Mazepa: Architect of European Ukraine?

(Continued from the previous issue)


The main reason behind the rebellion in Ukraine and confrontation between the two peoples appears to be not so much the political, cultural, and economic pressures exerted on Ukraine, as the violent breaches of the Christian law of fraternal coexistence. This conflict was brought forth by the betrayal of brotherly friendship between Poles and the people of Rus’: “at first they — the Sauromats and the people of Rus’ — were our brothers,” but then Poles “treacherously rebelled against their natural brothers (the way Cain did against Abel).”

Nota bene: Orthodoxy and Catholicism form a differentiating confessional dimension, but it is subordinated to the dimension of brotherhood in the realm of the Christian Church. This is another impassable watershed between the Kyivan and Muscovite civilizations, with Moscow implicitly rejecting any non-Orthodox creeds as alien and hostile.

This concept found its expression in literature. Khrystofor Filalet made a very important statement that became symbolic during the Khmelnytsky period. Filalet wrote that the society to which he belonged wished to settle the religious confrontation issue peacefully and added that the fact that this society sought to prove its rights using the pen, rather than the sword, was proof of its tolerance.

In 1648, the pen was insufficient, because the norms of the peoples’ coexistence under the law of Christian ethics had been violated. All this notwithstanding, moral categories remained an imperative even with regard to military actions — it was a matter of “noble politics and a clear conscience,” to quote from Khmelnytsky.

This latter point is symptomatic in comprehending the political and moral evolution of the concept of Ukrainian statehood after the Khmelnytsky period, when Mazepa was thrown into the limelight of Ukrainian history. Here one finds significant distinctions in the interpretation of this state-building project during the Khmelnytsky and Mazepa periods. These distinctions were caused by radical changes in the historical context, involving both hetmans.

As an heir to this complicated cultural and political synthesis, Mazepa responded to the issues Khmelnytsky raised in the spirit of the new conceptual paradigms of his epoch. So far as Mazepa was concerned, Ukraine’s antagonist was not only Poland but also Russia, and that at a time when the latter was in the consolidation phase as an empire. By that time Ukraine’s legal thought had reached a higher degree of maturity under the influence of European legal thought. It called into question the Utopian concept of “noble politics.” In fact, the gap between the political and moral aspects of the state-building project opened when Mazepa was his office. Mazepa belonged to an entirely different cultural epoch; he knew that the ethical Christian vector had no future in an epoch of final secularization of European culture in which the rationalistic Enlightenment was elbowing its way. Due to his Christian morals, Mazepa rejected the Utopian paradigms and thus placed Ukraine’s future in the modern-time system of reference points.

During the Mazepa period, a new, pragmatic, active individual emerged, who was capable of thinking in terms of specific earthly categories. Mazepa was not only a “man of history” and the “protagonist of a novel or poem,” as Olena Teliha wrote, but also the hero of “life as such over which he ruled in any situation.” He was building his state et arte et marte — with art and war — and he consciously assumed responsibility for the dangerous game he was playing. Mazepa the poet confirms this with the following lines: “Eternal glory be to those /Who’ve secured their rights by sword.”

The republican tradition was becoming increasingly radical. Mazepa discarded the idea of confederated autonomy in favor an independent monarchic republic. Ukrainian history would henceforth oscillate between these two poles — one programmed by Khmelnytsky’s political heritage and the other one, by Mazepa’s. Although Mazepa’s plan never came to anything specific in practice, it played a tremendous political role for Ukrainian history. Mazepa was, in fact, the first Ukrainian politician to raise the issue of Ukraine as an absolutely independent state. At a time when Ukraine was totally devastated as a state, Mazepa brought to completion the process of conceptualizing Ukrainian statehood.

During the Khmelnytsky period Moscow’s tyranny was contrasted with the Rzeczpospolita’s tolerant policy, whereas under Mazepa both countries were viewed from the Ukrainian standpoint as two forms of despotism. So far as Mazepa was concerned, neither Poles nor Russians were “brothers.” The Pereiaslav Treaty (1654), the Treaty of Andrusovo (1667), and the Eternal Peace Treaty of 1686 served as final proof. Like-minded politicians and statesmen who share the hetman’s vision of history were his only “brothers.”

