Recently I was introduced to a Russian lady here in California who soon informed me she was in fact a Cossack. In my interest in Russian history and culture I know about the Cossacks, but hard facts are elusive as to who they really are. I knew them from the dramatic pictures and wild stories and that they chased Napoleon out of Russia in 1812. A few questions from my ignorance brought her answer, “Cossacks are a nation.” The origin of the name “Cossack” is from an early Turkic word meaning “free man”—anyone who could not find his appropriate place in society and went into the steppes, where he acknowledged no authority. An independent people they have always been.
Olga told us of her family, its terrible treatment under Stalin, the “disappearance” of most of the men, Meeting Olga encouraged me to do a little research and I find their identity goes back the 16th century in that southern steppe lands of Eastern Europe and Asian Russia, around the Dnieper and Don rivers—that geographic location destined to be forever in the way of invading armies going south or north, with the Cossacks allying with one side or the other, or both.
As I underline in “Walking on Ice, an American Businessman in Russia,” I am always amazed at the determination and strength of many of the Russian women who come here for a new life. To meet a Cossack woman, here only three years, with a good job, and hear her decent English and resolve to better herself in this totally different culture, is admirable. The Cossacks are coming, but maybe only one at a time.
The Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan of Turkey, the painting by Ilya Repin shown above is in the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg