Central Asian researcher P.K. Kozlov in 1924 during excavations of ancient mounds in the north of Urga (present Ulaanbaatar). A Hun with round eyes, straight nose and lush mustaches – a typical Caucasian, and in no way Mongoloid or Chinese. Such were the Huns in the IV century who marched through the Kuban region, the Black Sea coast and, naturally, left their trace over there. Well, why can’t he be viewed as a Cossack at the dawn of our era? Those were our ancestors about 2 thousand years ago.

Another important fact is that according to Constantine «the Purple-born», the southern frontiers of the Khazar Khaganate were guarded by the Cossacks. Hence there is evidence that in the VIII century the Cossacks carried out the guard services in the state where they lived.

In 1660 there was published in Europe letters of the rulers of Spain and the Khazar state of the X century.

The Spanish-Jewish scholar, physician, diplomat, and patron of science Hasdai ibn Shaprut (note – He lived and worked in Córdoba, Andalusia) in his letter to Joseph ben Aaron, the king of the Khazar Khaganate asks: "What people does the Khaganate belong to?" the Khazar ruler answers: "Cassa eli, or Cassa’s land, or Country of Cossacks". Thus spoke the king of the state.

And to this day the Cossacks of the Don, Kuban, Terek, Astrakhan, Siberian, Ural, Orenburg hosts live on earth…

National outfit speaks clearly of the ethnic origin of a people. For example, historian Colonel Isaak Bykadorov asserts that the Cossacks' trouser stripes, which colour state the host identity, were common for the Scythians. The bowls and vessels of the Kul-Ob mound depict the rulers and military leaders in trousers with stripes.

A nation has its own language and ethnic morale. In 1900 V.F. Solovev in his brochure “Peculiarities of the Don Cossacks' Dialect” wrote: “The Cossacks, despite the fact that they favor Russia, that their regiments protect its outskirts, and that every Cossack has a desire to stand up for the Tsar, do not consider themselves Russians; so that if any Cossack was asked a question: “Aren’t you Russian?” He would always proudly answer: “No, I am Cossack!”.

Yet there is another popular point of argument. This one is on the controversy of the word “Cossack” origin. Nikolay Karamzin’s (note – a Russian writer, poet, historian and critic. He is best remembered for his History of the Russian State, a 12-volume national history) opinion should be in place here: “In the history of the following times we shall see the Cossacks of the Horde, Azov, Nogai and others; this name meant then freemen, riders, daredevils, but not robbers, as some claim, referring to the Turkish lexicon: it is certainly not expletive as heroes – courageous, ready to die for liberty, fatherland and faith, were then so called”.

A nation is characterized by a common genotype and phenotype. At the beginning of the last century Evgraf Saveliev (note – a self-taught historian, specialist in the Don Cossackhood, traditional teacher, poet, journalist, 1860-1930) gave a precise description of how the Cossacks were different in appearance from other neighboring nations: “The population of the Don in the middle of the XVI century belongs to the four main groups of the ancient Cossacks, a people clearly distinguished by its anthropological phenotype from both Great Russians and Little Russians. Physical features of their body, legs, especially shins, head and face, help anyone who has studied Cossacks, to single out a natural Cossack from a host of other nations, even if he was put amid a crowd of a different tribe and dressed in an unusual outfit”.

"The Cossacks are begotten from the Cossacks". This axiomatic truth was brilliantly worded by Mikhail Sholokhov (Russian novelist and winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Literature, 1905-1984) in the novel And Quiet Flows the Don. Its ethnogenetic basis dates back to the IV-VI centuries when the descendants of the Scythians and the Avars converted to Christianity. This is evidenced by the Acts of the Council of Constantinople, 381 AD, and of Chalcedon, 451 AD, and by the sayings of one of the Earliest Church Fathers Saint John Chrysostom (c. 347-c. 407), archbishop of Constantinople.

