Conversation Starter: What Is a Cossack?

History speaks of many fierce warriors, and Cossacks are traditional Ukrainian and Russian fighters with a difference! From around 500 years ago, Ukrainian Cossack armies were made up of men, unhappy with normal life, who left their communities behind to seek a life of freedom and adventure!

Ukraine is a country in Eastern Europe with rich, fertile lands bordering Russia. The Cossacks mostly based themselves close to sea and land borders in order to quickly organize an army. Over the centuries, they fought hard wars against the Tatars, Turkish fighters, and the Polish nobility and helped make Ukraine into a separate state. Many Ukrainians today identify with the Cossack heritage.

Life of the Cossacks

As well as being skilled fighters, traditional Ukrainian Cossacks were brilliant horsemen who could leap off their horses to attack! But their groups were also fair and well organized because each leader, known as the Hetman, had to be voted in by the other warriors. And in actual fact, in 1710, the Ukrainian Cossacks established one of Europe’s first constitutions.

Cossack House

Though many Cossacks had a moustache, they shaved their heads, leaving just one remaining lock of hair at the front which they believed acted as a kind of radar to receive power from the universe. They had many weapons including a long, curved sword called a shashka and typically wore an embroidered shirt, long tunic, belt, baggy trousers, boots, and hat.

What is Combat Hopak?

You’ve probably seen people practicing karate and judo…but what about combat Hopak? This modern martial art has its roots in traditional Cossack dancing! At the height of the Cossack period, men would return from battle and dance to musical instruments in order to act out what had happened. But this was not any old dance! The Cossacks leapt through the air and performed flying acrobatics with their long swords and squatted down low, kicking out their legs to show off their strength. All the while, the music got faster and faster until the show finished with a big bang!

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This article and its images were first published on, a website that helps parents to explain the world to kids, to inspire them to make a difference and to raise true global citizens.

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