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Ivan Mazepa: a traitor — or a fighter for liberation?

 

On June 27 (Old Calendar Style) 1709, a battle was fought near the town of Poltava, central Ukraine. On one side were the forces of the ambitious Swedish king Charles XII and the forces of his ally Ivan Mazepa, Hetman of Ukraine, and on the other side were the forces of the Russian tsar Peter I. The Russians won the battle. Those who survived the battle on the Swedish side fled; Ukraine lost whatever had been left of its independence.

Volodymyr PANCHENKO, a historian, offers his view of the events whose three-hundredth anniversary will be marked in June 2009.

 

The Battle of Poltava, or rather its results, proved to be a national tragedy for Ukraine. In order to better comprehend what had led to it, we should go back to the year 1687, when Ivan Mazepa became hetman of Ukraine.

He came to power after the previous hetman, Ivan Samoylovych, was ousted by the Cossack leaders. The Russian Prince Vasily Golitsyn, one of the principal political figures of Russia of that time, stood behind the coup. It was he who promoted the so-called Kolomatska Agreement according to which the Ukrainian lands were put, for all intents and purposes, under Muscovy’s complete domination. The rights of hetman were considerably curbed; hetman became hardly more than a puppet of Moscow; no hetman could any longer be elected without a special ukase issued by the tsar, and the hetman’s prerogatives vastly shrank. Even in the Cossack capital, Baturyn, the hetman’s guards were to be Moscow’s streltsy (“shooters” troops). “Cossack liberties” were curtailed; the sources of revenues for the hetman’s treasure were, to a large extent, closed. Assimilation and Russianization were the focal points of the Russian imperial policy, and the Ukrainian hetman was viewed as an instrument of such policy. The hetman was obliged “to take all the necessary measures and employ all the means available to him for uniting the people of Malorosiya (“Little Russia” — the usual Russian reference to Ukraine) with the people of Velykorossiya” (“Great Russia”).

Even before Samoylovych was removed, Prince Golitsyn had managed to put the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Orthodox Church’s rule (in 1685). The road to incorporating Ukraine into Russia seemed to be open.

Thus, when Ivan Mazepa became hetman, his was a position of a vassal rather than that of an independent ruler. In order to serve Moscow’s interests and yet to preserve whatever could be salvaged from Ukraine’s independence, he had to become an adept of Machiavelli’s principles and do a lot of political maneuvering. Mazepa stayed in power for twenty two years and his contribution to Ukrainian culture was particularly great. The style in art and architecture, known as “Ukrainian Baroque” developed and flourished during his hetmanship; a number of distinguished scholars and church figures emerged during Mazepa’s years — Feofan Prokopovych, Stefan Yavorsky, Ivan Velychkovsky, Dmytro Tuptalo, and others. The Kyiv Mohyla Academy, supported by Mazepa both in the general and financial sense, became a major seat of learning (the Academy was revived in the 1990s and became a leading establishment of higher learning — the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy — in Ukraine; it now occupies the same premises as the old Academy did in the seventeenth century). In fact, it was thanks to Mazepa that the old Kollehium religious school was given the status of academy.

Churchmen, artists, musicians and many other Ukrainian culture and public figures migrated to Russia in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries creating an influential social and cultural milieu in Russia in the service of Russian tsars.

 

Peter comes to the throne

When in 1696, after the death of his sickly brother Ivan with whom he shared the throne, Peter (1672–1725) became the sole ruler of Russia, Mazepa, using his considerable diplomatic skills, gained the young tsar’s trust, and at the same time managed to get rid of a number of particularly humiliating clauses of the Kolomatsky Agreement.

In 1700, Peter awarded Mazepa with the Order of St Andrew (Orden Svyatoho Andriya Pervozvanoho) for Mazepa’s “military exploits” and “faithful service” to the tsar. Meanwhile, Mazepa united most of the Ukrainian lands under his rule.

But it was in the same year, 1700, that the Swedish-Russian war broke out — Charles XII, the Swedish king, had long-range plans, not only a conquest of the lands of the Baltic region. He must have thought of turning Sweden into a major European power. The early stages of the war proved the military and logistical superiority of Sweden and Peter I lost an important battle — that of Narva.