Any nation has its native lands. We have mentioned Ptolemy’s maps and Josef ben Aaron’s letters above. Another source is a book by Siegmund Freiherr von Herberstein, 1486-1566, a Carniolan diplomat, writer, historian and member of the Holy Roman Empire Imperial Council, and an ambassador of Emperor Maximilian I in Muscovy in 1517 and 1526, stating that the original homeland territory of the Cossacks was in the mountains of the Western Caucasus.

However, it should be clarified that "not in the mountains", but in the highlands, or foothills, and on the Kuban River banks, as many researchers agree upon.

A Tatar historian and political scientist Faïl Ibyatov argues against the speculative search for the "Tatarness" of the Cossacks. He believes that the “archetypal Zaporozhe Cossacks are much closer to Scythian-Alan genotype than to the Turkic”.

“Not from the Turks, but from the Scythians and Alans”, as the researcher substantiates his opinion in detail, “come the specific, ontologically basic features of the lifestyle of the Zaporozhe and Don Cossacks. Covered kibitka wagons are a nearly exact copy of the Scythian and Sarmatian-Alan kibitkas”.

“... When a Cossack went off on his last journey, his casket or coffin was not followed by a priest with a censer as in the Great Russian regions, but by a warhorse under a black shabrack, with the beloved weapon of the deceased attached to the saddle. The motives of this tradition”, the researcher notes, “go back to the Scythian antiquity. The only people to have retained some rudiments of this custom are the Highland Ossetians, who, like the Cossacks, are the ethnogenetic heirs of the Scythians and Alans”.

However, a Ukrainian journalist and writer Oles Buzina (1969-2015) advocated different views. “So what was it of what I told our pseudo-Europeans that got them so enraged? Let them read their “classics”, let’s say, one of the fathers of Ukrainian nationalism, Vladimir Antonovich. In 1881 he wrote: “A numerous mix of Turkic peoples (Pechenegs, Cumans, Crimean Tatars and especially Chernie Klobuki (Turkic people - Kara-Kalpaks, or Black Caps) that once inhabited almost a third of the entire space of the South Russian region and melted into the Slav mass of its population) became part of the Little Russian phenotype.

... even “Kobzar” has a Tatar root. (Kobyz is an ancient Turkic musical instrument).

... Perhaps the Cuman-Tatar contribution to the gene pool and the psyche of Ukrainians was more significant than of other Slavic groups. The love for the “Cuman redhead girls” and the tricks of the Mamays (the original being Mamai (1335–1380), of Kiyat descent, was a powerful military commander of the Golden Horde, later Cossack Mamay, a Ukrainian folkloric hero) were not in vain. Wild surzhyk – breaking each and every norm – from language to politics, culture and mentality, he has become a hallmark of Ukrainian life”.

What fostered the Cossack ethnogenesis was religion, i.e. Orthodox Christianity. Owing to religious ideology the Cossack uluses that professed Orthodoxy were the most viable of the huge number of groups that emerged after the collapse of the Golden Horde. Religion entailed an alliance of the Cossacks and the emerging Moscow state. It is difficult to overestimate the role of the Cossacks in the history of Russia. Despite all the riots, “peasant uprisings” led by atamans Ivan Bolotnikov (1606-1607), Stepan Razin (1670-1671), Kondraty Bulavin (1707-1709), Yemelyan Pugachev (1773-1775) – despite all tumult and turbulence, it was the Cossacks who turned Muscovy into Russia, putting hundreds of thousands of lives in fierce battles for its greatness.

Moscow was tied to Cossacks with common goals — the fight against the Asian hordes and the defense against their attacks. The task of the Cossacks was to protect and defend the lands they occupied from the attacks of the militant highlanders and nomads surrounding them. Moscow’s task was to secure its borders from the very same Asian hordes. The Cossacks needed material assistance from Moscow. Moscow needed the Cossack military might. These common goals served as a bond between Moscow and the Cossacks that was never broken under any circumstances.

