Sunday, 11 February 2018 13:52


Oleksandr Palii, A History of Ukraine, 11.02.2018




A true Ukrainian national hero, Bohdan Khmelnytsky (1595–1657), came from a noble Ukrainian family. During a battle in Muscovy, he did a favor for the Polish Prince Władysław, who gave him a saber as an award and became sympathetic to him since that time. 


Khmelnytsky stood out due to the combination of a lucid mind, sagaciousness, modesty in everyday life (a rare thing for nobility), determination and caution. A 1649 panegyric noted that Khmelnytsky became a knight under which “Volodymyr’s Rus’ rose to its feet”. In contrast, the Poles called Khmelnytsky “the Scourge of God”. A millennium earlier, this was the sobriquet of Attila, the ruler of the Huns who ravaged the Eastern and Western Roman Empire. 


In 1647, the Chyhyryn assistant vice-gerent Czapliński looted Khmelnytsky’s estate and his servants severely beat Khmelnytsky’s small son Ostap, who soon died. Czapliński also kidnapped Khmelnytsky’s bride and became engaged to her. Khmelnytsky tried to go to court but to no avail. A person of Ukrainian origin, even a gentleman, was unable to obtain justice. The king hinted to him: you have a saber, so protect yourself.


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Bohdan Khmelnytsky, portrait by Natalia Pavlusenko


Khmelnytsky went to Zaporizhia with a small detachment of Cossacks and his son Tymish. The colonel of the Polish garrison in the Sich fled in advance and the Cossack garrison let the insurgents in and joined them. A force of several thousand Cossacks gathered in the Sich. 


In April 1648, the Polish crown hetman sent part of the registered Cossacks on baidaky (large boats) and a German infantry division to crush the rebellion. At Kodak fortress they had to join a 5,000-strong detachment composed of the rest of the registered Cossacks and Polish soldiers from the royal troops that marched on land.  


But patriotic appeals swayed the registered Cossacks: they switched to the insurgents, drowned the traitors from among officers in the Dnipro river and killed the mercenaries. 


The Cossacks made earth banks in advance to block the path of retreat for the Polish army which advanced on land. In the Battle of Zhovti Vody on 5–6 May 1648 the Polish army was utterly defeated. Only 10 Poles were able to escape captivity. 


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Ukrainian Cossacks, painting, mid-17th century.


On 16 May, another Polish army, having learned about the defeat, began to retreat from Korsun. This decision was reinforced after the Cossack Mykyta Halahan, in retaliation for an insult, deliberately let Poles take him prisoner and under tortures told them lies about a huge Cossack-Tatar army, convincing the Poles to choose their way into a trap.

The Poles entered a ravine thickly overgrown with trees and shrubbery. Seeing the trap, the Polish hetman killed Halahan. Many historians believe that this event was the basis for a legend, invented in Muscovy, about the Muscovite peasant Ivan Susanin who allegedly led a Polish army into a swamp to rescue the tsar. In the battle, the majority of Poles were killed, while others (more than 8,500) were taken prisoner, including both Polish hetmans, i.e. their highest military commanders, M. Potocki and M. Kalinowski. A mere 1,500 horsemen out of the entire army were able to avoid captivity and death. The Polish army in Ukraine essentially ceased to exist. 


However, Poland was still the strongest power in Europe. Several months later, it put together a 100,000-strong army, including a 8,000-strong detachment of German mercenaries and more than 90 cannons.


Two armies met near the village of Pyliavtsi in Podillia. Unable to withstand the onslaught, the Polish troops began their retreat on the night of 14 September 1648, which soon grew into a disorderly flight. After the victory at Pyliavtsi, the Polish gentry in Ukraine was derisively called Pyliavchyky. It was at that time that Ukraine essentially gained independence. In Kyiv, people welcomed Khmelnytsky as “Moses, savior, the liberator of the Rus’ people from Polish captivity ... the pre-eminent ruler of princely Rus’”


The Polish king suffered another defeat and barely escaped captivity in 1649 near Zbarazh in Podillia and thus started negotiations with the Crimean khan who was Khmelnytsky’s ally. Ukraine was forced to sign the Treaty of Zboriv. The king recognized Ukraine’s self-government within the Kyiv, Chernyhiv and Bratslav voivodeships. The hetman had power over these lands. Only Orthodox nobility had the right to take governments positions at all levels in the territory of the Hetman State. The Polish army had no right to be in the territory of Ukraine controlled by the Cossacks. The size of the Zaporozhian Host was limited to a roster of 40,000 persons. The metropolitan of Kyiv had to join the Senate of the Commonwealth. 


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Skirmish between Polish and Cossack cavalry near Kyiv in 1651, painting by the Dutch painter Abraham van Westerveld 


But almost immediately, the Polish government found a casus belli for a new war: peasants did not let landlords into their estates in Ukraine, while the Cossacks asked to increase Ukraine’s autonomy and have the peace treaty signed by the Polish Senate members. 


In 1651, the Tatar cavalry suffered heavy losses from the Polish artillery and began to flee in the Battle of Berestechko in Volhynia. The hetman rushed after the khan to persuade him to return to the battlefield but was held hostage by the khan. The Poles demanded surrender, but the Cossacks refused. At night, the Cossacks under the leadership of the newly elected hetman Ivan Bohun organized a crossing over the swamp, plunging carts into the bog and putting spears on top so that people could roll over them. However, the Polish forces attacked the retreating Cossacks. On one of the islands, several hundred Cossacks fought to the last man despite the enemy’s calls to surrender and promises of life. The last Cossack fought from a boat and used a scythe when he ran out of bullets despite the king’s personal promise of pardon.


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Battle between Cossack and Lithuanian boats on the Dnipro, 1651, painting by Abraham van Westerveld


The Ukrainian hetman was forced to sign the Treaty of Bila Tserkva under which the Cossack register was reduced to 20,000 and the territory of the Cossack state was limited to the borders of the Kyiv voivodeship. Moreover, Polish magnates and nobility were to recover their estates in Ukraine. Alarmed by the appearance of Polish troops, the population of Right-Bank Ukraine abandoned their homes and moved to Left-Bank Ukraine and Sloboda Ukraine. It was at this time that the main wave of Ukrainians came to settle in Sloboda Ukraine, even though the Ukrainian population had been in its western part since the time of Kyivan Rus’. 


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Battle of Berestechko (1651), bas-relief from the tomb of the Polish King John II Casimir in the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris


Soon, the Cossacks went on a successful campaign to Moldova where Khmelnytsky married his son to a local princess. In 1652 the Cossacks engaged in a several hours-long battle near Batih Hill, defeated the 30,000-strong Polish army and broke into the Polish camp. The Polish hetman ordered his men to shoot at Poles who were preparing to flee, but he was soon killed himself like all of the other senior Polish military leaders.


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