Zaporizhian Sich

Zaporizhian Sich (Ukrainian: Запорізька Січ, Zaporiz'ka Sich, Russian: Запорожская Сечь, " Zaporozhskya Sech") was socio-political, grassroot, military organization of Ukrainian cossacks placed beyond Dnieper rapids. Sich existed between the 16th and 18th centuries in the region around the today's Kakhovka Reservoir. The region stretches across the lower Dnieper river.

It is considered that they started from a fortress built on the Khortytsia island in the middle of the Dnieper River in what is now the Zaporizhia region of Ukraine. The term has also been metonymically used as an informal reference to the whole military-administrative organisation of the Zaporizhian Cossack Host.

The history of the Zaporozhie Sich has six periods of time:

  • the appearance of the Sich (1471—1583).
  • the struggle with Rzeczpospolita for religious, national independence of Southern Russia (1583–1657)).
  • the struggle with Rzeczpospolita, Ottoman Empire, and Crimea Khanate for the religious and national independence of Ukrainian part of Rzechpospolita (1657—1686).
  • the struggle with Crimea, Ottoman Empire, and Russian Empire for the unique identity of cossacs (1686—1709).
  • the creation of the Danubian Sich outside the Russian Empire and finding ways to return home (1709–1734)
  • the standoff to the Russian government for its attempts to cancel self-governing of the Sich and its fall (1734—1775).


The first Zaporizhian Sich was established on the Island of Small (Malaya) Khortytsia in 1552 by Dmytro Vyshnevetsky when the Ruthenian prince built a fortress at Nyz Dnieprovsky (Lower Dnieper) and placed a cossack garrison there. In 1558, however, that fortress was destroyed by Tatar forces. Soon another Sich was created on the now-flooded island of Tomakivka as a fortified encampment 40 miles south near the modern city of Marhanets. That Sich also was razed by Tatars already in 1593. With the destruction of the Tomakivka Sich the third Sich was created on the Bazavluk island in 1593 that today is flooded as well. It managed to stay until 1638 when it was destroyed by a Polish expeditionary force against a cossack uprising. There also was another Sich which was first mentioned in 1628 at Mykytyn Rih near the today's city of Nikopol. From here Bohdan Khmelnytsky's uprising began in 1648. And, of course, there was the Chortomlyk Sich that was mercilessly razed by the Russian forces right after the Battle of Poltava for Cossack betrayal of the oath of loyalty to the Russian Tsar on the side Charles XII (1709). Then another Sich was built at the mouth of the Kamianets river, which also was destroyed by Russian Empire government in 1711. The cossacks then fled to the Crimean Khanate to avoid persecutions and founded the Oleshky Sich in 1711 (today it is the city of Tsuryupinsk). In 1734, however, they were allowed to return back to the Russian Empire. Being discriminated in the Khanate cossacks gladly accepted the offer to return and build another Sich in close proximity to the former Chortomlyk Sich. This was the last Sich which was banned in 1775 by the Government of Catherine the Great. It was the end of the war between the Russian and Ottoman Empires, for possession of the steppes near the Black Sea and Crimea. Russia's government needs no more service of the Zaporozhian Cossacks for protection of the borders in that area. The small part of cossasks (5 thousands people)) left Zaporozhie to serve the Ottoman Empire at the mouth of the Danube River, where they founded Dunube Sich. Most of the Cossacks (12 thousands people) served for the government of Russia in the basin of the Kuban river, Stavropol province of Russia. They turned into the Kuban Cossacks after.

The term "Sich" — a noun derived from the verb in estern slavic languages sikty (сечь) "to chop" or "cut", meaning to clear a forest for an encampment, or to build a fortification with the trees that have been chopped down.

As a rule, Siches located close to the fords across Dnieper on the right river bank, from where cossacs easily controlled the Tatars invasion to Rzeczpospolita part of Ukraine.

The list of Zaporozhian Siches:

  • Khortytsia Sich, 1556–1557 years.
  • Tomakivka Sich, 1564–1593 years.
  • Bazavluk Sich, 1593–1638 years.
  • Mikitska Sich, 1639–1652 years.
  • Chortomlyk Sich, 1652–1709 years.
  • Kamenetz Sich, 1709–1711 years.
  • Oleshky Sich, 1711–1734 years.
  • Nova Podpolnenska Sich, 1734–1775 years.
  • Zadunajska (Danube) Sich, 1775–1828 years.

The remoteness of the location and rapids on the Dnieper River provided effective protection from attack.

Organisation and government

The Zaporizhian Host was led by the Sich Rada that elected a Kosh Otaman as the leader of the host. He was aided by a head secretary (pysar), head judge, head archivist. During the military operations the Ottoman carried an unlimited power supported by his staff as the military collegiate. He decided with an agreement from the Rada whether or not to support a certain Hetman (such as Bohdan Khmelnytsky) or other leaders of state.

Some sources refer to the Zaporizhian Sich as a "cossack republic", as the highest power in it belonged to the assembly of all its members, and because the leaders (starshyna) were elected. The Cossacks formed a society (hromada) that consisted of "kurins" (each with several hundred cossacks). There was a cossack military court that severely punished violence and stealing among compatriots; the bringing of women to the Sich; the consumption of alcohol in periods of conflict, etc. The administration of the Sich provided Orthodox churches and schools for the religious and secular education of children.

