Fort Kudak

Article and pictures by Jerzy Czajewski, all rights reserved.

The strange Turkish word Kodak, or Koydak as pronounced by Tartars that roamed the wild steppes of southern Ukraine in the 16th-18th centuries, eventually became the Polish Kudak. Kudak was a Dutch-style earthwork fort built to prevent the Cossack rebels from making raids into the Ottoman Empire. The fort was the most eastern outpost of the Western Civilization in Europe. In first half of the 17th century the territory of the river Dnieper basin was mostly in the hands of the Poles with a desert-like land to its south. This land was sparsely populated by Ruthenians (only called Ukrainians after the 19th century) and Polish landowners. The iron grip of feudal masters as well as religious tensions (Catholic and Orthodox influences) lead many peasants from ethnic Poland, northern Ukraine and also Muscovite Russia to run away into the steppes, where a kind of state of roving bands of Cossacks was formed on the river Dnieper island of Khortitsa. They called themselves Zaporozhian (i.e. below the river Dnieper rapids) Cossacks.

The Cossacks lived on hunting, fishery and booty from constant raids on Black Sea towns, then in the realm of Ottoman Empire and its dominion, the Crimean Tartary. These Cossacks were nominally subjects of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and their raids provoked a Turkish military and diplomatic response. Adding to the borderland melee, Cossacks rebelled often against Polish colonisation and the feudal and Catholic yoke. These rebellions were put down mercilessly with the use of the supreme, highly mobile and maneuverable heavy cavalry (winged hussars) and light crown cavalry (so called "registered" Cossacks on the State payroll).

The newly elected king Wladyslaw IV Vasa and Crown Grand Hetman (Lord Marshall), S. Koniecpolski decided in a meeting in Lwow at the end of 1634 to build a military outpost to control the borderland and tame the illegal Cossacks' military activity. This outpost also had to be a means to blockade the Cossacks' stronghold, Khortitsa island down the river. From that point of view, it would be the colonial post similar to those built by the Dutch or English in their overseas territories. For the Poles, the Ukraine was their West Indies or perhaps equivalent to what Ireland was to England.

The first earthwok stronghold was built hastily in a few months time in the middle of the next year. It was a sconce'(infantry redoubt) rather than a fort, located on the right bank of the river Dnieper just before first of series of its famous rapids, Koydatskiy Poroh. The redoubt was built to the design and supervision of a French colonel of the Crown Army, Jean de Marion. He was left on site with 200 dragoons as a permanent garrison to keep an eye on the Cossacks and control the river communications.

The redoubt'was scarcely adequate to accommodate Marion's soldiers. It was of roughly rectangular layout, 45 by 53 meters, with two demi-bastions'facing south and the gate between them. The height of the rampart probably reached probably about 4 metres and it was surrounded with a dry ditch. The wall was presumably equipped with horizontal storm poles and the ditch with a palisade. Part of the earthworks of the south-east demi-bastion has survived to this day.

Colonel de Marion ruled with a heavy hand, his subordinates ravaging the nearby Orthodox monastery on Samara river and making every effort to curb the Cossacks' customary privileges. As a result, that same year (1635), the redoubt was taken by treason of Ruthenian dragoons, by Cossacks under the rebel Sulima, and the Polish and German soldiers were killed. The captured commander was used as a target for Cossack bow exercises. Sulima with some of his henchmen were eventually overrun by registered Cossacks, loyal to the king, and sent to Warsaw to be executed in the presence of the envoy of the Crimean Khanate, an ally of Turkey.

It was a severe blow to the prestige of the State, so the Polish Diet decided to assign substantial funds for the construction of a more reliable fortification equipped with artillery. In 1637 a 4,000-strong Crown Army detachment under Grand Hetman Stanislaw Koniecpolski was sent to Kudak to cover construction of the new stronghold. He was an ardent advocate of the fort and of the tough measures against rebels. He often used his own financial resources in the process when state funds were delayed. The military engineers Pleitner, Arciszewski and Getkant were employed to assist and design the fortification. They produced a typical old Dutch style earthwork rectangular fort with two bastions, two demi-bastions and a tenaille trace(zig-zag wall) on the river bank. It was located to the east of the old redoubt, on a high river bank, above the Koydak rapids. The fort overlooked the Dnieper and Samara rivers to the north, so the artillery in the fort could control the river traffic. As the terrain south of the fort goes uphill, a timber watchtower about 30 metres high was erected on top of the nearest hill, about two miles from the stronghold. A permanent garrison of 100 footmen and 10 dragoons was stationed in the place. It kept constant watch over the steppe to the south and many local ravines where enemy could hide. Later it was the site of a small hamlet, named Nemetskoye (Germanic) after the soldiers who guarded it.

