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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

Prince Kostiantyn Ostrozky: Incredible Zigzags in the Life Story of “Russian Scipio”

25 November, 2003 - 00:00

It is difficult to overestimate the role of Ostroh and the glorious dynasty of princes Ostrozky in the history of Ukraine and Eastern Europe in general. The city located in the very hub of Greater Volhynia (now Volyn, Rivne, Zhytomyr oblasts, northern Khmelnytsky oblast, Berestechko and Pidliashshia areas) was first mentioned in 1100 in the Ipatiyiv List, when it was offered to Prince Davyd Ihorevych in exchange for Volodymyr-Volynsky. The Vitachiv Congress of Kyivan Rus’ princes made this decision at the insistence of Volodymyr Monomachus to punish him for having blinded Prince Vasylko of Terebovlia.

The Mongol-Tatar invasion left Ostroh lying in ruins as long as until 1325, when Lithuanian Duke Gediminas ceded the city to his son Lubartas. The name of a precisely Ostroh prince, Danylo, was first mentioned in 1341. His son Fedir, a Lutsk alderman, had his right to own Ostroh (as well as Korets and Zaslav) confirmed in 1386 by Jagiello, King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania.

The list of dukes and duchesses, enlighteners, scientists, book printers, churchmen, and generals, who lived and excelled in this city, is impressive. It includes Prince Fedir Danylovych, a Grunwald Battle and Hussite Wars veteran canonized in the late sixteenth century as Feodosy (Theodosios); Prince Vasyl-Kostiantyn Ostrozky, a zealous defender of Orthodoxy, general and founder of the Ostroh Academy, Ukraine’s first higher educational institution (1576); Galshka Ostrozka, his brother Illia’s daughter and founder of the academy, which was officially recorded in the testament made out in 1579 in Turiv; the first book printer Ivan Fedorovych (Fedorov); father and son, Herasym and Melety Smotrytskys, polemicist writers, translators, theologians and philologists (M. Smotrytsky standardized the grammars of Eastern Slavic languages, present-day Ukrainian, Russian, Belarussian, Macedonian, Serb, and Bulgarian ABCs being based on his manual Slavic Grammar); Ivan Vyshensky, writer and polemicist; Iov Boretsky, enlightener, religious and political figure; Damian Nalyvaiko, an implacable enemy of the Church Union, defender of Orthodoxy and brother of Severyn Nalyvaiko. Among the Ostroh alumni is also the famous Zaporozhzhian Cossack Hetman Petro Konashevych-Sahaidachny.

Vasyl-Kostiantyn’s fame somewhat overshadowed the extraordinary personality of Prince Kostiantyn Ivanovych Ostrozky (1460-1530). Meanwhile, the very list of titles bestowed on the Grand Duchy of Lithuania’s and the Polish Crown’s richest magnate is striking: Grand Hetman of Lithuania (1497-1500, 1507-1530), Mayor of Wroclaw, Zvenyhorod, and Vinnytsia (1497), Marshal of Volhynia and Mayor of Lutsk (1499), Castellan of Wilno (1513) and Troc (1522).

It should be remembered that Ostroh was one of Ukraine’s major cities in the sixteenth and mid-seventeenth centuries, with only Kyiv, Lviv, and Lutsk being larger. It is Kostiantyn Ostrozky who begot a powerful clan. Mykhailo Maksymovych, who studied chronicles of the Kyiv Pechersk Monastery of the Caves, proved that princes Ostrozky were a branch line of Turiv-Pinsk princes, direct descendants of Riuryk. According to researcher V. Ulyanovsky, documents prove that he acquired and received as a fist or privilege 91 towns and villages, including Dorohobuzh, Horodets, Zdolbuniv, Krasyliv, Lutsk, Ostroh, Polonne, Rivne, Svytiaz, Turiv, and Chudniv. Prince Kostiantyn also received some courts and houses in Wilno (Vilnius), Minsk, and Lutsk as a royal gift. The prince’s subjects were privileged to be exempt from duties, as were the merchants bound for the Lutsk fair (1518).

So the prince was one of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania’s most influential magnates. And although many nobles had already switched from Orthodoxy to Catholicism by the time he became hetman, Prince Kostiantyn still wielded unquestioned authority. This authority was based not only on his incomparable wealth but also on his firm position in defending the rights of and rendering all kinds of assistance to Orthodox communities. For example, in 1507 alone, the prince presented the Holy Trinity Convent in Derman with a handwritten Gospel, had a church built at the village of Smolevychi, Minsk district, donated money for this church and for the construction of a monastery at Zhydachiv. In 1491-1530 Ostroh saw the construction of a five-dome stone Church of Epiphany and the Trinity Monastery. The prince would constantly supply the churches of Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus with silverware, crosses, chasubles, icons, etc.

