Ukraine – The Age of the Cossacks, 17th Century

The Cossacks in Ukrainian history are remembered in the two Ukrainian banknotes on this page.

Portrait of Bohdan Khmelnytsky (1595 – 1657), Hetman of Ukrainian Cossacks . Coat of arms of Bogdan Khmelnitsky. Tryzub, the national coat of arms of Ukraine. Stylised grivna from the times of Kievan Rus’ as registration device.
Front: Portrait of Ivan Mazepa (1639 – 1709), Hetman of Ukrainian Cossacks . Coat of arms of Ivan Mazepa. Tryzub, the national coat of arms of Ukraine. Stylised grivna from the times of Kievan Rus’ as registration device. Signature: Sergiy G. Arbuzov (Golova – Governor, Dec. 2010 – Dec. 2012).

The Ukrainian steppes were dominated by two countries in 16th through 19th century European History.  But between these two, for a hundred years, the Cossacks stood up and made a bid for independence.


17th century – Extent of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, extending from Baltic Sea almost to Black Sea, overlaid of contemporary political map.

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, spanning from the Baltic Sea in the North, to the Black Sea in the South, was one of the largest countries of 16th and 17th century Europe.  It controlled over 400, 000 square miles, and almost all of the territory of present day Ukraine.

19th century – extent of Russian Empire in 1880 (shaded area) overlaid over contemporary political map. Ukraine is outlined.

The 18th and 19th century Russian Empire grew to be the third largest empire in history.  It also controlled essentially all the territory of modern Ukraine.

The 17th century declaration of an independent state on Ukrainian territory by the Cossacks, marked the beginning of the end of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  And the 17th century signing of the Pereiaslav Treaty of 1654 marked the end of Ukrainian independence, and the beginning of the subsummation of Ukrainian territory under the growing empire of Russia.

But, for a hundred years, the Cossacks formed Ukrainian history.  This is celebrated in the banknotes on this page.

Bohdan Khmelnytsky

Bohdan Khmelnytsky, detail from front of banknote.

Bohdan Khmelnytsky owned a modest estate in Subotiv, and lived there with his wife and children.  A powerful local magnate tried to seize his estate and Khmelnytsky resisted, writing numerous letters to various representatives of the Polish crown, who could, or would do nothing.    The magnate invaded his estate twice causing significant property damage, and, badly beating his son.  Finally Bohdan Khmelnytsky was evicted from his own land.

Although the crown showed little interest, Bohdan Khmelnytsky found great interest among his fellow Cossacks.  Traveling from one Cossack regiment to another, he found simmering unrest and great support. They had been restless for years, and Bohdan was to prove to be a gifted leader.

In a short time, unrest led to uprising, and uprising led to battles, and battles led to victories, and victories led to a decree of independence from the Polish crown.

Before I was fighting for the insults and injustice caused to me, now I will fight for our Orthodox faith. And all people will help me in that all the way to Lublin and Krakow, and I won’t back off from the people as they are our right hand.” – Khmelnytsky

From Wikipedia:

“At Christmas in 1648, Khmelnytsky made a triumphant entry into Kiev, where he was hailed as “the Moses, saviour, redeemer, and liberator of the people from Polish captivity… the illustrious ruler of Rus.” [citation needed] The Patriarch of Jerusalem Paiseus, who was visiting Kiev at this time, referred to Khmelnytsky as the Prince of Rus, the head of an independent Ukrainian state, according to contemporaries….
“After the period of initial military successes, the state-building process began. His leadership was demonstrated in all areas of state-building: military, administration, finance, economics and culture. Khmelnytsky made the Zaporozhian (Cossack) Host the supreme power in the new Ukrainian state and unified all the spheres of Ukrainian society under his authority. Khmelnytsky built a new government system and developed military and civilian administration.”

But he feared that the new state’s military strength was not enough to secure their position.  Seeking an ally, Khmelnytsky reached out to the Ottoman’s unsuccessfully, and then, reluctantly, to the growing Russian state.   The subsequent treaty with the Tsar in 1654 would be much disputed ever after. The Treaty of Pereyaslav would subsequently be interpreted by many as a military alliance, but by Russia, as a suzerainty, a complete incorporation of Ukraine into the Empire of Russia.

Left Bank, Right Bank Ukraine, and “The Ruin”

Right Bank Ukraine 17th century. (Image from Wikipedia)
Left Bank Ukraine, 17th century. (Image from Wikipedia)

Khmelnytsky, charismatic and influential leader though he was, established no rules of succession.  Upon his death the region fell into civil strife which lasted for thirty years until the rise of Ivan Mazepa.  This time period is called “The Ruin” in Ukrainian history.  It was during this time that Ukraine became to be known as Left Bank Ukraine and Right Bank Ukraine, in reference the Dnieper River as one looked downstream towards the Black Sea.

Ivan Mazepa

Portrait of Ivan Mazepa (1639 – 1709)

Ivan Mazepa, a Zaporozhian Cossack, arose to lead the Cossacks thirty years after the death of Khmelnytsky.  During the intervening period, known as “The Ruin”, many of the advances under Khmelnytsky were dismantled.  Mazepa, one of Europe’s largest landowners, Built churches throughout Ukraine, founded printing houses and schools, and expanded the primary educational institution of Ukraine to nourish 2000 students, the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.

In the later years of his rule, Russia increasing sent the Cossacks to far off fields of battle, leaving their Ukrainian homeland unprotected.  Mazepa considered this a breach in the treaty with Russia.  When the Tsar of Russia refused to send defensive support when the Polish king threatened to attack the Cossacks homeland, Mazepa made his fateful decision.   Mazepa effectively switch sides and allied with the Poles who were marching with the Swedes towards Ukraine.  He was hoping to bring Ukraine under control of Sweden, which, in a separate treaty, had promised independence to Ukraine.  Russia won the battle against Poland and Swededn the following year effectively destroying Mazepa’s hopes.   Ukraine was under the control of Russia.





Bohdan Khmelnytsky changed his world, and altered the course of history; and much controversy surrounds his memory.
In much of Ukraine he is celebrated is a national hero. His statue is in Kiev and a city and a region are named after him. But he is also criticized for the treaty with Russia which some consider disastrous for the history of Ukraine.
Khmelnytsky is a celebrated as a hero in Russia, as he was in the Soviet Union. Russian history stress their interpretation of the treaty as expressing Khmelnytsky’s desire to reunify Ukraine with Russia.
Poland views Bohdan Khmelnytsky in a very poor light, as his rebellion proved to mark the end of their golden age.
The Khmelnytsky uprising is viewd by Israel as one of the most traumatic events in Jewish history. History has it that he used Jews as scapegoats and sought to eradicate Jews from the Ukraine. Khmelnytsky’s rebels associated with him murdered tens of thousands of Jews between 1648 and 1656.

Ivan Mazepa is regarded as a traitor in Soviet and Russian history.  Among Ukrainian’s the remembrance is mixed.  During Perestroika, many documents came to light that portrayed Mazepa differently. Since Ukraine’s recent 1991 independence, Mazepa has been proclaimed a national hero. He is considered the first Cossack leader to take a stand against the Tsar who had failed to abide by the Treaty of Pereyaslav. This view however is disputed by pro-Russian Ukrainians; and Ukraine has been repeatedly condemned by Russia Ukraine for its celebration of Ivan Mazepa.


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