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Are Hetmen Heroes?

In response to:

Not So Free At Last from the October 22, 1992 issue

To the Editors:

In “Not So Free At Last” [NYR, October 22, 1992], Mr. Brumberg has tried to encompass the past and present of Ukraine in a relatively short piece. In general, his account of the contemporary situation is personal, based on anecdote and impression. Although it contains much that is perceptive, it seems to strain to build a case for nationalism and chauvinism in Ukraine at a time when Ukraine is still an island of relative ethnic and cultural tolerance in Eastern Europe. Mr. Brumberg writes about Ukraine in isolation without discussing the alarming growth in rightist Russian nationalist groups in Russia and the refusal of even liberal ruling circles in Russia to treat Ukraine as a truly independent state. Only by examining this context can one understand the concerns of liberal Ukrainian intellectuals such as Ivan Dziuba and Ivan Drach about Russian imperialism….

Mr. Brumberg’s discussion becomes quite shallow when he tries to debunk the “Ukrainian national myth.” He uses as one of his two major cases the Cossack and peasant revolts beginning in the sixteenth century and the period of Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky (1648–57). Mr. Brumberg sees this period as central in the Ukrainian national myth, which he maintains attributes to Ukrainians an innate love of freedom and depicts Khmelnytsky as a Ukrainian national hero and his struggle as an attempt to create a state.

I think in his zeal to debunk, Mr. Brumberg has gone too far. He does not consider that in the sixteenth to mid-eighteenth centuries much of the Ukrainian territory was a land in which the harsh conditions of East European serfdom had difficulty taking hold. Contrary to his assertion, Cossack led revolts and the formation of the Cossack polities did retard introduction of serfdom, not least because a large part of the population took on Cossack status. Mr. Brumberg also ignores the ways in which the Cossacks did play a positive role in the national-religious life of Ukraine. In the early 1620s, Hetman Petro Konashevych-Sahaidachny founded a chair at the Orthodox Brotherhood School in Lviv and protected the consecration of a new Orthodox hierarchy by the Patriarch of Jerusalem. The intermixing of Orthodox religious and Ruthenian-Ukrainian national traditions on the borderland of Western and Eastern Christianity makes it difficult to divide religious from national factors, but this should not surprise, since it remains an aspect of Eastern European life to this day.

Mr. Brumberg seems most partisan in his characterization of Bohdan Khmelnytsky and the polity (where we call it a state or not) that emerged from the revolt he led. In a century when popular uprisings had little chance for success, Khmelnytsky forged a new political and social order that survived beyond his life and despite the civil wars of the period of the “Ruin” endured until the late 18th century. The revolt did push back the borders of serfdom for generations and formed a new political and social structure that favoured Ukrainian cultural and religious development. One need only examine the baroque cathedral of Kiev or the village wooden churches where the Cossack officer class served as patrons, read the Cossack histories of Samuil Velychko or Hryhorii Hrabianka, or examine the patriotic literature of the Hetmanate to see how the revolt reversed cultural, religious, and political patterns that were leading to Ukrainian assimilation in Poland. The emergence of the Cossack officers as a new elite in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century gave Ukrainian culture a new group of patrons and provided for a Ukrainian “political nation” in the early modern sense. One need only compare the Ukrainian situation to the fate of the Belorussians, who did not undergo a successful Cossack revolt and formation of a new polity, to understand the significance of the revolt.

The cult of Khmelnytsky as a national hero is quite old. It already begins with the academicians of the Kiev collegium who greeted him in late 1648 as a Moses and saviour of his people from Polish servitude. In the panegyrics of the seventeenth century and in the Cossack histories of the eighteenth century the cult grew. One need not be a proponent of the Khmelnytsky cult to understand that the complex legacy of the man and the period of the revolt had many positive aspects for Ukrainian political, social, and cultural life.

