Mazepa failed because of greedy Ukrainian Cossack officers and the clergy's obsession with self-importance
Hetman Ivan Mazepa joined forces with Sweden on 4 November 1708 in a move that raised more questions than it provided answers. Mazepa had never been in opposition to Russia. What made him take this step? Why did his alliance with the Swedes fail to find support in Ukrainian society? The reason behind his move were Russian Tsar Peter I’s plans for Ukraine and tension among the Ukrainian elite.
In the tsar’s favor
Before the fall of 1708, there was no reason at all to call relations between Hetman Mazepa and Peter I anything but friendly. Mazepa had given Peter the royal attire which he wore for his coronation and sent the pro-western tsar books from his library. Mazepa won his first victory in his raids on Azov when he captured the Turkish fortress of Kyzykermen. The attack on the Azov fortress by Cossacks sent by Mazepa forced the Turks to surrender the fortress, earning Mazepa the Order of Saint Andrew, Second Rank. He was the first to be decorated with this order for military merits, ahead of not only Sheremetev and Menshikov, but also Peter I himself.
At the time, Peter I and Mazepa were essentially allies. In March 1707 however, this all changed after the two met in Zhovkva. Returning to his headquarters, the gray-haired Mazepa exclaimed with irritation: “If I were serving God as faithfully as I am serving the tsar, I would get the highest reward. But with this one, I would not be rewarded for my efforts even if I were an angel.”
Looking at Mazepa as a historical figure, we need to remember one important fact — he was the first hetman after Bohdan Khmelnytsky to unite and to bring under his control the entire territory of Ukraine. In 1704, he took advantage of the Poles’ request to Peter I to send a military force to crush an uprising led by Semen Palii in the Polish part of Ukraine. The Cossack army entered Right-Bank Ukraine and … stayed. The next year Mazepa was given carte blanche to punish landlords who opposed Frederick Augustus II of Poland, an ally of Peter I. Seizing this next opportunity, a 30,000-strong Cossack corps led by Andrii Voinarovsky occupied Volhynia and part of Galicia.
However, at the end of the Northern War the lands captured by the Cossacks were returned to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth under the treaty between Peter I and Augustus II. In January 1708, Peter I issued a direct order to the hetman to withdraw his troops from Right-Bank Ukraine. Mazepa lingered but the tsar insisted: “Write to Hetman Mazepa … and tell him to yield Bila Tserkva district … to the Poles … to meet their demands.” Hetman Mazepa is accused of betraying Peter I, but it is the latter who should, in fact, be charged with betraying half of Ukraine and the hetman who had gathered the lands that belonged to his people.
There were also other issues on the agenda in Zhovkva. Russian historian Tatyana Tairova-Yakovleva noted that orders were issued in March 1707 to essentially deprive the hetman of jurisdiction over Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities. The decision was postponed until Mazepa’s arrival in Zhovkva. The Cossacks were also in jeopardy. Peter I intended to turn Cossack regiments into ordinary dragoon units. The reason was that the Cossacks were used to fighting the quick-maneuvering Tatars and Turks but were unable to put up solid resistance against the Swedish line infantry. The experienced hetman was perfectly aware that this transformation would ruin the Cossacks and lead to Russia's complete subjugation of Ukraine.
This may have been why Mazepa was not excited about being awarded the title “Prince of the Holy Roman Empire”: “They want to please me with princedom in the Roman state and take away my hetmanship.” It was after the Zhovkva meeting that Mazepa contacted King Charles XII of Sweden through Princess Hanna Dolska. His decision to side with the Swedes caused Peter I's plans to be put off for as long as 60 years.
What came as a true shock to the hetman was the reaction of the Ukrainian clergy to his alliance with the Swedes. Nearly all of them supported Peter I. As a hetman, Mazepa financed the construction of 26 cathedrals and belfries, including the Trinity Church in the Kyivan Cave Monastery, as well as the Saint Sophia and Saint Michael cathedrals. The architectural style that took shape during this period is still called the Ukrainian, or Mazepa, Baroque. This construction boom is even more significant if we consider that a mere two cathedrals were founded (and not even completed) under Hetman Ivan Samoilovych and no churches at all were built during the period of Ruin. The construction aided Ukrainian builders, goldsmiths and jewellers greatly in developing their skills. A number of their works are still kept in the Kremlin Armory. Remarkably, the Orthodox clergy in Ukraine was showered with donations at a time when churches in Russia were the targets of frenzied looting. Peter I was waging an exhausting war and squeezed money out of all possible sources. He imposed sky-high taxes on monks and even removed bells from belfries to meet demand for metal and guns. He planned to destroy the hetmanship with the same purpose in mind – to milk Ukrainian cities and Cossack officers for all the money they had.
In light of how the clergy in Russia was treated, Mazepa could not imagine – even in his worst nightmares – that the Ukrainian priests would support Peter I in after receiving such generous treatment from the hetman. He underestimated another burning desire that overtook the Ukrainian clergy – the desire for power. A union with Peter I held out the prospect of spiritual dominion over Russia – a territory much larger than Ukraine. Ukrainian priests began to take over the clerical world in Muscovy immediately after Hetman Khmelnytsky signed a treaty with Tsar Alexis. The Archpriest Avvakum complained in his sermons about the prevalence of “Little Ukrainians.” Monks Semen Polotsky and Andrii Satanovsky, both from Kyiv, started printing the Bible in Moscow targeting a huge print run.