The rampart itself was built from earth and timber only. The wood was delivered from king's forests by the river Samara. For the work there were employed about a hundred Ruthenians from the Crown estate near Kiev and soldiers from the army to protect the construction site. The size of the inner courtyard was about 90 metres square and outside the tenailled bastions' salients outstretched from each other more than 200 metres, so it could be called a royal fort by size. The embankment with the parapet should have had a height of about 10 metres according to the plan but it was probably even higher, as every year it had to be heightened by one ell (a Polish ell was about 0.6 metres in length). The earthen bank was 33 metres wide at the bottom and 24 metres wide at the top. The dry ditch was almost 14 metres wide at the bottom and 8 metres deep. On top of the parapet wall there were storm pales and a palisade along the rampart. An additional two palisades secured walkways on the slope of the high river bank to facilitate water supply. The slopes to the river bank and the counterscarp of the ditch were covered with broken pink granite chunks and iron caltrops. The only gateway to the fort was located in the east curtain and was a timber structure made of two wooden towers and a drawbridge. The opposite curtain was protected by a demi-lune. Next to this demi-lune a timber Catholic chapel of the Dominican Order was built and in due time a small village of 50-60 houses sprang up. Inside the fort only the governor had a wooden building, the rest of the garrison being housed in timber-earth barracks. The artillery consisted mostly of field pieces. Most were Russian ones taken plundered from the Muscovites in 1634 (see Smolensk), namely: seven regimental 4-pounders and one 12-pounder- Vepr (Boar) bastard demi-culverine. The rest were six Polish cast iron regimental 6-pounders, bastard falcons.

The orders given by Koniecpolski to the first governor of Kudak, Zoltowski, stipulated that only Poles and Germans (i.e. Western Europeans) were allowed to be hired as soldiers in the garrison. It consisted of of 600 German footmen (German infantry usually meant the German officers and command over usually Polish soldiers) and 100 dragoons. The place was also used as a kind of military school for Polish infantry. The military staff never reached the planned size of 800. The governor had to keep strict military order and had right to judge all infringements of the law with the death penalty. A military engineer was always on site to take care of the fortification and the artillery and also to supervise the raising of the rampart each year. Usually Cossack rebels and Tartar prisoners did the work.

The first governor died in 1640 in Kudak and was buried by the Catholic chapel. The next and last one was Grodzicki, later General of the Crown artillery, educated in Netherlands, able and brave soldier that kept the fort with an iron fist. He warned the authorities in May of 1648 of the coming outbreak of a Cossack rebellion under the command of the Polish-Ruthenian nobleman Chmielnicki (Khmelnitsky). Earlier rebellions were crushed by the Crown forces, but this one changed the map of Eastern Europe for ever. Rebels carried out a general massacre of the Polish settlers and Jews. The Cossacks besieged Kudak in the middle of May 1648 and at the beginning only blocked mighty fort, lacking the artillery or expertise to reduce such a stronghold. The Kudak garrison had only 400 soldiers because of the problem with the money in state treasury. In the course of a few months Chmielnicki changed the commander of the besieging Cossacks from Shumeyko to Nestorenko, who attempted some assaults but was repulsed with heavy losses of about 4,000 men killed. The fort was as an island in the rebel territory, cut off from the main Crown forces and the news of constant defeats of Polish army at the hand of Chmielnicki's Cossack rebels shook the morale of defenders. The information of the ignominious defeat of the Polish army supported by noblemen militia by Pilawce at the end of September 1648, made the governor to capitulate in October 1648 in return for free evacuation. Eventually only a handful of officers, priests and soldiers were freed according to treaty of Zborów (1649), the rest were imprisoned and murdered by the Cossack mob.

The barbaric simplicities of the first years of the rebellion were succeeded by years of truces, betrayals and reconciliations which gradually lead to the total disaster for the Cossacks. Ukraine was partitioned between Poland, Russia and Turkey and only emerged as an independent state in 1990 after collapse of the Soviet Union.

Fort Kudak was held for several years by the Cossacks and later by their allies the Russians. They used it as a logistics centre for the war with Turkey. During his famous raids on Azov, Czar Peter the Great visited the place in 1699. The humiliating treaty of Prut (1711) between Turkey and Russia stipulated the demolition of Kudak, but this was never done and its earthwork ramparts survived complete as part of the small village of Starye Koydaki until the first half of the 20th century. In the second half of 19th century a couple of guns hidden by Polish defenders in 1648 in earthen banks were found by villagers. In 1910 local Russian authorities set up a typical propaganda monument of the "everlasting Russian-Ukrainian alliance" - an obelisk of pink granite with a commemorative plaque that shows wrong information (except for the year, 1648). It has survived and stands on south-east bastion.

In 1944 the Soviets set up a granite quarry directly on the site of the fort in an obvious move to eradicate any traces of Polish influence in the Ukraine. The newly emerged Ukrainian state stopped the demolition in 1994 when almost two thirds of the fort had already been destroyed.

Visiting Fort Kudak

Kudak is now close to the large industrial town of Dnepropetrovsk. The fort lies 3.5km north-east of the airport. The place can be reached by local roads through Lotskamenka village along the river bank or via Topol suburb and the airport access road. The dilapidated village of Starye Kodaki encircles the rampart and there is a small museum kept by a local school with agricultural instruments and a painting of fort Kudak by one of the villagers. The remains of the fort are a heritage site and national historic monument. An interesting historical plaque shows a reconstruction view of Kudak (by A. Harlan) and some important dates from its history. Additional granite stones commemorate the Cossack rebellion of 1648.

Close to the river Dnieper the imposing earthen banks of SE and SW bastions as well as SW demi-bastion of de Marion's sconce are still visible. The north part of the fort is now an artificial lake left after the quarrying activity. The level of the Dnieper river is now higher than in 17th century because of the construction of a dam downstream. The famous Dnieper rapids (porohy) including Koydatskiy poroh are deep in the river and there is no more whirling sound of water speeding between the large rocks. The remains of the fort still guards the bygone wild steppes (Dzikie Pola) around mighty Dnieper.

Article and pictures by Jerzy Czajewski, all rights reserved.

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