Therefore, in his 1708 “Message to Cossack Sergeants and Civilian Residents of Cossack Ukraine,” shortly before final severance of relations with Moscow, the hetman thus explained his reasons for choosing the Swedish alliance: “Brothers, we are now standing between two abysses…” Mazepa regarded those who were referred to as “brothers” by Khmelnytsky half a century earlier as “feuding monarchs who have brought the theater of war close to our frontiers,” whose “arbitrary rule and the unrestrained power they have usurped are strongly reminiscent of the worst despots that could have hardly been begotten by all of Asia and Africa.” In a word, from Mazepa’s standpoint, Ukraine could have a future only by maintaining equidistance from Poland and Russia.

His logic is self-evident: there can be no peace or lawful agreements made with arbitrary, unpredictable despots — least of all with autocratic Russia, where the written and unwritten laws are in the ruler’s hands, which leaves room for only one predominant law — that of lawlessness.

The only thing Ukraine received from Russia was the 1648 Penal Code. Its sole purpose was to punish individuals found guilty of treason and/or scorn of His Majesty the Tsar. Most importantly, Ukraine had a different legal tradition, which was a part of European heritage in Ukrainian culture. In this tradition, unlike that of Russia, an agreement had legal rather than ideological import. At that period any pacts made with Russia were on a legal rather than ideological basis.

The Pereiaslav Treaty was then a bitter lesson to be learned by the Ukrainian politicians. This military alliance had been turned into an ideological one, serving as the ideological foundation of Russia’s expansion into Ukraine under the motto of “inviolable Orthodox fraternity.” Not coincidentally, the temporal categories used in these pacts were of universal duration and no deadlines were mentioned — rather, their status was that of ad infinitum (suffice it to recall the Eternal Peace Treaty of 1686, which actually legitimized the “eternal partition” of Ukraine between Poland and Russia. Add to this the Russian–Polish “eternal war” over Ukraine that was waged within Ukraine).

Mazepa, therefore, sought to provide legal grounds for the new state configuration, believing that the only way Ukraine could exist at the time was under the protectorate of another country that would be different than that of Poland and Russia. And so the Hetman chose the remote protectorate mode whereby the ruler of a distant country would interfere with Ukraine’s affairs only when it needed military support in its struggle against Warsaw and Moscow, which were a common enemy for Protestant Sweden and Eastern Orthodox Ukraine.

This military alliance did not give the Swedish crown Ukraine as its possession; Ukraine would not feature among the royal style and titles. The main statehood parameters — frontiers, legislation — and all the “old rights and liberties” of Ukrainian society were inviolable. Ukraine was granted freedom from any kind of foreign dominance on both sides of the Dnipro. During the Khmelnytsky period, Ukraine was prepared to accept the inevitability of centralized governance by a foreign sovereign, as part of a confederated system. Mazepa took a step forward by giving this sovereign only the role of an external guarantor of independent Ukrainian statehood. In a word, that was a military alliance, nothing else; [Ukraine] had had enough of “brotherhood” or the common [Eastern Orthodox] faith that ended in scorched land covered with dead bodies.


In his vision of Ukrainian statehood, Mazepa resolutely and radically discarded Khmelnytsky’s federalist republican tradition. Mazepa believed that excessive democracy within the limits of that tradition led to chaos and anarchy in Ukraine and its dramatic division between external as well as internal antagonistic forces. In addition, constant changes in the political scenario brought forth in Ukrainian society something like cratophobia that often manifested itself as hatred of the Hetmanate whose political alliances were often incomprehensible to the bulk of the Cossacks. In other words, real power was often viewed as being wielded by an outsider, whereas local leaders were regarded as pieces on the enigmatic chessboard of this power.

