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The other Bohdan

Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky and discords within the Cossack state
By Volodymyr HORAK
#26, Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky is one of the most vivid personalities in the history of Ukraine. In our perception he was an outstanding Ukrainian politician, talented military leader, and mouthpiece of the age-long yearnings of the Ukrainian people. But there was also another Bohdan a strict and sometimes despotic ruler, who did not spare his countrymen’s blood for the sake of preserving and reinforcing the model of a Ukrainian state that he deemed best, even though it was at variance with how Ukrainians pictured the new Cossack state.

In the fall of 1649 the Kingdom of Poland and Ukraine concluded the Treaty of Zboriv, which marked the end of the first stage in the Ukrainian liberation struggle led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky. This treaty was a compromise and, as it happens with compromises, it did not fully satisfy either side. In general, the treaty was more advantageous for Poland, especially in view of the fact that shortly before it was signed the Polish state had found itself at the brink of extinction. The treaty included a clause permitting the Polish nobility to return to Ukraine and restore its ownership rights. Furthermore, it limited the number of registered Cossacks to 40,000; other paramilitaries, an estimated 300,000 people who had participated in the national liberation struggle, had to revert to their pre-revolutionary state of serfdom with the grim prospect of toiling for the odious Polish landlords.

Readers may perceive these points in the Treaty of Zboriv as Khmelnytsky’s betrayal of the peasants and Cossacks. However, such an assessment is too simplistic. Of course, no one in the Ukrainian revolutionary camp not the hetman, Cossack officers (starshyna), city dwellers, rank-and-file Cossacks, or the peasants desired the return of the Polish nobility. It must be emphasized that the Treaty of Zboriv was signed under heavy pressure from the Crimean khan, who had effectively blackmailed Khmelnytsky by his threat to switch over with his army to the Rzecz Pospolita. If that had happened, Khmelnytsky would have faced the unappealing prospect of fighting two powerful enemy forces rather than one. Without serious help from other countries, above all Russia, this would have jeopardized the achievements of the Ukrainian national revolution.

By signing the Treaty of Zboriv, Khmelnytsky gained what Vladimir Lenin at one time called a “peaceful respite.” However, there was one circumstance that was very dangerous both for Khmelnytsky and his closest associates among the Cossack officers. The problem was that, for various reasons, rank-and-file Ukrainian Cossacks and ordinary peasants were unable to understand all the intricacies of the fairly complicated political and diplomatic game that the hetman was playing at the time. These people had a much simpler and, in their own way, logical, perception of Khmelnytsky: he was a revolutionary leader who had turned traitor. In this case, what were the lower strata of Cossacks and peasants to do? Some of them decided to put up physical resistance against the implementation of the perfidious treaty, while others resolved to overthrow the hetman himself.

After a short while, in complete accordance with the Treaty of Zboriv, the Polish gentry headed for Ukraine, accompanied by military units. One of these men was the nobleman Korecki, who once owned a large estate in Volhynia. However, the local peasants were not inclined to wait passively for the yoke of their old landlord to settle on their shoulders, so they promptly organized themselves into several large military units and defeated Korecki’s army in a bloody battle.

The defeated Polish landlord was already thinking about returning to Poland in disgrace when he found an unexpected ally. This was none other than Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the latter-day sworn enemy of all Polish nobles. At first Khmelnytsky suggested that the Volhynian peasants voluntarily submit to Korecki. However, realizing that he would not be able to persuade them, Khmelnytsky resorted to force and cruelly quelled the rebellion. Many Volhynians who had stood up for their rights paid with their lives. Some historical data suggest that in terms of his punishing cruelty Khmelnytsky was the equal of the butcher Jeremi Wisniowiecki. Many peasants died a horrible death by impalement on orders of the hetman.

However, “father Khmel” did not frequently resort to this kind of violent action. Much more often he would address appeals to both the nobility returning to Ukraine and the Ukrainian peasants. He advised the former to refrain from organizing repressions against the local population, and the latter, not to mount any resistance. Understandably, this kind of peacemaking tactic by the hetman was doomed to failure from its inception. The radically-minded Ukrainian lower classes were by no means willing to accept the restoration of the Polish nobles’ pre-revolutionary rights, which meant that they could regain their family estates only by fire and sword.

Korecki, “the ruler of Volhynia,” was a spoiled child of fortune other landowners of various magnitudes were far less fortunate. In Bratslav, Kyiv, and Poltava regions and in other places there were dozens of large and well-armed units of Cossacks and peasants. Their mere presence precluded the return of the Poles to their estates. Khmelnytsky, of course, had no way of taking in hand the strong anti-Polish opposition, which was a natural response of the Ukrainian people to the oppressors’ terror.

Khmelnytsky’s political standing, which was very high right after his signal victories over Polish forces near Zhovti Vody, Korsun, and Pyliavtsi, later plummeted almost to zero. A telling event took place in the Zaporozhian Sich: in February 1650, soon after the Cossacks entrusted Khmelnytsky with the hetman’s mace, an uprising broke out and he was overthrown. The rebels elected as their hetman Yakiv Khudolii, a radical Cossack and implacable enemy of Poland. A wave of anti-Polish riots broke out in some cities and towns, with one of the greatest insurrections taking place in the city of Kalnyk. Kyiv, too, was on the verge of serious disturbances: Kyivites were planning the speedy overthrow of voievoda Adam Kysel, who was supported at the time by Khmelnytsky himself.

