Before commencing reading this piece – brew a tea or coffee, pull up two chairs, one for yourself and one for a friend. May I ask that you read the text aloud to a friend; as there is much to muse upon.
My father often said to me in our late-night discussions, that the problem with many Ukrainians was that they don’t know who they are. I used to take umbrage with this – but the more I have read about Ukrainian history, the more I understand the hidden wisdom contained in my father’s words. The lack of identity in the Ukrainians that my father was referring to, was based on an eclipse of history that blinded them as to who they are as Ukrainians. Their language was taken away from them post-Poltava; their status as ‘Little Russians’ conferred upon them as a place of relegation and subservience in relation to Muscovy. They were taught a version of history that Moscow neatly fabricated. Post-Poltava, many Ukrainians of the educated class went to serve Tsars, to build the name of Russia, in the Arts, Sciences, Literature, and in Eastern Church Orthodoxy. By doing so, they received many honours, and rewards for themselves, but also by so doing they affirmed for the larger world, a sense of Ukraine being synonymous with Little Russia. The question remained: Why should the term ‘Ukraine’ be used, if in the end it is all Russia? Those who fought against the Muscovite Tsar at Poltava, under the leadership of Mazepa, did so not on a minor whim – the punishment for facing the Tsar on the battlefield, and failing, was hellish. The men who did so, and their women and children paid a price worse than dying. The Orthodox Church of Moscow, later to be called the Russian Orthodox Church, placed the names of these people under the Mazepa banner in their Liturgies well into the 20th Century, praying that they would be damned to hell for their ‘treasonous’ actions at Poltava. Thus to have followed Mazepa on to the fields of Poltava was engendered into the spiritual heart of many Ukrainians as having been an act worthy of anathema. Hence Mazepa, his cause and men, became synonymous with treachery, stupidity and the devil. As the centuries rolled over upon each other – successive Ukrainian generations forgot, and became still more easily led. Western historians enamoured with Tsars, wrote history. Without a question of doubt, those who most facilitated the death of Ukrainian identity were the ethnic Ukrainians who out of self-preservation and a desire for self-elevation served as Russians. The Razumovsky and Skoropadsky families all had prominent members who turned toward Moscow, and who were aptly rewarded for doing so. In fact the very term ‘Russian’ was used officially after Poltava as a prize of victory – Muscovy became ‘Rus’ – sia’, and Ukraine became just a state of a larger whole. In this piece I look at a major character flaw of Mazepa – a character flaw as one of the most significant causes for the defeat of Poltava. A character flaw however, that is shared by many of the greatest leaders in human history. ATK
- A Question of Character – Part One (cf. 1 Samuel 16: 7, RSV)
- A Question of Character – Part II
- A Question of Character – Part III Foreseeing the Undoing
In literary circles – Ivan Stepanovych Mazepa (1639 – 1709) rode on to the stage of history in the following manner: as a young man, stripped completely naked, and tied back on back to a wild horse, galloping through the wilderness of what is known today as Ukraine. How did the teenage Mazepa get himself into this situation? Legend ascribes this as Mazepa having been caught by a Polish noblewoman’s husband in an adulterous affair. Byronic legend has the eventual outcome of this punishment meted out on Mazepa being that Mazepa is eventually cut free from the horse and subsequently given refuge among the Zaporozhian Cossacks. Whereas the veracity of the story of the wild horse ride is questioned; and most historians discard it, what cannot be debated is that Mazepa would display a life-long penchant for romantic liaisons with beautiful and intelligent women, single or married – that would eventually affect the course of Ukrainian history. Mazepa was attracted to women – and women were very much attracted to him – both as a young man, and as a legendary military figure well over sixty years of age; teenage women and women advanced in their years, were enamoured with Mazepa. Why not? Mazepa was: educated, gallant, a warrior, handsome, articulate, romantic, wealthy, powerful and a man of genius – to have such a man passionate for you, a woman would indeed feel very special. In hindsight this aspect of his character – undisciplined as it was – was a portend of making an already difficult situation – untenable.
At the beginning of the 18th Century, if we take Mazepa’s declaration to Orlyk as accurate, Mazepa was clandestinely making plans to seek military alliances powerful enough to help rid Ukraine of the Pereyeslav Agreement, and thus break from out of the chains of Moscow.
Yet at the time Mazepa was secretly planning his break from Muscovy, he was also involved with two women: Motria Kochubei (1688 – ?) and Anna Dolska (1661 – ?). The first of the two, Motria was the daughter of Vasyl Kochubei, a wealthy and powerful magnate in the Zaporozhian Host, who had been Orlyk’s predecessor as Chancellor. The Kochubeis were a Ruthenian/Tatar family. Both Mazepa and Orlyk had suspected for many years that Kochubei was a double-agent providing information about Tsar Peter to them, in the same manner as he was supplying information about them to the Muscovite Tsar. For this reason Mazepa and Orlyk only told Kochubei as much as they deemed wise enough to share with the Court of Moscow. Most likely they surmised that Kochubei’s supply of information to Moscow would enhance his credibility with the Tsar. That Kochubei knew that he was falling out of favour with Mazepa and Orlyk, was more and more evident; leading eventually to the intimate relationship that began to heat up between the teenage Motria, and Mazepa; who was Motria’s godfather, a man fifty one years her senior. The relationship between Mazepa and Motria outraged her parents, especially seething her mother, who spurred on her husband’s chagrin. Motria was an intelligent, educated, voluptuous, and sensual young woman – in her mid-teens. Mazepa’s romantic interest in her broke a bond of friendship with the Kochubei Family, as well as breaking a matter of Church law, that clearly forbade a sexual relationship between Godparent and Godchild. Was their relationship ever sexual? Their exchange of letters indicates that at the very least there existed an intimate – romantic attraction. Did they physically consummate this attraction? Motria’s parents suspected so – especially after, in disobedience to her parents when they refused to give permission to a marital union, Motria ran to, and stayed with, Mazepa at the Hetman’s Palace. Had this scenario played out in the 21st Century, one could judge as to a probable physical outcome of the two passionate lovers living in such close proximity; but Mazepa’s eventual return of Motria to the Kochubei manor, in the name of peace, after Kochubei began to vent his anger, and turn popular support from him, would indicate that Motria’s virtue was most likely intact. What could have given Mazepa the inkling that a union with Motria was ever probable? It could have been the fact that a nephew of Mazepa’s was married to Motria’s elder sister – but of course this nephew was young.