Mazepa was obliged to send Ukrainian troops to fight on Peter’s side. They suffered considerable losses; among the killed in action was Mazepa’s nephew, Ivan Obidovsky. It was a bitter loss for Mazepa, not only because Obidovsky was a close relative, but primarily because Mazepa evidently wanted to make Obidovsky his heir.

Peter urged Mazepa to establish a firm control of the western parts of Ukraine so that Mazepa would be able to provide Peter with a military support from the western direction. Mazepa did enter Lviv in 1705, but wary of possible military complications he retreated to the Land of Volyn, and set up his headquarters in the well-fortified town of Dubno.

The general situation in Ukraine at that time was getting more tense; conflicts between the Russian troops and the Cossacks began to flare up here and there. Rumors of Peter’s intentions of disbanding the Cossack troops altogether and forming military forces in Ukraine on an entirely different basis, spread across the land. Besides, the situation in Poland demanded Mazepa’s attention as well. Pursuing schemes of dynastic greatness, the Polish king with strong links with Saxony, Augustus II involved unwilling Poland in a coalition war against Charles XII of Sweden that proved disastrous. In 1702 Charles invaded the country, forced Augustus out, and staged an election of the youthful Stanislaw I Leszczyñski as king. The country was split between two rival monarchs and was plunged into chaos. The looting armies and an outbreak of bubonic plague decimated the people (after the defeat of Sweden at Poltava, Ukraine, in 1709 Peter I eventually restored Augustus to the throne and made him dependent on the tsar).

To complicate matters still further, Mazepa received reports from his confidential and rather reliable sources in Moscow, that Aleksandr Menshikov, arguably the most powerful official at the court of Peter I, was toying with an idea of becoming hetman of Ukraine. Some other prominent figures in Peter I’s entourage would not mind getting large chunks of Ukrainian lands for themselves as well.

Mazepa sensed that the institution of Ukrainian hetmanship was in danger of being ether abolished altogether or turned into an empty title, with Ukraine losing any vestiges of autonomy. By the spring of 1707, Mazepa had realized that something had to be urgently done to prevent Ukraine from being swallowed up by the avaricious neighbor to the north.

 

Hard decision

A letter from Ivan Mazepa to Ivan Skoropadsky, a Cossack colonel and governor of Starodub, in which Mazepa explains the reasons for his decision to join Charles XII against Muscovy, is extant. The letter was written in the village of Dikhtyarivka, not far from the town of Novhorod-Siversky, and was sent on October 30 1708. Mazepa wrote that “Malorosiya has come to the brink of destruction,” and that “it is the power of Moscow that has done away with our rights and freedoms — which was what Muscovy had intended to do for quite some time; following the orders of the tsar, Ukrainian towns were besieged and taken by Moscow troops, Ukrainian dwellers were robbed, murdered or forced to leave; the power and prerogatives of the Cossack leadership, hetman included, were taken away from them; the Cossack troops were to be reformed in accordance with the Moscow principles; the Zaporizhzhya Cossack Army was to be disbanded, and “the whole of the Malorosiya people were to be enslaved”; Aleksandr Menshikov and Dmitry Golitsyn were leading armies into Ukraine “in order to impose their heavy bondage on us” and “possibly to subject us to the tortures tyrants administer to the conquered.”

Mazepa evidently regarded the Muscovy troops sent to Ukraine not as the forces whose task was to defend it against invaders, but saw them as marauders and enslavers. The Russian troops, when they were forced to retreat by Charles XII, employed the scorched earth tactics, and even Kyiv was subjected to this policy. Mazepa and some Cossack leaders began to see Charles XII as a means of providing protection for Ukraine against Russia. Besides, he believed in the Swedish king’s “good luck” and in his “invincibility.” He urged Skoropadsky, in his letter to the Colonel, to free Starodub from the Russian forces and join him as soon as possible. “Act like a faithful son of your Motherland!” But Skoropadsky did not come over to Mazepa’s side. He remained loyal to the tsar and, at Peter’s bidding, was even elected hetman.

In spite of all these considerations, it was a very difficult decision for Mazepa to abandon Peter and join Charles XII. It was an extremely risky step to take but he saw no other way out of the quandary he found himself in. The last push came when he received an order from Peter to send his troops to pillage and burn of villages and towns in the Land of Starodubshchyna as part of the scorched-earth policy practiced by the retreating Russian troops. The Cossack leaders refused to fulfill this order and Mazepa turned to Charles for help. The tsar sent his troops to Borzna where Mazepa was stationed at that time — October 1708 — and Mazepa went over to Charles XII’s camp.

