The end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth in Europe was the time of political adventurers, love affairs, treachery and bravery. Among the people who could be called “symbols of the time” one should name Ivan Mazepa, Hetman of Ukraine, a distinguished general, politician, cultural figure, patron of arts and poet.

Possessing seducing charms of a Casanova and political flexibility of a Macchiavelli, he entered beneficial and perilous alliances, blundered not once into deadly cul-de-sacs and yet managed to extricate himself almost unscathed out of desperate situations. “Hetman” was a military leader and head of state of Ukraine in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and as any other leader of his times, Mazepa was not an angel, but neither was he an evil-doer as he was portrayed later by the Russian Imperial propaganda. One can admit that probably some of the means he used to achieve his goals were reprehensible but he never deviated from attempts to achieve his main goal - independence and prosperity of Ukraine.

“Woe to a bird that makes a nest close to a much-travelled road”

This poetic image, symbolically portraying Ukraine in the seventeenth century, is a line from a poem written by Mazepa. Ukraine lived under constant pressure from the three aggressive neighbouring states: Russia, Poland and Turkey. Having to fight on many sides depleted Ukraine’s resources. Mazepa, seeing that the country faced ruin and complete disintegration, undertook to unite all the lands of Ukraine in one independent state. The only really powerful ally Mazepa could turn to was Charles XII, King of Sweden, who was an inexorable enemy of Russia in general and of Peter I in particular. War between Russia and Sweden broke out in 1699 and Mazepa, being the Russian tsar’s vassal, was obliged to join Peter in fighting against the Swedes. But Mazepa conducted secret negotiations with Charles, as he sought an alliance with Sweden in order to gain independence for Ukraine from both Russia and Poland. A secret treaty between “the Prince of Ukraine” and “the King of Goths, Swedes and Vandals” (thus the signatories of the treaty officially styled themselves) was signed in 1708. Mazepa, a cunning and wily politician, kept the treaty an absolute secret knowing too well what treachery meant. He made it public only when the Swedish troops entered Ukraine. Tsar Peter, when he learned of Mazepa’s siding with Charles, took a vengeful action and razed the Hetman’s capital city of Baturyn to the ground. Mazepa escaped but was pronounced “the traitor of the nation.” The priests in all the churches of Ukraine (dozens of which were built with donations from Mazepa) who, only a short time before, were regularly praying for the Hetman’s health and well-being, now were forced to anathematize him. Then in June of 1709, the Russian and Swedish armies clashed at last in a major battle in the vicinity of Poltava.

The Russian army had a numerical superiority over the combined Swedish and Mazepa’s forces but the Swedes were renown for their superior fighting qualities. The Russians also had many more artillery pieces than the Swedes. If Charles and Mazepa had won that battle the whole course of history of Ukraine and of the whole Eastern Europe would have been changed. But the allies were beaten. Mazepa sought asylum within the Sultan’s dominions where, in the town of Bender, he died in September of 1709. Mazepa was, no doubt, a charismatic personality whose role in history has been assessed and described differently, from denunciation to extolling. Myth and fact combined to shroud this figure in mystery. One of the definite facts was that he possessed an uncanny gift of charming people, both kings and beautiful women. Legends about Mazepa’s amorous exploits arose shortly after his death. Some of them were based on the actual happenings.

Wild Horse

One of the legends runs like this: second half of the seventeenth century, the court of the Polish king, conspiracies, plots, intrigues, conflicts of aristocratic ambitions. A young refined Ukrainian aristocrat by the name of Yan Mazepa-Kaledinsky is attached to the court in the capacity of a diplomat. He is very ambitious, a lady-killer, an about-towner. He begins one of his innumerable love affairs with the wife of a very highly placed Polish noble. But this time things turn out nasty for him - he is caught in the act by the enraged and jealous husband.

