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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

Topical Aspects of the Ukrainian National Liberation Revolution Of 1648-76

25 November, 2003 - 00:00

Socrates said that a scientist failing to bestow knowledge on fellow humans is like a lamp covered with a pot, meaning no light, so what is the use of it? He said this, addressing his pupils more than two thousand years ago, but his statement appears to best address the current realities in Ukraine. Social — and particularly spiritual — progress is possible only when people conferred upon secrets of great wisdom emerge in the noble role of enlighteners, awakening public thought. After all, the twenty-first century is not only an age of advanced information technologies, but also humanitarian consciousness; otherwise the future bodes terrible threats to Ukraine and the rest of the human race. The Day initiated the holding of a public lecture by Prof. Valery STEPANKOV, Ph.D. in history, of the Kamyanets-Podilsky University at the Ostroh Academy National University, ranking with Ukraine’s and Eastern Europe’s oldest institutions of learning (and the lecturer’s authority as a noted scholar requires as little proof as the academy’s prestige). At the turn of the twentieth century, public lectures by noted scientists and scholars in large auditoriums were common practice. Thus, historians Mykhailo Drahomanov, Mykola Kostomarov, Sergei Solovyov, Vasyl Kliuchevsky, lawyer Anatoly Koni were among the best, as they all knew how to get their audience’s undivided attention. The Editors hope that Prof. Stepankov’s lecture in Ostroh was a good beginning, and that the important initiative will be upheld, demonstrating that we do need such public lectures as a way to get this society educated. This issue offers the first part of Prof. Stepankov’s lecture. In fact, his opening statement was this: “I am going to speak as a gesture of respect for an event most of us seem to have forgotten all about. This year marks the 355th anniversary of the National Revolution. Regrettably, we have the presidential edict commemorating the Council [Treaty] of Pereyaslav, yet no one seems to have noticed another, perhaps even more significant anniversary reminding us of the most important battle the Ukrainians had waged in the Middle Ages for their national independence. Therefore, I am dedicating this lecture to the memory of those hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who sacrificed their lives for the freedom and independence of their native land.” [Below is an account of his lecture, without quotation marks]

I am not going to rediscover America, I simply want to share my ideas concerning the National Revolution. I am fully aware that I cannot present any tenets and claim that they are perfectly truthful. I know that many will find my ideas controversial, in some or other respect; in fact, I am sure that some of my points will be judged erroneous. Should there be any absolute truths established in any field of scholarly endeavor, the whole thing would at best turn into a graveyard of ideas; at worst, it would become a mausoleum of sorts. Again, this is my personal view, with all its drawbacks and advantages.


I regret to state that neither sociologists, nor political analysts are known to have made a single attempt to analyze the past experiences of social construction in Ukraine, or, in any way, to work out models addressing the current realities. Is there anything common or controversial about the process? Can we really learn anything from those experiences? It was at this angle that I tried to analyze those events and eventually arrived at the conclusion that yes, there are lessons we could learn from.

The first and foremost lesson is that setting up a truly independent polity is the greatest political, social, cultural, and spiritual value to be gained, by any nation. It is only when being in possession of this value that a given nation can have an opportunity to completely implement its potential, have the most ramified social structure, cherish its national culture, language, education, instill love for the native land and self-respect, freely practice a chosen religion, preserve and enrich national traditions, so its people can live as masters rather than adopted sons of their land. Otherwise, given the rigid international realities, Ukraine will suffer a poor lot, what the undying genius of Ivan Franko once described as being dirt in the neighbor’s eyes, an unwelcome load carried by their express trains. As it was, the historical conditions under which the National Revolution evolved in June 1652 till December 1653 were such that the Ukrainian state retained its national independence de facto. At other periods, it was forced to remain dependent on the rulers of the Rzeczpospolita Polish Kingdom, Muscovy, and the Ottoman Empire. Regardless of the diversity of such dependence, considering the political system of the ruling countries, their elites, and heterogeneous cultures, one thing remained the same; they were all determined to keep the political autonomy of the Ukrainian Cossack State reduced to a minimum, and turn it into yet another province [within their respective frontiers].

