Portraits to Remember
For a period of 116 years (1648-1764), Ukraine was Hetman Country. In the beginning, it saw 17 different heads ruling the State which proved more than difficult to unite and unify the lands. And with numerous betrayals as well as a weak Cossack Army, any war that was fought in the name of independence, simply ended in defeat. And yet the icons in the history of the Hetmanite live on: Bohdan Khmelnitsky, Petro Sagaidachniy, Ivan Mazepa, Pylyp Orlyk.
As a bit of background, a Hetman is the head of the Zaporizhian Sich and the Commander-in-Chief of the Zaporizhska Army. Bohdan Khmelnitsky became Ukraine’s first real state Hetman asserting his authority between the years of 1648-1657. With big plans for his country, he became a very noteworthy personality, pulling the province territories together under one ruler: himself.
The Khmelnitsky Upbringing
According to Nikola Sagredo, a Venetian Ambassador who has done some research on the man, Khmelnitsky’s presumed date of birth is considered to be the 6th of January, 1595. Mykhailo Khmelnitsky was his father and any dissatisfaction with the current regime Bohdan may have acquired, came from him. They fought together on the side of the Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth against Turkey where the battle proved too much for the senior of the two and in 1620, Myhailo passed on. Bohdan however, was taken prisoner and held in Istanbul, where he allegedly became quite fond of Turkish coffee and cigarettes.
Myhailo’s son received a good education in Lviv and Kyiv, excelling at history and languages and would in fact pass on his knowledge well, as the future Hetman would learn to speak fluent Latin, Polish, French and Turkish. After spending five or so years in school, Bohdan joined the Cossacks, where a heroic rescue of the Polish Prince Vladislav in a battle not far from Moscow, gave him favor and respect. Not long after, he became the General Clerk for the Cossack Army, a position which opened many doors for Khmelnitsky. Those he met at this time would prove very helpful in the future.
The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth
In 1325, Kyivska Rus’ was a division of Kingdoms. Most of the Western Ukrainian lands had been given to the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, while the Eastern lands were brought under the reign of the Kingdom of Moscow. In 1569, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland singed the UNI0N of Lubin that united the two Kingdoms to form a mighty state: the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Their politic toward the Ukrainian ethos however, was not an entirely positive one and so it was during this time that the first social influence of the Cossacks was felt.
Upon his return from Turkey, Bohdan Khmelnitsky took his father’s place in their family home in Subotive where he lived a peaceful life with his wife and their six children. The lands he owned were quite a honey pot for Konetspolskiy and Chaplinskiy; men assigned by Vladislav II – King of the Commonwealth, to take charge of the Chygyryn region. They attacked and destroyed the family’s home, beating Bohdan’s youngest son quite badly and inflicting such injuries to his wife that she would die soon after. Enraged, he went to the Zaporizhian Sich where his fame, as well as the glorious life of his father, helped him in receiving not only the support of the Cossacks but also their loyalty. Bohdan had long been planning an uprising of some kind and so attack from the Polish authorities was not the only reason behind his decision to chair the Cossack Army. Before the year 1647, many important documents had been signed, it was just that Konetspolskiy and Chaplinskiy gave Khmelnitsky the motive to get things rolling.
And so, on 19 April, 1648, Khmelnitsky was signed in as Hetman of Ukraine. He immediately declared it an Independent Cossack State where Cossack groups from all over Ukraine rallied to protect it, forming one of the strongest Zaporizhian Armies ever.
War of Liberation
After arranging support from the South, Khmelnitsky got going on his own ideas for the country as a whole. His first two battles resulted in complete success over Polish troops in the regions of Zhovti Vody and Korsun and leaving nothing but a skeleton of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth Armada. In attempts to further this new-found success, he increased the number of Cossacks that were fighting under him; he signed an agreement making Turkey an adversary; and he sent an announcement to the King of the Commonwealth, instructing him to leave Ukraine’s lands alone. In response, Vladislav II sent out Mykola Pototskiy and his troops to strangle the rebellion and put an end to these insurgents once and for all. In April of 1648, near the city of Zhovti Vody, nine thousand of Khmelnitsky’s soldiers met Pototskiy’s army of twelve thousand. As there were still Cossacks from the right bank of the Dnipro River who were committed to King Vladislav, the Polish army decided to wait until the battle had been settled and then move in with their support. But Khmelnitsky managed to persuade these Cossacks to switch sides and with their help, supported also by the Tatars’ Cavalry, the final blow to the Commonwealth Army was struck on the 16th of May.
Pototskiy’s army had to fall back to Korsun where he planned to reunite with Yarema Vyshnevetskoho, another colonel of the pocket of Cossacks who were still faithful to Poland. There, they fortified Korsun and began preparations for battle. Khmelnitsky however, was trying hard to avoid a merge between these two armies and needed extra incentive of his own if he was planning on winning the battle: he wouldn’t have to wait long to find it. While marching to Korsun, more and more people joined the Hetman. Ordinary peasants were the majority, but they were ready to get up and fight for the man who was standing up for their beliefs and by the time they reached Korsun, Khmelnitsky’s cavalry numbered 20 thousand Cossacks and 20 thousand Tatars.
On 26 May, the battle that ensued lasted only four hours and resulted in an absolute destruction of the Commonwealth’s Army. Running for their lives, a mere one thousand five hundred of the Polish soldiers escaped while more than eight thousand were captured alive, including Mykola Pototskiy. There was also the death of Vladislav II around this time, which was an unexpected occurrence. Taking over his reign was a man called John II Casimir and with a new head learning the ropes of a mutilated Commonwealth, Ukraine was left with some time to breathe.
To further secure his victories, Bohdan signed two agreements, one against Poland with Russia and one with Sweden which, according to agreements with the Russian Tsar, Ukraine was to become part of Russia on a federative basis. This did not put an end to the fight against Poland however, and his search for an ally in Sweden proved futile, as his sudden and untimely death in 1657 kept him from establishing any real relationship. Seen as something lucrative by Russia, they began violating agreements they had made with Khmelnitsky and international relations with Poland became ever warmer.
The Period of Ruin
After the death of Bohdan Khmelnitsky, the situation for Ukraine became sorrowfully dire. Not only did it lead to an absolute division of Ukrainian lands between the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and Russia, but an urban decay and loss of faith was felt by all. Khmelnitsky’s death meant the loss of a leader, a Ukrainian leader. This next period in time is recognised as The Period of Ruin and lasted from 1657 – 1687. Everything that happened over these next thirty years resulted in the undoing of everything that had been achieved by Bohdan Khmelnitsky. Ukraine was turned into a bloody battle field and the motto that Khmelnitsky lived by, ‘fight for your land’, turned into battles for selfish, personal gain.
The story is sordid with Ukraine at a constant tug-o-war between Russia, Poland, even between its own people. The Hetmans, after Khmelnitsky, became their own worst enemy as there was no longer one who was great enough to unite them all.