For the nearly three centuries that have passed since Hetman Ivan Mazepa’s death, the state and political activity of the leader of the Ukrainian Hetmanate from 1686 to 1709 has been arguably the most controversial and contentious issue for both Ukrainian historians and the public at large.
As it turns out, however, there is a town in Europe, a third of whose residents mention the Ukrainian leader’s name on a daily basis without raising any eyebrows or questions. Despite the fact that the hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church, on orders from Tsar Peter I, excommunicated Mazepa after the Ukrainian hetman’s defection to Moscow’s enemy, Swedish King Charles XII, worshippers in the town’s churches have been saying prayers of remembrance for the deceased hetman since late 1709. Meanwhile, the town park was recently graced with a monument to Ivan Mazepa, something we have yet to see in the parks and squares of the capital city of independent Ukraine. So what is the name of this European memorial sanctuary in honor of Mazepa, and where and how did it appear on the map of Europe?
You will find it in the Romanian town of Galati located in the lower reaches of the Danube River. In the late nineteenth century it had a street named after Ivan Mazepa. Although the street disappeared during a spate of town redevelopment, a new residential area named after Mazepa appeared in the downtown area. In the 1960s a nearby residential district called Mazepa II was added. As a result, nearly a third of the residents of this important industrial river port in Romania (pop. 320,000) currently reside in districts named after the distinguished Ukrainian hetman.
On May 4, 2004, Galati hosted an international scholarly conference, “The Personality of Ivan Mazepa in European History,” which was held under the auspices of Romania’s Ministry of Culture and Cults and Ukraine’s Embassy in Romania. Historians of the Nicolae Jorga History Institute of Romania’s Academy of Sciences, the Ukrainian History Institute of the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences, the Galati History Museum, and other scholarly and public institutions, as well as politicians, church and public figures, discussed the place and role of Hetman Mazepa in Ukrainian and European history in an attempt to arrive at a historically impartial evaluation of his deeds and to highlight both his undisputed achievements and miscalculations.
The following day saw a memorial service for the hetman with the participation of Ukrainian and Romanian clergy at a major Orthodox church that was built in the nineteenth century to honor the Romanian monarchs Saints Constantine and Elena. That same afternoon the unveiling of Europe’s first monument to Ivan Mazepa took place in Galati’s Independence Park.
Mazepa’s name became linked to this river port town by a twist of fate well after the death of the celebrated Ukrainian hetman. According to his will, he was to be buried in Palestine, in one of Jerusalem’s churches, on which he had repeatedly bestowed generous gifts. Yet death found him on Moldavian soil outside the town of Bendery (now Teghina). When Mazepa’s supporters fled Ukraine after the defeat of King Charles XII in the Battle of Poltava, they decided against burying Mazepa in Palestine and instead interred their hetman in Jassy, the then capital of the Moldavian Principality. For reasons unknown, they thought better of it and paid their last respects to him in the Moldavian village of Varnytsia, two kilometers north of Bendery.
According to accounts by foreign travelers, Mazepa’s funeral, organized by his nephew Andriy Voynarovsky, was a solemn and splendid ceremony, the likes of which had never before been seen in Moldavia. An inadvertent witness to the funeral, a Polish diplomat en route to Istanbul, recorded in his diary the unusual richness of apparel of the deceased, his gold-embroidered shirt, the hetman’s mace richly decorated with gems, and even the hetman’s diadem.
Word of the unbelievable richness of the burial attire attracted the notice of grave robbers, who looted the grave on the very night of the funeral. Cossacks restored the desecrated grave, but after a certain time looters again disturbed the hetman’s remains. That’s when they remembered Mazepa’s wish to find eternal peace in the Holy Land of Palestine.
Andriy Voynarovsky quickly obtained permission from the Turkish sultan to rebury Mazepa’s remains at one of Jerusalem’s holy sites. A sultan’s firman [edict] to this effect dispatched from Istanbul obliged the rulers of the Principality of Wallachia to facilitate by all means possible the journey of the hetman’s remains. But owing to the ongoing Russo-Swedish war, this journey proved rather dangerous. Swedish King Charles XII, who had remained on lands that were subordinated to the sultan well until 1714, was a thorn in the side of Tsar Peter, who, having lost all hope of getting the Turks to extradite the Swedish king, planned to achieve his goal by way of armed intervention. Therefore, when the Cossacks, escorted by Romanian detachments, reached Galati and heard about the local Church of St. George, considered a Holy Jerusalem Church, they reburied the remains of their hetman near its altar. In memory of the hetman’s soul, senior Cossack officers bestowed generous gifts on the church, standing high on the left bank of the Danube, and placed a tombstone bearing Mazepa’s coat of arms on the burial site.
Another unfortunate page in this story is connected with Tsar Peter’s Prut Campaign. In the summer of 1711 the Russian ruler launched a campaign against the Turkish-ruled Moldavian and Romanian lands. This campaign, during which Tsar Peter narrowly escaped captivity, led to the rise of several legends about yet another desecration of Mazepa’s grave. One legend has it that Russian soldiers, following Peter’s orders, removed the remains of the Ukrainian hetman so hated by the Russian tsar. Another, more plausible, legend has it that the grave was desecrated by Crimean Tatars, who as part of their persecution of Russian troops and Romanian gentry who supported Tsar Peter in his campaign against the Turks, captured Galati and massacred its inhabitants. Neither was St. George’s Church spared, with the result that Mazepa’s remains were desecrated along with other graves.
While Moldavian chronicles claim that the remains of the Ukrainian hetman were irretrievably lost in 1711, when the Tatars dumped them into the Danube, contemporary Romanian researchers contest this theory. Most probably the Tatars left the unearthed tombs on the banks of the Danube. Be that as it may, Mazepa’s grave was restored that same year. In 1722 Mazepa’s brother-in-arms and successor, exiled Hetman Pylyp Orlyk, visited his grave. When he visited Mazepa’s grave a second time in 1737, he recorded in his diary his pleasant impressions of meeting the local population and attending a solemn divine service at the church in remembrance of the Ukrainian hetman.
There is documented evidence that the timeworn tombstone of Mazepa’s grave remained in the Church of St. George for another century. In 1835 a wealthy local boyar was buried in the grave of Ivan Mazepa, whose remains were reburied in the early 1840s, pursuant to an order to remove all graves from the church premises. During the reburial the original tombstone, which was replaced with a new one, was taken to Bucharest as an artifact, where all traces of it were lost in the next couple of decades.
Lost along with the tombstone was the burial site of Ivan Mazepa. Romanian researchers have determined that the grave existed until the early 1880s, after which all traces were lost. According to certain legends, in 1881 grave robbers plundered the grave once more. Other unconfirmed legends state that Mazepa’s remains were reburied in the nearby Church of the Virgin Mary. The lack of information makes it impossible to tell what actually happened. Researchers have succeeded in confirming only the fact that by the early twentieth century there was no longer any graveyard near the Church of St. George. Meanwhile, the church itself lasted until the early 1960s.
For some time the town had a street named after Mazepa, and subsequently two residential areas were named in his honor. Now Galati has a monument to Ivan Mazepa. Romanian scholars, as well as members of the public, hope to rebuild the church in which the remains of the distinguished Ukrainian hetman were housed for centuries.
Let’s hope so too. Let’s also hope that Kyiv finally erects its own monument to honor this Ukrainian statesman who achieved heights few have managed to scale.