That was why the Polish government did its best to prevent Ukraine withdrawing from the Polish Crown and forming a Ukrainian (or Russian, a modifier mostly used at the time) principality on its territory. Muscovy, professing the same Eastern Orthodox religion, tried to weaken the Hetmanate, introducing the office of the Voivode, enforcing its own legislation, setting up Russian military camps, denying Ukraine the right to conduct a foreign policy of her own, and subordinating the [historic] Kyiv See to the Moscow Exarchate. Hetman Ivan Vyhovsky would later admit that the Russian tsar needed a tame Ukrainian hetman, one he could keep on a short leash and who would take orders from him. In his case, Vyhovsky argued, he had pledged no allegiance to Moscow, so he was under no obligation to allow Muscovite voivodes and other Russian authorities to assert their rule in Ukraine. Turkey, contrary to the Treaty of 1669 signed with Ukraine, seized the Podillia province and refused to demand that Poland recognize the Western Ukrainian territories as part of the Left Bank Hetmanate; instead, it wanted military camps set up in the bigger cities and to have the right to collect tribute.

The Russian and Polish leaders, unable to get the Ukrainian Cossacks under control single-handedly, agreed in 1667 to divide Ukraine between their countries, with the Dnipro as the boundary line. Hetman Petro Doroshenko wrote in a letter to the Russian Ambassador, V. Tyapkin (January 11, 1668), expressing his outrage over the Muscovites coming to terms with the Poles, which agreement, he stressed, was to the detriment of Ukraine, dividing that country into halves, with both monarchs seeing it fit to serve their respective purposes, the whole thing being aimed at destroying the Ukrainian nation. You are accustomed to treating us like scum, he wrote, you think it possible to decide what we should and shouldn’t do, which cities are to remain under your control... Quite often, Polish, Russian, Crimean, and Turkish troops would invade and destroy whole populated areas. In March 1655, a Polish military leader stated he was happy about the Tatars massacring the Ukrainian populace. He was convinced that his Polish Motherland would be better off with all Ukrainians dead, rather than live in constant dread of those habitual rebels. Stefan Czernecki admitted that at least 100,000 Ukrainians died in the Polish-Crimean military campaigns of May-August 1664. We also know from history that a considerable territory of the Right-bank Hetman State was laid bare by the invading Turkish and Crimean troops in the summer of 1674.

Another lesson is that the most important issues in the life of a given country should be resolved having national interests in mind, first and foremost. [In the case of Ukraine], hetmans and ranking Cossack officers sought allies to keep their country intact; they made concessions in terms of national sovereignty, in return for assistance from those allies, and then, more often than not, proved unable not only to restore that sovereignty, but also to prevent further losses in terms of national independence. In the end, such activities turned out disastrous for Ukraine. The main reasons for what happened were as follows:

1. The young [Ukrainian] elite being unable to properly assess the consequences of such unjustifiable concessions in trying to reach the strategic goal (Hetman Pavlo Teteria said that a meek calf will suck two cows), as well as their overstating the divergences between the worst opponents of Ukrainian independence.

2. Most of the Ukrainian elite lacking collective will and resolve to protect the national interests, and being prepared to surrender major things in order to receive immediate benefits.

3. Neighboring countries strongly meddling in Cossack Ukraine’s internal affairs in order to make that country serve their own interests.

The third lesson is the focal point, a matter of life and death for the Ukrainian: its national elite getting united or keeping disunited, its ability to implement the national idea. The national elite turned out unable to comprise people representing various strata and groups taking varying stands with regard to the Ukrainian political system and to the socioeconomic model. This did not allow the elite to rally round the national idea, and implementing it did not become the cornerstone of its efforts. After the death of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the Ukrainian state became divided into groupings engaged in a pitched struggle for power, and eventually seeking help from outside. The Polish, Russian, Crimean, Ottoman governments took advantage of the situation, supporting certain such groupings, sicking claimants to the Hetman’s post on each other, antagonizing the Cossacks against their starshyna leadership and vice versa, and sending troops to back up their proteges.

