An important period in Ukrainian folk culture began in the 15th century, with the emergence of the Cossacks. The Cossacks were frontiersmen who gathered into bands to fend off the Mongols from the Crimean Khanate, and the Ottoman Turks, and to make the territory of the Ukraine open to settlement. Initially, the Cossack bands were gathered only when necessary, but the bands and their fortified camps eventually became a permanent way of life in the region surrounding the Dnieper basin. In 1553-54, groups of Cossacks were gathered below the Dnieper rapids and the foundations for the Zaporozhian Sich were established. Cossack society was to some degree democratic and egalitarian; however, class distinction soon developed. The Zaporozhians and other Cossacks gained popular appeal through daring raids on the Tatars and rebellions against the Poles.
For nearly a century, the Cossacks provided Ukrainians with a degree of self-government. In the mid-17th century, after a period of internal strife within Cossack society and external pressure from the Ottomans, Poland and Muscovy, the Ukraine was divided between the Ottoman, Polish and Russian Empires. Poland came to control the area around the right bank of the Dnieper River, and the Ottoman Turks annexed the territory of northern Bukovyna. In 1686, the Zaporozhians became isolated from the rest of Cossack society and their lands came under Russian overlordship. However, during this period, which came to be known as the "Ruin", Cossack government survived in the Russian territory on the left bank of the Dneiper River, and the area became known as the Hetmanate.
After the Ruin, and for nearly a century, the Hetmanate was the political, economic and cultural center of Ukrainian society. Ukrainians experienced the greatest degree of self-government since the time of the Galician-Volhynian principalities. For a time, such dynamic leaders as Ivan Mazepa and Danylo Apostol helped to delay Ukrainian absorption into the Russian Empire. However, in the 18th century, after the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania was partitioned by Russia, Prussia and Austria, the territories of Galicia and Bukovyna came under Austrian rule. The rest of Ukraine, which was still called the Right Bank, remained a part of the Russian Empire. After the partition, the Russians began aggressive attempts to assimilate the Ukraine. The Hetmanate, and the Cossack government, ceased to exist in physical terms, but remained an important part of Ukrainian national consciousness. In Austrian territory, cultural assimilation was not part of the Empire's agenda and Ukrainians faced economic exploitation by the nobility. As a result, the Ukrainian peasants in Austria were extraordinarily poor.
In the 19th century, an ideological revolution began to draw "folk" culture and the culture of the elite closer together. Influenced by the nationalist ideologies circulating in both Eastern and Western Europe in the mid-19th century, the Ukrainian Intelligensia began to recognize their Cossack ancestors as heroes and the first bearers of the Ukrainian culture. The Cossacks symbolized the Ukrainian tradition of resistance to social injustice and political oppression.
- ^ Swyrich, Archive materials