Guards and servants are called and straight from bed, naked as he is, he is taken out of the house into the courtyard where he is lashed to the back of a wild horse. The horse is whipped hard, and overcome with pain, it gallops away into the wide fields. The horse carries the unfortunate lover over hill and dale, through forests and meadows, all across Poland and brings him to Ukraine where it dumps at last its lifeless burden in a backwoods place. Though this cruelly romantic story is in all probability a flight of fanciful imagination but it inspired a number of European poets, and Mazepa, similarly to Don Juan, has stayed in the world literature as an embodiment of passion and love of freedom. Byron, Pushkin, Hugo and other Russian, French and English poets either devoted whole poems to him or featured him as a character in their poetry, Franz Liszt devoted a music piece to Mazepa. In the twentieth century theatres in Broadway, New York, they staged musicals about Mazepa. But is there any grain of truth in the story that we’ve just told? Ivan (who in Polish was transformed into Yan) Mazepa, a scion of a Ukrainian noble family did spend his young years at the Polish royal court. The king had a habit of sending annually three most talented youths of his court abroad for studies. He chose Mazepa among others. Mazepa travelled to Germany, France and Italy and studied at universities there. He returned to Warsaw enriched with knowledge of foreign languages and many other things. He was a brilliant nobleman, one of the most learned men of his time, ready to enter diplomatic service. The Polish King John Casimir who was Mazepa’s patron, faced difficult times. His country was disintegrating. There were many plots hatched to overthrow him and one of the plots was headed by a Polish nobleman named Pasek. Mazepa, when he inadvertently learned about the plot, reported it to the king. John Casimir ordered to arrest the plotter but Pasek managed to persuade the king he had been slandered and wrongly accused. Pasek was acquitted but he bore an undying grudge against Mazepa. A year passed and once Pasek ran by chance into Mazepa (they had studiously avoided each other before) in a palace corridor, and emboldened by a couple of drinks he had had, he began verbally abusing Mazepa. Mazepa pulled out his sword and attacked Pasek. The duels were strictly forbidden, the fighting was stopped by the guards and Mazepa, stripped of all his privileges, was obliged to leave the Polish court. But Pasek still felt vengeful. He had some literary talent and using Mazepa’s notoriety as a ladies’ man made up a story that consequently brought Mazepa an all-European fame. There is an irony in this: Pasek has long been forgotten and Mazepa, a legendary lover, lives on as a literary character and historical personage.

Hetman’s last love

It is not known how many women Mazepa had loved or, for that matter, it is not even known for sure whether he actually was such an irresistible and insatiable lover as he was later portrayed by poets. We know more about Mazepa’s last love, a story tragic and highly moving. At the age of sixty he fell in love head over heels with Motrya, the daughter of his comrade-in-arms Kochubey. She was many years his junior but the tragedy of this love was not in the age difference. Jean de Baluse, the French ambassador to Ukraine, thus described Mazepa: “Though Ruler Mazepa is of quite an advanced age and his visage may look severe, his eyes sparkle with youthful vigour, his hands are white like a woman’s but he is extremely strong, his bodily strength is greater than that of a sturdy German mercenary; also he is an accomplised horseman.” Motrya could not resist Mazepa’s wooing and fell for him. She was passionately in love with Mazepa but there was no future for this love. The thing was that Mazepa was her godfather. The girl’s parents soon learnt what was going on and her mother, a wilful and unbending woman, turned all her anger against the daughter making her life a sheer hell. When Motrya could stand it no more she took a desperate step and ran away from home and joined her beloved Mazepa. Much as he wanted to be with her, he realized he could not keep her in his house and returned the poor, weeping girl to her parents. To marry a goddaughter was unthinkable, no less a sin was to live with her out of wedlock. Several letters of Mazepa to Motrya are still extant. In one of them he explains why he had to send her back to her parents: “Had I kept you, Your Ladyship, with me, we could not have withstood the temptation and would have lived as husband and wife but the church would have put a curse on us and would have demanded that we separate. What would have become of you then, Your Ladyship? And I would have been thrown in torment over your unhappiness and your tears that would surely have followed.” This letter unequivocally demonstrates the purity of their relations. What followed is sad and tragic. The friendship that had existed between Mazepa and Kochubey, the girl’s father, turned to hatred and Kochubey, betraying his former friend, reported Mazepa’s plans of alliance with the Swedes to Tsar Peter. Peter did not believe Kochubey and had him bound and delivered back to Mazepa. The Hetman had little choice but condemn his old friend to death. Later, Peter ordered Mazepa’s grave found and opened. The body was exhumed and hanged. Motrya married one of Mazepa’s companions-in-arms but was captured with her husband after Mazepa’s defeat and death, and they both were exiled to Siberia. Her husband died in exile, she returned to Ukraine, took the veil and spent the rest of her life in a nunnery not far from Poltava.

By Natalya Mykhaylova