The Don Cossacks, who lived along the Don River and its steppes played a significant role in relations of Moscow with Turkey and the Crimea. A similar role was played by the Dnieper Cossacks in the Polish-Turkish relations... Disregarding any established diplomatic relations of Moscow and Poland with Turkey, the Dnieper and Don Cossacks pursued their own independent policy, attacked the Crimea, Astrakhan and even undertook risky sea campaigns on light canoe vessels, crossing the Black Sea and attacking the coast of Asia Minor. It wasn’t rare that they came back from those campaigns with big booty, but they paid for it with their heads, and this booty cost the Cossacks very, very expensive.

Yet another excursus into the Cossack land. In academic notes and references to the Records of the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII «the Purple-born» (X century) a Sinologist and professor of Greek and Roman Antiquities at St Petersburg Academy of Sciences (between 1726-1737) Theophilus (Gottlieb) Siegfried Bayer (1694-1738) speaks of Kazakya, or Cossack Land: "This is of all the oldest Cossack settlement to have been mentioned." Among the Russian historians the first to mention Kazakya, or Cossack Land, was Cavalier Alexei Popov, director of the schools in the Donskoy Host and Collegiate Councillor (note - a civil rank of 6th class in the Russian Empire). His "Story of the Don Host", having passed all censorship tests, was published in 1814. "We see that this Host had long ago been called Don Cossacks, and their land – Kazakya, because in Persian ‘Cossack’ means ‘Scythian’".

It’s about time to come back to religion. Church councils. They were formal meetings of bishops and representatives of several churches who were brought together to regulate points of doctrine or discipline. The teachings and decrees of these councils were binding on the faithful. Before the division of the Churches into the Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox (1054), the Church Councils consisted of all Christian bishops and were called Ecumenical. The Orthodox Church recognizes the decisions of the first Seven Ecumenical Councils.

The highest spiritual leaders of the Cossack Land took part in all Ecumenical Councils; the signatures of the bishops and the metropolitans of the Tom and the Tana (Taman and Don), of the Bosporian Scythia and the Bosporus can be seen in extant acts of the times. The Act of the First Council of Nicaea in 325 was signed by Bishop Donn of Bosporus; the First Council of Constantinople in 381 – by Bishop Gerontius of Tom and Tana (signed between the Bishops of Asia); Council of Ephesus in 431 – by Bishop Timothy of Tomitana Scythia; Council of Chalcedon in 451 – by Bishop Eudoxius of Bosporus and Metropolitan Theotimos of Tomitan and other Scythia; the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 – by Bishop Alexander of Tomitan and Metropolitan John of Bosporus; the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 – by Deputy Bishop Andrei of Bosporus.

John Chrysostom says that the Scythians and Sarmatians had the Word of God in their own language in the IV century. So far this is the oldest evidence of the adoption of Christianity in the Azov region. The names of the bishops were Slavic.

The Cossacks were the vanguard of the military forces of Russia in its conquest and annexation of the eastern lands up to the Pacific Ocean. Over a thousand years of history the Cossacks did not lose a single battle to an enemy in an equal battle.

As Russia advanced to the East to colonize the conquered lands, as a first step the Cossack hosts were formed on these lands: Ural, Orenburg, Siberian, Semirechye, Trans-Baikal, Daurian, Ussuri and others.

The Russian Empire can be acclaimed as a truly humane state as not a single nation that had become a part of it disappeared from the map of the world, or from history, or lost its identity. There was not a single case of genocide against indigenous population. Those locals who converted to Christianity were enrolled in Cossackhood (soslovny Cossacks).

For example, the people’s militia, or rather the Cossack irregular regiments of the Patriotic War of 1812-1814, were formed of almost all the ethnicities of the Russian Empire. It is clearly seen in the surviving paintings and sketches of the artists of those times.

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Cossack regiments played a decisive role in the European theater of Russian military operations, including the failed invasion of Russia by Napoleon’s Grande Armée when it crossed the Neman River, which completely destroyed Napoleon’s Great Army, but left the words of the great French commander in the history of warfare: “Cossacks are the finest light troops among all that exist. If I had them in my army, I would go through all the world with them”.