Meanwhile, the elite was engrossed in their feuds, acting contrary to their stated patriotic goals, ending up hostages of their alleged allies, being increasingly less capable of subordinating their political ambitions to the national interests. Often, contrary to set plan, they would find themselves acting as obedient tools of foreign political leaders, inflicting heavy losses on their native land.

The fourth lesson. The Little Russia ideology, a sinister threat to Ukraine’s efforts to achieve national independence. It was formulated in the 1860s, by some of the Ukrainian elite, upper-middle-class and higher-ranking Orthodox clergy, city elite, and Left-bank Ukrainian Cossacks. People were disillusioned about the principal objective of their struggle; they disowned the [national] independence ideals, as well as their personal goals, for they would prevent them receiving lucrative posts and positions, displaying instead servility, currying favor with their new masters, acting as sheer egotists while pretending to be law-abiding citizens; they would further appear being pathologically prepared to sacrifice their ideals and spiritual values in order to make careers, win small fortunes, and so on. Taras Shevchenko wrote of such characters, “You will turn traitor to your mother in return for a chunk of rotten sausage.”

Such career-afflicted individuals would not hesitate to step away from campaigning for a united and independent Ukrainian state, allegedly because such efforts were damaging Ukraine and its future — meaning the prospect of Ukraine getting “reunited” with “Mother Russia.” Such ideas were first laid down in an essay titled something like “A Word of Advice for Ukraine,” dating from 1669, the anonymous author lashing out at those championing Ukrainian independence, saying no Ukrainian could live in an independent state. He saw the only way out of the difficult situation in Ukraine getting affiliated with the Russian empire, once and for all, stressing that the Russian tsar was “the world’s only powerful Orthodox monarch.” This affliction is extremely dangerous, its manifestations are still present. Dmytro Pavlychko, a noted Ukrainian poet, wrote in his collection of verse titled The Songs of Sorrow (Pisni Pechali in Ukr.), “Are you aware, mourning mother, /Of the shackles being forged by your foes? / That they aren’t your enemies, / But who you believe are your ambitious sons? / Can you hear those shattering blows / Being dealt by those sons of yours, / Now acting as janissaries, vested with powers, / Allowed to act as they please, / Eager to hear eulogies. / Let me tell you, mourning mother, / Being captured and tortured /Is not as terrible as being aware / That your sons have turned traitor, / That they might even turn against you! / I am aware of this, don’t turn the knife in my wound, / They are my sons, I’ll pray to the Lord to forgive their sins.”

The fifth lesson. When building a national state, setting up central and local authorities, having them functioning most efficiently becomes especially important. When in office, Bohdan Khmelnytsky succeeded in turning Hetmanship from elective into that granted by the grace of God, nullifying Chorna Rada common meetings of all the Zaporozhzhian Cossacks, as well as the elective posts of Cossack ranking officers, enforcing meticulous implementation of all governmental decrees, nipping in the bud the slightest manifestations of separatism, ochlocracy and intestine strife. Under his rule the Ukrainian state retained territorial integrity, had an effective government machine, and was capable of protecting itself from aggression without.

After Khmelnytsky’s death, Hetmanate fell into decay, with oligarchic, mobocratic and starshyna-arbitrary trends getting increasingly stronger, including separatist moods, eventually causing Cossack Ukraine to fall apart, becoming divided de facto into three state formations (e.g., Right—and Left-bank Hetmanates, and Zaporozhzhia) with their own authorities, armed forces, domestic and foreign policies. Changing the unitary for a confederative order proved one of the major obstacles in the way of elite consolidation, the main cause of a fratricidal war for hegemony, its fire being fueled and in every way encouraged by Poland, Russia, the Crimea, and the Ottoman Empire.

The sixth lesson. The elite must always bear in mind Ukrainian pragmatism and never ignore solutions to pressing socioeconomic problems aimed at satisfying the interests of the majority of social groups, strata, and guilds. Otherwise the government machine will be like a ship unable to sail past the dangerous reefs of social upheavals. Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s flexible policy allowed him to be supported en masse in his struggle for independence. He was supported by the majority of the population and this allowed him to prevent a civil war. Nor was it coincidental that he was lauded by subsequent generations as “Father,” “Prophet,” and “Liberator of Ukraine,” freeing it not only from the Polish yoke, but also from serfdom. Those succeeding him in his office made mistakes causing rebellions, the emergence of lumpenproletariat, rampant anarchy and mobocracy with attendant pillage and murder, and loss of popular support. All this weakened the state and often paralyzed governmental efforts aimed at protecting the national interests.