The Sich population had an international component, and apart from Ukrainians included Moldavians, Tatars, Poles, Lithuanians, Jews and Russians. The social structure was also complex, consisting of: destitute gentry and boyars, szlachta (Polish nobility), merchants, peasants, outlaws of every sort, run-away slaves from Turkish galleys, run-away serfs (as the Zaporizhian polkovnyk Pivtorakozhukha), etc. Some of those that were not accepted to the Host formed gangs of their own claiming to be Cossacks as well. However, after the Khmelnytsky Uprising these formations largely disappeared and were integrated mainly into Hetmanate society.

Army and warfare

The Cossacks developed a large fleet of fast light vessels. Their campaigns were targeted at rich settlements on the Black Sea shores of the Ottoman Empire, and several times took them as far as Constantinople and Trabzon (formerly Trebizond).


The Zaporizhian Sich emerged as a natural method of defense by the Ukrainian people against the frequent and devastating raids of Crimean Tatars, who captured hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, Belorussians and Poles. Such slaving operations were called "the harvesting of the steppe".

Because of the Tatars' constant interference, the Ukrainians found it hard to survive, let alone make a living. They created a self-defense force, the Cossacks, fierce enough to stop the Tatar hordes.

Some researchers say that the constant threat from the Crimean Tatars was the impetus for the emergence of cossackdom. During the raids of retribution to the Black Sea shores of the Ottoman Empire and Crimean Khanate, the Cossacks not only robbed rich settlements, but liberated their compatriots from slavery.



In later years the Sich became the center of Cossack life at the southern boundaries of Moscow state. The Zaporizhian Host was governed by the Sich Rada along side with its Kosh Ataman (sometimes called Hetman, from German "Hauptmann" ).

After the Treaty of Pereyaslav (1654), the Host was split into two, the Hetmanate with its capital at Chyhyryn, and the more autonomous region of Zaporizhia which continued to be centred on the Sich. During this period the Sich changed location several times.

During the reign of Peter the Great cossacks were used for the construction of canals and fortification lines in the northern Russia. An estimated 20–30 thousands were sent each year. Hard labor led to the high mortality rate among builders. Only an estimated 40% Ukrainians returned home.

After the Battle of Poltava the original Sich was destroyed in 1709, and Mazepa's capital - Baturyn - was razed. This is sometimes referred to as the Old Sich (Stara Sich). From 1734 to 1775 a New Sich (Nova Sich) was constructed.

Fear of the independence of the Sich resulted in the Russian Administration first abolishing the Cossack Hetmanate in 1764 and finally totally destroying the Zaporizhian Sich itself by military force in 1775.

By the late 18th century, the Cossack officer class in Ukraine was incorporated into the Imperial Russian nobility (Dvoryanstvo). The rank and file Cossacks, however, including a substantial portion of the old Zaporozhians, were reduced to peasant status. They were able to maintain some freedoms and continued to provide refuge for those fleeing serfdom in Russia and Poland. This aroused the anger of the Russian empress Catherine II. Also, tension rose after the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca, when the need for a southern frontier ended after the annexation of the Crimea. With the colonisation of New Russia, tensions were created between the Cossacks and numerous Slav colonists. Using that as the excuse, Catherine II decided to disregard the Pereyaslav Treaty and disband the Sich.


In May 1775, General Pyotr Tekeli received orders to occupy the main Zaporizhian fortress, the Sich, and to destroy it. The order was given by Grigory Potemkin, who was formally admitted into Cossackdom a few years earlier. Potemkin was given direct orders from Empress Catherine.

On June 5, 1775, General Tekeli surrounded the Sich with artillery and infantry. He postponed the assault and even allowed visits while the head of the Host, Petro Kalnyshevsky, was deciding how to react to the Russian ultimatum. Under the guidance of the starshyna Lyakh, a conspiracy was formed among a group of 50 Cossacks to pretend to go fishing in the river Inhul next to the Southern Buh in the Ottoman provinces. The pretext was enough to allow the Russians to let the Cossacks out of the siege, who were joined by numerous others. The fleeing Cossacks traveled to the Danube Delta where they formed a new Danube Sich, as a protectorate of the Ottoman Empire.

When Tekeli realised the escape, the remaining Cossacks were nothing left but to surrender. The Sich was razed to the ground. Petro Kalnyshevsky was arrested and exiled to the Solovetsky Islands (where he lived to the age of 112 in the Solovetsky Monastery). All high level starshynas were repressed or exiled. Lower level starshynas who remained and went over to the Russian side were given Army ranks and all the privileges that accompanied them, and allowed to join Hussar and Dragoon regiments. Most of the ordinary Cossacks were made state peasants and serfs. The Ukrainian writer Adrian Kaschenko (1858–1921) and historian Olena Apanovich note that the final abolition of the Zaporizhian Sich, the historic Cossack stronghold perceived as the bastion of the protection of the Ukrainians and their ways of life, had such a strong symbolic effect that the memories of the event remained for the long time in local folklore.

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