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Pereyaslavska Rada — a historic or just historical event?


In the many-centuries old history of Ukraine, like in the history of any other country, there has been a great many events of great significance, and yet there is one event whose significance makes it pivotal for the destiny of this country. We are talking about Pereyaslavska Rada — a general military council held in the town of Pereyaslav in the year 1654. A treaty was signed then with Muscovy which eventually led to Ukraine's loss of independence and to “unification” with Russia which lasted over three hundred years.


Controversy — tragedy or triumph?

This year marks the 350th anniversary of Pereyaslavska Rada — three hundred and fifty years ago Ukraine signed a treaty of a union with Russia. Fifty years ago the 300th anniversary was officially celebrated by the Soviets as an event that “brought Ukrainians and Russians together in a unified country.” In the Soviet interpretation Pereyaslavska Rada was “a symbol of eternal unity of the fraternal Ukrainian and Russian peoples.” Soviet propaganda claimed that the treaty signed then “crowned the striving of the Ukrainian people to be together with the Russian people” and the Ukrainian Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky who was regarded as the principal architect of the treaty was hailed as a hero and champion of “the unbreakable union.”

In other interpretations of the Pereyaslavska Rada event, Bohdan Khmelnytsky was presented either as a traitor to the national interests of Ukraine or as a victim of the Russian devious policies (naturally, neither of these views could be expressed openly in the Soviet Ukraine).

Most Ukrainians who live in the Ukraine of 2004 were educated in the Soviet times (the “oldest” Ukrainians who are getting a different kind of education are in the early teens and it will be some time yet before they begin to form the majority of the Ukrainian population), and thus they still labour under a misapprehension that “it is a historical destiny for the two peoples to live together in one unified state,” and that “the Ukrainians have always been striving to be part of the Russian state.” These and other Soviet myths whose roots go much deeper into the history of the Russian Empire, are very much alive today when this country has entered its thirteenth year of independence. In the year 2004 marking the 350th anniversary of Pereyaslavska Rada, most of the Ukrainians would not be able to express their opinion on this event with any clarity and would not know whether to regard it as one of the most tragic events in the Ukrainian history, or as one of the most triumphal.

What is popularly known can be summarized in a few sentences: Ukraine, after a glorious period of its history, succumbed to the Mongol invasion and later came under the rule of Poland; in the mid-seventeenth century Bohdan Khmelnytsky led the Cossacks in a struggle for national independence, and though he won decisive battles, Ukraine’s position was too precarious and the pressure too strong, and he was forced to sign a treaty which put Ukraine under the Russian domination rather than Polish.

A comprehensive assessment of the Pereyaslavska Rada Treaty can be given only by professional historians who got down to the objective study of the event fairly recently and have not yet reached a consensus on the matter. Opinions vary and range widely from condemnation to justification. Probably it is inevitable given the importance of the event studied and the bias that was associated with for such a long time.

Pereyaslavska Rada is called by some “a military alliance” and “the establishment of Russian protectorate” by others. Some of the Russian historians continue to regard Pereyaslavska Rada as “a manifestation of the Ukrainian people’s desire to join Russia in a fast union.” Besides, didn’t Bohdan Khmelnytsky swear an oath of allegiance to the Russian tsar?


Hard but momentous decision

Yes, he did, but let’s have a look at the situation he faced then. At the early stages of the national-liberation war, the hetman saw that Ukraine would hardly be able to win the war without an outside help. He desperately needed a reliable ally, and among obvious choices were Muscovy, Transylvania (historic eastern European region; after forming part of Hungary in the 11th–16th centuries, it was an autonomous principality within the Ottoman Empire in the 16th–17th centuries, and then once again became part of Hungary at the end of the 17th century; later it was incorporated into Romania in 1918–20), and the Crimean Khanate. At first, Khmelnytsky decided the Crimean Tartars were a better choice in spite of the fact that the previous history of Cossacks’ relations with them was one of almost continuous fighting. The Khanate was strong enough to give a substantial military assistance — but was highly unreliable. In June 1651, during a decisive battle fought between the Polish army and the Cossacks, the Tartars were suddenly withdrawn by the khan and the Cossacks suffered a defeat. Besides, the khan was a vassal of the Turkish sultan, the archenemy of Ukraine.

