How the W̶e̶s̶t̶ Steppes were won.

Self portrait of Sergeĭ Mikhaĭlovich Prokudin-Gorskiĭ with two men in Cossack dress. Karelia, Russia.

Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky was well known in the late Imperial, and even early Soviet, period of Russia for his work in photography. He spent ten years of his life chronographing Russia in color photographs.

Prokudin-Gorsky often photographed different people of Russian. In the photograph above, he is sitting with two men wearing traditional Cossack garb. While I can’t cover everything about the Cossacks, I can at least brush over their colorful history (doesn’t everything in Russia have a colorful history?).

Russia is a melting pot of culture, merging east and west. A large part of this is due to the Mongol invasion during the 13th century. Using the Eurasian Steppe as a highway, and being master cavalry warriors, the Mongols were able to easily defeat Kievan Rus’.

Eventually, the Russians were able to beat back the Khans, and a large reason for that is that they decided to fight fire with fire, so to speak.

Napoleonic War era uniforms of Lifeguard Cossacks. P. Courcelle

As I look at the Cossacks, I think that they are quite similar to other cultures. Take the American Gunslinger, for example: He is romanticized as this individual who has this freedom. He may not always be in agreement with authority and will fight for what he truly believes in. The Cossack is similar in a couple of ways to this.

In a nutshell, Cossacks are semi-autonomous. In exchange for their military service, they are granted special privileges. There were many times when the personal freedoms of the Cossacks came into conflict (real or otherwise) with the central Russian government. This was especially true once the Bolshevik’s came to power.

German Cossack
Cossacks serving in the German Wehrmacht during WW2.

During WWII, there were many Cossack groups that decided to fight against the Soviets and their allies. Not only did the Cossacks take issue with government’s consolidation of power, but some saw this fighting as a continuation of the Russian Revolution from 20 years prior.

After the war, the Western allies made a deal to send the Cossack POW’s back to the USSR. Many Cossack POW’s were captured in Lienz, Austria by the British were sent back to Russia, despite promises that they would not. This incident is known as the betrayal of Cossacks at Lienz.

Kuban Cossacks in a parade.

It wasn’t until the Perestroika period that Cossacks became an integral part of Russian culture once again, and they were given a lot of the privileges that they once enjoyed.


Mongolian invasion:

Cossacks in Lienz:

A. Nelson

So many interesting points about Empire and geography in this post. And I agree, the history of the Cossacks is definitely colorful! It also speaks to the tangled web of ethnicity, religion and culture on the steppe (terrific title, BTW). Why did some of the Cossacks side with the Germans during WWII? What did you think of this overview of Cossack history on the website you found? (


This was a very interesting post. I do not know very much about the Cossacks, so I appreciate the brief history! Do you know why the Cossacks were welcomed into Russian culture in Perestroika period? What were the reasons for this? The
Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky is interesting as it seems to show that the Cossacks were an integral part of Russian history, yet after World War II their involvement in the region’s culture was controversial. Therefore, it would be interesting to understand their acceptance in Russian culture once again.


I am also curious to know why the Cossacks were reintegrated and given privileges again after the Perestroika period. After they sided with Germany during WWII and were brought back to Russia as POW’s, it must have been a dramatic change to give them privileges after what happened. I also wonder why they were given semi-autonomy in the first place. Why was there a deal with Russia’s government giving them certain privileges in return for their military service?


I like how you started out discussing the photographer himself–I actually thought the entire post was going to be about him in particular. Your information on the Cossacks was well-delivered, however! To be honest, I had never done much research on them before, so I learned a lot from reading your brief synopsis of their history. It’s really interesting to note that they fought against Russia during WWII yet were still brought back and eventually reintegrated into Russian society post-war. On a side note, your title and the comparison you drew between the Cossacks and the “American Gunslinger” was great.


The history of the Cossacks is so broad that I couldn’t hope to cover everything in one blog post. After reading about them myself, I’m definitely tempted to do a follow up that will answer why they fought against the Soviets during WWII and why they were integrated back into society near the end of the Union. The website dedicated to the Cossacks at Lienz is one-sided, but there’s a lot of truth to it and sheds light on the Cossack-Soviet relation.


I liked how you were able to talk about both the photographer and the Cossacks since they were both in the picture. It seems as if was not in many of his own pictures. I know that the Cossacks have a large history and some very interesting stories, but i thought that you did a good job of laying out a general understanding. Any idea of what they are doing now?


I really think that the cossacks are awesome. Definitely not mainstream. The Cossacks basically said, “We hate everything the 20th Century has to offer; therefore, we will do everything different from everyone else. The coolest part is that they are still playing a vital part in the area. Many pictures have been taken with Cossacks during the Russian-Ukraine conflict.