Tuesday, April 19, 2011

CYL: Those Incorrigible Cossacks!

Three members of the Cossack "life" guard 1899 (militaryphotos)


My first exposure to the Cossacks was in 8th grade language arts when our class read the famous short story by Richard Connell, "The Most Dangerous Game". The villain in the story was a man supposedly of Cossack descent... which (like a good reader!) led me to look it up in the dictionary because as a 13 year old American I rarely came across the term. I daresay it was actually more interesting than the story I had just read (writing a report on it didn't help, but that's neither here nor there).

The trick with 'Cossack' is that it both names a group of people and a branch of the Russian army- so over time the word has gained a stereotype of burly men in exquisite uniforms, riding horses and twirling their mustaches (and believe me, we'll see some of them too!) when in fact... any age and either gender could be a Cossack. This journey we'll be looking at both, so let's head to the plains of Eastern Europe!

Two Cossacks dancing in Russia while others look on, 1870 (mansvolk)

Historical Background
Cossacks are not to be confused with cassocks, the traditional long, fitted coat worn by Catholic priests. Also I dare my readers to attempt to say "Cossack's cassock" four times fast.

The name Cossack is derived from a Turkic word- quzzak- which means freeperson, which is an accurate name for these horsepeople. Similar to the Roma, the Cossack people have found themselves spread across national boundaries and often found themselves at the wrong end of local governments. However, unlike the Roma didn't start as a distinct ethnic group- basically if you were a discontent peasant or runaway serf from Russia or Eastern Europe and could make it to an encampment: you could be a Cossack! Despite their utter distrust of the Russian army and the Tsar, they allied with the Imperial authority due to its ties to the Orthodox Church- which was just peachy by the Tsar since after years on the plains and raiding the Ottoman Empire, the Cossacks had evolved into top-notch fighters and riders. (They also sometimes grew tired of the Tsar's crap and staged several terrifying uprisings in the 18th century.)

"Portrait of a Cossack Woman" by Wassilij Iwanowitsch Surikow, 1909 (artweb)

When relations with the Tsar bordered more on wary and less on utter hatred, the Cossacks were used as frontier guard, scouts, and cavalry. In fact, the Tsar had a personal retinue of fiercely loyal Cossack guards with him in St. Petersburg (in fact when they deserted Nicholas II during the Russian Revolution, knew then that he'd better abdicate). In fact, in the 18th and 19th centuries there were several high-ranking military officers in the Russian army of Cossack birth. Other Cossack groups outside of Russia likewise were integrated (physically, but not culturally) to their local government's army.

Cossacks settled throughout modern-day Russia and Eastern Europe in frontier outposts- particularly concentrated in Ukraine (although some Cossack settlements go as far East as China!). Both on and off the battlefield they tended to keep to themselves- often preferring to raid together, eat together, even forage their own supplies separate from the army regulars. Most are Eastern Orthodox, though there are some clans of Jewish Cossacks.

Predominate groups of Cossacks include the Don, the Zaporozhian (Ukraine), the Terek, the Amur, and the Kubans.

Postcard of a Zaporozhian Cossack leader called a Sotnyk, 1900s (ArtUkraine)

Menswear: Beyond the Mustache
One thing that comes to mind concerning Cossack style is the mustache. For some clans and groups it was considered an integral part of national and cultural costume: hence why 90% of depictions of Cossack men have them proudly displaying one. What comes to mind is a quote from the Ukrainian frontman of the band Gogol Bordello, Eugene Hutz, who has said, " There is saying in Ukraine that a man without a mustache is like a woman with one. I strongly stand behind that theory.”

I do too, Eugene. I do too. For you, at least. (Escapist Magazine)
In the 19th century the basic garment of Cossack men was a loose, lightweight shirt (called a pansky)- often made of white linen- that was host to all manner of embroidery, trimming, and smocking. Equally loose trousers similar to Ottoman sirwal accompanied this and were tucked into the man's riding boots (leather, between the calf and the knee) as the most basic layers. Boots, particularly those belonging to military men, were babied and attended to with the same care as a prized motorcycle (then again in a horse culture, who can blame them?).