Transylvania being too concerned with its own affairs, was no good ally, and Khmelnytsky faced a situation in which he had to choose between the Russians and the Turks as his potential allies. Both Muscovy and the Ottoman Empire were only too eager to get Ukraine under their “protection” and Khmelnytsky thought it might work if one was set against the other. Khmelnytsky’s diplomats put out feelers and reported that the Sublime Porte was prepared to launch a joint military campaign against Russia, but Khmelnytsky realized it was too dangerous an alliance that could put into jeopardy the whole independence issue. But then the Turks made a move which decided the uncertainty in favour of Russia — the Sublime Porte signed a peace treaty with Poland in 1653. The hetman was left with no choice but to turn to Russia for help.

Muscovy was in no great hurry to form an alliance with the rebellious hetman. In 1647 Russia signed a treaty with Poland of joint military actions against the Tartars, nomadic people roaming the southern regions of Ukraine along the Black Sea and Azov Sea coasts. When the war of independence broke out in Ukraine, the Russian tsar was supposed to join forces with Poland and move against Khmelnytsky and his Cossacks who had the Tartras of the Nogay Horde for their allies. The Russians would prefer to side with Poland against the Ukrainian forces fighting for independence and crush the independence movement. Khmelnytsky understood only too well that if the Russians joined the Poles he would have but a little chance to win the war. And he decided to make an attempt to get the Russians to his support against the Poles, a dangerous move but probably the only way to survive and bring the war to a successful completion.


Seventeenth-century diplomacy

Such abrupt changes in alliances were the order of the day in the seventeenth-century Europe. The Pereyaslavska Rada treaty severed Ukraine from Poland, and in this respect those who call it “the first official declaration of independence” have a reason to do so. The articles of the treaty clearly point out to the autonomous status of Ukraine that she was to have under this new political arrangement.

Historians argue over some of the clauses of the treaty which are open to different interpretations. One clause, for example, dealing with the Cossack forces coming under the protectorate of the Moscow tsar, says, “show us grace and take us [Zaporizhian Cossacks] under your protection.” Cossacks were hired as mercenaries by other rulers of Europe as well, and the wording of “the contracts” was similar — but it did not at all mean that any merger of states was involved.

Bohdan Khmelnytsky did swear a personal oath of allegiance to the Russian tsar, Alexey Mikhailovich. It is on this undeniable historical fact that the myth about “unification” is based. By taking the oath, the hetman put himself forward as a guarantor of Ukraine being true to its new obligations as an ally of Russia. One of Khmelnytsky’s contemporaries described it in these terms: “Khmelnytsky who was enraged by [the Poles] signing a peace treaty with the Tartars…, turned to Moscow and… took an oath of allegiance [to the tsar] in the town of Pereyaslav. It is a barbaric custom of Moscow’s [tsar] to call everyone ‘my subjects’ and Khmelnytsky, very much distraught, hung his head and asked for vodka; downing a glass, he took the oath.” The hetman evidently felt humiliated by being referred to as “a subject of the Russian tsar” in the text of the treaty, but still thought the treaty would be to the benefit of Ukraine. But whether he behaved like a subject is open to doubt.


Political shortsightedness, Machiavellian unscrupulousness or realpolitik?

Should Khmelnytsky be blamed for a move that led in the long run to disastrous consequences? Could he foresee what the treaty would lead to? From the vantage point of the twenty-first century it is easy to see things in their true historical perspective but it was much more difficult, if not impossible, to see them take such a nasty turn then, in the mid-seventeenth century and in that historical situation. Khmelnytsky was not gullible — he was a wily politician and knew that not all the promises and oaths were to be necessarily kept. Whenever he felt constrained, he felt free to act as he thought best, treaty or no treaty.

