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Zaporizhzhian Cossack traditions are making a comeback during the war


The Zaporizhzhia region in southern Ukraine is now an active front line in the country's counteroffensive to push Russians out of occupied territory. In the 16th century, it was also run by warriors beating back invaders, including Russian czars. Those warriors are now revered, but they made a compromise that Ukrainians vow never to repeat. NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports.


JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Khortytsia is a lush, wild island where horses run free. It's on the Dnieper River, just outside the southern city of Zaporizhzhia.


KAKISSIS: Inside a thatched hut near an animal refuge, I meet Yuriy Kopishinskyi, a tall grandfather with a shaved head and a linebacker's build.

YURIY KOPISHINSKYI: Yeah, Yuriy Kopishinskyi.

KAKISSIS: He calls Khortytsia home. It was once the headquarters of his ancestors, the Zaporizhzhian Cossacks.

KOPISHINSKYI: (Through interpreter) We, the Zaporizhzhian Cossacks, defended the people who lived in this particular area. And you have to think of, like, the history of the Cossacks, who were de facto border guards.

KAKISSIS: He says they defended their land against invaders, including Muscovite princes, and they took a blood oath before battle.

KOPISHINSKYI: (Through interpreter) So you have to understand that when you fight as brothers, you fight in a completely different way.

KAKISSIS: Kopishinskyi takes us to the edge of the island, to a fenced-in complex overlooking the river. For the last 20 years, he has trained locals and foreigners here to fight like the Zaporizhzhian Cossacks. One of his best students is Andrii Lozovyi...

ANDRII LOZOVYI: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: ...A cheery hulk with a drooping mustache and long oseledets, a traditional Cossack ponytail, on top of his mostly shaved head. It's a hairstyle I've seen all over Ukraine, even on women. Lozovyi calls it the haircut of champions.

LOZOVYI: (Through interpreter) Every adult, every child wants a hairstyle like that so we can look like our heroes.


KAKISSIS: Lozovyi opens the gate to take us inside the fenced-in complex, which is lined with old wooden houses that look like they came out of a Renaissance fair. This is the reconstruction of a Cossack sich, or a military administrative center. There's a church, some homes, a museum. Lozovyi disappears into the museum and returns with weapons.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Just step aside, please.


KAKISSIS: The sound of that whoosh, whoosh, whoosh is Andrii swinging a big, heavy sword around. Now he's got two in his hand.

He's also got a couple of axes, and he can fight on horseback.

LOZOVYI: (Through interpreter) Whether we use horses and swords or howitzers and HIMARS, it all goes back to the same Cossack spirit to defend our land.

KAKISSIS: Lozovyi says he's been rejected from military service because of multiple bone fractures he suffered falling off horses. Kopishinskyi's other student warriors are all on the front line, and they're fighting other Cossacks who live in Russia and support Moscow.

KOPISHINSKYI: (Through interpreter) The Russian Cossacks were nothing but servants, and all they did was ever submit to the czar. The Zaporizhzhian Cossacks never submitted to anybody.

KAKISSIS: Except this one time, he says, and it was a terrible mistake. More than 450 years ago, the Zaporizhzhian Cossacks signed a treaty with Moscow for military protection. The Russian empire grew, and Cossacks in other regions pledged their loyalty to the czars. The Zaporizhzhian Cossacks held out until Catherine the Great, one of the Russian empire's most formidable leaders, disbanded them in 1775. But today, Kopishinskyi says, the Russians are weak.

KOPISHINSKYI: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KAKISSIS: And the Zaporizhzhian Cossacks, he says, are fighting again.

Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Khortytsia, Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.