Another glorious historical fact. In 1760, the Don Cossacks participated in the storming of Berlin, which capitulated after 5 days. Here the Don Cossacks seized the outfit of Frederick the Great. His uniform is now exhibited in the Historical Museum in St. Petersburg.

Cossacks played a key role in the expansion of the Russian Empire into Siberia, the Caucasus and Central Asia in the period from the 16th to 19th centuries. Cossacks also served as guides to most Russian expeditions formed by civil and military geographers and surveyors, traders and explorers. Once again had the Cossacks united the lands of the Empire of Genghis Khan having made the major contribution to turning a tiny Muscovy into the Russian Empire. Ataman Yermak bowed to Russia with Siberia (1581-1585), the winner of Napoleon, Ataman Matvey Platov – with the Caucasus (1782-1784), Bogdan Khmelnitsky – with Ukraine (1649-1654), Gerasim Kolpakovsky – with Central Asia (1858-1889); sotnik (note – military officer) Beketov (1632), Ataman Dmitry Kopylov (1637), Vasily Poyarkov (1643-1646), Erofey Khabarov (1649-1653) and Cossacks Luka Morozko and Vladimir Atlasov (1696-1677) – with the Far East.

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Let me give you incredible examples of military valor and fearlessness of my people in the historical land of the present-day sovereign Kazakhstan reclaimed from the Kokands (Note - Khanate of Kokand was a Central Asian state in Fergana Valley that existed from 1709–1876 within the territory of modern Kyrgyzstan, eastern Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and southeastern Kazakhstan).

Firstly, the victory of a detachment of 799 warriors formed from Cossacks and light Kazakh cavalry over the 20-thousand Kokand army in the three-day Uzun-Agach battle in October of 1860, 60 km away from Fort Verny (now Almaty) at the fortification of Kastek (close to Uzun-Agach). The victory secured the Semirechie region to Russia and permanently stopped the Kokand raids on the lands of the Senior Qazaq Zhuz.

Secondly, the heroic three-day battle of Esaul Serov’s Cossack Sotnya (114 Cossacks) with one “unicorn” (Note – old Russian smooth-bore artillery howitzer) and a small quantity of food against the 10-thousand Kokand army of Alimkul (with a convoy, artillery, provision, etc.), which occurred in December 1864 near the village of Ikan, Turkestan Region. The battle suppressed Alimkul’s attack on Shymkent and stopped the march of the Kokand army, which could lead to the most unexpected consequences.

Thirdly, the Azov Cossack Siege Seat of 1641-1642, in which the number of the Turkish army without account of the Crimeans 6-8 times exceeded the Azov Cossack garrison, and in total the Cossacks were outnumbered by 40-50 times. The Cossack liberated Azov, which was one of the main slave trade centers in the region from where the Turks had sent “a multitude of Christian people” captured during raids into slavery.

Fourthly, the heroic battle of the Panfilov division of the Semirek Cossacks, Russians and Kazakhs on the last line of defense close to Moscow in November 1941.

And the heroic 58-day defense of the Pavlov’s House in September-November 1942 in the Battle of Stalingrad, which did not allow the Germans to break through to the Volga.

The modern hi-tech world demands a strictly scientific approach to any research. Well, the issue of the origin of the Cossacks is reflected in the reports of the round table “Genetics – Bridge Between the Natural and Human Sciences”, held on June 27, 2009 in Moscow by the Vavilov Institute of General Genetics and Lomonosov Moscow State University. Referring to the results of the Y-DNA haplogroup studies of the Cossacks, which were presented by Oleg Balanovsky, PhD in biological sciences, Professor Ivan Yurchenko, PhD in History, notes: "The presence of non-Slavic, including Caucasian and Turkic components in the ethnic origin of the Russian Cossacks is unquestionable."

Such is the genetic code of the Cossacks, who would famously sing on their way back home with a most beautiful captive girl and rich booty from the campaign: "The bride of the Crimean Khan were you but became a Don Cossack wife...". Well, as it goes – Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish”.


