At the intersection
of two great
European powers

   At the intersection
of two great
   European powers

The Cossack
   struggle for
freedom in Ukraine

Chiara Kienhöfer, Sophia Kieß, Ingrid Schierle, Sophia Seez

From the 15th century, loose groups of independent frontier warriors, the Cossacks, lived in the territory of what is today Ukraine. In the 17th century, they succeeded in establishing a permanent, democratic military organisation with an elected leader, the Hetman. This so-called Hetmanate rose up against Polish rule and, in 1654, placed itself under the protection of the Russian Tsar as part of the Pereyaslav Agreement. However, it retained its organisational independence. Thirteen years later, the Hetmanate was divided: following wars between Poland and Muscovy, the territories on the right bank of the Dnieper River went to Poland, while those on the left and Kyiv fell to the Tsardom.

The Northern War against Sweden and Poland saw Tsar Peter the Great eliminate Cossack regiments by using them as cannon fodder. The Hetmanate faced being crushed. Hetman Ivan Mazepa subsequently switched sides to join Sweden. The Tsar saw this as nothing less than treason. This interpretation continues to be held in Russia to this day. In Ukraine, however, Mazepa is considered a national hero who sought to preserve Cossack self-determination.

Cossack freedoms under threat!

Groups of Cossacks were a common phenomenon on the borders in Eastern Europe. They emerged at the end of the 15th century and continued to exist into the 1700s. Among other areas, they settled on the rivers and the steppe borders of present-day southern Ukraine.

The fundamental principle of electing positions and the Hetman was firmly rooted in Cossack organisation. The flight of serf farmers into the "open field" of the Cossacks became a widespread phenomenon. From the 17th century onwards, the Hetmanate also established itself as an actor on the international stage. In order to preserve their freedoms, Cossacks often entered into changing alliances with different powers. However, the Russian Empire's expansion as an absolutist state increasingly came to threaten the Hetmanate's regional autonomy. For example, Tsar Peter the Great influenced the election of the Hetman and intervened in Cossack armies' command structure. Cossack freedoms and traditions clashed with the Russian Empire's modernisation policies.

What threatens us?

During the Great Northern War (1700–1721), the Tsardom of Russia and Sweden fought one another for supremacy in the Baltic Sea region under changing alliances. In 1708, the allied powers of Sweden and Poland appeared to have won the war. The area of the Hetmanate became a theatre of war while the majority of Cossack regiments were deployed on distant battlefields in the north. The Cossack cavalry suffered heavy losses over the course of the campaigns. This experience in the war and an impending invasion by foreign powers gave rise to the sentiment among the Cossacks that the Tsar had abandoned them as their protector.

All this occurred against the backdrop of Peter the Great's reforms severely limiting the control of the Hetman. A reform to the Cossack regiments and their command structure by the Tsar was imminent. Mandatory labour services to be performed by Cossacks and the construction of Tsarist fortresses were enforced. The Hetmanate's existence and the survival of its population were at risk: the Tsar had given the order to leave nothing but scorched earth to the approaching Swedish troops.

Quote Ivan Mazepa on
the Hetmanate's situation

Ivan Mazepa
on the Hetmanate's situation

"That is why I had asked him [Peter the Great] at that time […] to give us 10,000 men from his regular army to support us. His majesty replied: "I can give you neither 10,000 nor 10." Defend yourselves, if you can."

"…we already see our little Russian homeland in a state of extreme destruction, in which the power of Moscow, which had long been our enemy [...], now decrees that we have finally lost our privileges and freedoms [...] and which, without our consent, began taking over little Russian cities in their territory as it drove away our plundered, ruined population from them while colonising them with its own troops."

translated from Old Church Slavonic by Ingrid Schierle.

Who are we?

Ivan Mazepa was born into a noble family in 1639 in the territory of Ukraine east of the Dnieper river. He studied at the Academy in Kyiv and the Warsaw Jesuit College, mastering several languages. After his studies and travelling abroad, he served the Polish king and later the Hetman of Ukraine east of the Dnieper. Due to personal conflicts, Mazepa moved to the Hetmanate on the western bank and was elected Hetman there in 1687. Tsar Peter the Great greatly valued him as a wise counsellor and capable general. With his consent, Mazepa occupied the Hetmanate on the east side of the Dnieper in 1703, which was under Polish dominion, in order to unite the two parts.

The long rule of Ivan Mazepa from 1687–1708 shaped the culture of Cossack society and is considered the golden age of the Hetmanate. Mazepa promoted a specific, Cossack culture through education and the construction of churches. During this period, so-called Cossack Baroque emerged, which integrated elements of Western European architecture from the Hetmanate on the western bank of the Dnieper.

