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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 5

This webpage reproduces a chapter of

The Story of the Ukraine
by Clarence Manning

published by
Philosophical Library
New York,

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 7

 p73  Chapter Six

Bohdan Khmelnitsky

In 1638 it might have seemed to a superficial observer that the cause of the Kozaks had been crushed once and for all. The old liberties and rights on which they had prided themselves had been abolished and a surface calm had been attained. The King of Poland and the Polish magnates seemed to have reached their goal and to have ended a force that was both valuable and threatening, valuable in case of war and threatening in time of peace.

Yet a more careful observer could easily have predicted trouble in the future. Michael Romanov was steadily increasing his power in Moscow and his agents were already looking for ways of extending the country to include the easternmost provinces under the Polish crown. The feud between the Roman Catholic and Protestant branches of the royal family of Sweden was seeking to turn the Baltic Sea into a Swedish lake. To the west the Thirty Years War was raging and devastating country after country, while still further off Richelieu was at the height of his power in France and the controversy between Charles I of England and Parliament was beginning to assume a serious form. All Europe was in turmoil and with diplomatic agents rushing back and forth and armies marching over the entire continent it would seem to have been no time to have forced and of discontent.

Yet at this period, when an explosion seemed so near on every side, no one gave a thought as to whether Ukraine should be pacified or goaded further. Every one in the country was dissatisfied. Kozaks registered and unregistered,  p74 townsmen and peasants, Orthodox and members of the Union, gentry and landowners, all had some special grievance. There was needed only a leader who would be able to galvanize the entire mass into active measures to create an outburst that would jeopardize the very existence of the Polish state; but no one gave any attention to the problem in the proud confidence that no leader could be found. Yet one appeared and that man was Bohdan Khmelnitsky.

This man who was to open a new period in Ukrainian history was the son of an Orthodox squire and had served on the staff of the Polish hetman Zolkiewski, who had defeated the Kozaks in several of their uprisings and had later been killed by the Turks. Born around 1595, Bohdan had had the best of opportunities for an education at the Jesuit college in Yaroslav. He had filled several posts in the Kozak Host and had been one of the men removed after the changes of 1638. He had then retired to his estate at Subotiv, where he was living quietly with his wife and family.

It might seem that Khmelnitsky was finished with politics and war. He was about fifty years of age but he was still active and vigorous. His wife died and then he took into his house a beautiful woman named Helen, but for some reason he did not marry her. The whole episode with Helen savors of the theatrical and is even more inexplicable than are the usual events of life. Suddenly a Polish nobleman, one Czaplinski, appeared at the home of Khmelnitsky, beat Khmelnitsky's youngest son so badly that he died, burned the mill and barns, and carried Helen off and married her under the Roman Catholic rite.

Bohdan was furious and sought justice. It was not forthcoming. The Polish authorities laughed at his case and even ordered his arrest. This was too much for the Kozak officer and he made his way to the Zaporozhians and sought refuge among them.

 p75  He very soon became a recognized leader, was elected hetman and thus became able to plan for revenge on his enemies. His position among the Kozaks was the stronger because he possessed definite knowledge that King Wladyslaw was planning to restore the Kozak liberties on condition that they aid him against the Turks. It was the same old device that had occurred again and again. Kozak aid was desired in war and spurned in peace. The King was more kindly disposed to the Kozaks than were the magnates and was himself taking the initiative in stirring up the Kozaks to attack the Turks.

Khmelnitsky's scheme was simple. He played for time with the Polish authorities and meanwhile made an alliance with the Khan of the Crimea to send him some military aid in his new venture. Then when all was ready, he took the field.

The Poles were by now well aware of what was going on. They sent an army under the Crown Hetman Potocki and the Field Hetman Kalinowski to Fort Kodak to keep the Zaporozhians from moving northward. This time they were too late. The King, who had himself incited the Kozak leaders, urged his officers not to fight. They decided to do so and sent the son of Potocki with a force of 1500 Poles and 2500 registered Kozaks overland to Fort Kodak, as a preliminary reinforcement for the troops stationed there.

