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

Koliivshchyna: without extremes

A Ukrainian rebellion on Russian instructions?
30 May, 2018 - 15:44

In my view, neither a total condemnation of the Koliivshchyna rebellion and its participants as “cutthroats,” “bandits,” and “killers” nor a no less total heroization of the rebels (“kolii”) as “fighters for freedom of the Ukrainian nation” can stand up to scholarly criticism. As Ihor Siundiukov rightly noted in the article “Fighters for Freedom or Cutthroats?” (Den’s website, May 28, 2018), “it is high time we dropped the ‘black-and-white’ image and perception of history, especially when it is about such events as Koliivshchyna.”

Indeed, Koliivshchyna was a people’s movement that combined the features of a religious war, already anachronistic in the late-18th-century Europe (only a hundred years before, those extremely cruel wars had been a common occurrence) with those of an anti-colonial uprising of the future (almost 90 years later, the anti-British Sepoy Mutiny broke out in India, which, in terms of cruelty, was in no way “softer” than Koliivshchyna). And no one can deny that Ukrainian lands were under a heavy social, ethnic, and religious oppression on the part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and that it is Polish confederates (Confederation of Bar) who unleashed a massacre in Right-Bank Ukraine, torturing and plundering the Ukrainian population and ruining Orthodox churches and monasteries in the Kyiv region, Podillia, and Volhynia. In other words, it was also a religious war from their side, caused by disagreement with the decision of Polish King Stanislaw Poniatowski to give equal rights to Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant believers. At the same time, the confederates advanced the slogan of withdrawing the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth from the influence of the Russian Empire whose protege the then Polish king was.

Things mixed up in Right-Bank Ukraine. This brings to mind the argument between characters of one of Bertolt Brecht’s plays: “Unhappy is the land that has no heroes! – No, unhappy is the country that needs heroes.”

But, nevertheless, we should not forget the Russian factors of not only the geopolitical situation at that time, but also of Koliivshchyna itself.

Stanislaw Poniatowski equalized the Orthodox and Protestants in rights with Catholics in early 1768 under heavy pressure from Russia. Was this date accidental? I don’t know. For this representative of Polish magnates had been elected king four years before, but he committed this act only now, when a group of Zaporozhians with Maksym Zalizniak at the head had already lived, disguised as lay brothers, at Right-Bank monasteries for a year, preparing an uprising against the Commonwealth, and Gervasii Lyntsevsky, appointed as Bishop of Pereiaslav, was doing the same concurrently. A coincidence? Let us also recall Melkhysedek Znachko-Yavorsky, the ideological inspirer of the Haidamaka movement (which began a few years before Koliivshchyna proper), the hegumen of the Motronynsky Trinity Monastery. Legend has it that Melkhysedek personally blessed haidamakas’ weapons in Kholodny Yar. Is this true? Is it true that, as Polish sources maintain, Bishop Gervasii and Hegumen Melkhysedek funded the rebellion? Could they do this secretly from the Synod, a governmental body that supervised Orthodoxy in the Russian Empire (as well as Orthodox churches in Poland)? No one knows or will ever know because Catherine II’s officials knew very well how to purge archives and falsify documents.

And was there the Golden Charter, allegedly signed personally by Catherine II, which called for “exterminating with God’s help all the Poles and Jews”? It was read out to haidamakas before the “knife blessing ceremony” – there were many witnesses to that event which was an important, if not the decisive, factor that fueled cruelty in the “kolii.” So the Golden Charter undoubtedly existed but… disappeared.

As is known, the Koliivshchyna rebellion went on simultaneously with the operations of Russian troops in Right-Bank Ukraine against the confederates. What is more, Polish sources cite the presence of Russian officers and soldiers… among the “kolii.” Some of them, including Captain Stankevich, fought to the last moment in ranks of the rebels – even against the Russian troops. And what about others? It is said that they were ethnic Ukrainians and thus joined their compatriots, but did the Russian government send native Russians to the Ukrainian rebels? NKVD General Pavel Sudoplatov, the assassinator of Yevhen Konovalets, was a Ukrainian by origin and self-identification, fluently spoke the Ukrainian language, and managed for this reason to infiltrate the OUN.


At the same time, Russian troops did not lift a finger to stop the haidamakas before they seized Uman. Only two weeks later, the rebels’ camp was surrounded and the ringleaders – Zalizniak, Gonta, and Nezhyvyi – were captured. This was soon followed by repressions against other Koliivshchyna leaders and rank-and-file rebels. But the Russian troops allowed a haidamaka detachment (which also included Zaporozhians) to continue pursuing the confederates and seize Balta and Dubasari which were part of the Ottoman Empire at the time. Moreover, the haidamakas said they were officially on Russian military service. This event caused a fit of fury in Istanbul and triggered the 1768-74 Russo-Turkish war, much to the delight of Catherine II.

What were the results of the 1768-69 Koliivshchyna rebellion? The rebels helped rout the confederates who opposed Russia and its protege King Stanislaw Poniatowski. The Cossack and peasant troops in Right-Bank Ukraine were also routed. The Poles and Jews were extremely terrified (while the Russian authorities played the role of their “savior”). Also terrified were Ukrainian peasants, for Polish and Russian punitive detachments executed dozens of thousands of rebels and their sympathizers. The pro-Russian royal power in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was strengthened. Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire, which resulted, as was expected, in considerable territorial gains of the Russian Empire on the Black Sea coast, in Crimea and the Caucasus, and, what is more, proclamation of the formal independence of the Crimean Khanate which in fact became a Russia protectorate. Besides, Ukrainian fighters against Polish colonial despotism and Russian aggression were discredited for a long time in the eyes of Europe.

So the impression is that, regardless of the causes of the uprising and intentions of the haidamaka leaders, they in fact turned out to be puppets in St. Petersburg’s geopolitical game. Catherine II became the ultimate beneficiary to all those events.

Interestingly, neither Bishop Gervasii nor Hegumen Melkhysedek suffered. The former retired from office, and the latter carved out a brilliant career in the Russian Empire – he became Father Superior of St. Sophia’s Cathedral Monastery in Kyiv in 1771, then Hegumen of the Vydubychi Monastery, and in 1785 he, already an archimandrite, was appointed Father Superior of the Hlukhiv St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s Monastery of the Novgorod-Siversky Eparchy and held this office until he died in 1809.