Gallery Cossack symbols
in the present

Cossack symbols
in the present

Cossack history is present on many levels in present-day Ukraine. In 2001, on the tenth anniversary of independence, a large painting titled "State Building" was hung in the Ukrainian Parliament in Kyiv. It depicts parliamentarians from 1991 carrying the blue and yellow flag into the parliament building. They are surrounded by important figures from Ukrainian history. As representatives of Ukraine's democratic tradition, several Cossacks are depicted on the left side of the picture.

The call-back to Cossack traditions in the modern symbolism of the state can also be seen in the lyrics of the national anthem. The final line reads: "Soul and body shall we lay down for our freedom, and we will show, brothers, that we are of the Cossack nation."

Cossack symbols also play an important role in everyday life. Mazepa and other Hetmans adorn the Hryvnia banknotes, for example, and Cossacks are a popular motif in advertising.

What do we need?

Given the existential threat posed by the Great Northern War, the preservation of the Hetmanate was of utmost urgency. Peter the Great declined Mazepa's request for military assistance. The Hetman saw this as a breach of the Tsar's promise of protection from 1654. Mazepa sought to restore the autonomy and traditional military order of the Cossack Hetmanate after it was limited and infringed under Peter the Great's Rule. Mazepa believed switching sides to join Sweden was the only way to preserve the Hetmanate and prevent an impending uprising. However, Mazepa's action did not receive the necessary broad support. The Cossack elite did not agree with their Hetman. In addition to the lack of support in his own ranks, Mazepa had also miscalculated the balance of military power. On the side of the Swedish king, he not only lost the war, but also the struggle for Cossack autonomy.

Gallery The Cossack Legend

The Cossack legend

Shortly after Mazepa changed sides, the course of the war turned in favour of the Tsardom. Russian troops destroyed the Hetman's residence in Baturyn in 1708. This "Tragedy of Baturyn" remains present in Ukrainian cultural memory to this day. A year later, Mazepa and the Swedish king lost the battle of Poltava and fled into exile in the Ottoman Empire, where the Hetman died only a short time later. The Hetmanate's autonomy was further restricted and ultimately dissolved by Catherine the Great in 1764.

The Cossack Myth lives on in art, and he receives conflicting representations as a figure in art: while he is portrayed as a traitor in Tchaikovsky's opera "Mazepa" and in the work of Pushkin, he became a tragic hero of Romanticism in Western Europe. His (alleged) affair with a Polish noblewoman and subsequent flight on horseback were used by Byron, Victor Hugo, Franz Liszt and Eugène Delacroix.

Hetman Ivan Mazepa continues to polarise the politics of Ukrainian-Russian history; "Mazepist" is a common synonym for "traitor" in the language of Russia's anti-Ukrainian propaganda.

What should we do?

In personal meetings and in letters, Ivan Mazepa tried to win the support of Peter the Great. The Tsar's refusal of his requests led him to begin secret negotiations with Poland and Sweden. Until shortly before switching sides to join Sweden, the Hetman repeatedly asserted his allegiance to the Tsar. While in exile in the Ottoman Empire, Mazepa's successor, Pylyp Orlyk, drafted a constitution in Latin in 1710, whose implementation was not feasible in the Hetmanate under Russian rule. This was intended to provide a new foundation for the Cossack order and keep it in place forever. It included the principle of election for the office of Hetman and the members of the General Assembly, represented by the different ranks of the Cossacks. With the establishment of three separate institutions – Hetman, the General Assembly and the General Court – it anticipated the principle of separation of powers.

This constitution continues to play an important role in the democratic self-conception and self-consciousness in Ukraine to this day. In a speech in June 2022, President Volodymyr Zelensky announced his desire to make Pylyp Orlyk and its constitution a school subject.

Source The constitution of Pylyp Orlyk

The Constitution of Pylyp Orlyk from 1710 (excerpt)

"...out of each regiment, individual distinguished veterans, experienced and well-deserving men shall be elected with the consent of the Hetman to the constituent General Assembly; the current most eminent Hetman and his successors shall be permitted to confer with these first generals [primores], colonels and general advisors [on the integrity of the homeland, its general welfare and on all public affairs]; he shall begin, establish and execute nothing without their prior counsel and their consent purely based on his own authority. Thus, to elect the Hetman by unanimous decision, all three General Assemblies are to be established and held each year at the Hetman's residence."

German translation in: „Pakti i konstitucii“ ukrainsʼkoj kozacʼkoj deržavy (do 300-riččja ukladenija), Lʼviv 2011.
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