With his horse at a full gallop and his sword hand only inches from the ground the rider skewers an apple on the blade of his saber and slides nimbly back into his saddle. His buddies cheer and jostle one another in a blatant display of masculine bravado before charging off to display their own feats of daring-do. Between death-defying stunts on horseback and a lot of self-congratulatory posturing the performers engage in mock battles complete with cannon fire and realistic swordplay.
We are attending the Cossack horse show on Khortitsa Island near the Ukrainian City of Zaporozhye. The show is clearly designed for tourists but the skill and enthusiasm of the performers is genuine. Dressed in traditional baggy pants, loose-fitting tunics and fleece hats, and surrounded by the paraphernalia of 15 th century warfare, the new generation of Cossack horsemen recreate the culture of their warrior ancestors. And for a few hours we are transported back to a time when the Zaporozhye Cossacks controlled the Ukrainian region of Eastern Europe.
Back in the 15 th century the southern European steppe was a sort of no-man's-land, beyond the control of any organized state. It was a place where runaway serfs, criminals, and Orthodox refugees could find sanctuary and this is where the culture of Cossackdom had its beginnings. The word Cossack is variously interpreted as "freeman, adventurer, or outlaw." Any man was free to join the Cossack brotherhood - no questions asked - and over the years they banded together into self-governing, militaristic communities of tough, hard drinking fighters. The only authority they recognized was that of their elected hetman (chieftain) and although they were officially part of either Poland or Russia they were usually left to their own devices.
In 1553 several disparate groups of Cossacks united under hetman Dmytro Baida and built the Zaporizhska sich (fort) on Khortitsa Island. Zaporizhska (Beyond the Rapids) was chosen because a turbulent 40km stretch of the Dnieper gave their fortified island another level of security. Settlements were set up on the nearby shore but the island itself was strictly the domain of men. No women, not even Catherine the Great herself was permitted to set foot on Khortitsa Island. The community on the Dnieper soon became the principal centre of the Cossack movement and for a time the Zaporozhye Sich attained the status of a semi-independent state.
From the very beginning the Khortitsa Cossacks were engaged in almost continuous low-level warfare with someone - Turks and Tatars, Poles and Lithuanians. Initially vassals of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, they made a bid for independence in 1648 and under the leadership of Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky succeeded in driving the Poles out of Ukraine. But the Poles struck back and in order to get a decisive victory Bohdan signed a military alliance with the Russians, who eventually betrayed him. Instead of joining the Cossacks in battle the Russians negotiated a separate deal with the Poles and in 1668 the disputed territory was carved up between them. The Ukraine, along with the Khortitsa Cossacks, was absorbed into the Russian Empire where it remained for the next 300 years. In return for a guarantee of their autonomy within Russia the Cossacks pledged their loyalty to the Tsar but continued to manage their own affairs.