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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Mazepa’s many faces: constructive, tragic, tragicomic

7 July, 2009 - 00:00

Frankly, I was not exactly bursting with this subject. I had been watching for some time the aggrandizement of Ivan Mazepa in today’s Ukraine and saying to myself: any country needs heroes. Yet any national hero functions, by all accounts, as a myth, and Mazepa is no exception in this sense. After all, I could also have turned a blind eye to the fact that the myth about this hetman does not quite correspond to reality and that this myth’s constructive element raises some questions. But the latest events in and around Ukraine prompted me to take a somewhat different look at this problem.


Naturally, Mazepa is not a simple historical figure. But are there simple historical figures at all? If need be, one can find both bright and dark sides in the actions of any character of the past.

As a politician, he was far from the worst figure among Ukrainian hetmans. But if we make a thorough analysis of Mazepa’s activities, we will see more defeats than victories. His very life ended in a crushing defeat, when the hetman lost power and was forced to flee Ukraine.

But after the hetman’s death, his failures turned into “victories.” The personality of Mazepa began to generate myths — in this sense the hetman was very lucky. There are at least two well-known myths: a romantic myth about Mazepa the Lover and a nationalist myth about Mazepa’s alleged struggle for the independence of Ukrainian lands from Russia.

In 1818 the well-known English romanticist Lord Byron published the poem Mazeppa. The plot boils down to the old Mazepa telling the Swedish King Charles XII, after losing the Battle of Poltava, about a love affair he had had in his young years. Byron managed to create a striking image of Mazepa who careers, tied to the back of a horse, across Poland and Ukraine. Thanks to the poet, this image got entrenched in the European literature of those times.

At the turn of the 20th century, when Europe stepped into the “era of nationalism” and was rife with national movements, Lady Luck smiled again on Mazepa. Ukrainian literature began to shape the image of Mazepa the nationalist, a fighter for Ukrainian independence. In a way, it was a reaction to Russian chauvinistic literature, which portrayed Mazepa as a “traitor” and enemy of Tsar Peter I.

What prompted the projection of Mazepa as a fighter for Ukrainian independence was not so much academic literature as popular and belles-lettres publications, especially the trilogy Mazepa by Bohdan Lepky.

A rather peculiar cult of Mazepa was formed by the Ukrainian diaspora in the West, which has published a number of academic studies that clearly show an attempt to portray Mazepa as a Ukrainian state-builder. Oleksandr Ohloblyn made a special effort to this end. We must give him his due: he was a brilliant connoisseur of both the documented evidence of the “Mazepa era” and the “Mazepa folklore.” But if you read his works attentively, particularly the monograph Ivan Mazepa and His Era, you will see that the book’s factual material does not exactly fit in with the conclusions.


Some Mazepa studies suggest that the hetman was a Machiavellian politician. In his famous work Il Principe (The Prince), Niccolo Machiavelli advises politicians to act cynically, without too many scruples about agreements. Mazepa seems to have been doing so. But does this do him honor? After all, Machiavellianism is quite a disputable point.

Let us try to follow Mazepa’s political career. Unfortunately, there are very few documents about his pre-hetmanship activities. It is known that he served some time under Hetman Petro Doroshenko who ruled Right-Bank Ukraine. Then, allegedly contrary to his will, he switched over to Ivan Samoilovych, Hetman of Left-Bank Ukraine.

The latter was not a simple figure. There may have been a lot of negative points in his actions, but we must give Samoilovych his due: he tried to establish viable governmental structures and instill law and order in his autonomous Hetmanate. But senior Cossack officers took a dim view of those actions. The most powerful of them betrayed the hetman, filing a complaint against him to Moscow.

In principle, treason was a routine thing in Ukrainian politics at the time. Nobody seemed to be paying attention to it.

It is the same now. Just look at how easily our politicians abandon their views and principles, betray their voters, switch sides, etc. And society remains largely unperturbed by this.

Mazepa’s name was not among those who signed the complaint, but there is no doubt that he took part in the conspiracy against the hetman. Mazepa generously rewarded the informers. When he became the hetman, he presented them with estates and offices. Among those he honored was Vasyl Kochubei, his children’s godfather. The hetman appointed Kochubei general chancellor, although the latter was unable to write properly. Ironically, the godfather of the hetman’s siblings later informed on his benefactor.