Bohdan learned of this movement and with some 8,000 Kozaks, by forced marches, he surrounded the young and unsuspecting Potocki at Zhorty Vody (the Yellow Waters) on April 29, 1648. Seeing himself outnumbered, Potocki fortified a camp, where he was besieged and waited for the aid of the Kozaks who were coming down the Dnyeper on barges. Bohdan reached these Kozaks, easily won them to his cause, and added them to his own forces. When the news of this reached the Poles, Potocki realized that his only  p76 chance was to cut his way out and reach his father and the main body of the troops at Korsun. He failed disastrously in this and was compelled to ask for terms. Khmelnitsky allowed them to retire without their artillery. They had barely started on their march when the forces of the Tatars under Tugai Khan attacked the disordered and heavily laden Polish force and destroyed them almost to a man. Stephen Potocki was taken prisoner but died of his wounds the next day.

The news of this terrible defeat struck terror into the hearts of Potocki and Kalinowski. They realized that the entire country would soon be up in arms and that their plan of cutting off the Zaporozhe from the north had completely failed. Yet they disagreed on everything else. Kalinowski wanted to press on to Fort Kodak, Potocki wanted to stay where they were, and the lesser officers called for a retreat. This was finally decided upon and as they moved north, Potocki commenced to set fire to the villages and burned the city of Korsun for terroristic purposes. The result was not what he had expected. He merely aroused the anger of the population, who joined the Kozaks. In the meanwhile the Tatars attacked the army in front and Khmelnitsky sent to the rear a detachment of the Korsun regiment of Kozaks under the command of a Scotch adventurer, known by the name of Maksym Krivonos (Crooked-nose). Everything went like clockwork for the Kozaks. The Poles fell into the ambuscade and lost all semblance of discipline. One detachment under Prince Koretsky succeeded with heavy loss in cutting its way to safety, but the two hetmans, Potocki and Kalinowski, and over one thousand men were captured. The rest were killed. The prisoners were turned over to the Tatars and the leaders were sent to the Crimea until they should pay 20,000 gold coins each.

This overwhelming defeat was the signal for a general uprising of the oppressed Ukrainian peasantry. The fire  p77 of revolt spread rapidly through the province of Kiev and throughout eastern Ukraine. Everywhere manor houses were burned, the nobles and their families were killed and the country was caught up in a savage civil war which threatened Polish control of the entire region. It was not only a struggle of the Kozaks but of the entire Orthodox Ukrainian population which was now seeking redress for all the cruelty and oppression which it had suffered.

To add to the confusion, King Wladyslaw died on the same day as the battle of Korsun and under the loose Polish constitution, months were required before a new King could be elected. Never before had such a storm been unleashed.

It would have been a simple matter for Khmelnitsky to have marched across Poland and menaced or taken Warsaw, but he had no desire to be at the head of a peasant uprising. The same dualism that had existed between the Kozaks and the peasantry, and the pride of the Kozak officers who felt that they were on a par with the Poles prevented him from taking this solution. Instead, he sent a letter a few weeks later to the Polish King as if he were still alive and set forth the main Kozak demands. They were, as can be well imagined, the restoration of the Orthodox Church, the doubling of the number of registered Kozaks, and the restoration of the old Kozak rights which had been abolished in 1638. The Polish government seemed inclined to accept them and in addition steps were taken whereby the marriage of Helen to Czaplinski was annulled and she married Bohdan in accordance with the Orthodox rites.

Just at this moment, when it seemed as if Khmelnitsky and the Kozaks would effect some solution of their problem with the Poles, Prince Jarema Wisniowiecki sprang into action. One of the great landowners on the left bank of the Dnyeper, he was a descendant of that Prince Dmytro who had been one of the founders of the Sich a century  p78 earlier. Now as a convert to the Roman Catholic Church, he set himself to wipe out the Kozak movement with fire and sword. By far the ablest and the most warlike of the Polish magnates, he assumed the lead of the Polish opposition to Khmelnitsky and marched through the Ukrainian regions, giving no quarter and devastating ruthlessly all the Ukrainian villages. The result might have been foreseen.

He forced Bohdan, after futile appeals to the government, to take the field again. The two armies met at Pylyava on September 13, 1648 and again the Poles were decisively defeated. The Ukrainians were then joined by the army of the Crimean Tatars, who insisted on continuing the war in order to secure booty. For this purpose the combined forces moved on Lviv which finally paid a large ransom. Just at this moment, Jan Kazimierz was elected King of Poland and Bohdan, trusting to his good intentions, repeated his demands on a somewhat broader scale, for now he demanded the recognition of the Orthodox Church and the abolition of the Union.