Mazepa correctly believed that state discipline should be enforced as a major guarantee of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Malaniuk is right in claiming that Mazepa’s cultural construction project was the “pseudonym of his state-building” one. This state-building project, due to the hetman’s purposeful political strategy, emerged as a sophisticated hierarchy of nation-building values: from military reform (regular army system) to the construction of cultural space for the benefit of future generations. Not coincidentally, the Kyiv Mohyla Academy was among the priorities in Mazepa’s cultural project. According to Malaniuk, Mazepa’s cathedral epitomizes “a temple of Ukrainian statehood.” In a word, having survived the Ruin, Mazepa’s Ukraine set about building a nation-state with vigor and intensity.

The foreign roots of Mazepa’s conception of statehood are hard to put one’s finger on, but they should be sought in the European political thought of the 16th and the 17th century. At the time Europe had just started formulating the theoretical foundations of a modern continental state.

Samiilo Velychko writes unsympathetically that Mazepa’s favorite book, his livre de chevet, was Machiavelli’s The Prince. Mazepa is known to have often quoted this celebrated Florentine philosopher as saying that secrecy is the heart of the matter.

Indeed, Machiavelli’s influence on Mazepa’s political reflections is one of the most interesting aspects — precisely because there is documented evidence that Mazepa had direct access to the original source. After all, this situational analogy is anything but coincidental. Machiavelli considered the situation in Italy dramatic, so much so he believed his country could be rescued only by establishing a strong centralized government. He also believed that the state is not only a traditional complex of bodies and subjects, but also a demonstration of might, a workshop manifesting this power, an immanent synthesis of order and conflict. The most important aspect, however, is the distinction between politics and morals — in other words, bidding farewell to the theocentric Middle Ages by adopting a modern secularized attitude to history. Mazepa was set to carry out this mission in Ukraine.

Mazepa’s radical influence on the process of evolution in Ukraine, in terms of rejection of obsolete political and cultural schemes, can be illustrated by yet another specific aspect. A topographical-cultural change of Ukraine’s designation (or rather, a slow but sure transformation process) can be traced from Khmelnytsky to Mazepa times. The interrelationship of the notions Rus’ and Ukraine, their inner cultural conflict, and gradual separation serve as proof of radical transformations in terms of cultural orientation — above all, the secularization of culture by way of discarding medieval concepts.

This emerged as a new reality that persisted as an heir to the culture of Kyivan Rus’, while becoming increasingly aware of its specific identity in terms of culture (considered as a single whole), politics, and language. Khmelnytsky’s Ukraine was, in fact, the final stage of Old Rus’ with its “forefathers’ creed” inculcated in the Ukrainian people as the foundation of cultural identity.

That was why the confessional criterion (the common Eastern Orthodox faith) inevitably helped obliterate, to a degree, the cultural and, consequently, political boundaries. The Ruin followed the Khmelnytsky period as Ukraine’s permanent human, political, and cultural catastrophe in the second half of the 17th century. It was accompanied by Moscow’s ruthless colonization campaign (despite the common faith), and above all, the subjugation of the Ukrainian Church by the Moscow metropolis in 1686. In the hands of the Russian authorities the concept of Rus’ became a unfailing tool used in ideological manipulation and military expansion. However, this was also the way Kyivan Rus’ became contemporary Ukraine.

Mazepa’s successor, Hetman Pylyp Orlyk, personified that new generation, people who were thinking and acting within the system of reference points that are characteristic of European history. For example, Orlyk’s view of Russia as a civilization that was alien to Europe remains an open subject for scholarly investigation, because he pronounced this view nearly a century before the critical attitude toward Russian autocracy was shaped in European national movements of the 19th century.

Mazepa’s political and cultural heritage was, in a way, implemented in his Pacta et Costitutiones (Pacts and Constitutions, also known as the 1710 Constitution of Bendery). It was issued a year after the Battle of Poltava, on the first anniversary of Mazepa’s death, and was, in fact, the first document that reflected free Ukrainian political thought. This means that Mazepa’s political practice received further theoretical perception and continuity. Pylyp Orlyk’s constitution is often said to be Europe’s first genuinely democratic instrument, in that it was around 80 years ahead of the celebrated American constitution (1787) and those of France and Poland (1791). These constitutions marked the beginning of the historical countdown.

