John F. Kennedy (1917 – 1963), once wrote after the Bay of Pigs Fiasco, that in victory he was everyone’s child – but in defeat he was an orphan. The tragedy of victors being the authors of history is that truth subsequently suffers at least half of the time. Generation after generation one side of the ledger is lost; and lies repeated become in time – a new form of truth. The defeated, become the powerless and the voiceless. In the next piece to this series, I seek to open the eyes of the reader to a historical reality that offers a fresh sense and perspective of what was being fought for at the Battle of Poltava, and what was lost on that battlefield and in the annals of history for many centuries to follow. ATK
Bohdan Kentrschynski (1962) opens up his biographical work on Mazepa by pointing out that far from the Battle of Poltava being a sporadic military operation inspired by the ambitious whim of a singular leader of the Zaporozhian Cossacks; successive Cossack Hetmen who led the Host before Mazepa had sent clandestine feelers out to the Swedish court over the many decades preceding Poltava. The Royal Court in Stockholm was not an alien place to emissaries and visitors from the Zaporozhians. That the Cossacks were visiting on a secretive and not too irregular basis, highlights that there was a reason for their travels vastly more important than creating trade links or for the expedition of diplomatic conviviality. The stimulus of such missions was quite obviously prospective in a military sense. Kentrschynski goes on to note that the first the Swedes knew of Mazepa’s election as the Hetman of the Zaporozhian Cossacks was in a message that came to the Royal Court in Stockholm on the 10th of September, 1687, some twenty two years before both nations would appear together as allies on that battlefield in a little known town beside the Vorskla River. (Kentrschynski, 1962, pp. 180 – 181). Subsequent to this message would also come snippets of the romantic legend of Mazepa, a legend that flourished in his own life-time, and which was in much later years promulgated by both the philosopher Voltaire and the poet Byron.
- Dr. Kania: A Question of Character – Part One (cf. 1 Samuel 16: 7, RSV)
- Dr. Kania. Estrangement – Part II (cf. Hebrews 13: 2, RSV)
- Dr. Kania: Estrangement – Part I (cf. Luke 10: 25 – 37, RSV)
Critically Kentrschynski, also pens that at his accession to the Hetmanate, Mazepa had been a witness to the rise and fall of many of his predecessors – all victims of Tsarist disfavour and wrath. Thus Mazepa was clearly forewarned as to what would be his fate if a push for Ruthenian self-determination failed, not only for him, but for his people. (cf. Ibid, p. 191). With this kept in mind, if Mazepa was to carry out the role of an eventual liberating patriot – it would have to be at the same time, a role played with dissimulation and intrigue. As a consequence some sources claim Mazepa to have been a Macchiavellian opportunist in his approach to politics and leadership. (cf. Ibid, p. 193). But one need only cast a cursory glance at how the Tsars crushed any form of disobedience to comprehend why Mazepa had to be guarded in his political machinations, even at the risk of being considered duplicitous. One clear example of the tightrope that he was walking was that, the man who was to become the greatest threat to Moscow, was for many years prior to Poltava, the trusted General of Tsar Peter I. In February of 1700 as Mazepa left Moscow to return home to Ukraine – it was as the newly awarded recipient of the Order of St. Andrew, having been decorated by Tsar Peter.
Yet in his mind Mazepa was continually ruminating. The dangerous game he was playing required secrecy and timing in order to fulfil its gambit. We see on one level how Mazepa was attempting a balancing act between being a loyal commander of the Tsar, while at the same time protesting to Moscow about the increasingly heavy demands placed on the Ukrainian people by the Tsar who was using the Zaporozhian Cossacks to fight the Tsar’s battles. (cf. Ibid, p. 207). The political and military bond between the two nations was ever tightening, and the spaces for Mazepa to operate were becoming increasingly smaller. This constriction had all originally stemmed from the Treaty of Pereyaslav, a document signed by the then Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, and from whose legacy Mazepa sought to work within, in order to eventually escape from without.
