Mazepa: Architect of European Ukraine?

“Few perhaps know /That for him there is naught sacred… /That he scorns freedom, /That he knows no homeland,” wrote Pushkin about Mazepa in his poem Poltava. In 1691 a group of anonymous nuns wrote a lampoon describing Mazepa as a “vicious demon that tempts Christendom.” Peter I condemned him as a “traitor, apostate, and bandit,” adding that “Hetman Mazepa forgot the fear of God and betrayed us.”

Shortly before the First World War the noted monarchist A.I. Savenko wrote in the Kyiv-based chauvinistic newspaper Kievlianin (Nov. 17, 1911): “The Polish, Finnish, Armenian, and other issues are actually peripheral — in other words, they are of minor importance. The Mazepa issue hits the very foundation of Russia as a great power.” The article was entitled “Where Is the Main Foe?” The answer was, of course, Ukraine as a state, as visualized by Mazepa; Ukraine, as the hetman’s political heritage.

A poet, an emperor, nuns, a monarchist. The above quotes date from various periods in Russia’s history, yet they are united by the image of Mazepa as the main foe, almost the Antichrist in regard to Russian statehood. In a word, after “turning traitor” to Peter I’s earthly power, Mazepa appears to grow in size until he reaches the biblical scope of an “apostate.” This symbolic formula reflects Russia’s self-concept with regard to Ukraine, as the Hetman State’s last rebellious leader challenged Peter I and his sacralized power in Russia, where the emperor was even greater than a ruler appointed by God — in the words of Lomonosov, “He was God, /He was your God, oh Russia!” Indeed, when pronouncing anathema on Mazepa as one of those who “dared rebel against the Orthodox tsars,” the church choir obediently sang, “Thus Judas leaves his Teacher, siding with the Devil.”

So it was Mazepa the Celsissimus et Illustrissimus Dominus, Dux Cohortis Zaporoviensis, Pater Patriae, and Ecclesiae Defensor (Celebrated and Illustrious Ruler, Leader of the Zaporozhian Host, Father of his Fatherland, and Defender of the Church) vs. Mazepa the Antichrist and Judas, traitor and apostate — in other words, a new Ukraine vs. a new Russia.

During the Mazepa epoch Moscow and Kyiv, while sharing the Eastern Orthodox faith, for the first time openly declared themselves to be enemies. Orthodox rhetoric, which was still partly in use during the Khmelnytsky epoch, was replaced with a tough pragmatic strategy on both sides. In actuality, the military and political opposition Ukraine declared with regard to Russia signified a very complicated process of two civilizations drifting apart — or, if you will, it signified the cultural and political maturity of the Ukrainian and Russian civilizations, their conscious self-identification, and a resolute choice of two antagonistic evolutionary paradigms. Although rooted in Old Kyivan culture, they became forever polarized during the confrontation between Mazepa and Peter I.

Conventionally, they could be categorized as anthropocentric and state-centered paradigms of social development. Mazepa’s Ukraine retained the cultural heritage of Kyivan Rus’, the heritage of “Old Kyivan humanism” (Yevhen Malaniuk), where the main general human value was individual freedom as the ultimate realization of Christian ethic. Peter I’s Russia finally called its own the political heritage of Rus’ with its extensive dynamics of territorial expansion in which human life had no value at all. Mazepa’s Ukraine embarked on the nations path, in other words a road leading to cultural and political differentiation that forced this country to constantly resist the external homologating pressure. Peter I’s Russia found its ideal dimension in Imperium, a “great form” with its inertial imperative of constantly developing supranational schemes aimed at compressing all conquered space into a single ideological whole.

Victorious as it was, Peter I’s Russia built its society out of “subjects” and “serfs.” Defeated as it was, Mazepa’s Ukraine was potential society of citizens.

Mazepa’s Ukraine had thus taken a resolute and decisive step in the direction of Europe at a time of anti-absolutist revolutions. Peter I’s Russia realized itself in an imperial structure whose messianic concept was generally anti-European.

