Culture Opinion Politics, 23/07/2017

A Defeat Worth a Dozen Good Victories


As the Kolomak commemorations for the 330-year anniversary of Ivan Mazepa’s inauguration as the Hetman of Left-Bank Ukraine are unveiled, one of the questions frequently asked by foreigners is “Why celebrate a man who led Ukraine to its biggest defeats and enabled the three-century long dominance of Moscow over Ukraine?”

It’s a legitimate question, for the famous Battle of Poltava (1709), led by King Charles XII of Sweden and his ally Mazepa, ended in disaster, if not catastrophe. But some Swedes, when asked a similar question, say that this defeat was probably their biggest victory – it made them rethink their expansionist strategy and finally switch to intensive development instead of extensive.

With the Ukrainians, the answer would be quite different though.  With their expansionist plans buried by the 13th-century Mongol invasion, it was always a question of mere survival in the midst of the turbulent late-medieval period and the Renaissance era afterward. First re-emerging as a part of The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Ruthenia and Samogitia, which later transformed into the Polish–Lithuanian–Ruthenian Commonwealth, better known as Rzeczpospolita (The Republic), Ruthenia, or Ukraine, was never stopped from adopting European modes of governance and development until June 28, 1709, when the battle of Poltava was lost to the army of Peter I, “the czar of Moscow.”

Mazepa, whose noble background once allowed him to join the royal court as a page, has graduated from the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and the Jesuit College in Warsaw. He was later sent “to study gunnery” in Deventer (Dutch Republic) and traveled a lot across Western Europe. In 1659, he had returned to the court of King John II Casimir, and came back home four years later to succeed the title of Chernihiv cupbearer from his late father. 24 years later, in 1687, he overthrows Hetman Ivan Samoylovych in a Kolomak coup to become the Hetman of Left-Bank Ukraine, an Eastern part of Ukraine allied to Moscow after the Pereyaslav Agreement of 1654, signed by Hetman Bohdan Khmelnitsky.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian ties to Sweden can be traced as far back as Kievan Rus, when the whole country was run by the Norse nobility descending from Rurik (from Old Norse Hrøríkʀ). Some academic historians will certainly direct us back as far as the Goths’ migration to the South of Europe via Ukraine in the third and fourth centuries, leaving us this great “Chernyakhiv archaeological culture.”

Knowing that, there is little wonder why a highly comfortable treaty with Sweden that Mazepa signed was just an exact copy of a treaty signed by his predecessor Hetman Bohdan Khmelnitsky with King Charles’ grandfather – Charles X. Khmelnitsky treaty was only thwarted by the Danish attack on Sweden, forcing him to look for a temporary, as he saw it, alliance with Moscow instead. Had the long-awaited war between Sweden and Moscvia started at that time, the Swedes would have gained a far more powerful coalition partner, capable of setting a 100,000 strong army en-route to Moscow.

Mazepa stood just one step from turning Ukraine into an independent Republic within the Western civilization. Instead, his defeat allowed Russia to expand further, conquering Warsaw and eventually Berlin, taking control over Baltic Sea and hatching plans to grasp the Mediterranean. This was the expansion that brought tyranny and millions of deaths to Central Europe, enabling even more horrific plans to brew in the heads of Kremlin strategists – which has now resulted in massive cyber attacks against the West and even threats of the nuclear warfare.

What makes Mazepa feared and hated most by Moscow, much more than any other of Ukraine’s independence fighter, is that he is far more than just a symbol of Ukrainian uprising – he is the proof of the European context of Ukrainian national identity. A superbly educated man, whose Latin, manners and erudition shocked Charles, contrasted starkly against the hordes of Kalmyk horsed archers, that Peter I sent to attack the Swedish Musketeers. He was a figure doomed to become an icon for the young men dodging bullets under both the Ukrainian and the EU flags in the days of Maidan three centuries later. Maidan was more than just a Kremlin-installed puppet being overthrown; it was a distinctive “We ain’t going back into the madness of  Moscovia tyranny, no matter the cost!”

This is why, when the victory of Maidan was followed by a Russian military invasion, it was repelled above all thanks to volunteers, many of whom were initially skeptical of Maidan. To them, all masks were now off, as losing meant slavery – if not extinction. And despite the first few bitter defeats from the regular Russian military, and despite everything that should’ve made them give up, they didn’t. It’s now or never.

As controversial as any huge personality in history, Mazepa, one of Ukraine’s greatest statesmen, harvests his political and ideological heritage three centuries after his inauguration – and against all the odds.

Picture: Mazepa’s family coat of arms