Strangely, Mr. Brumberg missed that in post-Soviet Ukraine the cult of Hetman Ivan Mazepa (1687–1709) is replacing that of Khmelnytsky. Khmelnytsky’s oath of allegiance to the Russian tsar in 1654 at Pereiaslav, so praised in Soviet historiography, is now viewed negatively. Mazepa’s attempt to break away from Peter I’s Russia fits current political thought.

While I believe Mr. Brumberg has raised the interesting issue of national myths, he provides the reader with a simplistic and distorted version of the past as if it were “truth,” creating his own “antimyths.”

Frank E. Sysyn
Acting Director
Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies
University of Alberta
Edmonton, Canada

Abraham Brumberg replies:

Professor Sysyn, the author of a forthcoming book on the seventeenth-century hetman, charges me with numerous errors and distortions regarding the Cossacks and Bohdan Khmelnitsky. His own articles on the subject strike me as expressing a traditional Ukrainian view on the role of Cossacks in Ukraine’s history. A detailed discussion of this matter would take considerably more space than is available here but I should make the following points: First, Professor Sysyn’s views, however well expounded, are at odds, entirely or in part, with those of other distinguished scholars—Russian, British, American, and indeed (as I pointed out in my article) Ukrainian, including the father of modern Ukrainian historical writing, Mikhailo Hrushevsky.

Second, it seems to me that a historian who accuses me of being “quite shallow” should know better than to argue, as he does, that the absence of a figure such as Khmelnitsky and of a “successful Cossack revolt” in Belorussian history explains why the Ukrainians grew so successfully into a modern nation, while the Belorussians have lagged sadly behind. Surely the historical differences between these two peoples go farther back than the seventeenth century. Kievan Rus ceased to exist by the thirteenth century, but it lived in historical memory and had an important part in the rise of Ukrainian national and cultural self-consciousness six centuries later. Ukrainian folklore and architecture, the proliferation of schools and publications sponsored by various “brotherhoods” in Lvov and other cities in the late sixteenth century, the Kievan Academy, founded in 1631 by the Kievan Metropolitan Petro Mohyla—none of these owed their existence to Bohdan Khmelnitsky and his Zaporozhian Cossacks. The Belorussians, for their part, did not have a comparable history, or institutions, that could be used to create a national myth.

Notwithstanding what Professor Sysyn writes, serfdom was retained under the terms of Khmelnitsky’s 1654 treaty with the tsar. Five years later, the upper crust of the Cossacks (starshyna) who had remained under Russian rule became faithful servants of the crown, which rewarded them with the status of dvorianstvo (nobility), large estates, and not a few serfs into the bargain.

Professor Sysyn first praises Khmelnitsky and he then notes approvingly that the cult of Khmelnitsky has recently been replaced with that of Ivan Mazepa. Even apart from any visible proof that Khmelnitsky’s star is fading, I fail to see what is so admirable in substituting the cult of one Cossack hetman for that of another. True, Mazepa was well educated, a patron of the local arts and of the Orthodox Church, and he gave his name to the ornate style known as Cossack Baroque of the many churches built under his aegis. He was one of the richest men in Europe, owner of 20,000 estates, benefactor of the starshyna (for which he was detested by the poorer Cossacks), and for more than twenty years was a faithful ally of Tsar Peter I. In 1708, Mazepa and part of his Cossack army went over to the side of the Swedish monarch Charles XII, who had just invaded Russia. In 1709, when Charles and his new Cossack ally were defeated by the tsar, Mazepa fled, and died a few months later. The Cossack hetmanate was obliterated.

Perhaps Mazepa had indeed hoped to create a Ukrainian state, as some Ukrainian historians maintain, but if so, it would have been one, as his reign as hetman suggests, that clearly benefited the rich, and not the mass of the Ukrainian peasants. The historical evidence suggests, moreover, that Mazepa’s decision to seek the protection of the Swedish monarch was caused by the deterioration of his relationship with the tsar, rather than by any idea of an independent state. The parallel with Khmelnitsky’s change of allegiance is striking. Both hetmans seem dubious models for Ukrainians today.

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