An Illustrated History

By John Ure

Overlook. 288 pp. $45

Perhaps 30 years ago, there was a vogue for popular "illustrated" histories and biographies. Some were original, others pictorially amplified versions of previously published texts, but all were slightly oversized volumes, roughly the dimensions of a three-ring binder. Over the years I bought quite a few of these elegant, inviting books: Alan Moorehead's Darwin and the Beagle, C.P. Snow's Trollope, Graham Greene's Lord Rochester's Monkey, Anthony Burgess's Shakespeare, Wilfred Blunt's Linnaeus (this last reissued recently in a gorgeous new edition by Princeton). Lively writers, appealing subjects, lots of pictures and maps -- surely, I thought, all nonfiction should be presented in this attractive way. One felt civilized just turning the sleek, shiny pages.

John Ure's The Cossacks is a book in this lavish tradition, at once pleasing to look at and to read. There are scores of paintings of Cossack warriors, a handful of maps (I would have welcomed even more), and an easygoing text that calls to mind after-dinner conversation over port and Stilton. This is hardly surprising, as Sir John spent his career as a British diplomat (in Russia, Cuba, Brazil and Sweden), though finding time, in that cultivated English way, to publish eight books and to give out the Thomas Cook/Daily Telegraph prize for the best travel writing of the year. Ure, in other words, appears here as a passionate, informed amateur rather than a professional historian.

Yet surely one demands a good deal of passion in charting a people as colorful, as controversial, as the Cossacks. After all, these were "the untamed horsemen who had tormented and harassed Napoleon's Grande Arme{acute}e across the snow of the Russian steppes from Moscow to Warsaw, and then onwards across central Europe to the gates of Paris itself. They were said to need almost no rations, plundering what they required from friend and foe alike. The French believed that they barbecued and ate children."

For centuries, the warning cry "The Cossacks are coming!" has inspired dread. And rightly so. Napoleon called these barbaric horsemen "a disgrace to the human species," and his troops referred to them as "the vultures of the battlefield" because of "their reputation for taking no prisoners and for robbing the dead and dying." A Cossack, says Ure, would "learn to shoot from the saddle as soon as he could ride, and to ride as soon as he could walk." My father's father was a Cossack: When young, I was solemnly informed that while other nations might have an army, the Cossacks were an army.

Descended from Mongol or Tartar nomads, these mustachioed warriors dwelt as semi-autonomous clans along the Don River, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. Orthodox Christians, disdaining manual labor other than fishing and hunting, intemperate, equestrian, self-sufficient and fiercely independent (though ruled by an elected hetman or ataman), they regarded themselves as a military caste, like the Gurkhas, janissaries or some of the Plains Indians. They liked to dance, carouse and drink heavily -- except when going into battle: On a raid or campaign "an ataman would feel himself justified in shooting a drunken Cossack who was jeopardizing the safety of his fellows by noisy behavior or erratic shooting." They sported tall shaggy hats, long sheepskin coats and, eventually, tunics crisscrossed with sewn-on slots for their rifle cartridges.

Ure organizes Cossack history by focusing on legendary figures and by emphasizing their tangled relations with the czar. So in the 16th century, Yermak leads a Cossack host into Siberia, battling the indigenous tribes all the way to Lake Baikal and beyond. During the 17th-century "Time of Troubles," Bogdan turns into a bloodthirsty guerrilla harassing the Poles to avenge the deaths of his son and mistress. A little later, Stenka Razin -- perhaps the archetypal Cossack -- spends his life as "soldier, bandit, freedom fighter, champion of the poor, and scourge of the Sultan," as well as a pirate on the Volga and a threat to the Russian imperial throne. The young Mazeppa, discovered in bed with a nobleman's wife, is stripped naked and tied to a wild horse (an ordeal later described in Byron's famous long poem "Mazeppa"). He survives to become the leader of the Cossacks, a favorite of Peter the Great and ultimately a turncoat who sides with the invading Charles XII of Sweden. In the 18th century, the illiterate Pugachev pretends to be the true heir to Catherine the Great's throne, leads an army to the gates of Moscow and plays a key role in Pushkin's great short novel The Captain's Daughter.

During the 19th century, the Cossacks made up much of the Russian cavalry and served as reconnaissance specialists, guides and special-operations forces. They fought in the Caucasus, for example, against Chechen warlords -- and met defeat at the hands of the Imam Shamyl. In a book filled with colorful, larger-than-life figures, that Muslim spiritual and military leader may be the grandest:

"When in 1832 the Russian commander in the Caucasus . . . culminated a punitive campaign through Chechnia and Daghestan by a 10,000-strong attack on the 500-strong garrison of Ghinari, Shamyl was one of only two men to escape alive. This he did by making his horse leap over the heads of a line of Russian soldiers who were about to open fire on him. He cut down three of them with his sabre before a fourth ran him through with a bayonet; Shamyl plucked the bayonet from his own chest, used it to despatch the fourth Russian, and galloped off into the forests."

This is just the beginning of Shamyl's incredible career, concisely described here by Ure and more fully chronicled in Lesley Blanch's splendidly romantic The Sabres of Paradise. Shamyl's chief lieutenant is even the subject of Tolstoy's last masterpiece, Haji Murad.

Naturally, Ure lingers over the Cossacks' role during the skirmishes between Russia and Britain for control of Central Asia ("the Great Game"). During an 1865 battle for the walled city of Tashkent, a contingent of 40 Cossacks "rode at full gallop into the massed phalanx of the Khan's 5,000 oncoming cavalrymen. Firing volleys from the saddle as they charged, and then using their sabres at close quarters, they put the Kohkand horsemen to rout. Of those who were not cut down in the initial encounter, many were drowned trying to cross the Saidarya river. The pride of the Khokand army had been decimated by a squadron of Cossacks."

When the Russian Revolution broke out, the Cossacks equivocated, many at first supporting the czar but some the Bolsheviks, still others the White Russians in their eventual civil war against the Reds. During the 1930s, they were periodically starved and massacred by their government, and after World War II they were betrayed by the West: Cossack prisoners of war who had, for one reason or another, fought against Stalin were handed over to the Soviets and were immediately shot or exiled to labor camps. Today, though, Cossack culture and tradition has revived in 21st-century Russia, and Ure ends his history with this timeless if somewhat melodramatic image:

"It is a picture of a horseman spurring his pony across the snowbound wastes of Russia, causing a whisper of fear to run ahead of him like a Siberian wind blowing through the tall grasses of the steppes and the clumps of silver birches. His face is hard, etched with lines of courage tinged by cruelty, of mirth tinged with suffering. His destination is unknown. But one thing is sure: he is firmly in the saddle and likely to remain so."

All in all, Ure's is an inviting brisk survey of Cossack history, and he writes pleasingly, with occasional rhetorical flourishes, as in the above. But even though he briefly discusses Tolstoy's The Cossacks -- Turgenev regarded this short novel as the best story written in Russian -- why does he fail to mention that most thrilling romance of Cossack life, Gogol's Taras Bulba? *

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is His online discussion of books take place on Thursdays at 2 p.m.

Cossacks marauding a village during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05)