Does this remind you of anything in the current history of independent Ukraine?

Mazepa was the one who took the best advantage of Samoilovych’s downfall. Bribing Vasily Golitsyn, the lover of the Muscovite Tsarevna Sofia, with 10,000 rubles (a staggering amount at the time), Mazepa secured his election (in fact, appointment) as hetman. On July 25, 1687, there was a “free election” in a Cossack camp on the River Kolomak. There were about 2,000 Cossacks, just a fraction of the whole army, in the camp surrounded by Russian troops from all the sides: nobody could rival Mazepa in this situation.

This Machiavellianism cost Ukrainians very dearly. The overthrow of Samoilovych was another step towards the limitation of the rights of Ukrainian autonomy. Craving for power, Mazepa signed the so-called Kolomak Articles that made the hetman a puppet of the Moscow tsar.

The Articles obligated the Ukrainian government to take a number of steps in Moscow’s favor. It was allowed to station Russian garrisons not only in Kyiv, Chernihiv, Pereiaslav, Nizhyn and Oster, but even in the Hetmanate’s capital Baturyn. The Hetman state was also obliged for the first time “to unite by every method and means the Little-Russian people with the Great-Russian people and to lead them by intermarriage and other measures to an indestructible and firm harmony.” It was forbidden to say that the Little Russian country was ruled by the hetman: one was to say that the tsar was the ruler.

I strongly advise those who consider Mazepa a champion of Ukrainian statehood to reread the above-mentioned Kolomak Articles and remember the context in which they were concluded. The then Muscovite Tsardom was facing serious problems. The throne was shared by two reigning tsars: an ailing Ivan V and an underage Peter I. Muscovy was in fact ruled by Tsarevna Sophia Alekseyevna and her lover Prince Golitsyn. A serious conflict was imminent.

Taking advantage of the situation, Hetman Samoilovych began to reinforce his power, gradually distancing himself from Moscow. But, instead of rallying around the hetman, senior officers, including Mazepa, came out against him. This resulted in the further erosion of the Hetman state’s rights.


Reading some literature creates the impression that all Mazepa was doing was thinking about breaking up with Moscow and waiting for a suitable moment to do so. This is wishful thinking.

The hetman was taking a pro-Russian attitude, which is proved by numerous documents and Mazepa’s real actions. The hetman went to Moscow more than once to solve his problems by way of offering generous bribes. Even his mother once traveled to Moscow to pay a “courtesy call.”

Mazepa wrote deferential letters to the tsar, obeyed his orders, dispatched Ukrainians on the tsar’s war expeditions, and sent them to build Petersburg, where they would die on a massive scale. At the same time, he suppressed anti-Russian activities, such as the uprising led by Petryk (Petro Ivanenko). He also helped crack down on anti-governmental movements in Russia itself.

In spite of all snags and certain discontent with the Russian government, Mazepa remained loyal to the tsar and pinned his personal hopes on Muscovy. It is a little-known fact that the hetman used to buy land outside the Hetman state, on Russian territory. Mazepa cared very much about the economic development of these newly-acquired estates. This raises a simple question: if Mazepa harbored any secret plans to secede from Russia, why did he do this?

He also wanted to become a relative of Prince Aleksandr Menshikov, a close friend of Tsar Peter I. Again, why would a “secret separatist” need this?

Before Mazepa “betrayed” the Russian leadership, they regarded him a loyal vassal: he was supported and given awards. The hetman was one of the first recipients of the Order of St. Andrew the First Called. Tsar Peter I took Mazepa into his special confidence.

Russian researcher Tatiana Tairova-Yakovleva believes that Mazepa did very much for the Russian Empire to be built. She is right. The hetman helped Tsar Peter I, bailed him out of quandaries, and gave him valuable advice. He groomed some intellectual figures (above all, Feofan Prokopovych and Stefan Yavorsky) that played an important role in the religious and ideological “provision” of the young imperial state.


It may seem to some that this writer is trying to blacken the name of Mazepa. This is not so. I will say again that Mazepa was, undoubtedly, a talented person. One can even assert that he was one of Ukraine’s best hetmans. The question is what kind of talents Mazepa possessed and how he applied them.