The political outcome of Mazepa’s and Motria’s romance was disatrous to all parties concerned: Mazepa, Kochubei, Motria and Ukraine. Kochubei in vengeance reported to the Tsar that Mazepa was planning a break with Moscow. Fortunately for Mazepa the Tsar shrugged Kochubei off in disbelief. Was not Mazepa a recipient of the Tsar’s Order of St. Andrew? Kochubei’s preparedness to sell-out Mazepa, would soon end with his execution by order of the Hetman. Subsequently, Kochubei’s report did bring more Muscovite ‘observers’ and ‘advisors’ into the heart of Cossack territory; thus making the political moves Mazepa was intending to implement – nigh impossible, or at the very least, increasingly precarious. Motria, Mazepa’s ‘turtle-dove’ as he referred to her in his letters, was subsequently married off to a Zaporozhian Cossack officer who was post-Poltava stationed to a Siberian outpost, on behest of the Tsar, where he was soon to die. Widowed, Motria spent the rest of her life in a Convent – to die, historians know not when. What could have been the motivation for Mazepa’s desire for Motria? Outside of romantic attraction – it is possible to conjecture as Mazepa was entering his final years, he most likely did not wish to die without an heir. A union between the Mazepa and Kochubei families would have indeed been a lucrative one. But Mazepa was her Godfather.
The second romantic liaison that Mazepa was to develop was with the Polish Princess, Anna Dolska – a woman twenty seven years older than Motria – but still some twenty two years Mazepa’s junior. With Vasyl Kochubei dead and Motria married – Mazepa’s attention turned once more to a beautiful, titled and intelligent woman. The problem was though, that in the game of risk that Mazepa was playing one needed utmost secrecy and confidantes. Mazepa’s closest circle included: Andriy Voynarovsky (1680 – 1740 his sister Oleksandra’s son), Pylyp Orlyk (whom we have already seen he hid a good part of his planning from), Ivan Skoropadsky (1646 – 1722), and as we will now see – his Polish lover, Dolska. In a specific moment in time that required Confessional secrecy – Mazepa was secretive enough with men – but far more open, it would seem, with women. Dolska was one such woman.
A scene from Bohdan Kentrscynskyj’s text (1962) clearly illustrates Mazepa’s weakness for women in his planning: “On the day Mazepa received Dolska’s letter, Orlyk was working in the Chancellery office until late at night. The Hetman repeatedly looked impatiently at him [Orlyk] from the inner chambers to see if he would be finished writing soon. The Chancellor finally submitted the letter to Mazepa for his signature, a long letter, with which he had been very taken up with. Mazepa now sat down at the table with a small envelope in his hand. Princess Dolska, he said, had sent him a letter once again, sewn into the messenger’s hat. He could not imagine in advance what she had written in it: “Damn her! What incites her to these correspondences: one day the mad women will bring me to ruin! It is not said in vain that a woman has long hair – but is short of understanding.” Orlyk opened the letter and prepared to decipher it’s contents. He found Stanislaw’s [the King of Poland] note – no code was needed, since the note had not been written in cipher. Mazepa could not believe that this was indeed possible; he was beside himself with frustration – as the letter fell from his hands on to the table; he exclaimed: “You damned woman, you are preparing my downfall.” (Kentrschynskyj, 1962, p. 295 – translated from Swedish by Dr. Andrew T. Kania)
Mazepa’s infuriation was completely apt – for soon enough Mazepa understood that Dolska’s lack of tact in sending un-coded messages of the highest import, was ringing alarm bells in Moscow. Kochubei may have acted in spite when he ran to the Tsar soon after the affair between Motria and Mazepa, and Tsar Peter may have rationalised it as such; but here was a different proposition altogether – a woman of the Polish nobility involved as a go-between with the Polish King and the Hetman of the Zaporozhian Cossacks. As the news began to leak from Baturyn, other sources seeking aggrandisement from the Tsar for proffering information against Mazepa were beginning to act with speed. Mazepa’s flaw in character for women was to be matched and then some, by a number of Cossack officers who could quicken his downfall, and place themselves at the head of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, by procuring the Tsar’s favour. Their personal flaw in character – was greed and ambition – all at the irreparable cost of an independent and democratic Ukraine.
Had Mazepa been more self-disciplined, he could have held on to Kochubei’s sizeable lobby, especially the ecclesiastical ones, and controlled the dangerous whispers as to his eventual plans.
Conversely, Mazepa’s proclivity for romantic indiscretion, cannot be seen in isolation. Tsar Peter of Muscovy was infamous for keeping a mistress, and for ill-treating his wife, Eudoxia. The difference between Mazepa and Peter was that the former was a leader by vote, and the latter by ‘Divine Right’. Mazepa needed to court support where Peter did not need to provide reasons – all Peter needed was to act, be it by executing his wife’s lover, or having his son tortured to death. For Peter, ‘Divine Right’ was an accepted philosophy, but in order to stamp further authority upon ‘God’s chosen’ – a massive dose of fear and savagery would never go awry.
By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania