My father inspired in me an interest in Ukrainian history, and with this the figures, heroic and sometimes tragic who comprise this subject. One of these figures, is Hetman Ivan Mazepa (1639 – 1709). It was probably the late night discussions with my father that encouraged in me, a love of things Swedish, and which led me to take up eventually a Swedish theme in my Doctoral studies, and then to travel to Sweden to write my Doctoral degree. While in Sweden, I learned the Swedish language. I travelled around Sweden, and immersed myself in Swedish history. One day I walked into a second hand bookstore in Stockholm – and there on the shelf, saw the spine of a book: Mazepa: Bohdan Kentrschynski. I purchased this text, which is over 500 pages in length, and written in the Swedish language, and discovered on the first page a handwritten dedication by the author, Kentrschynski, to a Professor Sten Carlsson, signed on the day that I was born. I took the text home with me to Australia, with the goal to read it one day and then talk with my father about the contents. Sadly, this book lay unread, in a box. I was always taken up with immediate work matters, and writing on a diversity of topics, especially matters theological.
- Dr. Kania: A Question of Character – Part III Foreseeing the Undoing
- Dr. Kania: A Question of Character – Part One (cf. 1 Samuel 16: 7, RSV)
- Dr. Kania. Estrangement – Part II (cf. Hebrews 13: 2, RSV)
After my father passed away, in 2017 – and finding no one now to speak with on matters of Ukrainian history, I read Kentrschynski’s text. Locked away in a language spoken only by comparatively few in the world, this text is a treasure-trove, a story that Ukrainians (and Swedes) both need to know. Bohdan Kentrschynski’s Mazepa is a text written by an ex-pat Ukrainian researcher, as a culmination of his doctoral studies; it draws on rare material from both Swedish and Ukrainian sources.
After the Battle of Poltava in 1709, the Zaporozhian Cossacks who fought this battle, and lost, dispersed with many of their leaders following Charles XII to Sweden. Most of the Cossacks settled in a city in South Eastern Sweden, Kristianstad, then primarily a military town. In the streets of Kristinastad one can see today a monument to Hetman Mazepa’s lieutenant, the political genius – Pylyp Orlyk (1672 – 1742). The monument is dedicated to Orlyk who is credited as having written the first modern democratic Constitution in Europe, a document that preceded the writings of the French philosophers and their late 18th Century Revolution, as well as the famous documents establishing the modern United States of America. Orlyk and Mazepa were deliberately preparing for the establishment of the independent nation of Ukraine. Their dreams relied on a positive outcome on the field of Poltava. As it would happen, the defeat at Poltava robbed the world, and the people of Ukraine, of a modern state, a state that would have been an example to those people of Eastern Europe, living under the tyranny of the Muscovite Tsars.
In this piece, I would like to share with the reader documents hidden deep within Kentrschynski’s text. I believe that exposing Mazepa’s story will enhance the reader’s understanding of Ukrainian identity and following from this of self, if they identify themselves as Ukrainian. A wide number of untruths must be dispelled – prior to laying open the Swedish vault. At the heart of Mazepa’s legacy, is the question of character, and the consequences of Mazepa’s character, both his strengths and weaknesses and the epoch in which he lived that led to the bloody consequences of the Battle of Poltava. I will not write as an apologist for Mazepa – but rather will write and evaluate his character and legacy as the primary sources attest. First a few areas to debunk. ATK.
A conquered people, as the Ukrainians were after the Battle of Poltava, must rely on the construction of a history, that is written by the victors which often is so far from the truth, that over the years with additional shifting sands, becomes for later generations, so difficult to decipher the reality from myth. As with the people of Ireland the Irish subjection at the hands of the English created the myth, borne by the culture of ‘Irish Jokes’, that the Irish people are essentially stupid and unworthy of serious consideration. This despite the fact that the Irish, and their children are the most well-read in Europe. (cf. The Progress in Internation Reading Literacy Study: 2017). Similarly the Ukrainian people are victims of a lie told so repeatedly often that it has become the truth. One needs to archives and search through documents preceding the Battle of Poltava to find out who the Ukrainian people were.