Over the shirt and trousers was a tunic-like coat called a zhupan worn either open or closed via frogged fasteners. Typically these coats are wool and serve as the all-purpose garment during colder seasons. Some were cutaway in the front and scooped down towards the back hem to be less cumbersome while riding, while others long. Some were lined in fur, while others were plain.

Further into the 19th century, western-cut waistcoats and trousers also became popular amongst Cossack men, especially if they were trying to assimilate into more urban settings.

A restored Cossack man's outfit- 18th century (Welcome to Ukraine)
Women: Retreads of Threads...
Being devoutly Orthodox, Cossack womens' clothing was traditionally very conservative in how much skin was being shown (but then again, very few cultures in Europe liked dressing like "brazen hussies" during the 19th century). Like the men, a woman's basic garment was a loose peasant blouse and a full circle skirt that could be found in just about every color of the rainbow (similar to a Western European dirndl). Bodice-like vests and tightly-fitted coats were worn over this, often embellished and colorful as their accompanying skirts. In cold weather a simple mantle was added for warmth. Thankfully fuzzy hats like the kubanka were unisex!

Three Ural Cossack women, 1893 (wikimedia)

Two of the most iconic garments worn by Cossack guards and cavalrymen are the chokha and the kubanka. The chokha is a coat traditionally worn in the Caucuses (particularly Georgia) that's long, tailored at the waist, and features ammunition loops across the shoulders (in other words they sort of look like a cassock!).  These loops, which are used more for decorative uses nowadays are called gazirys.

You might recognize the kubanka from our visit in Russia, as the cylindrical fur hat that was NOT a ushanka (I told you, there would be a quiz later). Particularly in Russian units, these distinctive clothes were paired with heavily decorated waistcoats and knee-length boots. At the side of every Cossack cavalry officer was the shashka- a long, curved sabre perfect for swinging through enemy lines.

An authentic 19th century Cossack guard uniform: a chokha and kubanka (Russianswords)

Cossack units often took the uniform of their participating army fairly frequently though- which is why you'll often find photographs and paintings of Cossack men wearing the same outfits as their regular cavalry counterparts. This includes schakos, hussar-decorated coats, and pelisses (a decorative jacket often trimmed heavily in fur and braid meant to dandily drape over the shoulder- very dashing).

So why should you clothe yourself like a Cossack?
-The typical weapon for a Cossack cavalryman was a lance- imagine a telescoping, metal one for today's technologically advanced charges!
-Pansky (Eastern European peasant shirts), particularly embroidered ones look great when layered with Western-style vests and coats.
-Zhupans could be made in leather or appliqued with it in steampunk designs. They also make a dramatic base for armor pieces.
-Chokhas- really? Really! Can you get any more steampunk than a long, fitted coat with AMMUNITION strapped to it?
-Shakos, while traditionally a Western European military headdress, a lot of Cossack troops wore them, and they can add a nice touch if your going for more of a cavalry look.

A Cossack guard lieutenant (mansvolk)

Cossack men and woman from the Black Sea region (Braun and Schneider)

Two Russian Cossack men arriving at Ellis Island between 1909 and 1914 (New York Public Library)

Two Cossack men from the Caucuses (englishrussia)

UK Steampunk Ilya Rostov wearing a chokha at the Whitby Festival in 2011 (Photo by Karl Burnett)

Helpful Links
-The History of Cossack involvement in the Napoleanic Wars.
-Have you ever seen traditional Cossack dancing? Be warned, it's awesome.
-And of course- a source for those furry hats.


  1. What this essentially means is that a Soviet/WW1 Russian reenactor could easily build a Cossack impression (steampunk or otherwise) just by changing some insignia and accessories, particularly because the uniform system based on the gimnasterka tunic (introduced in the late 19th century) lasted all the way into the 1960s! (The biggest problem might be colour, since 19th-century Russian uniforms tended to be in white, dark green, or some other vivid hue unlike the khaki and olive-drab of WW1 and later tunics.)

    And, while we're at it, there are a couple of links that may be worth checking for information and pictures on Cossack and Russian uniforms:



  2. They hold the plains coz Poles did not saw any particular interest in those at that time

  3. Not just Cossacks wore Chokhas may ethnic peoples wore Chokhas, Many men wore them thought the Caucasus Mountains. My family wore them in Dagestan.

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