When it came time to get the treaty ratified, it turned out that the Russians offered a document for ratification different from the one agreed upon in Pereyaslav. Many clauses were doctored in order to limit Ukraine’s autonomy — for example, the hetman was allowed to conduct foreign policy only upon receiving Moscow’s approval to do so; Russian troops were to be stationed in the then major cities — Kyiv, Chernihiv, Pereyaslav and Nizhyn, with Russian governors installed as well. Khmelnytsky could either accept and sign the doctored treaty, or refuse to do it. There was no other alternative. He was also aware that some of the Cossack leaders were dead against the treaty altogether. However, he went ahead and accepted the agreement with the changes introduced by Moscow — but with a firm intention not to remain true to the conditions imposed on him by Moscow. He wanted to get the promised help — and then abrogate the treaty.

The treaty did bring the short-term benefits. The main goal — to prevent a Polish-Russian alliance, was achieved. In fact, the treaty pushed Russia into a conflict with Poland. The balance of forces was tipped in favour of Ukraine. At a time when Ukraine so badly needed military help, it did get it. Khmelnytsky did not intend to let the Russians put their garrisons in his towns, and he continued to conduct his own foreign policy, regardless of Moscow’s displeasure.

Political and military successes that followed inclined Khmelnytsky and Cossacks leaders to rescind the treaty. Besides, the Russian allies proved to be unreliable and even treacherous. Contemporaries, giving account of the events of that time, said that “instead of giving help, [Russians] took the advantage of the situation and pillaged and robbed, the way the Tartars did.”

However, it was the Russian side that abrogated the treaty. The Polish diplomats managed to persuade the Russian tsar to conclude a peace treaty with Poland, promising him the Polish throne the moment it became free. Two years after the Pereyaslav agreement, in 1656, Moscow signed a peace treaty with Poland which automatically made the Pereyaslav accord null and void.

It did not catch the hetman unawares. Providently, he concluded a treaty with Sweden in 1655, a protestant country, against the Catholic Poland. He knew of the continuing tensions between the Catholic and Protestant countries in Europe and moved to use them to his advantage. Also, he showed that he would side with Europe rather than with Russia. In view of all this, the Pereyaslav treaty can hardly be regarded as momentous as it is customarily looked upon. It was a step taken to insure Ukraine’s independence, and in signing the treaty, Khmelnytsky was not committing a grave political blunder. What cost Ukraine very dearly was his failure to find a worthy successor to his cause, and his death came as a blow to the unity of the national liberation forces and to the determination to pursue the course he had set. Russia was not slow to use the situation to its full advantage. The Soviet historians presented Khmelnytsky as “a loyal subject of the Russian tsar,” and the Pereyaslav agreement as a breakthrough in relations between Ukraine and Russia that led to their happy merger. Unfortunately the lies concocted then continue to live in the consciousness of the masses.

One can only hope that this year’s marking of the 350th anniversary of Pereyaslavska Rada will reveal the true significance and consequences of the agreement concluded in 1654, and the people of Ukraine will at last be able to form a well-grounded opinion as to whether it was a tragedy, a triumph, or just another historical event in the series of many other historical events.


A new book devoted to Pereyaslavska Rada

A new book dealing with the Pereyaslavska Rada events of 1654 was recently published by the Smoloskyp Fund. It is the first book of such scope and scholarship to be published in Ukraine for quite some time. In fact, no other comprehensive works on the subject have appeared in Ukraine since the 1950s, when the 300th anniversary of “reunification of Ukraine with Russia” was celebrated. The books and articles written then were typical productions of the Soviet approach to history and served mostly the propaganda purposes rather than the truth. But even then, some of the authors managed to give the readers more information than the Soviets intended to divulge. For example, in a collection of works devoted to the Pereyaslavska Rada events which was released in 1954, Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s authentic letters were published. The letters revealed that the hetman was inclined to go into alliance with the Ottoman Empire rather than with Russia. In order to prevent the censors from stopping the publication, these letters were featured in the section of the book, entitled “Documents of dubious authenticity,” and thus were made available to both historians and lay readers.