Khmelnitsky returned to Kiev during the Christmas holidays in 1648 in triumph. He was received with overwhelming acclaim by the entire population and all classes vied in doing him honor. Perhaps it was only then that his thoughts and his aspirations expanded, for he found waiting for him representatives of Turkey, Transylvania, Moldavia, and Wallachia and they were soon joined by an ambassador from Moscow. He could not fail to be impressed by the difference between his position at the moment and that of a year before when he was regarded as only a Kozak officer striving to avenge his personal wrongs and to win for the Kozaks some vestige of their ancient liberties.

At the same time Patriarch Paisius of Jerusalem, who was present in Kiev on his way to Moscow for the collection of alms and for conferences on Muscovite Orthodoxy with the Patriarch Nikon, is said to have addressed Bohdan  p79 as King of Rus′ and to have encouraged him to undertake a grand alliance of all the Orthodox States which were represented at Kiev. The successful campaigns of 1648 certainly opened up visions of a future to Bohdan Khmelnitsky and inspired him to undertake extensive diplomatic negotiations among all the neighboring powers. They made him consider himself a real head of an independent people and he felt more confident than ever that he could tackle the problem of relations with Poland on a grand scale.

As a result there is no reason to doubt the reports of the Polish commissioners whom he met in February, 1649. According to these he demanded that the Polish administration definitely quit Ukraine, that the Orthodox Metropolitan of Kiev be given a seat in the Polish senate, that the Union be abolished, and that the Kozak Host should be responsible only to the King. All this meant that Ukraine would become a third member of the Polish state along with Poland and Lithuania.

Yet to do this, it was necessary to have a more permanent political organization. The old Kozak system was well devised to win military victories but it had never taken up the problems of administration in any area. The Kozak officers had come to feel that they were the appointed mouthpieces of Kozakdom and compared themselves to the Polish magnates. The ordinary Kozaks, equally proud of their position, resented these claims of their officers and clamored for the old rights of frequent election. At the same time they looked down upon the non‑Kozak elements of the population, even though the latter had taken an important part in the campaigns of 1648.

The very success of the Kozak movement had created a new embarrassment. The pressing task before Bohdan and his associates was to build a state, to establish in it the rights of the townspeople and the burghers, the intellectuals  p80 and the peasants. They had to draw a line between the completely autocratic rule of Moscow and the aristocratic republic of Poland, to secure unity and obedience, democracy and authority. This was a colossal task and it is perhaps doubtful if even Khmelnitsky realized the many ramifications of the political problems.

The best that he could do was to expand the Kozak authority and system, to make the regimental commanders the local authorities, and to hand over to them all the necessary functions of administration. In the long run this could not prevail in time of peace. It was little better as a permanent basis in war, when the commanders would be busy in the field. Thus the ruling groups of the Kozaks failed to set up a true government in the territory which they had with such relative ease acquired.

It seemed far more tempting and agreeable to seek for foreign support and Khmelnitsky spent his time in endeavoring to secure foreign allies who would assist him against his main enemy. For this the Crimean Tatars seemed easily the most suitable and he bent his efforts to securing their aid in the future.

When hostilities finally broke out in 1649, the Kozaks again speedily obtained the advantage and after a few minor defeats in the north, they entrapped the armies of their main enemy, Wisniowiecki, in the town of Zbarazh.​a It was only the daring and skill of Wisniowiecki that saved the day until the armies of the new King could arrive. Even that was no salvation, for Khmelnitsky and his men speedily defeated the reinforcements at Zboriv and besieged the King and the remains of his army in a fortified camp there. At the darkest hour for the Poles, they succeeded in bribing the Tatar Khan to abandon his Kozak allies. He was the more willing to do this, since he also had no desire to see a strong Ukraine.