So it is not accidental that Kostiantyn Ostrozky was buried at the Assumption Cathedral of the Kyiv Pechersk Monastery of the Caves, the chief shrine of Eastern Slavic Orthodoxy. The same temple houses the tombs of his great grandfather Prince Fedir (Feodosy) Danylovych and the next of kin of his second wife Oleksandra Semenivna Olelkowicz- Slucka. It is her father, Semen Olelkowicz, who had this cathedral, ruined by Batu Khan’s hordes, restored in 1470. From the marriage with Oleksandra, Kostiantyn Ivanovych had daughter Sophia (who died young) and son Vasyl-Kostiantyn (1528-1608) considered as the most rabid champion and protector of Orthodoxy in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth’s history. The prince also had son Illia (1510-1539) by his first wife Tetiana Golszanska who died in 1522.

Yet, Kostiantyn Ostrozky is mostly known as an outstanding general. For example, A. Kalnofojski’s epitaph dubs the Grand Hetman of Lithuania as the “Russian Scipio,” while Pisoni, the Papal Legate in Poland, wrote in a letter dated 1514, “Prince Kostiantyn can be called the best general of our time: he emerged victorious 33 times on the battlefield, ...and was as valiant as Romulus in combat.” A prominent sixteenth-century Polish chronicler Macej Stryjkowski called the hetman “Russian and Lithuanian second Hannibal, Pyrrhus and Scipio..., a gentleman of blessed memory and extremely glorified deeds.” (Let us not forget that Prince Ostrozky was Orthodox.)

However, the prince not only won some important and even fateful victories (see below) but also suffered two crushing defeats. While Ostrozky, beaten near Sokal by the Crimean Tatars in 1519, quickly restored the status quo in the winter of 1527 by routing the horde’s army in Kyiv region, the debacle on the river Vedrosh at the hands of the Muscovite troops had tragic consequences for him.

In the heat of the battle, the Muscovites’ ambushed regiment struck at the flanks and rear of the Lithuanian army, leaving almost eight thousand warriors dead and taking all the commanders and the prince himself prisoner. Kostiantyn Ostrozky spent seven years in Vologda and Moscow. He was at first held in fetters, but then Ivan III pardoned the captive and rewarded him with land and two towns. The prince made two escape attempts, the second being successful in the fall of 1507. He was immediately reinstated as hetman. By the time a new war broke out with Muscovy, the hetman, invested with far-reaching powers, had in fact officiated for the Grand Duke of Lithuania. The 1507-1508 campaign ended with neither side winning. After signing the so-called Eternal Peace Treaty with Muscovy, Lithuania and Poland turned their weapons southwards. The prince routed the Crimean Tatars near Slutsk in 1508 and near Vyshnevets and Lopushne in 1512. The latter victory was especially impressive: reaching the horde, his warriors liberated 16,000 captives and captured 10,000 Tatars who were settled on the outskirts of Ostroh to do the guard duty (even according to the 1895 census, there were 470 Muslims and one mosque in the town).

Receiving satisfaction in the East, the prince also won Europe-wide fame after a brilliant victory over Muscovite troops near Orsha on September 1514. By that time, Sigismund I had already occupied two thrones — of the Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland. He issued the following order: “All must obey the hetman, for he has as much right to reward the obedient and punish the obstinate and disobedient as we, the supreme ruler, do.”

The army commanded by Kostiantyn Ostrozky consisted of Lithuanian feudal militia (so-called district gonfalons from the Ukrainian, Lithuanian and Belarussian lands), Polish gentry militia, mercenaries from Livonia, Germany, and Hungary, and the famous Polish hussars, — a total 30,000 men who confronted 80,000 Muscovites. Although there was no cohesion among the latter’s commanding officers, this in no way diminishes the importance of the prince’s victory, for he skillfully guided different branches of service. For example, the Lithuanian cavalry beat a mock retreat and thus lured the Muscovites out to face artillery fire, while their left flank was rolled back to a swamp and utterly routed. The river Kropyvna was brimming with the dead bodies of Muscovites. The enemy troops made a disorderly retreat. The defeated suffered what was considered terrible losses at the time: 30,000 warriors were killed and 380 officers and noblemen were taken prisoners.

The Battle of Orsha established a border between Muscovy and Lithuania (the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from 1569) that exited for almost a century. The hero of this battle twice rode at the head of his army through the Arch of Triumph — in Warsaw and Wilno. Prince Ostrozky enjoyed so great prestige that the king and the Sejm trusted no other than him to resolve the most complicated cases of dispute among magnates and the nobility. Even the above-mentioned Cardinal Pisoni noted that the prince had only one drawback — he was schismatic.

The life of Prince Kostiantyn Ostrozky, unlike that of his son Vasyl- Kostiantyn, has been studied too superficially in spite of a large number of sources. Unfortunately, no complete picture of this outstanding politician, general, and patron of Orthodox culture has so far been drawn.

By Serhiy MAKHUN, The Day