Naturally, the Ukrainian constitution belonged to the epoch with its corresponding determinations and legal notions, so it would be difficult to put it next to the first democratic charters of the late 18th century. Yet this particular document has doubtlessly of great political and cultural import, in that it laid the legal foundations for the political system of an independent Ukraine. This Charta Libertatumof Cossack Ukraine was a kind of symbiosis between Khmelnytsky’s state-building project and that of Mazepa. The former was rooted in Christian morals, while the latter — in law and justice. Remarkably, this constitution for the first time purposefully coordinated two conceptions: Ukraine in the external context and Ukraine’s domestic system. Drahomanov regarded this as a manifestation of “a clear-cut republican idea” formulated under the influence of European parliamentarism and liberalism.

Regarding the outside context, this constitution legally sealed Ukraine’s final political choice — Independence. Moscow’s tyranny was viewed as the main enemy of Ukrainian statehood. In this sense Orlyk’s constitution upheld the old tradition of political thought in Ukraine, one dating back to the Khmelnytsky period. This constitution made it perfectly clear that there was Muscovite violence and it was necessary to rid Ukraine of its subordination to Muscovy, which was equivalent to Moscow’s yoke. Orlyk referred to himself as Theseus who had to guide the beautiful Ariadne (in this case, Ukraine) from the labyrinth of terrible captivity and set her free again.

However, the most interesting aspect is the domestic codification of civil rights and liberties. Orlyk was Mazepa’s cultural/spiritual successor, and in his Constitution we suddenly find a return to “noble politics and a clear conscience” as a guiding concept of the Khmelnytsky period. This Constitution frames the issue of governance and society in no uncertain way — in fact, it addresses the rights and liberties of the government, society, and its individuals, as well as their shared responsibility for the sake of social harmony and the Christian way of coexistence.

Another extremely important aspect of this project is the unity of Right-Bank and Left-Bank Ukraine, i.e., Orlyk’s vision of the state’s ethnic, religious, and linguistic integrity. The authority vested in the hetman had to be regulated and delimited in keeping with clearly defined legislation that neither the authorities on top, nor the masses at the bottom were permitted to violate. Orlyk’s Constitution was not conceived as a law for the privileged caste. On the contrary, it focused on the underprivileged population strata, which should to be protected by law above all others.

Here one finds the most modern features of this document. Orlyk’s Constitution repeats the formulas “poor wretches” and “peasant people.” The latter category is socially articulated in that it includes Cossack widows and Cossack orphans that must be exempted from all taxes and “other peasant duties.” Orlyk believed that this was the most vulnerable social category, so he provided detailed clauses designed to protect these people against the Cossack officers, merchants, and so on.

Orlyk’s Constitution gives Ukrainian society guarantees of protection against both foreign aggressors and domestic abuses of office. Thus, the Cossacks holding high posts were forbidden to commit any “acts of violence” against the peasantry, craftsmen, and rank-and-file Cossacks by forcing them work as seasonal farm hands and thus reaping personal benefits (Article 10). His Constitution shows that Mazepa’s last political directive to his successors was to build their own version of Leviathan, to quote from Gobbs, i.e., a solid independent nation-state as a “mortal deity” to whom this society would owe its “peace and security.”

Khmelnytsky laid the foundations of the republican project and Mazepa was completing the structure of what was to become the “intrinsic nature” of the Ukrainian political movement until our days. This phenomenon should be regarded, at all its stages, in close association with the dynamics of the literary and cultural process. A holistic analysis of these aspects reveals a phenomenon of tremendous cultural and ethical import: despite the historical fiasco of the Ukrainian “republican project,” it was a purposeful attempt to build a civil society while being surrounded by imperialistic states. Therefore, this project also revealed a high degree of national identity in Ukraine at the time.

