Vikings and Cossacks

Vikings and Cossacks

March 17, 2010

Making the Chapter:

Seeing a ship larger than a football field and higher than an apartment block docked in Kyiv is a reminder that the Dnipro is a mighty river. Recalling that Kyiv is a thousand kilometres from the Black Sea reinforces the fact.  In Vikings and Cossacks I look at the early history of Ukraine, the settlers from the Baltic who used the Dnipro as a trade route, and the controversy surrounding the origin of the words, Kyivan Rus, Russia, and Ukraine.

I sail down the river to the city of Zaporizhia and to the Cossack fortress on the Island of Khortytsia. There, I’m entertained by modern-day Cossacks and I hear about the first constitution ever written — preceding both the French and the American constitutions by seventy years. Amidst a lively display of Cossack horsemanship, music and dancing we discuss Cossack values and culture, and the true spirit of Ukraine.


We took seats overlooking the horse arena where Cossacks were practicing their acrobatics, and Stanislav explained why the Cossacks are such a strong symbol of Ukrainian identity.

“The Cossacks tried to establish a way of life that was distinct from the great powers of their day. They held prominence for more than four centuries, and, being descended from the indigenous people and those who passed through the steppe, they symbolize the multiethnic mix of modern Ukraine. They were free-spirited, self-reliant, and not prone to domination. They weren’t displaced people forced to live on the steppe, like some suggest, but they choose to live here because of its beauty and abundance. Nowadays people relate to their values of freedom, equality, and fraternity.”

Fifty metres ahead of us, the Cossack horses trotted slowly into the ring, their calm progress barely hiding the high mettle of their alert eyes, stretched ears, and tensed muscles. The Cossack riders started to rehearse a series of moves not unlike those of a break-dancer one might see on Kyiv’s main streets, falling to the ground, springing up, spinning on their back and shoulder blades. But whereas a break-dancer has the pavement as a platform, the Cossacks have wild animals beneath them.

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