Last but not least, the seventh lesson. Ukrainians, once faced with a clearly formulated objective, tended to display the kind of energy, resolve, self-sacrifice, and heroism unheard-of in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I wish to emphasize this aspect because we often hear and read about Volodymyr Vynnychenko’s assumption that “one cannot read Ukrainian history without taking bromide [formerly prescribed as a sedative].” True, but there is another aspect to this truth. Ukrainians displayed remarkable feats in the seventeenth century. My tentative estimates point to 90-92% of the Right-bank populace perishing in 1648-76, owing to various circumstances. It was a national disaster, yet heavy losses, failures, sever repression by the enemy notwithstanding, the Ukrainians would rise in arms time and again to defend their freedom.

The [national-liberation] revolution failed; they could not establish a national state in the ethnic boundaries of Ukraine, and neither did they succeed in defending their independence within the limits of the Wroclaw, Kyiv, and Chernihiv palatinates. However, memories of those valiant endeavors would serve as a strong impetus for subsequent Ukrainian generations in their struggle for preserving the ethnic identity and against national oppression. We are building an independent [national] state, but we will never become a truly independent polity if we persist in ignoring our historical memories and lessons from the past — something no one in any civilized country would even consider. One is strongly reminded of Lina Kostenko’s inspired and painful verse:

Who will ever know what things came here to pass?
Truth never being told, names left unnamed,

Events allowed to sink into oblivion...

Therefore, I believe that we must dig up archives, searching for bits and pieces of that precious knowledge, so we can eventually present a truthful picture reflecting the Ukrainian liberation effort in the seventeenth century.


This topic is without doubt markedly disputable and controversial. Just as there seems little need to stress the scholarly importance of ascertaining that revolution, an event destined to serve as a powerful sociopolitical impetus in the evolution of the Ukrainian nation and in the alignment of forces in the international arena, particularly in Eastern and Southeast Europe. Being fully aware of the complexity of the process of identifying events and attendant characteristics, as well as all the advantages and shortcomings of the relevant definitions, their diversified interpretations and semantic evolution, I, nevertheless, believe that the scholar concerned should do his best to define their exact meaning, relying on an analysis of complex reference sources and historical heritage.

The above thesis should in no way be interpreted as supporting any of the existing assessments, definitions, or concepts. After all, historical realities are so very diversified, and the same is true of information sources; researchers tend to harbor biased views, meaning that we have to cope with a diversity of opinions. What I have in mind is something entirely different, namely whether or not a given researcher has displayed a deliberate or subconsciously motivated distorted interpretation of concepts and definitions, regardless of the existing views on such events and phenomena. As a result, we are faced with a jumble of definitions, obliterating nuances, so the resultant picture lacks clarity and logical completeness, distorting certain important aspects. I fully agree with D. Halpern who said that researchers, if they want to make sure they are discussing the same subject, ought to agree on the definitions.

The noted scholars L. Zashkilniak and M. Krykun, authors of the fundamental History of Poland: from Olden Times till Our Day (in Ukrainian, Lviv, 2002) describe events in Ukraine, in 1648-57, as a “liberation struggle of the Ukrainian people,” but they also use the expression “Cossack-Polish war” in the body of the text. We know that the former definition is preferred by Ukrainian historians and the latter by their Polish counterparts, and that there is an essential distinction between them. Whereas the former view those events as a struggle for national independence [and against] the Polish yoke, the latter — I mean Polish historians — consider them as manifestation of a civil war in Poland, one waged by Cossacks [against the Polish state]. The question is, What did actually happen in Ukraine at the time? Also, assuming that it was “liberation struggle of the Ukrainian people,” one is left wondering about its crucial outcome, creation of a Ukrainian state. Likewise, notions such as “Ukrainians,” “Ukrainian troops,” “Ukrainian-Polish talks,” “Ukrainian-Polish truce,” etc., are replaced by “Cossacks,” “Cossack host,” “Cossack-Polish talks,” “Cossack-Polish truce,” and so on.