It was a bolt of lightning that split the family tree of Old Rus’. Since then the confrontation between Ukraine and Russia has been systemic and conceptual. The gist of this confrontation is that Ukraine was not an obedient territorial unit open for colonization. Ukraine was Europe’s last bulwark retaining a political tradition that was absolutely unacceptable for Russian absolutism and thus very dangerous for centralized governance. It was a republican tradition. Rooted in the philosophic legacy of European culture, this tradition became the basis of the Ukrainian idea, i.e., a republican and consequently national idea, which has since been in opposition to the Russian Idea as an imperial and consequently immanently supranational one.

Since the time of Mazepa even the conceptualization of this opposition and reciprocal animosity has followed two different, if not opposite, courses. In the Ukrainian cultural and historical context, the category ‘enemy’ is relative. It is an articulated category bound to the historical realities of the time and place; in a manner of speaking, it is subject to revision; it is evolutionary and can undergo catharsis. In a word, as a relative and analytical category, it is a historical category. Therefore, despite changes in ideological contexts, this category is not impenetrable to purely human aspects — or Christian ones, to better describe the epoch under study.

Suffice it to recall, for example, that in the course of confrontation between Ukraine and Poland there was a clear distinction between the notions of power and man in Ukrainian culture. Power was conceptualized as guilt, and man — as suffering.

The meaning of historical events was interpreted via biblical parables with their ideas of equality and fraternity, rather than with the aid of triumphant aggressive mythology that divides the world into the victors and the vanquished. In his Chronicle the Cossack historian Samiilo Velychko left for us epic narratives of victories scored by Ukrainian military leaders and, importantly, a philosophic analysis of the drama of an individual who falls prey to wars and attendant devastation enforced on him. Instead of a list of casualties that reads like an accountant’s report, we hear a lament of man who is forced by circumstances beyond his control to get used to the sight of blood and death, which is contrary to his Christian nature. When it comes to casualties, the chronicler does not distinguish between “Polish widows” and Ukrainian orphans, for they are all hostages to the same historical tragedy.

In Russia’s context, the interpretation of the enemy is state-centered and is achieved through fundamentalist, timeless categories. In other words, it is an absolute and metahistorical category. Ukraine is regarded as Russia’s “property” from the imperial standpoint, so any attempt on the part of Ukraine to be different from and/or independent of Russia is viewed only as a threat to the empire or a manifestation of ingratitude. Peter I excellently put it in his well-known formula that leaves no room for dialog: “All Little Russian hetmans, from the first to the last one, are traitors.”

Russia is a sacralized entity, so any phenomenon that calls this into question is demonized and deleted from Christian space altogether. In other words — and to quote from Mykhailo Braichevsky — the way Russia sees Mazepa symptomatically reflects its vision of itself “as the main criterion of historical assessment, a trend toward considering the history of non-Russian peoples as the history of their relations with Russia.”

Mazepa became Hetman of Ukraine during the period of the Ruin when, according to Yevhen Malaniuk, “even the pillars of Bohdan’s unfinished edifice were destroyed.” In this sense, Mazepa, as Malaniuk put it, was “a man of the epilog to the Cossack epoch.” Mazepa, however, was also a man of the prolog to modern Ukrainian history, let alone his being witness to and a protagonist in that global process that differentiated the nation-building paradigms on the political map of the Old Continent. Essentially, it was thanks to Mazepa that Ukraine was for the first time viewed as an independent historical entity. In other words, Old Rus’ died with Mazepa to be reborn as Ukraine.

The ideological, political, and legal foundations of the Ukrainian state were laid in the 16th and the first half of the 17th century, and these postulates were practically realized in the second half of the 17th and in the 18th century. Relying on a specific institutional structure, the Ukrainian Cossack State lasted for 116 years (1648–1764) — since the beginning of the Khmelnytsky period until the liquidation of hetmanship, and that despite constant Polish and Russian expansion. In any case, the Ukrainian state finally consolidated precisely in the course of those dramatic 50 years between Khmelnytsky and Mazepa.

It is difficult and even somewhat paradoxical to compare Khmelnytsky with Mazepa. There would have been no Mazepa without Khmelnytsky, yet without Mazepa Khmelnytsky’s political heritage could have been lost. Here the main paradox is that Khmelnytsky led a spontaneous, massive popular movement that for long while remained triumphant, whereas Mazepa remained a solitary political figure and headed a group of like-minded realists all of whom were doomed.