This is especially clearly evidenced by two important documents authored by Pylyp Orlyk: the political treatise “Devolution of Ukraine’s Rights” and a French-language manifesto to European governments (1712). Here Orlyk once again consistently returns to the moral principles of “noble politics” during the Khmelnytsky period. Ukraine chooses its pathway not out of vengeance but “in accordance with justice and law that allows everyone to defend his cause and purpose.”

An important geopolitical aspect of Orlyk’s heritage, including his letters, is the idea of uniting the Polish and Ukrainian peripheral regions in order to resist the Russian empire. One of the most remarkable points made in his “Devolution of Ukraine’s Rights” is that European countries are interested in Ukraine’s independence; Ukraine can counterbalance Russia — Orlyk predicts that the latter will shortly attempt to destroy the European liberties. A vanquished Ukraine would help strengthen Moscow’s tyranny. Conversely, a free Ukrainian nation-state would guarantee a stable and lasting peace — consequently securing the continental balance. (Later, this idea was proposed in the History of Rus’ People).

Moreover, Orlyk’s “Devolution” formulates an idea that was finally made specific in Europe, albeit theoretically, only after the Second World War. The idea is that stronger countries should not subject weaker countries to violence/coercion, because protection of the downtrodden — be it an individual or a country — is an inalienable moral duty of the Christian world. This is perhaps the most interesting piece in Ukrainian political heritage that evidences its natural place in the realm of European philosophical and legal ideas. I might add that Europe at the time did not regard Ukraine as a separate political entity, the way it did in the 17th century.


The “republican tradition,” even though defeated on the battlefield, gave a spiritual impetus to a new way of political thinking and a new kind of literature. As Viacheslav Lypynsky put it, the destroyed military elite was replaced by a literary one. Orlyk’s Constitution evidenced the emergence of the modern concept of democracy that included, with due correction for the historical period, a rule-of-law state, parliamentarianism, equiality, freedom of expression and conscience, etc.) — all on the ancient and noble foundation of Kyivan Rus’ humanism. The defeat of the Cossack revolution gave rise to a Utopian literary trend in the Ukrainian Enlightenment that found its ultimate expression in Hryhorii Skovoroda’s concept of the Heavenly Republic that bridged the gap between the Baroque and Enlightenment literature and the ethics and aesthetics of Romanticism. Ivan Kotliarevsky would send his Aeneas from the ruins of Troy-Ukraine on a mission to build the New City of Freedom. In this sense, the Ukrainian Enlightenment established itself not along the Voltaire line of the European movement with its rational defense of “educated despotism,” but along the Rousseau line with its “irrational” sensitivity to the national processes in the new Europe swept by the fire of antimonarchical revolutions.

However, historiography was to become the backbone of this conceptual evolution: from the Cossack chronicles, including the History of Rus’ People that revived the heritage of Khmelnytsky and Mazepa into the idea of freedom as man’s “natural right,” to Mykola Kostomarov’s Books of Life of the Ukrainian People, to his project of a Federation of Free Slavic Peoples, to Taras Shevchenko’s philosophy of history and his poetry defending the people as a protective power. In fact, Shevchenko was among the first Slavic poets who delivered a death warrant, both from a national and, remarkably, a humanitarian standpoint, to the Empire as an infernal machine of violence incompatible with the notions of human spirituality, dignity, and creativity.

Shevchenko cast the sacral aura off Russia and revealed its true identity as a police state. He opened up future prospects before Ukraine: it would have them, if it allowed the individual to revive and be sanctified by the true God, who would not “punish or pardon anyone,” because “we are not His slaves — we are human beings.” Therefore, regardless of various modalities, the national idea has been at the core of the Ukrainian republican project since the 17th century until today. This idea nurtured an interpretation of history not in heavenly, messianic terms, but in specific humanitarian terms, human terms, the terms of man’s identity, right to personal choice, and responsibility before this society, its past, and its future.

Not coincidentally, Malaniuk refers to Ukraine’s 1917–1920 liberation struggle as a fire that continued the Battle of Poltava. The Ukrainian revolution was an attempt to implement two state-building projects: a democratic “socialist” republic in the Central Rada period and a monarchy under Skoropadsky. In both cases the dominant principle was that of legal governance of Ukraine and its equal political status with other countries.