Also, using the notion of Ukraine appears inaccurate in the following passage: “The Pereyaslav Cossack Council, held January 18, 1654, resolved to place Ukraine under the protectorate of the Moscow State...” Here one is left in the dark; if the notion Ukraine addresses all ethnic Ukrainian territories, then everything is clear, the authors are right — but if they refer only to the territories of the newly established Hetman state (as was actually the case), they ought to have applied the term Hetmanate or Cossack Ukraine. Many other such examples could be cited.

I would further like to offer several ideas concerning the typology of Ukrainian liberation efforts in the mid- seventeenth century. One should positively consider progress made by Ukrainian historians in mastering widespread Western theories of cognition and their cognitive techniques, allowing a deeper insight into what happened [at different stages in history]. Unfortunately, here, too, we have suffered symptoms of that evolution disease (something perhaps well to be expected). Some of the researchers, rather than exert meticulous efforts to perceive certain historical events and then creatively apply this knowledge in studying national history, chose to embark on a far easier path. One of simulating the novelty of one’s creative quest (in most cases presented as the latest development in modern world science), by juggling with a dozen or so notions accepted in the West (e.g., modern nation, premodern society, early modern people, myth, reception, reflection, discourse, paradigm, mythologem, archetype, dichotomy, etc.), pretending to possess the proverbial philosopher’s stone (and claiming that to be their sole ownership!), thus posing as the only ones knowing the absolute historic truth. G. Kasyanov correctly pointed out that “terms like myth and related notions can claim championship awards in today’s Ukrainian sociological parlance and gab sessions, along with notions such as discourse, paradigm, and several others, using which is generally regarded as a hallmark of keeping pace with the times, as intellectual advancement and scholarly prestige...”

Second, there have been outbursts of intellectual debate in the 1990s, between those supporting modernistic and premordialistic trends (e.g., pereannialists), with regard to notions such as “nation,” “national,” and derivatives (e.g., national identity, national interests, national-liberation war, national revolution, et al.), also how these should be applied in describing events and phenomena in the mid-seventeenth century. So far, all this debate has failed to clarify major issues under study; for the most part, it has boiled down to quarrel, including mutual accusations of professional incompetence. My personal (probably erroneous) opinion is that here the tone set by those professing modernistic views, insisting that past events should be judged from a modern standpoint, saying that the very existence of a Ukrainian nation at the time remains to be established; that concepts such as nation, national, national revolution should be extrapolated as events belonging to a different epoch.

Note that the critique of premordialistic views relies not on studying their reference sources, but only relying on modernistic concepts. Professionals, in contrast, are well aware that the current humanities, anywhere in the world, are unable to come up with a universally accepted theory explaining the origin of concepts such as nation or nationalism. We have dozens of pertinent explanations, of which modernistic and premordialistic interpretations seem predominant. By analyzing these, we have been able to figure out their pros and cons. And nor should we overlook admonitions voiced by the noted British researcher E.D. Smith who wrote that we have to show restraint, that we should not jump at the presence or absence of the existence of some or other nations, even of some forms or religious nationalism before the New Age sets in. G. Kasyanov in his monograph Nationalism and Modernism. A Critical Essay on Modern Theories Addressing Nations and Nationalism (1998) arrives at the conclusion that modernistic paradigms in theories, concerning nations and nationalism, dominant in pertinent studies in the past three decades, have intellectually exhausted themselves. Smith demonstrated principal distinctions in the modernistic and premordialistic views on the meaning of nation. He wrote that nation, in the modernistic and premordialistic view, is a political community, one being mechanically constructed by modern elites, internally divided (e.g., by classes, social strata, etc.), on the one hand, and united by the media, on the other hand. Perennialists harbor a different view, believing that nation is a cultural, organic, and historical community reaching into the mist of centuries; that this community is intrinsically a single whole, based on the notion of the people and hereditary ties.

