Thursday, September 6, 2018

Jewish Cossacks Not Only Existed but Helped Form that Nation, Historians Say

Paul Goble

            Staunton, September 5 – Russians raised on the Muscovite notion that Cossacks must be Orthodox and Westerners exposed to the Hollywood version of reality about that community find it difficult to imagine that the ranks of the Cossacks have and do include members of other religious denominations.

            But at various points, there have been significant Muslim Cossack groups ( and even more important Buddhist ones (

            However even those who know about these groups find it difficult to believe that there have ever been Jewish Cossacks. As the Russian 7 portal notes, while the term “Jewish Cossack” seems “by its absurdity” a contradiction in terms, in fact, “there were Jewish Cossacks,” and some of them rose to the rank of ataman (

                “More than that,” the portal continues, “a legend exists that the very first Cossack was a Jew” and that the name “Cossack” has its roots in Hebrew.

            Historians note that there were many Jews among the Zaporozhian Cossacks in the 15th to 18th centuries and that 11 of them are listed by name as having fought in the war of 1613. Their presence is also shown by the fact that as of the 18th century, many Cossacks had Jewish last names, although many of them may have been forced to convert after 1635.

            But according to one historian, during the existence of the New Zaporozhian Sech (1734-1775), “the transformation of ethnic Jews into Cossacks was a completely customary phenomenon.” And these Jewish Cossacks were the forefathers of Jewish Cossacks who appear to have fought on both sides in the Russian Civil War in the 20th century.

            The numbers of Jewish Cossacks have never been large, but their very existence suggests that there needs to be a more capacious understanding of that nation than the Kremlin, the Russian Orthodox Church, and Hollywood have proved capable of providing.

            There may be an even more compelling reason for focusing on Jewish Cossacks, however; and that is this: One historian, Major General Aleksandr Rigelman, in an 1847 book based on Ukrainian and Cossack manuscripts suggest that it is entirely possible that “the first Cossack was a Jew.”

            According to him, the Cossacks trace their origins to the Khazars, who were Jewish, and “in Hebrew is the word ‘hazak’ which means strength or courage.”  That would be an entirely appropriate word origin for “Cossack” given the value Cossacks place on those values to this day.

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