The ramifications of the signing of the Treaty of Pereyaslav in 1654 – a political alliance between the Zaporozhian Cossacks and the Muscovite Tsar, had since its agreement been subject to evolving ‘mis-interpretation’. What had originally been seen from the Cossack viewpoint as a means to secure a military alliance with Muscovy, in order to protect the Cossack state from the military threat of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, had opened the lid to a Pandora’s box; a situation in which the Tsar’s influence on Cossack territory had increased over the years since the signing of the Treaty to a position where a once military alliance of ‘equals’, was steadily being envisaged by consecutive Hetmen (leading up and including Mazepa) as the inevitable road to servitude, not only of the Zaporozhian Cossack Host, but of the people the Host protected.
To fully understand the eventual mindset of Mazepa and to why he joined Charles XII of Sweden in their operation against Tsar Peter I of Muscovy, one needs to understand the hidden and developing paradigm in Mazepa’s mind of what he was fighting for – the autonomy of the Zaporozhian Host, and the self-determination of the Ruthenian people in the vision of an independent Ruthenian nation. To Mazepa this nation, known as Ukraine, was the successor of the state of Kyiv-Rus’ which now in the absence of its former monarchy, was to be established as a modern democratic State, the first of its kind on the European continent. We know that this indeed was his plan from the work left to the world post-Poltava written by Mazepa’s eventual successor as Hetman, Pylyp Orlyk in what is known today as the Constitution of Bendery or the Constitution of Pylyp Orlyk. Thus the Battle of Poltava can be seen philosophically along two planes; first as a military conflict between two peoples – Ruthenians and Muscovites, and second, as a conflict between two political mindsets: Tsarist autocracy versus the hereto unknown, untried, and untested democratic ideal.
Mazepa and Orlyk’s paradigm rested on the notion that the independent democratic state of Ukraine meant that there was an unequivocal reality of a Ruthenian people who despite sharing an Orthodox Christianity with their Muscovite neighbours, had a distinct ethnic, linguistic and cultural germination. Orlyk and Mazepa were polyglots and would write with purpose choosing the language to convey their message – deliberately. Thus Orlyk’s Constitution survives in two forms, one written in the Ruthenian language, addressed to the people of Ukraine; the other written in Latin – announcing the existence of the Ukrainian nation to the wider world. The former Constitution written in the Ruthenian language was discovered in the Russian archives only in 2008, the latter Latin form was known since Orlyk’s exile to Sweden, and is held to this day in Stockholm. Distinct to the Russian interpretation of the Treaty of Pereslyav being the natural consequence of two fraternal families becoming over time – one; the Constitution of Pylyp Orlyk highlights that the Ruthenians saw themselves as having a national character and spirit that under the cultural and intellectual renaissance cultivated by Hetmen such as Mazepa was now leading that people (the Ruthenian Constitution), and subsequently the world (the Latin Constitution) to greater political maturity.
So what was to eventually die at Poltava was not merely the flowering of the Ruthenian people toward a nation known as Ukraine – but on a far larger scale – what was snuffed out was the example of the reality of a democratic ideal in the great family of nations. That Orlyk’s document lay undiscovered in Moscow until 2008, some three hundred years after the Battle of Poltava, holds poignant importance. In those three hundred years not only did the self-determination of the Ukrainian ideal suffer, but more importantly for the other peoples of Eastern Europe, (the Russians included), unbridled autocracy led to the destruction, both physical, and spiritual, of hundreds of millions of people, under the yoke of Tsarist regimes, and subsequent Marxist totalitarian governments.
Mazepa and Orlyk understood that the age of the autocrat was incompatible with the Ukrainian democratic ideal, as evidenced by the reality of the subjugation of the Ukrainian people, under the Empire of a Tsar. Critically in the Consitution, the Ukrainian people were to be a people of Faith – the Eastern Christian or Orthodox Faith, a Church people under their own Kyivian Patriarch, who was to be appointed by the Apostolic authority of Constantinople, and not overseen ecclesiastically by Moscow. The vision of Mazepa and Orlyk, (two products of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy) was seeking to establish a democratic state – and the Battle of Poltava was perceived as part of the very necessary ’birth-pangs’, in order to deliver to the world and the Ruthenian people this ideal.