Khmelnytsky’s state-building concept was an attempt to upgrade a political scheme that had existed since the Middle Ages. In fact, rather than creating a state ex novo, he restored the Grand Princedom of Rus’ within its ancient ethnic, cultural, and geopolitical boundaries, and in a federated space with the Polish kingdom. After leading this scheme to the implosion phase and drifting away from Rus’, Mazepa founded independent Ukraine with an eye to building a European nation-state.

From Khmelnytsky to Mazepa the political project of new Ukraine developed not only on battlefields. It was based on literary evolution and that of legal culture in old Ukraine. The concept of civil rights and liberties, which was developed in the cultural domain in the late 16th and the first half of the 17th century, served as the foundation for a new concept of Fatherland and its domestic life and historical mission.

At that period the constant was a unique symbiosis between the nation’s political and cultural efforts. Intellect, the army, the academy, and politics had strong protagonists. That was why Fatherland and freedom became the key notions of culture and basic categories denoting human dignity. These categories were the yardstick of both Christian morals and civic consciousness. At the same time, these categories became the predominant moral vectors of political strategy. That was why the period between Khmelnytsky and Mazepa was marked by both political and moral evolution in Ukraine. Ukrainian society was undergoing a global transformation, asserting its religious, cultural, linguistic, and legal identity, forming its civic consciousness, turning into a nation, and entering modern European history.

The topic of cultural preconditions of the republican tradition is very sophisticated and insufficiently explored. The main factors in the formation of this tradition were Western European Humanism and Reformation. These trends elaborated a new concept of the state and power and new principles of the relationship between government and law, society and government. These principles actually determine the impassable watershed between the civilizations of Kyiv and Moscow. Humanism was being received in Ukraine through the filter of Protestant Reformation, whereas the Reformation was interpreted in the specific context of the Ukrainian Orthodox doctrine that was tolerant and open for dialog.

Another important aspect is that reformational trends (above all Socinianism as the most radical one) spread across Ukraine in a capillary manner — Galicia (Halychyna), Volhynia, Podillia, Pobuzhia, and Polissia, taking root more in the provinces than in big cities. Thus, both noblemen and burghers found themselves involved in this ideology.

Reformational communities became champions of equality, fraternity, and freedom, demanding emancipation of the serfs, abolition of the capital punishment, and an end to all wars. Protestants, viewed the Church and Government as the devil’s tools with which he committed acts of violence against man and sought to overwhelm individual and collective human will.

Most importantly, however, a new concept of man and his connection with the Lord, society, and himself was born in the context of Reformational ideology. Add here language as an important aspect of the Ruthenian habitat. It was the Reformation that gave a fresh impetus to the process of transforming the vernacular into a literary language (suffice it to recall the role Luther’s translation of the Holy Bible played for the German language).

In conditions of unsecularized culture, with the Church still in the center of spiritual life, the fact that the Church drew closer to addressing social problems, including linguistic ones, helped consolidate society and work out unifying cultural and political priorities. In this sense the roots of the republican tradition ought to be looked for in the culture of “Catholic Rus’” (Viacheslav Lypynsky), although it evolved along the Ukrainian Orthodox lines under the pronounced influence of the Reformation and increasingly revealed itself as a conscious and consistent fracture in the Byzantine monolith.

Protection of cultural and social identity, freedom of the individual, and his inalienable right (or duty) to independently set his conscience and intellect against proposed dogmas were an extremely important legacy of the Reformation in Ukraine. In fact, within the bounds of unsecularized culture the formation of civic consciousness could not be alienated from the religious way of thinking. However, religious rationalism was penetrating Orthodoxy at the time and strongly resisted its inherent mystical and metaphysical nature.

The statement of man’s individual relationship with the faith combined with the assertion of man’s right to seek the truth and, thus, have the freedom of choice altered the individual’s social orientation. The accent was shifted from blind faith to the determinism of Providence with regard to individuals’ earthly ethical and intellectual activities, opening up the way to personal responsibility, civic self-consciousness, and, ultimately, secularization of culture.

At that period even the most conservative literary genre, polemics, markedly distanced itself from doctrinal postulates. Herasym Smotrytsky wrote that preventing one from professing one’s “true faith” was an act of violence not so much against a given doctrine as against human rights. The Roman Catholic Church’s hegemony was unacceptable because it severed contact with the ancient Eastern tradition. However, this tradition was perceived not as a sum total of abstract religious instructions but, crucially, as the forefathers’ faith.