The new book is a collection of papers devoted to the events in Ukraine of three hundred and fifty years ago that were written over a long period of time, starting from the end of the 19th and down to recent times. It allows the reader to see how the treatment of the subject and assessment of the events changed over the years. The book does not feature seventeenth-century documents, which deserve a separate publication.

The first part of the book contains papers written in the period from the end of the 19th century down to the 1970s. Among the works published are three essays by Mykhailo Braychevsky, a prominent Ukrainian historian of the second half of the twentieth century. His views differed sharply from the official line and the publication of these papers dealing Pereyaslavska Rada was suppressed in the Soviet times; they made their way to the Ukrainian readers through samvydav — type-written copies distributed clandestinely.

Part Two of the book presents articles devoted to historiographical problems and to analysis of the views of Russian, Polish and Western European historians on the events connected with Pereyaslavska Rada, and also contains essays dealing with various historical aspects and consequences of Pereyaslavska Rada.

One hopes that this book will not be the only one dealing with this subject, and other works will be published as well to throw additional light on the events that shaped the Ukrainian history.


Sweet Myth and Bitter Reality

Oleksiy Rudenko, historian of heraldry, holder of The Order of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the highest military order of Ukraine

The 1654 Pereyaslavska Rada events indicated that Ukraine was in the process of becoming a monarchy, with Bohdan Khmelnytsky its likeliest first monarch. The hetman, a former subject of the Polish king, conducted negotiations with other rulers of the neighbouring countries as an equal with his equals, and that means that a new state in Eastern Europe was coming into existence.

At the same time, it is evident from the text of the 1654 treaty and the events that followed, that Khmelnytsky did not intend to remain faithful to it and wanted to abrogate it as soon as he could. As evidence to support this statement one can cite a limited number of senior Cossacks present at Pereyaslav, and the absence of such Cossack military leaders as Ivan Bohun. Neither were the top church hierarchs present.

Khmelnytsky’s principle blunder was not the oath taken and not the signing of the treaty, doctored by the Russians, but it was the very fact of his entering negotiations with Russia in the first place. Khmelnytsky, a statesman with a European education and experience, was a shrewd diplomat and knew how to maneuver but Russia of that time was a despotic state, more Asiatic than European, in which all the people, from peasants to boyars, were no more than the tsar’s bondsmen. The Russian tsar considered himself the only “right” monarch of the Christian Orthodox faith, and as such, arrogantly believed he was superior to all other rulers. Alexey Mikhailovich, the tsar Khmelnytsky signed a treaty with, did not recognize any treaties and felt he was not obliged to comply with any treaty he happened to conclude.

The tsar refused to swear the oath of compliance with the treaty claiming it was below the dignity of an autocrat. Khmelnytsky was obliged to swear the oath alone, and it was in this unilateral oath taking that, in later times, historians and dealers in propaganda found justification for insisting that by this act the Ukrainian military forces, and by extension the whole of Ukraine, were put under the protectorate of Russia. In due time led to “the unification of Russia and Ukraine.”

Khmelnytsky soon realized he could not rely on such an ally as Russia, arrogant and devious as it was. He began looking for other allies, in Europe, among the protestant countries, and the treaty with Moscow was repealed. But it was too late — Russia had a formal pretext for interfering into the internal affairs of Ukraine. In fact, even if it had not had such a pretext, it would have tried to interfere anyway.

In later times, the facts about Pereyaslavska Rada and the treaty were either suppressed or twisted around to suit the needs of propaganda. Yes, Khmelnytsky swore the oath and signed the treaty but there was no “fraternal love between the two Christian Orthodox, Slavic nations” that brought them into “a happy, voluntary union.” The Pereyaslavska Rada events in themselves were not of a pivotal significance as they were described later, but unfortunately the myth born out of them dominated the consciousness of most of the Ukrainians for such a long time.