Suffice it to quote Mykhailo Hrushevsky as saying in 1917: “I would not wish my people to have a dominant status, because I believe that such dominance is demoralizing, that it will eventually destroy the domineering entity itself, that it cannot have anything to do with a genuinely democratic political system… I don’t want to have Ukrainian imperialism… The present-day Ukrainian community is following the age-old tradition by demanding equal rights for the Ukrainian people, including the right to be masters in their historical land.”

Symbolically, during the Ukrainian revolution of 1917-20, its key political figures identified themselves with Mazepa, whereas in Russia the “Mazepa issue” was high on the agenda. For example, the brilliant graphic artist Narbut came to Kyiv from St. Petersburg during the revolution and declared that he was a devotee of Mazepa. He worked to revived the Baroque world of Mazepa’s Ukraine.

“That is why Mazepa is so close to all of us, because the rhythm of his life, his perception, his desires were absolutely modern and thoroughly Ukrainian with their completeness and his constant pursuit of all things beautiful and majestic for our Fatherland, while he constantly staring in the bottomless eyes of Death,” wrote Olena Teliha, one of the most vivid symbols of the Ukrainian revolution, who would die as one of the victims of the Nazi massacre at Babyn Yar in 1942.

On Jan. 13, 1914, Kyiv’s chauvinistic Club of Russian Nationalists sent a telegram to the head of the Council of Ministers in St. Petersburg with the following frantic warning: “The Mazepians have a plan to tear all of Little Russia away from Russia, all the way to the Volga and the Caucasus, and make it an autonomous, federated part of Austria-Hungary.”

Russia responded by resuming the process of contrasting sharply “our well-wishing” Bohdan Khmelnytsky with “their ill-wishing” Ivan Mazepa. The shadows of the two Ukrainian hetmans seemed to halve Ukraine, dualizing even certain protagonists in its history. For example, Vassili Shulgin, a noted “leader of the militant Kyiv Little Russian community” (referred to as such by Malaniuk in his article “Little Russia”) claimed, prior to the 1917 revolution, that there were “two Shevchenkos… ‘ours’ (like Khmelnytsky) and ‘theirs’ (like Mazepa). Incidentally, Shulgin regarded the toponym Ukraine as a strong, enigmatically magnetic force, so much so that he actually suggested to ban it again, thus putting an end to the Ukrainian national liberation movement that was a clear and present danger to the Russian empire.

Needless to say, under the Soviets this “well-wishing Bohdan, our man,” was eulogized as one of the fathers of that “international friendship of brotherly peoples” that were brought together “forever” under the aegis of “Great Mother-Russia.” Meanwhile, it added to Mazepa’s church anathema a party anathema, so that in all Soviet encyclopedic sources Mazepa was labeled as a “traitor of the Ukrainian people” and, at the same time, a “traitor of the Russian people” (that’s political correctness, Soviet-style, for you!).

The Soviet regime placed an equally strict ban on the name of Mazepa, who had long been dead, and on the names of the most radical living dissidents. The Ukrainian hetman’s shadow was a threatening reminder of another, free, Ukraine and the fact that the idea lived on.

Even now we can see a clinical case of Moscow-affiliated Eastern Orthodox adherents hysterically waving posters with protests again naming a Kyiv street after Mazepa and acting hand in glove with the communists. This is additional proof that a church devoured by political bosses is as dead as the Soviet regime — while Mazepa remains very much alive, as never before.

This is also evidence that Mazepa is as much unacceptable to Russia as is Europe and, in general, any democratic system. Mazepa, therefore, is much more than a political figure and statesman. He is the still-to-be-finished book of Ukraine’s freedom.

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The above is an abridged version of Oxana Pachliowska’s article included in her forthcoming book Filosofiia buntu (Philosophy of Rebellion).

Oxana Pachliowska is a lecturer at the University of Rome La Sapienza and a researcher at the Taras Shevchenko Institute of Literature, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.