One ought to congratulate various schools propagating varying concepts. Their papers allow to see different events and phenomena at different angles, thus making it possible to ascertain their reality, to a varying degree of authenticity. I belong with the premordialistic school (so you can follow my train of thought and understand my stand in the matter). There are two schools and each should treat the other with due respect. Our opponents say there were no nations, so there was no national-liberation struggle, or any national program. It is their school’s concept and it has a right to exist, of course. We must continue to study this problem, relaying on information sources.

Now about the matter under study and its chronology. Historians are faced with major issues, including that of painting a truthful picture of events in the 17th century [in Ukraine]. Mykola Kovalsky, an outstanding scholar, one I personally hold in great esteem, currently on Ostroh Academy staff (I am also specially grateful to him for what he did to encourage me to take up my career), one of the founders of the modern source study school, noted that one could reach one’s objective only when observing the following conditions: (a) availability of the most extensive database, (b) compulsory critical and systemic approach to such information sources, (c) always comparing [checking] such data and treating it in an aloof, unbiased manner. The latter is especially important, considering what we have in terms of information sources addressing that national revolution in Ukraine. These sources appear dramatically distorted. We lack archival materials relating to central authorities at the time, we have no records/minutes of the sittings of any starshyna meetings, nothing relating to provincial proceedings, at any levels at the time. The archivists know that there are no problems receiving data concerning the nineteenth century; everything is on record — I mean instructions issued by governors and self-government authorities). Therefore, we must collect bits and pieces if this knowledge, analyze every evidence found in Polish, Russian, and Turkish sources (letters and memoirs included), and then put this mosaic pieces together to form an idea about the trends. We must start by forming a panoramic view of those events. We discuss those events, but we can’t actually see them for what they were. It will take decades to form a clear view of the seventeenth century Ukrainian revolution.

As before, we suffer from the erroneous practice of arbitrarily applying definitions, boiling down to rebellion, war, and revolution, with a rich assortment of subdefinitions, such as Cossack, peasant, national, liberation, great, etc. I am personally convinced that we must consider the whole complex of what was happening in Ukraine at the time, because that liberation war was not aimed against Poland alone. Yes, we have been imposed this stereotype; whatever happened when fighting Poland, it was national-liberation struggle; but whatever was done fighting Moscow (e.g., the Battle of Konotop of 1659), it had nothing to do with Ukraine’s struggle for national independence. Ditto the campaigns against the Turks or Tatars. Here one could accept the definition national-liberation war. Yuri Mytsyk, a colleague of mine, has adopted it, but I disagree, because what happened in Ukraine, in 1648-76, was not only fighting foreign intruders and for national independence. Other things happened in Cossack Ukraine, on a considerably wider scope, that can never be explained as part of a national-liberation war. Establishing a Ukrainian state is one example. It was supposed to be nonexistent, yet a Ukrainian state did exist in the territory liberated after 1648. One could argue about its political maturity and about how its authorities actually performed, but the fact remains; there was a government machine, including the judicial and other bodies.

The Polish Kingdom had begotten a Ukrainian state organism. Was it not an essentially new entity, indicating the end of that political system which had dominated the Ukrainian territories in 1648? It certainly was. Then why should we keep silent on all those socioeconomic changes in Ukraine, with the peasantry receiving personal freedoms, getting emancipated, being relieved of most burdensome duties toward the state. They were now co-owners or full masters of their plots of land, on a par with the state; they could now become Cossacks, the privileged members of Ukrainian society (as Cossacks were not a closed community, they were allowed to become burghers — if they thought they could not cope with their Cossack duties; likewise, any peasant could become a Cossack).

One more aspect. The social structures had also experienced tangible transformations at the time. The ranks and positions of all those Ukrainian princes and lordlings were canceled, leaving a small part of the Ukrainian aristocracy, with Cossacks being raised to the top of the social ladder. Now how would anyone consider all this other than evidence of drastic social transformations? Mind you, we are talking Cossack Ukraine! Why all this cannot be explained using the national-liberation-war concept? I think because what had actually happened was on a broader scale, in different terms of quality and quantity. There are fundamental changes made in the social and economic domains, something we have been unable to properly assess to this day.

(To be continued)

Prepared by Serhiy MAKHUN, The Day