The Seventeenth-Century War of Liberation in Ukraine

By the middle of the 14th century Ukrainian territories were under the rule of three external powers — the Golden Horde, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and the kingdom of Poland. By the mid-15th century the Golden Horde was in a process of disintegration. One of its successor states was the Crimean Khanate, which after 1475 accepted the supremacy of the Ottoman sultans.

Having already over the course of a century incorporated all the lands of Belarus, Lithuania advanced rapidly into Ukraine. Lithuanian control extended over virtually all the Ukrainian lands.

Lithuania itself was soon drawn into the orbit of Poland following the dynastic linkage of the two states in the end of the fourteenth century and the baptism of the Lithuanians into the Roman Catholic church. In 1569, by the Union of Lublin, the dynastic link between Poland and Lithuania was transformed into a constitutional union of the two states as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. At the same time, the greater part of the Ukrainian territories was detached from Lithuania and annexed directly to Poland. The Ukrainian lands experienced the direct impact of Polish political and cultural predominance.

In the 15th century a new martial society — the Cossacks, was beginning to evolve in Ukraine’s southern steppes. Their numbers were continually augmented by peasants fleeing serfdom and adventurers from other social strata, including the nobility. The Cossacks by the mid-sixteenth century had developed a military organization of a peculiarly democratic kind, with a general assembly (rada) as the supreme authority and elected officers, including the commander in chief, or hetman. Their centre was the Sich, an armed camp in the lands of the lower Dnipro “beyond the rapids” (za porohy) — hence, Zaporizhzhya.

The Cossacks defended Ukraine’s frontier population from Tartar incursions, conducted their own campaigns into Crimean territory and, in their flotillas of light craft, even raided Turkish coastal cities in Anatolia. The Polish government found the Cossacks a useful fighting force in wars with the Tartars, Turks, and Muscovites but in peacetime viewed them as a dangerously explosive element. Attempts to control them led to Cossack uprisings. Also, in the great religious divide, the Cossacks were staunch supporters of Orthodoxy and stood in an uncompromising opposition to the Uniate church. Tensions arising from social discontent, religious strife, and Cossack resentment of Polish authority finally came to a head in 1648. Beginning with a Cossack revolt, under the leadership of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, Ukraine was quickly engulfed in a war of independence. Khmelnytsky (1595–1657) was elected hetman early in 1648 and began preparations for a massive insurrection, securing Tartar military support. The Poles in turn took bloody reprisals against the rebellious population. After several victories over the Polish army, in January 1649 Khmelnytsky entered Kyiv to triumphal acclaim as liberator.

While military operations continued inconclusively, and because Tartar support proved undependable at crucial moments, Khmelnytsky began to search for other allies. In 1654 at Pereyaslav he concluded with Muscovy an agreement whose precise nature has generated a great controversy: Russian (and later Soviet) historians emphasized Ukraine’s acceptance of the tsar’s suzerainty, which subsequently legitimized Russian rule; Ukrainian historiography has stressed Moscow’s recognition of Ukraine’s autonomy, including an elective hetmancy, self-government, and the right to conduct foreign relations that was virtually tantamount to independence. Khmelnytsky’s sudden death in 1657 put an end to a process that should have led to Ukraine’s regaining full independence. Khmelnytsky did not appoint any successor and Khmelnytsky’s son Yury was proclaimed hetman but he was too young to rule, and following advice of the Cossack leaders resigned temporarily. Ivan Vyhovsky was elected hetman. He broke with Moscow and in 1658 concluded a new treaty with Poland but it was never implemented. Faced with mounting opposition, Vyhovsky resigned the hetmancy and fled to Poland.

After Vyhovsky, Ukraine began a rapid descent into a prolonged state of chaos that contemporaries called “the Ruin.”


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