Issues of land seem to be the cause of many wars, especially for the history of this great land. Not only are the nations that surrounded the country to blame for Ukraine constantly being used as a bartering tool, but some of the forces that resided here have also been held accountable. Kings, rulers and leaders alike have always been at odds when it comes to owning the world and as easily as divvying up pieces of apple pie, the borders of Ukraine have likewise, frequently been sliced and diced.
In the years leading up to 1700, Ukraine, for the most part had found equilibrium among the inhabitants who lived within its borders. The Zaporizhian Sich as well as the Hetmanite had control of the land and it’s residents. But because of geography perhaps, it was the Hetmans who shone when it came to ‘political authority’ as they maintained a fairly good relationship with the Russian government, and Ivan Mazepa, elected Hetman in 1867, accumulated great wealth because of it. So influential was he that Peter the Great would occasionally accept his council and in 1702, the beginning of the end for the influential Hetman, Mazepa convinced Russian Tsar, Peter I to intervene in an uprising against Poland by another Hetman of the time.
Only a couple of years earlier, Peter I, whose empire was quite a bit less advanced when compared to the rest of Europe, decided that an expansion of territory was in order. He wanted the Baltics specifically, and so joined forces with Denmark-Norway, Poland and Saxony to wage war against the Swedes, who had created a Baltic empire almost 40 years prior, to attack and conquer.
And So it Starts
In response, Swedish King Charles XII did not take long to decide whether or not to take action and immediately pointed his soldiers east. This first battle for the Baltics in 1700 is known as the Battle of Narva and is a battle the Swedes would ultimately be considered the champions of. Unfortunately, Charles was not able to bring it to a full conclusion and six years on, he ordered another, hopefully final attack, invading Russia in August, 1707. At the time, the King of Sweden had not been thinking about entering Ukrainian lands at all but different epidemics plagued the Swedish soldiers over the winter, leaving them weak and without proper supplies, so Charles turned south for a respite.
In the mean time, Hetman Ivan Mazepa had learned that once the war was over, Tsar Peter I was intending to unite all of the lands under his rule; which also meant abolishing the enjoyed autonomy of the Hetman State. For obvious reasons, this did not please the Hetmanite, however, it was only when Peter the Great refused to commit any significant force to defend Ukraine against the Polish King (a friend and alley of Sweden at the time who was threatening another attack on the Hetmans) did his weariness of the Russian political attitude take root.
At once, in a very covert negotiation process, Charles XII and Ivan Mazepa struck a deal. Once the Swedes were over Ukraine’s border, however, Mazepa sided with them openly. They would meet face to face for the first time on 28 October 1708 on the Steppes of our heartland. Mazepa promised Charles 50,000 Cossacks to aid in the fight against Peter I. He would find out later unfortunately, that only 3,000 would materialise.
Now considered a traitor, Mazepa would be dealt with accordingly and once the Russian army learned of his act of treason, they set to work raiding and murdering anything that remained in the Cossack Hetmanite capital of Baturyn.
In a surprising turn of events however, Mazepa received support from members of the Zaporizhian Sich. Once at odds with each other, they now regarded Mazepa the lesser of two evils. But in the end, they would pay dearly for their support.
In the spring of 1709, both Charles and Peter maneuvered themselves into appropriate positions and in May, under the advice of Mazepa, the Swedes seized Poltava. The Russians however, were not far behind and what the well-fed and stronger than ever before Russian army found was a group that was a third of its original size due to starvation, frostbite and the effects of the winter. On 28 June at 3:45am, the battle began.
Even from the beginning, the Swedes were far worse off. Where Charles and Co. had only 4 canons and approximately 31,000 men, Peter had 102 canons and 45,000 men: many of which were Cossacks who remained loyal to the Tsar.
By 11am, the Swedes had been routed. Over 9,300 died and nearly 3,000 taken prisoner. A cavalcade of 16,000 from the Swedish side, were forced to surrender to one of the Russian generals. Thousands were Mazepa’s Cossacks who had switched sides. Most were taken and executed on the spot; the rest were exiled to Siberia. Those that were not captured, fled. Charles XII, Ivan Mazepa and a large contingent of Swedes and Cossacks among them, crossed into Turkish-occupied territory. Charles would spend five years in exile before he was able to return to his homeland. His once flourishing army as well as his state both became weak and inefficient. All of Sweden’s Baltic possessions, as well as numerous others, were lost.
The war between Sweden and Russia would finally see its end in 1721, 21 years later, with the Treaty of Nystad. While Sweden attempted to continue the fight, Russia finally gained the Baltics; a land Peter had coveted for years, and with the signing of the Treaty, the Russian Empire would now be seen as the strongest force in Eastern Europe.
For numerous years, the Hetmanite had been looked upon as the safeguard of the Ukrainian nation. However, it was Russia that won this war and the decision had been clearly made as to who would rule the Hetman State, the Zaporizhian Sich and for all intents and purposes, Ukraine. Mazepa lost all authority. At one time loyal to Peter, even receiving medals for his efforts, he died a traitor in exile, in 1709. The Turkish authorities refused to hand over the body. In an act that demonstrated how such people would be treated, even without a body Peter the Great performed a demonstrative execution of Mazepa. All pictures, paintings and memorabilia of the great Hetman were destroyed.
There are however, 16 different portraits of Mazepa that can be found today; all of them considered authentic. His dream had been to unite the country into something powerful and prosperous. His political aim had been to enhance the authority of the Sich and the Hetmanite, increasing trade and other industries. Often times influenced with the spiritual aspect of life, the Hetman under Mazepa, were responsible for building 26 churches and temples not only in Ukraine but also abroad.
Mazepa’s actions, while arguably traitorous, have been relentlessly debated. Supporters say that through various treaties, the Russian Empire had been obligated to support the Hetmanite. It was when that support no longer surfaced that Mazepa took the matters of Ukraine and her future into his own hands.
What Should We Be Celebrating?
The problem lies in contradictions: Victory of the Russian Empire or a day of remembrance of an unsuccessful patriotic act? Our government in fact has allotted 9 million hryvna specifically for this objective. One million of which was meant to be spent on a memorial to Mazepa and Charles XII. That request however, has been declined by Poltava’s city council. There lies an issue with our neighbours as well, because Russia has also expressed interest in conducting some sort of celebration with Ukraine. Unfortunately, Ukraine as a country is still undecided as to whether this is a day to celebrate or to remember. Regardless of the decision, more then 12 thousand people died because of ambitious Rulers and that in itself should be something to honour.