What really mattered for a hetman at the time was military talent. Was Mazepa a talented general? Far from that. Can you recall at least one well-known battle that Mazepa won? After all, he had neither a proper military education nor training. Mazepa had other talents — in administration, management, and diplomacy. He also knew how to intrigue, which is by no means the least thing for a politician. He would have been an excellent ruler in a stable state that has no geopolitical problems. In the long run, Mazepa did very much under the complicated circumstances of that era.

Firstly, he managed to keep his country from the ravages of war. “The Mazepa era” was a time of peace, although this peace demanded a high price: as was mentioned above, the hetman sent Ukrainians to Russia-waged wars and engaged them in the construction of Petersburg, where they died en masse. This notwithstanding, Left-Bank Ukraine still had an opportunity to develop quite well in terms of economy and culture.

Secondly, Mazepa was an excellent manager. He managed to implement an effective economic system in his estates. As a result of this efficiency, Mazepa was able to amass enormous financial resources and become one of Europe’s richest oligarchs.

Thirdly, on becoming the hetman, he tried to establish effective functioning of the Hetman state’s institutions, often relying on Polish patterns. Mazepa strove to instill more discipline in his subjects and minimize their anarchism. The proof of this is found in his speeches and actions, which met with rejection on the part of various social strata, especially the Zaporozhian Cossacks. Hence enmity towards the hetman, his never-ending conflicts with the Zaporozhians, allegations that he was Polish, etc. This is why Mazepa failed to become a public idol and a folklore hero.

Fourthly, as a good diplomat, the hetman pursued a relatively well-balanced foreign policy, which was an important factor of stability in the Ukrainian state, although it came under vigorous pressure from the three great powers: Muscovy, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and Turkey.

Fifthly, the hetman’s donations to churches objectively served to promote Ukrainian culture. For example, it is Mazepa’s efforts and generous donations that helped develop Kyiv Mohyla Academy and form a cohort of brilliant intellectuals who made a notable contribution to both Ukrainian and Russian cultures. Mazepa himself was fairly well-educated and cultured. The Mazepa era saw the activity of such chroniclers as Samovydets, Hryhorii Hrabianka, and Samiilo Velychko. Ukrainian Baroque, an object of our pride now, also largely owes its fame to Mazepa.

We must really bow our heads to Mazepa as a manager, administrator, and diplomat. But these talents of the hetman are almost never mentioned in this country. Owing to Mazepa’s “routine” work in Left-Bank Ukraine, the Hetman’s state built the core of the Ukrainian nation and formed the Cossack elite, which played an important role in the making of the Ukrainian nation. It is this region that brought into motion the formation of latter-day Ukrainian national culture. Although this was not the merit of Mazepa alone, we should not underestimate his role.


It is not surprising that romantic literature projects Mazepa as a lover. But in reality he was not very lucky in love.

When still young, Mazepa had a love affair with a married woman, which sparked a scandal. It is perhaps due to this scandal that he was forced to abandon the court of Polish King John II Casimir.

After arriving in Ukraine, Mazepa married a rich widow, the daughter of Bila Tserkva Colonel Semen Polovets. It was hardly a marriage of love. Mazepa’s wife was no longer in her first youth: she may have even been older than he was. But this kind of marriage offered Mazepa access to senior officers’ society. Mazepa had only one daughter by this marriage, who had died a long time before her mother did.

After his wife’s death in 1702, Mazepa began to look for “the other half.” As he was a wealthy man and the topmost governmental official at the time, it was not difficult for him to find a match even despite his not-so-tender age. He fell for his goddaughter Motria Kochubeivna, who was young enough to be his granddaughter.

Motria’s parents categorically refused to marry their daughter off to the hetman, referring to church canons that ban a marriage between a godfather and his goddaughter. This broke the warm and friendly relations with the Kochubei family. Eventually, Vasyl Kochubei informed on Mazepa to Tsar Peter I, accusing the hetman of treason. The tsar did not believe the information, but this nevertheless cast a shadow on Mazepa. By all accounts, this event prompted Peter I to think on how to further restrict the power of his vassal.

