Today Lebedyn is an ordinary quiet town in Slobozhanshchyna with modern buildings in the center and a true paradise on the outskirts. One-storied houses are immersed in the gorgeous greenery of gardens and flowerbeds. One’s eye feast upon the thick pine-tree forest, which comes up to the town, and the sky-blue smoothness of a wonderful lake next to it. In old times a lot of noble snow-white swans (lebedi in Ukrainian) used to inhabit it – hence the name of the town, Lebedyne. Strolling down its streets, it is difficult to believe that once this marvelous corner of Ukrainian land was turned into hell by the tsar’s satraps. People were tortured here with inconceivable cruelty.
On Nov. 20, 1709, Peter I with Menshikov and the new hetman arrived in Lebedyn, where the Russian army headquarters was being moved to. A great number of Russian troops were gradually deployed in the area. Armament, forage, and food supplies were taken from the Slobozhanshchyna Cossack regiments and brought here. Roaming the Hetman state, Russian squads were plundering and devastating the land, relying on the cruel law of wartime.
In Glukhiv, Okhtyrka, and Romny, the Cossacks who were suspected of treason just because they had not showed up for the meetings to elect the new hetman were framed up and quickly court-martialed. The land was filled with people’s blood, tears and moaning, which was later described by Taras Shevchenko with bitterness. It is well-known that Ivan Mazepa and other historic figures who tried to free Ukraine from Moscow’s bondage had won the poet’s great respect. In his poem “Velykyi liokh” (Great cellar), a black raven, which symbolizes evil forces, maliciously boasts of burning Baturyn down to ashes and damming the Sula River in Romny with the bodies of the Cossack leaders alone.
Everyone who was suspected of having something to do with the disgraced hetman Mazepa was fair game. The Field Chancellery (Peter I’s General Headquarters) stayed in Lebedyn, one of the towns belonging to the Sumy Sloboda Cossack Regiment, for a month, Nov. 25 through Dec. 25, 1708. Dozens and hundreds of Cossacks and their leaders who were suspected of having ties with Mazepa or his men were brought there for interrogation. Those who had had some contacts with the Swedes (supplying food to them or showing them the routes, etc.) were also taken there. Any pointed remark, even if said in one’s cups, could earn one an interrogation.
The interrogating investigators wanted to find those who had been carrying out Mazepa’s supporters’ orders or just disliked the tsar’s men. They were interested in Ukrainian people’s public sentiments on the territories occupied by the Swedish troops. What could the suspects expect to happen? According to the tsar’s manifests, everyone who had maintained any relations with the Swedes, had supported them, or had just remained neutral was the tsar’s enemy and a Mazepa follower. Investigation, interrogation, and court-martialing of Mazepa’s real and imaginary supporters were led by Aleksandr Menshikov, Peter’s I butcher in chief.
Menshikov was especially brutal in Lebedyn, which was turned into a horrible chamber of torture. The condemned were brought there. Day and night the Cossacks and their leaders were being tormented in the square in front of the Transfiguration Church. They were dying of the tortures applied by the tsar’s satraps. Their faults were defined according to the saying: “The whip is no angel; it won’t take out the soul but will produce the truth.”
Quartering, impaling, and breaking Cossacks on the wheel were routine matters for Menshikov. The easiest thing for him, which he considered to be child’s play, was beheading or hanging. Torturing was done according to the instructions: with lashes, whips, and red-hot iron “slowly and quietly drawn along human bodies.” Those who managed to survive the first test were subjected to the next one, while those who did not were considered guilty, and immediately put to death through quartering or impaling.
Alongside the terror against those who had broken away from the tsar, rewards and favors were poured on the heads of those who displayed their loyalty at once. The Cossack leaders who had obeyed the first tsar’s orders and came to Hlukhiv to elect the new hetman were generously rewarded with titles to land: dozens and hundreds of brand new landlords were produced in just a few days.
Zbrutsky, a priest from Novhorod-Siverskyi and the author of some hastily written odes praising the tsar and condemning Mazepa as a traitor, received an entire village from the tsar, even though he had been writing pro-Mazepa verses not long before. All the estates belonging to Mazepa’s supporters were declared confiscated and were distributed among those who had manifested their loyalty to the tsar by rallying in the General Headquarters.
Those who had squealed on Mazepa’s open and secret supporters were also rewarded. This triggered a virtual orgy of squealing; Ukrainian society showed its worst. Born traitors rushed to use the opportunity to make a fortune or a successful career. Seeds of dreadful demoralization had been sown into the soil of Ukrainian citizenship; their fruit were still obvious many decades later. Presents from the stock of confiscated properties were given to not only those Ukrainians who had managed to manifest their “loyalty” to the tsar. Moscow generals and ministers —Menshikov, Golovkin, Dolgorukov, Shafirov, Sheremetyev (all these well-known aides of Peter I) — received large latifundia and became landlords in Ukraine.
The most numerous mass execution of the hetman followers (hetmantsi), who did not share pro-Russian views, took place in downtown Lebedyn, in the square near the Transfiguration Church. The executed Cossacks were buried outside the town, not far from what is now Myronosytske Cemetery. Peter I forbade any crosses to be erected at the burial site and ordered dead cattle to be dumped there. Eventually, the executed Cossacks’ burial site was called the “Hetmantsi Grave,” and the Cossacks residing in Lebedyn made a high burial mound (over 20 meters long and 4 meters wide) to commemorate their murdered sworn brothers. The citizens of Lebedyn looked after the grave for 250 years, holding funeral church services and planting flowers there. In pre-revolution time there used to be a cross on the grave.
The grave existed until the mid-1950s, when it was destroyed during the construction of a new street on the town’s outskirts. The descendants of the executed Cossacks used the dirt from the mound for the basements of their houses. In the time of the modern Ukrainian national revival, the Cossacks of Sumy, educators, and local historians found the place where the Hetmantsi Grave used to be, restored the burial mound, and erected a birch-tree cross with due memorial inscription. On Aug. 14, 1993, priests from Sumy and Lebedyn sanctified the grave and held a funeral service for the dead defenders of Ukraine’s state and freedom.
Every year, on October 14, Ukrainian Cossacks Day, the town’s residents come to the grave to hold a rally, and the funeral services are conducted by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate. In the summer of 2003, on Ukraine’s Independence Day, the birch-tree cross on the grave was replaced by an oak one. The memorial inscription on the upper beam of the three-meter cross reads: “1708–(image of trident)–2003.” Lower, there is a plate that reads: “To Ukrainian Cossacks who died for Ukraine’s freedom. From descendants.”
Reinforced concrete steps lead from the foot of the mound to the cross. The dark mark of treason gloomily hung over the Cossack’s grave in Lebedyn for nearly three centuries. It has just started to disappear no, in the time of Ukraine’s revival. The restored Hetmantsi Grave perturbs the minds of contemporaries, encourages people to take interest in historical truth, and fosters the feeling of filial love and respect for those who helped us on our rough way to freedom.
Colonel Stanislav Lukash heads the Directorate of the State Department for Execution of Punishment in Sumy oblast.