How different a perception this is of the Ukrainian people, history and mind then when I attended a Cultural Anthropology University class in Perth, Western Australia. Back then in the early 1980’s my American Professor publicly quizzed me in front of an audience of fifty students as to the historical reality of the movie Taras Bulba – and to which tribe did my family belong, of all these wild hordes, roaming the steppes. Wild hordes? Mazepa and Orlyk were dying to build a nation that the modern world had not yet envisaged – a world established not on tribalism, but on the accumulated synthesis and cultivation of national history, education, culture, identity and character.
Thus we read in Kentrschynski’s text a document that Serhiy Plokhy also includes in his Poltava 1709: The Battle and the Myth, in English translation. In this excerpt of a recollection by Orlyk, Mazepa speaks to Orlyk in 1707 as to his rationale for taking the path he is about to walk down. These are the words not of some mindless opportunist, but of an intellectual and military leader: “Before God the Omniscient I protest and swear that it is not for my private gain, not for higher honors, not for greater enrichment, nor for other whims of any kind, but for all of you who remain under my rule and command, for your wives and children, for the general good of my mother, my fatherland, poor unfortunate Ukraine, for the whole Zaporozhian Host and the Little Russian people, as well as for the promotion and expansion of the rights and freedoms of the Host, that I wish to act, with God’s help, in such a way that you, with your wives and children and our native land, along with the Zaporozhian Host, do not perish because of the Muscovite or the Swedish side.” (Plokhy, 2012, pp. 559 – 560)
The extended quote of Orlyk’s text from the Swedish (my Translation) is as follows in Kentrschynski’s work. Please compare the two translations: [Mazepa speaking to Orlyk]“Up until now I had not dared to off-load for you my views of the secret I have been keeping, which yesterday was revealed to you by mischance. It wasn’t because I was unsure of your fidelity; each and every hour, I have never questioned your integrity nor doubted that you would repay my great mercy, love and kindnesses to you with ingratitude and become my traitor. But I reasoned as follows, that you are a wise and honest man, but yet you are young without sufficient experience in such delicate circumstances. I feared that you may in conversations with the Great Russians or perhaps with some of our counsellors, in good faith, or through basic carelesness could have by a chance encounter said something about this secret and because of this brought both me and you into ruin. So now I call upon the all powerful God who is my witness and swear in front of you, that what action I now take is not for my private advancement, nor to achieve further elevation nor to increase my wealth, nor for the satisfaction of another desire, but for the betterment of all of you, who are under my power and authority, for your women and children, for the good of mother Ukraine, and the whole of the Zaporozhian Host and the Ukrainian people’s general betterment for the raising and expansion of the Host’s freedom and rights, that I desire with God’s assistance to prepare such, so that all wives and children as well as the motherland and the Zaporozhian Host will not fall into destruction neither, from the Muscovite or from the Swedish side.” (Kentrschynski, 1962, pp. 296 – 297, Trans. Dr. Andrew T. Kania)
Please note carefully dear reader that in Kentrschynski’s Swedish text of Orlyk’s recollections of his conversation with Mazepa, Mazepa does not use the term ‘Little Russian people’, but speaks of ‘Ukrainian people’. This is a massive difference in Mazepa’s understanding of Ukrainian self-determination – national perspective and national desire, from the translation that Plokhy uses.
As we will soon read, when we discuss the question of Mazepa’s character, in Part IV, the Spirit can no doubt be willing and profound, but the flesh can oftentimes be weak, so weak as to confound those leading national strivings to ramifications tragic – and to snares of consequences unforeseen.
By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
This post is also available in: Ukrainian