Dear representatives of the newly elected member countries of the Commission on NGOs, UN ECOSOC, allow me presenting you the WUCA’s addresses at the last three meetings of the Commission.

I would like to state it clear, dear representatives, that the World Union of Cossack Atamans have no complaints or claims to the government and the president of the Russian Federation concerning the facts that we are now bringing to light. Our activity is aimed at strengthening it for the sake of peace on the planet.

Having created a unified International Cossack organization – the World Union of Cossack Atamans – of the divided and dispersed Cossacks, we set out its full revival and recognition by the international community and the United Nations as the people subjected to genocide of the communist regime, and we hope for your support.

We shall undertake all and every action so that this recognition would strengthen world peace and friendship between the peoples of our countries.



Why did the Bolsheviks descend upon the Cossacks with such rage and fury? The answer is simple. Our people are the oldest democracy, we have always had an elected government – the Cossack Krug (Round, Circle, Assembly). The Krug elected Ataman (Chieftain), and the Krug alone could strip Ataman of power.


“...Honorable Committee, thank you for considering our application.

In the morning session of the 19th meeting, a question was asked about discrepancies between the large number of projects we implemented over the past period and the three large projects we have planned for this year and a small amount allocated to their funding.

In the initial application, we provided a brief explanation for our exceeding the 30% threshold of the administrative costs.

I understand I need to clarify to the members of the Committee that the peculiarity of activity of non-governmental non-profit organizations in the CIS countries is such that most of the events are organized and implemented on our own premises – in Almaty we have our own magnificent historical building dating 1903 – the Republican Cossack Cultural Center, smaller premises in the north of Kazakhstan, in Astana the organization Rossotrudnichestvo is always ready to help and provides premises for our events free of charge. In Austria and northern regions of Italy, city mayors and curators of Cossack museums were eager to be involved in all our events and openheartedly provided premises for the Conference and coffee breaks free of charge, as they are interested in the history of the Cossacks.

The events are held with the participation of artists who use their own musical instruments, their own Cossack attributes – ethnic outfit. They hold the concerts free of charge and receive no fee.

No fee has ever been asked by our researchers either, who work independently and on their own free will in the archives. We grant them letters of support addressed to the administration of the Archives (a physical person will not get access to the National Archives unless a legal entity writes a letter of support) and they get access to the archives free of charge – they study the materials, write articles, publish them in our newspaper or the Internet site (www.kazaky.kz) and on the social networks pages - all this is done by our people because it is interesting for them to know their own roots and family history.

We receive some assistance from other non-governmental organizations who provide gratis facilities for events or incentive prizes for participants (chocolates, ice-cream, color paints and paper for kids’ events, medals for activists) – but this is rare as people are not yet ready and able to help financially, most assistance we get is not material.  There are a lot of other examples of involvement, e.g. Cossacks and guests are traveling to events taking place in the regions on their own vehicles, with personal paraphernalia.

Naturally, there are people on staff who carry out all this work, i.e. attracting artists and people to take part in the event, finding opportunities to implement an event at minimum costs. We pay these people salaries because the amount of work they do is great.  If other people participate in the life of our NGO after working hours at their jobs, our staff devotes all the time to the WUCA. This is how our expenses are formed.

We help and support each other as much as possible.

The World Union of Cossack Atamans would like to appeal to the honorable Committee to support our Application, we are sure that being one of few NGOs of the Asian CIS countries we can be useful to the ECOSOC in bringing its mission to our peoples and in providing advice and assistance, sharing opinion and first-hand information on the real state of affairs in the cultural and social life of minorities living in our countries.

My name is Yuriy Zakharov. I’m a chairman of the World Union of Cossack Atamans.

Thank you!”

Speech at the Resumed Session of the Commission on NGOs, May 24, 2017.


Our goal is to gather and settle representatives of our people in their historic homeland. The people scattered around the world, living in more than forty countries. Our entire history, a brief excursus to which you have had today, substantiates the validity of Cossack historical rights.

We hope for your support.