There was and still is a legend in Baturyn that Mazepa had an affair with Motria’s mother, Liubov Kochubei. If you read some of Mazepa’s documents between the lines, you will also find a hint about this intrigue. This makes it clear why Motria’s parents (above all, her mother) were unwilling to give their daughter in marriage to Mazepa — it was the injured honor of a woman. The Baturyn legend has it that it was Liubov Kochubei who persuaded her husband to inform on the hetman. If it was really so, the love for Motria cost the hetman dearly.

But there was another love. After a failure with Motria, the hetman quickly found a new flame. This time Countess Hanna Dolska was his sweetheart. When he was in Dubno in 1706, he met her and even became her grandson’s godfather. Although Dolska was, like Mazepa, no longer young, she had not lost her feminine charm. He lent her a handsome amount of money. At the same time, she tried to persuade the hetman to desert Tsar Peter I and ally with Polish King Stanis aw Leszczy ski to whom she was related and who was backed by Swedish King Charles XII.

The lovesick Mazepa lost his head and sense of caution. Dolska becomes a secret mediator between the hetman and Leszczy ski. They exchanged secretive letters. A love story turned into a political ploy.

Does this not remind you of anything?

In 1708 Mazepa agrees to conclude a secret alliance with Leszczy ski and Charles XII.

The peripeteia of this political erotic affair is described in detail in a well-known letter from Mazepa’s comrade-in-arms Pylyp Orlyk to Metropolitan Stefan Yavorsky. This scheme is also mentioned in Kochubei’s denunciation of Mazepa. At least, nobody has ever questioned the reality of this.


It would be wrong to believe that only the above-mentioned affair caused Mazepa to “betray” Tsar Peter I. There were other reasons, too. The Ukrainian troops that fought in alliance with the Russians outside Ukraine were increasingly rife with anti-Russian sentiments. Mazepa was told that the tsar wanted to liquidate the Hetmanate and curtail the rights of Ukrainians. But it was extremely risky to side with Stanis aw Leszczy ski and Charles XII in the particular situation of 1708. The hetman, who was generally distinguished as a good analyzer of situations, seems to have lost this ability.

At the time, the correlation of forces was not in favor of the Swedes. The Swedish army got bogged down in the fighting on the Polish Kingdom’s territory, while the Russian army was revamped, increased in strength, and could oppose the Swedish troops. Besides, Mazepa was unable to make sure that the Ukrainian populace took a friendly attitude to the Swedish army and that the bulk of his troops switched sides. Moreover, there were Russian garrisons stationed in Ukraine (a sort of an analogue for the present-day Black Sea Fleet). The Russians waged an informational war, telling about Mazepa’s “treason” and pronouncing an anathema on him in churches.

Documents prove a negative attitude of Ukrainians to Swedish soldiers — they were considered unwelcome aliens. This can also be found in folklore sources. What mattered most was the religious factor: Swedish soldiers and officers adhered to the Lutheran faith, ignored icon-worshiping and fast-keeping, etc. Ukrainians regarded this as sacrilege and heresy.

The defection of a hetman, who did not enjoy grassroots love, to Charles XII could not possibly enlist proper support. Those who joined Mazepa were only his units stationed in Baturyn and, paradoxically, the Zaporozhians who had been at odds with the hetman until then. Quite a few Ukrainian military units remained on the Russian side.

I will omit the course of hostilities between the Russians and the Swedes on the Ukrainian land. This is a well-known fact that includes the tragedy of Baturyn, the punitive raids of the Russian troops, the destruction of the Zaporozhian Sich, the Battle of Poltava, etc.

Did Ukraine really benefit from Mazepa’s defection to the Swedes? Or did it lose out?

Firstly, after two decades of relative peace, Left-Bank Ukraine became a theater of military operations again. What Mazepa had been building so painstakingly for such a long time began to tumble down.

Secondly, Mazepa’s defection further split the not-so-monolithic Ukrainian society. What erupted in the Ukrainian land was not just a war between the Swedes and the Russians but a war between two parts of Ukraine. In some cases it resembled a civil war.

The “pro-Mazepian Ukraine” suffered a defeat. This enabled the Russian government to further limit the Hetman State’s autonomy and, later on, eliminate it altogether.


There is no need in making conclusions, for they are as plain as day.

I will only note that we ought to analyze what Mazepa did and learn from the hetman’s mistakes.

For these are our mistakes, too!