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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

They did something they did not desire

Pereiaslav Treaty: Reality and myths
17 February, 2009 - 00:00

Continued from The Day No.4

That was not what I wanted, nor should it be as it is.

Bohdan Khmelnytsky

At 2p.m. the envoys were surprised to hear a drumbeat — this was a call for the citizens of Pereiaslav, both the Cossacks and burghers, to come to an “assembly of all people,” in the words of Vasilii Buturlin. This was the Pereiaslav Treaty Council. The envoys from Moscow were not present there, so the well-known picture by Ivan Khmelko does not reflect the real events and is just one of the myths. There were no ceremonies. The next day hetman left for Chyhyryn, while the envoys headed back for Moscow with a report.

In early March the Ukrainian delegation arrived in Moscow with a draft of the treaty that consisted of 23 clauses. The initial plan was for Khmelnytsky or at least the general scribe Ivan Vyhovsky to come. However, neither of them came to Moscow on valid excuses. Samiilo Bohdanovych-Zarudny, general judge, and Colonel Pavlo Teteria were entrusted with the mission, which was a great surprise for Moscow.

The Ukrainian version of the document has not survived. A translation of the “Belarusian letter” has been preserved, although its authenticity is doubtful. The Treaty of Zboriv, which the envoys had brought along, was chosen as the basis. Ukraine was coming under Russian tsar’s rule but kept its independence in its domestic affairs and foreign relations. One thing that was forbidden was to have diplomatic relations with Poland and Turkey. However, these and all other limitations were not complied with in Khmelnytsky’s lifetime. The hetman held negotiations with Istanbul and Warsaw independently of Moscow. In reality sergeants from Moscow were not allowed to collect taxes as it was agreed in the March Articles. After signing the Treaty both parties treated each other extremely warily as if they were enemies. Above all, this concerned military issues.

Moscow had no urge to help its ally fight against Polish and Crimean forces. When the Muscovite troops finally arrived, the strategic initiative was lost. For his part Khmelnytsky was not a good ally either. When the Muscovite Cossack army approached Lviv, the Poles paid the hetman 50,000 gold coins to have him retreat. The hetman complied, abandoning the Russian army to fight the Polish troops on its own. During the storming of Husiatyn the Cossacks opened fire on the Russians at the decisive moment and made them retreat from the town.

The same story happened during the siege of Lublin. While in Belarus the Muscovite-Ukrainian forces had great success, Mohyliv became the apple of discord that nearly led to a battle between the Russian tsar’s men and the Cossacks. After that the Cossacks withdrew from Lithuania.

The alliance was at the verge of breakup after Moscow signed a peace treaty with Poland in Wilno (now Vilnius). Khmelnytsky’s representatives were not allowed to take part in the negotiations. Moreover, the parties agreed to divide Ukraine behind their backs. After that the hetman considered himself to be free from the treaty and began to form the anti-Polish and anti-Russian coalition with Sweden and Moldovan-Romanian principalities. This is all the more significant because at this time the Muscovite state joined Poland in its war against Sweden for the sake of the illusory promise of choosing Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich to ascend the Polish throne.

This and other facts prove the idea of many historians that for Khmelnytsky the Pereiaslav Treaty was merely an episode, another political combination caused by the need to secure the support of powerful allies. Soon he saw for himself that the pro-Russian policy line held out no hope, just as the pro-Turkish policy did prior to that.

The realities of Pereiaslav turned out to be absolutely different from what was expected. The Russian historian Vasily Klyuchevsky wrote: “Not understanding or trusting each other, both sides in their relations were saying something else than they thought and doing something they did not desire.” Just the way he did it with the tsar, Khmelnytsky was preparing a protectorate agreement with the Swedish King and mentioned this openly to Buturlin in the summer of 1657. The hetman’s death prevented him from carrying out this plan.


Khmelnytsky tried to compensate for Ukraine’s inner weakness, economic disruption, and exhaustion of reserves in diplomatic ways. The union with Moscow was one of such military and political combinations pursued by Khmelnytsky. He tried to use to his advantage the fact that the relations between Russia and Poland were not well-regulated. Moscow had long nurtured plans to reclaim not only Smolensk, which had been occupied by the Poles under the Treaty of Polianiv, but also Belarusian lands that had become part of Lithuania. There were two reasons that at first sight made the idea of having Moscow’s protection attractive to Khmelnytsky. One reason was that Moscow’s participation in the war against Poland would stretch the Polish army. A second front in Belarus would ease military pressure on Ukraine. Furthermore, because of hostile relations with Sweden the Polish government kept significant forces to protect its part of the Baltic coast. Another reason was that the military and political union would be a transition stage to the international recognition of Ukraine’s independence. After the Time of Troubles the Moscow state did not look strong enough as compared with Poland or Turkey. It could be predicted that this union will be only temporary and would break up after reaching the established goals. But, as they say, there is nothing more permanent than temporary.

Although Ukraine’s and Moscow’s foreign policy goals were quite similar, their union was to a great extent unnatural. Their ruling elites had different mentalities and did not understand each other, which fueled mutual suspicion and uncoordinated actions. As an English saying goes, false friends are worse than open enemies. Khmelnytsky pursued state interests in relations with Warsaw, Istanbul and Bakhchisarai, and Moldovan principalities. Moscow’s state interests were much more extensive both in Europe and in Asia. The Kremlin’s south-western policy line was one of many. Moscow was willing to reach a compromise with Poland for the sake of its objectives in the west and north-west. All this made the union inherently contradictory and fragile. The initial discrepancies were bound to break it, which indeed happened after the Polish-Russian peace treaty was signed in Wilno. When he learned about this event, “hetman Khmelnytsky let out a cry like a man possessed and lamented in a frenzy: ‘Children, grieve not! I already know what to do — we need to withdraw from the tsar’s rule and go where the great Lord will put us, if not under a Christian sovereign, then under a gentile’.” The two parties were on a collision course. The Muscovite state allied with Poland, while Khmelnytsky’s Ukraine became an ally of Sweden, Turkey, and Romanian principalities. It is hard to say whether this new military and political combination would have been sustainable — it was not realized because of Khmelnytsky’s death.

The consequences of the Pereiaslav Treaty had a long-lasting and destructive effect on Ukraine. The attempts to revive an independent state at the beginning of the 18th and 20th centuries failed. Nowadays the scope of problems in Ukraine-Russia relations is largely reminiscent of what was happening three and a half centuries ago. Despite all the differences, both now and then it was crucial to fulfill the strategic task of defining the politicy line. Just like 355 years ago the Ukrainian political elite is again fussing about when it comes to defining their interests and falls into rival clans and groups.

Essentially, the Pereiaslav dilemma does not exist. There is only one possible strategic line for Ukraine — the European line. An analysis of the 17th-century events gives us a chance to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and to rid our consciousness from historical myths and legends. He who forgets the past is bound to run into it again.