The result was the Treaty of Zboriv which granted on  p81 paper practically all of the Kozak demands. It conferred upon them complete control of the three provinces of Kiev, Braslav, and Chernihiv, placed the Orthodox Metropolitan in the Polish senate and made the number of registered Kozaks 40,000. This was considerably less than Khmelnitsky had demanded the winter before and it aroused annoyance in both the Ukrainian and Polish camps. The Catholic prelates in the Senate declined to admit the Orthodox Metropolitan to their number and he obligingly returned from Warsaw to Kiev. It displeased most of the magnates, even those more moderate than Wisniowiecki, because it recognized the Kozak leaders as their equals. On the other hand it promised little for the bulk of the Ukrainian population, who had joined Khmelnitsky's army, since in many sections it compelled them to return, even with an amnesty, to the harsh rule of their former lords. Many of the more independent went across the border of Moscow to the so‑called Slobidshchina or Free Land which was still practically a lordless domain. Their departure of course weakened the Host and deprived it of many men who had done it good service.

Yet the years after the Treaty of Zboriv marked the height of the influence of Bohdan. It was the time when he could have carried through far reaching reforms and strengthened the country internally. However he spent his energies in trying to marry his son Timosh to the daughter of Vasyl Lupul, the ruler of Moldavia, and in carrying on negotiations with the Sultan of Turkey and the Khan of Crimea. As a result he gave the Poles the opportunity of recovering their strength and, under the driving force of Wisniowiecki, the work went forward rapidly, with the result that the Kozaks were badly defeated at the battle of Berestechko in the summer of 1651, again due to the treachery and fear of their Tatar allies. The Treaty of Bila Tserkva of that autumn reduced the Kozak power but it  p82 still left Bohdan strong. It increased discontent against him among the Ukrainians and drove him to still more far reaching diplomatic schemes. His mood was made worse by the discovery that his beloved Helen was intriguing against him and when proof was forthcoming, he had her and her friend executed. The final certainty that Helen had played him false wreaked his general shrewdness and embittered him in every way.

Then came his most disastrous move. He appealed for assistance to Moscow, and offered to place the Kozak Host under the protection of the Tsar on condition that its privileges be respected. He had undoubtedly many reasons for this, but when the matter was put before the general body of the Kozaks, the argument that convinced him was religious. Moscow was also Orthodox and this appealed to all those classes of people who resented the Roman Catholicism of the Poles. It was not so favorably received by the Kozak officers who realized that the Muscovite regime did not and could not recognize any inherent rights in any class of the population. The Kievan Academy and many of the Orthodox hierarchy welcomed the move, however, for already many of their distinguished members were being invited by the Patriarch Nikon to Moscow and they felt that the act of Bohdan would place them in a better position there.

After prolonged negotiations, the Muscovite envoys met Bohdan at Pereyaslav on January 18, 1654. In a last gesture Bohdan asked the Tsar's envoy Buturlin to swear in his sovereign's name to respect the treaty. Buturlin refused on the ground that the Tsar could not swear to any subject. Popular sentiment had been so stirred up that Bohdan could not retract and the oath placing the Kozak Host under the Tsar was duly administered.​b

Shortly after the Tsar confirmed various Kozak privileges. He granted the maintenance of the traditions of the  p83 Host, the right of maintaining Kozak courts, the raising of the quota of registered Kozaks to 60,000, the preservation of the privileges of the Ukrainian gentry, and the free right of election of the hetman, the payment of a large sum of money to the hetman, the officers and all registered Kozaks and the right of the hetman to receive foreign envoys (except that the Tsar insisted upon knowing and authorizing all negotiations with the King of Poland and the Sultan of Turkey).

All this seemed very good and the Kozaks at first believed that they had profited by the agreement. The leaders were not long in discovering their mistake. There was no more peace than there had been before. It is true that the Kozaks in their wars with the Poles could depend upon some support from the Muscovites but the territories which they conquered from Poland passed directly under the control of the Tsar and did not add to the prestige or power of the Kozak Host. The Poles continued to invade their territory. Now they usually had the open support of the Tatars and the uncontrolled and encouraged devastations of these nomads often caused the Kozaks greater exertions than in the old days. Besides that, it was not long before it became evident that the Muscovite troops intended to settle down as garrisons in Kiev and in other Ukrainian cities, as an ostensible protection against the Poles, but in reality as an occupying force.