Tsar Peter I repressed Russian priests, while clearly favoring Ukrainian monks – he needed educated people for his reforms. Galician Stefan Yavorsky was the Patriarchal locum tenens in Moscow at the time. Other noted clerical figures in Peter I's time were also Ukrainians, for example, Dymytrii Tuptalo and Teofan Prokopovych. Hetman Mazepa was declared anathema personally by Metropolitan of Kyiv and Galicia Ioasaf Krokovsky. The anathema, imposed in punishment for an alliance with the Lutheran Swedes, was the reason why a large part of the Ukrainian society turned away from Mazepa. The Ukrainian clergy chose the prospect of heading the ideological machinery of the future empire.
Perfidious Cossack officers
The Cossacks had a saying at the time of Mazepa’s rule: “From Bohdan until Ivan we had no hetman.” Mazepa’s significant achievement was the recovery of Ukraine after the civil war known as the Ruin. Cossack officers made multiple attempts to overthrow the hetman and replace him with their own representative. General Chancellor Vasyl Kochubei initiated a coup against Hetman Samoilovych. The denunciation report was signed by Kochubei himself rather than by Mazepa, an aide-de-camp at the time. In 1691, the Petryk uprising erupted targeting Mazepa who was by then hetman. The chief insurgent was a relation of Kochubei. Kish Otaman Ivan Husak warned at the time: “Tell the hetman on my behalf that ... as long as he refuses to cut off the heads of three men: first, Polubotok; second, Mykhailo; and third, the one who always lives with him, ... he as the hetman will never have peace and Ukraine will know no good.” Mykhailo refers here to the young Samoilovych, while “the one who always lives with him” refers to Kochubei. These facts show that Kochubei’s squealing on Mazepa in 1708 had, in fact, other reasons then family relations.
The third figure mentioned by Husak is equally intriguing. In 1692, acting Pereiaslav Regiment Colonel Leontii Polubotok and his son Pavlo were found guilty of a plot against the hetman. Leontii died three years later, while his son managed to regain the hetman's favor and was elected Chernihiv regiment colonel a short while later in 1705. In addition to the death of his father, Pavlo Polubotok had another motive to hate the hetman – he was married to a niece of Hetman Samoilovych whose relatives were also plotting against Mazepa.
An opportunity presented itself in November 1708 when Hetman Mazepa switched to the Swedish side with some of his troops. This was a terrible blow to Peter I. His unpopular reforms, the horrible destitution of his people and the long, unsuccessful war made his subjects resent the tsar to the point of hatred. The Bulavin uprising erupted and was quelled only several months before Mazepa’s alliance with the Swedes. Boyars constantly plotted against the tsar. Disbanded after their own uprising, the Streltsy were still there at the time. It was for this purpose that Peter I surrounded himself with foreign officers — he simply could not trust his own subjects. Peter I was able to establish relative peace in the country through cruel repressions. However, the news that Mazepa, his most faithful vassal and comrade in arms, had aligned himself with the Swedes could cause the army to rebel.
Peter I needed to immediately create a semblance of “crushing the rebellion of the traitor Mazepa.” To do this, he organized an immediate anathema for him and ordered Baturyn to be captured. The fact that Baturyn was almost immediately surrendered to the Swedes and that Mazepa and the Swedish forces owned the Hetman state until the Battle of Poltava (except for some cities like Poltava) is something the Russian propaganda machine has preferred to keep silent about until now. The capture of the defenseless Sich by the Russians had more of a propaganda than military purpose. The Zaporozhian Cossacks suffered almost no serious losses, but the effect of the attack was stunning.
Peter I was fortunate to have secured support from the church. Despite a constant lack of funding, the tsar decided to cancel the taxes imposed by Mazepa. “A chancellery of ambassadors” in Lebedyn was zealously seeking out and punishing open and secret supporters of Mazepa. However, Muscovy in it entirety had to be persuaded that Mazepa had joined the Swedes with just a handful of supporters, while Ukraine as a whole remained faithful to the tsar. At this time, Colonel Polubotok stepped into the picture. He refused to support his hetman and convinced three more colonels to follow suit. Whether he acted spontaneously or following an insurgency among the Cossack officers makes no difference now. Meeting in Hlukiv on 6 December, the four colonels elected him hetman. But this choice did not sit well with the tsar, and the old and hesitant Ivan Skoropadsky was given preference.
Despite this apparent setback, Polubotok had no reason to complain – he was soon granted huge estates previously owned by General Chancellor Orlyk and Mazepa himself. Peter I issued a special order to transfer the property of Mazepa and his supporters to Cossack officers who would ally with him. These seeds fell on fertile soil. Orlyk’s letters reveal that before Mazepa joined forces with the Swedes, Cossack officers were just short of demanding that he break away from Muscovy. However, after he took the step, these same officers rushed to ally with Peter I in order to obtain estates and privileges. Baturyn fell due to the treachery of Colonel Nis. The Sich was captured because of the betrayal of Colonel Halahan. Other colonels, such as Apostol, Zelensky, Hamalia, and Lyzohub, also switched to Peter I. The Cossack officers betrayed their hetman. Not surprisingly, they later relished – sometimes even more than the Russians – the official line of “Mazepa’s treacherous betrayal.”
Peter I had to make unheard-of concessions to the Cossack officers and the Ukrainian people. Meanwhile, Muscovy was hungry, ragged and suppressed. A Western diplomat who came to Ukraine in 1711 wrote: “Everyone in the Cossack state is prospering; everyone is living in luxury. ... Every Cossack goes to church with his own prayer book... The houses are nice and the streets are clean. I have not seen anything like that in Muscovy.” There was only one reason Peter I was willing to tolerate this “heaven on earth” next to his own ravaged state — the threat of a new Cossack uprising and name of Hetman Ivan Mazepa.