Insulting this faith meant insulting the dignity of the family and, consequently, the ethical memory of generations. Defense of this faith thus became an individual moral duty and a guarantee of human dignity. This faith dated back centuries and was the faith of Kyivan Rus’ after its baptism into the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Thus, a cultural and moral continuum was established between Ukraine and Old Rus’. However, conscious human will was the demiurgic force of that continuum. Christians are not a herd of dumb sheep but a mature community conscious of its obligations.

These concepts would, of course, be voiced most saliently in Baroque poetry, a genre in which the process of secularization proved considerably deeper than in religious literature. Here “true life” was viewed not as that of martyrs or as a process of solitary meditation in a monk’s cell, but as the warrior and poet’s sage and courageous commitment to the needs of his society. Likewise, the “true homeland” was not only the “Heavenly Republic” but also the “Ukrainian Rzeczpospolita” — in other words, an absolutely specific Fatherland that had to be looked after and whose freedom and integrity had to be defended. In addition, only an educated individual could be a conscious son of his Fatherland able to freely use the multifaceted tools available for perceiving the world.

Ukrainian Baroque poetry begot the interpretation of freedom as man’s natural right. This concept would always mark the subsequent evolution of Ukrainian culture, including Istoriia Rusov (History of the Rus’ People), Taras Shevchenko’s poems, and the modernism of the 1920s. The special Ukrainian character of this concept is that freedom is perceived as man’s ideal existence, i.e., the only way of life where man can realize himself as “God’s image” and thus justify Christ’s sacrifice.

This freedom is a synthesis of man’s personal and political freedom. Actually, these two forms of freedom are syncretically interdependent. In his well-known “Mournful Poems on the Burial of the Illustrious Knight Petro Konashevych Sahaidachny” Kasiian Sakovych mentions “golden freedom” as “the most important thing.” The genetic connection between this concept and that of zlota wolnosc of the Polish Renaissance is self-evident. However, the Polish zlota wolnosc was a privilege of the aristocracy, whereas the Ukrainian golden freedom became a spiritual and political motto of a popular movement: “This thing is not given to anyone, /Only to those who defend their Fatherland and the Lord…”

Identifying ethnicity with faith brought forth the emotional perception of one’s Fatherland as God-given land. Therefore, to give up one’s life for the Fatherland was the supreme moral duty; man’s immortal soul would realize itself through this ultimate “earthly” self-sacrifice. Leaving one’s Fatherland to the enemy’s mercy meant sentencing oneself to death: “He who doesn’t want to die fighting for his Fatherland /Will then have to die with his Fatherland.”

The emphasis is not so much on the paradigm of action as such (defense of Christendom) as on the salvation-bringing meaning of personal choice. In this way the idea of ethic evolution took shape. Alongside the intellectual growth of society, it became the cornerstone of civic consciousness. Human dignity, however, remained the moral stimulus to the formation of civic consciousness; its preservation and protection are man’s duty before God, society, the memory of forefathers, and, finally, himself as an emanation of the divine hypostasis.

During the period between Khmelnytsky and Mazepa, the concept of the Fatherland’s integrity evolved and established itself. Integrity here refers to both the polity of the Ukrainian state and its cultural identity. In his Chronicle Velychko quotes Khmelnytsky as rallying all those who “value the integrity of your Fatherland” to fight the Poles. Hrushevsky believes that Khmelnytsky was “conscious of the need to struggle for the sake of the entire Ukrainian people, all of Ukraine, and its liberation and independence.”

Here the categories of “us” vs. “them” are sufficiently salient: the hetman declares that he will fight for the freedom of his Fatherland, but not at the expense of others. “I will not fight abroad,” he says, thus stressing the clarity of his vision of the frontiers of his country, which he intends to turn into a “republic within a republic.”

As the concept of the Fatherland’s integrity developed, a key role was played by the concept of equality of the “Cossack nation” with other peoples. The Treaty of Hadiach (1658) says that Ukrainians’ relations with other peoples must be those between free, equal, and dignified parties. This was an incredibly big step taken ahead of the times, considering that similar terms would be used in the 20th century, after the end of the Second World War, by the Polish media opposed to the communist regime with regard to relations with their Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Russian neighbors.