Khmelnitsky, completely disillusioned, began to look for other allies. Sweden seemed the most promising, for it was then at the height of its power. It was invading Poland and was on such terms of friendship with Moscow that no open criticism could be made of the negotiations. His relations with Moldavia became entangled with the hopes of Lupul to capture Wallachia and these only led to the death of his son Timosh during the siege of Sochava, shortly before his submission to the Tsar. His plans for a great  p84 union of the Orthodox countries were definitely disrupted and it was not long before Sweden too proved a broken reed.

In the spring of 1657, he was taken ill. To please him, his son Yury, a boy of fourteen who had shown no signs of having a strong character, was elected hetman over Ivan Vyhovsky, who had been secretary to Bohdan and was familiar with all of his plans and negotiations. Then the father died on July 27, 1657, and was buried at his birthplace of Subotiv.

It is difficult to evaluate correctly the work of Bohdan Khmelnitsky. There can be no question that he was an able and sincere patriot. He towered in ability, in military skill and in political vision high above all the hetmans who preceded and followed him. He became in a real sense the outstanding diplomatic figure of Eastern Europe during the years when he was at the height of his power.

He definitely moved the Ukrainian, or more accurately, the Kozak question from one of purely internal Polish politics to the international arena where it deserved to be placed. In this connection he was the first of the hetmans who revived the Ukrainian claim to be a complete and sovereign state, able to negotiate as an equal with the various countries which were taking part in the game of Eastern European politics.

Yet the defect and the tragedy of Khmelnitsky, and with him of the Ukrainian people, lay in the fact that he did not realize soon enough the essential problem which required an immediate solution. That was the relation­ship of the Kozak Host to all the other classes of the Ukrainian population. For Ukraine to rally all of its strength and resources, it was necessary to call upon all classes of the population. This was no easy task in the seventeenth century, when political thought concentrated upon the rights of the nobility, even more than upon the well being of the  p85 peasantry and the towns. The Polonization of the gentry had deprived the Ukrainians of exactly that class of their population which would have been most able to steer the course of the ship of state. The Kozaks and especially the Kozak officers felt themselves called upon to assume the role of a new nobility. At the same time they had so long conceived of themselves as a military group that they hesitated to make the transformation into a permanent administrative organization.

Hence arose the insoluble conflict between the Kozaks and non‑Kozaks in the growing Ukrainian organization. Perhaps had Khmelnitsky lived longer and had the time to think through the reforms that he was introducing, he might have changed his policies or in a period of peace he might have cemented his power and accustomed the people to accept it. He had neither time nor peace. It was necessary to organize, fight, and build all at the same moment and the result became a bitter circle in which he could see his way only through a complicated scheme of diplomatic intrigue. He did not have the power to carry to success any of his plans and as a result, Ukraine and the Kozak Host were left at the mercy of either Poland or Moscow or both, depending upon the general state of their relations at any given moment.

Despite this fact, his work was not lost, for he had created an attitude, even if only in theory, that would assure to thinking Ukrainians a permanency and a place in the world. Even those later thinkers who condemned his submission to Moscow recognized that it was not a mere act of union, a mere desire to change masters for the Kozaks, but that it involved a deep political philosophy which circumstances destroyed.

Khmelnitsky was the real founder of the Ukrainian national movement and he came nearer to making it successful than any one between the fall of Kiev and the modern  p86 Ukrainian Republic. That was a major achievement to carry out in less than nine years of uninterrupted turmoil. In one sense he was too late. Had he played his role a half century earlier, it is very possible that he might have accomplished more. Had he been able to hand the state over to some successor with the same breadth of vision, that man might have been able to continue and stabilize his work. As it was, he became the incarnation of the Ukrainian struggle for liberty and independence, and the inspiration of many of his followers. It was an unkind fate that preserved to the world only a knowledge of his submission to the Tsar and a distorted idea, zealously fostered by the Russians, that this was his ultimate goal.

He died too soon, for he had not healed the breaches that were apparent in the Kozak organization, he had not solved definitely the entire Kozak problem from a Ukrainian standpoint and it was left for lesser men to corrupt his ideas and to lead Ukraine to a new and more complete ruin, with only his example to serve as a beacon light of what Ukraine might be.

Thayer's Notes:

a In Ternopil oblast. There is a much smaller place by the same name in Vinnytsia oblast.

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a The matter of the oath was quite serious. It is covered in detail by Ohloblyn, Treaty of Pereyaslav 1654, pp23‑27.

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Page updated: 20 Sep 22