Peter regarded Mazepa as his vassal and believed that “might is right,” and Mazepa regarded the “Ukrainian people to be free,” and himself “free to disregard obligations to Peter” after the tsar had violated the provisions of the Kolomatska Agreement.

When he learnt that Mazepa had gone over to Charles with some of his Cossack troops, the tsar sent Menshikov to Baturyn — the town was burned down, most of its dwellers killed.

But Mazepa’s decision to go over Charles was not supported by the majority of the Cossack leaders who remained loyal to the tsar. Both Mazepa and Peter employed all the means at their disposal — diplomatic, political, military and others — to do as much damage to the opponent as possible.

In the spring of 1709 it became clear that a major battle in which the outcome of the war was to be decided, was imminent. At the end of April, the Swedish troops besieged Poltava, and the final countdown to the battle that was to be fought on June 27 began.

Peter I had over 42,000 troops, plus the Cossacks of Ivan Skoropadsky, and plus several thousand Kalmyk horsemen, and Charles XII had about 30,000 troops counting Mazepa’s Cossacks.

The battle lasted for over six hours; the Russians came out victors, capturing three thousand Swedes right at the battle field and thirteen thousand later when the fleeing Swedish troops attempted to cross the Dnipro River. Hundreds of Mazepa’s troops were also captured by the victorious Russians.

Mazepa found his way to the town of Bandery in Moldova (then under Turkey) where he died in August 1709, only two months after losing the Battle of Poltava. This battle was a turning point — Russia was on its speedy way to becoming an immense empire, and Ukraine was on its way to complete subjugation.

But paradoxically, Mazepa’s desperate attempt to prevent Ukraine from losing whatever had been left of its independence, proved to be the beginning of a struggle to regain independence. Independence was declared in 1917 — only to be lost once again two years later, and then, finally, independence was regained in August 1991. The road to independence was a very long and torturous one — but Ukraine has traveled it with Mazepa’s silent blessing.

 

Editor’s note: It so happens that assessment of historic events can be radically different depending on “which side of the border” such an assessment is made, on which “ideological” and moral principles such an assessment is based, and on many other factors.

Particularly controversial and disagreeing assessment of the pivotal events in history can be in the neighboring states which shared long stretches of common history.

Ukraine regained her independence only in 1991, after more than hundred years of Russian domination, of being a part of the Russian and then Soviet empire. Historically, Ukraine, as Kyivan Rus, was an independent state (until it broke up after the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century) long before the rise of Muscovy.

Moscow was founded by a Kyiv ruler in 1147, and this town gradually became the center of a growing state, Muscovy, which in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries became one of the biggest empires on earth. The Russian — and its successor Soviet Empire — looked upon its parts as inalienable; when both empires crumbled and fell apart, the old attitudes remained strong.

Since Ukraine happened to be the land where the first eastern Slavic state emerged, it was particularly difficult for Moscow to come to terms with the idea that Ukraine’s history and Russia’s history are not one and the same thing, and that Ukraine’s view of the historical events can be radically different from those of Russia. The attitude to one and the same event of a colony and its metropolis will necessarily be oppositely different.

OUN and UIA fighters in western Ukraine fought both against the Nazis and the Soviets, and they took a very dim view of the “liberation” that the Soviets brought with them; the soviet propaganda and the soviet secret service took a very dim of the freedom fighters who were branded as “Bandera bandits” and persecuted, prosecuted, imprisoned and executed. Unfortunately, many of the pernicious soviet myths still linger, and in Russia these myths are being actively revived.

If recent history can be manipulated, more ancient history can be manipulated and “doctored” with a much greater ease. For many imperial-minded Russians, their tsar Peter I and tsarina Catherine II are “great”; for Ukrainians, these rulers were responsible for the final subjugation of Ukraine and total loss of any vestiges of freedom and independence.

In Russian historiography Ivan Mazepa is treated as a traitor, and Ukrainian historians now assess Mazepa’s attempt to regain independence for Ukraine as a highly patriotic act.

This and other similar controversies are likely to continue to exist, unless an objective view of historic events, based on the facts and not on the wishful thinking or propaganda, is accepted.

 

A diorama of the Battle of Poltava

in a Poltava museum.

 

A view of the Citadel which has been recently

rebuilt in Baturyn.

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