In conclusion, it can be said that the “family tree” of the state-building project undertaken by Mazepa was rooted in the Khmelnytsky period. In this state-building project the purely political (and thus, also legal) and cultural (and thus, also moral) aspects are joined into an indissoluble single whole.

The first—political—aspect was expressed in the concept of “old rights and liberties,” which were the foundation of Ukrainian society at the time and a guarantee of the equality of the “Cossack nation” with its neighbors. Reinstating these “old rights and liberties” had to transform Ukraine into an independent political entity within the Rzeczpospolita, and consequently into an entity subject to international law.

The second—cultural—aspect envisaged a comprehensive concept of the Fatherland in all the defining parameters of its historical existence over time, including the territory, the Church, and the language. Resolved to free the Ukrainian lands from the Rzeczpospolita rule and build a state, Khmelnytsky sought to reinstate the frontiers of Old Rus’-Ukraine, consciously insisting on the continuum of Kyivan Rus’ history.

Setting his conditions before the Polish crown, the hetman speaks of the lands that were “our age-old Fatherland” from the times of “the great Prince Volodymyr of Kyiv, equal to the apostles.” The integrity of the territory of Rus’-Ukraine, which was entitled to be free, was delineated by the settlement of “Rus’-speaking” people who professed the “Greek faith.”

In The History of the Rus’ People Khmelnytsky interpreted man’s “natural right“ to freedom as an obligation to struggle against the tyrant. Under a tyrant, personal freedom is impossible because the tyrant denies man his “honor, rights, property, and freedom of expression and conscience,” as Khmelnytsky wrote in his message to the Cossack officers and men.

People who lived without these fundamental parameters had no future. Slavery forced man into a vegetative state, making him “senseless,” “sluggish,” and shackled. Therefore, without winning independence for his Fatherland, man cannot expect to have personal freedom; there is no sense in living without freedom. In other words, in freedom the Ukrainian “Torah” sees a guarantee of human dignity and in human dignity — a guarantee of devotion to the basic Christian values.

This kind of concept is based on the idea of an implicitly egalitarian community united by a desire to reach a common goal and struggling against a common enemy. The Ukrainian political system is visualized as one of “self-government and choice,” which makes autocratic hetman’s rule impossible, because the hetman is the spiritual leader and military organizer of the Cossack brotherhood. In this cultural context the hetman is not a sovereign, a ruler with mythical timeless grandeur. He is merely a concrete expression of the people’s will at a certain historical moment.

Remarkably, Sakovych wrote:

If the hetman is glorified
Not by himself but by his host,
While the host — by the hetman,
This clearly proves:
What is the hetman without his host
Or the host without him?
Each one is naught without the other.

These lines suffice to comprehend the insurmountable civilization gap between Ukraine and Russia, where the tsar is above and beyond his people. Ivan the Terrible said that this is so “by the will of the Almighty Lord, not by man’s greatly rebellious desire.” Ukrainian — and European — history was created not by an omnipotent despot, but by “man’s greatly rebellious desire.”

Naturally, one cannot say that legal thought in Ukraine at the time was sufficiently mature, considering the discontinuous and fragmented nature of its social and institutional space that was under constant external military and administrative pressure. What is interesting is the very attempt to provide moral grounds for a legal framework.

Khmelnytsky gave rise to a new interpretation of the legal norms of an agreement (also the “oath of allegiance” as it was termed at the time) that would acquire special importance in the Mazepa period. For Khmelnytsky, an agreement remained inviolable for so long as it was observed by both parties. Thus, ancient Ukrainians forged an alliance with Lithuanians and Poles “of their own free will and in order to secure mutual defense against other tribes; they came with their own land, with their towns and villages, even with their laws, and with everything necessary to live a normal life.”

By paying with tyranny in return for this trust the Poles violated this agreement on peaceful coexistence with Ukrainians. If either of the parties breaches the agreement, Khmelnytsky told his troops, “the laws of God, nature, and man always abolish such oaths; you are free from them; more than under any oaths you are indebted to your Fatherland, which you must honor by the force of nature, and to its Symbol — the sacred faith you profess.”

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.

(To be continued)