If one has grown up like I have in the West, for many such people of Ukrainian ethnicity, their sole understanding of what it means to be a Ukrainian, was forged by attendance and life within the Church, or participation in community cultural events. These are vital elements in maintaining Ukrainian identity, especially so, when for the majority of the 20th Century, Ukraine was a part of the Soviet Union, very much steered by Moscow. Our knowledge of Ukrainian nationhood was framed by horrific events such as the Holodomor, and Chornobyl. Yet there was another cultural element to our identity that kept the Ukrainian people in the diaspora alive; this came out of Hollywood in 1962, Harold Hecht’s, Taras Bulba. Based, loosely on the novel of the same name by Myhola Hohol, the movie helped perpetuate the image of the Ukrainian Cossack, as a freedom loving, happy, boorish, courageous individual. What it didn’t indicate was that this, was in part, an image sculpted by Moscow to express the simplicity and charm of a people who were not overly serious, and basically incapable of self-determination, generally debased in their intellectual pursuits, who had to depend on Moscow for self-preservation from the dangerous influences from the West. In fact Hohol, although a Ukrainian novelist of Cossack heritage, had to deliberately write to satisfy a Russian audience.
The reality of Ukrainian life prior to the Battle of Poltava was far from the Taras Bulba stereotype.
The Seventeeth Century French-Polish cartographer, Guillaume Levasseur de Beauplan (1600 – 1673), presented a radically different perspective of Ukraine than what we moderns consider was the case; especially those raised on a diet of Hecht’s Taras Bulba. In place of a nation of vodka swilling illiteracy – Beauplan speaks of a people with high levels of education, vastly exceeding that of Moscow. Beauplan remarks very positively about manners in L’viv, the respect for Ukrainian womanhood, and an almost universal literacy and love for things intellectual of those attending Church, all which stunned Beauplan. This was taking place all within the Cossack era. Michael A. Moser, in his chapter: A Linguistic Analysis of Ivan Mazepa’s Universals and Letters (2012) writes that Ivan Mazepa, “‘along with Polish, Muscovite, and Tatar … had a command of Latin, Italian, and German, and knew French’”. (p. 392) Others commented about visiting Mazepa in his military capital, Baturyn, to see him reading documents in Dutch journals. Pylyp Orlyk in his recollections attested to Mazepa being a polyglot. We should only be shocked by this, if we accept the common perception espoused by the Muscovite victors, that the Ukrainian Cossacks were thoughtless creatures. If we accept this thesis, then the machinations leading up to the Battle of Poltava, can only be perceived as an act of betrayal by a Cossack vassal, Mazepa, to his Tsar. However, if we accept that the Zaporozhian Cossacks were a thoughtful and educated people, then we must look deeper into Mazepa’s and Orlyk’s motivations.
To cut to the historical quick – many Ukrainians belly-laugh at the famous Letter of the Zaporozhian Cossacks under Ataman Sirko writing a Letter to Sultan Mehmed IV, an event that preceded Poltava by four decades. Many Ukrainians also have a print of Repin’s famous painting depicting the writing of this Letter. But these same people fail to read the Letter deeper. First, this Letter is written in immaculate rhyme, it parodies the honorifics that the Sultan wrote about himself – but all the while not losing rhyme and meter. With all its quick-firing vulgarity surpassing even Rabelais, it never loses literary genius. The minds who wrote this had to be educated, and highly so. Moreover, what people fail to go beyond, was that this Letter was not meant solely as a way to irritate the Sultan, which it was in part, but was a key part of a military tactic. The Cossacks were clever enough to realize that they could never ever take the Sultan head-on across a battlefield; but they knew the Sultan well-enough that he wouldn’t tolerate an insult containing such disparaging invective. The Cossacks did not write this Letter from any point on the Dnipro River, where the Sultan eventually sent his army in reprisal. Rather they were secretly hiding near Constantinople, awaiting the Sultan’s movement to the Dnipro. Once that was commenced, the Zaporozhians sailed into Constantinople at night, razing a good part of the city, and pillaging the Sultan’s palace. That is the brilliance of the educated military mind. There is much more to the Ukrainian story than what we have been taught, and made to believe.
Hetman Mazepa, during his reign fostered a wide range of cultural initiatives being the benefactor of the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, and by so doing developing this place of higher learning to be not only the principal seat of learning in Ukraine – but in Mazepa’s time, being the premier university of Eastern Europe. One need only look at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Kyiv, to comprehend that far from being a leader of wild-hordes, Mazepa was a leader of a political and cultural movement, a man insistent on the self-determination of the Ruthenian people and the secret dream of Ukrainian nationhood – as well as a leader and facilitator to the cultural movement known as Cossack Baroque. This is all attested to, in the letters found in Kentrschynski’s text.
By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
This post is also available in: English