The hetman did not make a single attempt at a peaceful resolution of the disputes with the radical opposition. Rather, he counted on suppressing all the uprisings with force. In September 1650 Khmelnytsky issued an edict envisaging the death penalty for participation in the uprisings. He sent a punitive unit to the Zaporozhian Sich, which quickly quelled the Cossack rebellion. Khudolii, the newly elected hetman, was arrested and later executed in the hetman’s capital, Chyhyryn. Khmelnytsky’s forces suppressed a popular uprising in Kalnyk with equal swiftness by publicly executing its five leaders. The Kyiv voievoda was rescued from certain death-the Cossacks dispelled a huge crowd of his enemies on Khmelnytsky’s order.

Some of Khmelnytsky’s commanders, like the colonel of Bratslav, Danylo Nechai, and the colonel of Chernihiv, Martyn Nebaba, began to protest against his domestic policy. They and some other Cossack commanders could easily eat at the same table with the hetman, but in private they called him a traitor and Polish servant.

Nechai commanded a 30,000-strong mixed army of Cossacks and peasants in whose quarters the Polish nobles had no chance of restoring their rights. At one point his army, reinforced by several large Turkish squads, approached Chyhyryn and issued an ultimatum to Khmelnytsky: either he stops acting in the interests of the Rzecz Pospolita, or they would elect a new hetman for themselves. Employing his undeniable talent for diplomatic intrigue, Khmelnytsky managed to relieve the tension and avoid being deposed. Shortly afterwards, under pressure from the Poles, he had Nechai arrested. The Polish royal government demanded that Khmelnytsky immediately execute the troublemaker. However, the hetman did not dare execute the popular commander and later released him with a strict warning not to continue his resistance efforts against the Polish nobility under threat of severe punishment. More and more frequently Cossack officers received the same order from Khmelnytsky-to suppress popular uprisings by any means.

In 1651 Polish troops defeated Khmelnytsky’s army near Berestechko. Soon the hetman was forced to sign a new treaty with Poland, with far fewer advantageous conditions than were set out in the Treaty of Zboriv: the Cossack register was reduced by half to 20,000, the Polish nobility ascertained its right to restore the old privileges, Cossacks were allowed to reside only in Kyiv region, and Polish forces were to be stationed in Ukraine.

Naturally, the new treaty with Poland enraged the peasants and Cossacks even more than the Treaty of Zboriv. When Khmelnytsky publicly announced its contents in Bila Tserkva, a crowd of raging Cossacks surged towards him. Fearing that he would be lynched, the hetman, his escort, and several Polish diplomats were forced to seek shelter in the Bila Tserkva castle, which soon came under intense fire. The royal diplomats interpreted the situation to the effect that Khmelnytsky was facing imminent death. Wishing to avoid his fate, they tried to escape furtively from the castle but were detained by a Cossack insurgent unit.

It is difficult to predict what would have happened to Khmelnytsky and the Polish envoys had not his faithful troops come to their rescue at the right time. The Bila Tserkva uprising was suppressed, and Khmelnytsky and the Polish diplomats were saved. The hetman ordered a public execution of 15 leaders of the uprising, including two Cossack colonels. On his orders nearly 100 Cossacks from the unit that had captured the Polish king’s diplomats were shot.

Nonetheless, despite these cruel punitive measures, the uprisings and rebellions did not abate. Insurgents rose up against two enemies at once the Polish landlords and Khmelnytsky the traitor, as he was called. These insurgencies, which posed a real threat to the hetman’s government, reached their apogee in the spring of 1652. At this time the lower classes elected a series of insurgent otamans, among them Lukian Mozyria, Vdovychenko, Khmeletsky, Buhai, Dediulia, Hladky, Podobailo, Sulyma, and other commanders. No doubt Nechai would have been in their ranks as well had he not died a year earlier, in 1651, while defending the young Ukrainian state from invading Polish troops. It should be noted that there was a considerable military force behind these radical commanders. For example, the Zaporozhian otaman Sulyma alone commanded 10,000 Cossack insurgents.

Some of the radically-minded Cossack commanders (Vdovychenko, Buhai, Khmeletsky, and Hladky) refused to acknowledge Khmelnytsky’s authority and proclaimed themselves alternative hetmans. Continuing Khudolii’s cause, Sulyma proposed stripping Khmelnytsky of his power and transferring the hetman’s mace to his older son Tymofii. The insurgents had a serious intention of uniting their forces, marching to Chyhyryn, and killing Khmelnytsky there.

However, judging by everything, his opponents failed to create a united insurgent army. Taking advantage of this, the hetman’s troops defeated the insurgents and captured most of their leaders. Their fate was predestined: Mozyria was hanged (according to some sources, he was shot to death in the presence of Polish emissaries) and Hladky was beheaded. The Orthodox nobleman Khmeletsky also suffered a tragic death: following the order of the hetman’s court he, too, was beheaded. Later, in 1653, Khmelnytsky subdued the Zaporozhian Sich once again by sending large punitive forces there.

Ukrainians’ opposition to Khmelnytsky’s rule was manifested in other ways. In 1652, disappointed by his policy, thousands of commoners and their wives and children left Ukraine, settling on the territory of today’s Kharkiv and Voronezh oblasts, which were then part of tsarist Russia. Facts show that Khmelnytsky was unable to counteract this migration of people.

Ukraine’s transference in 1654 under the “high hand” of the Russian tsar was a pivotal moment in the Ukrainian-Polish war. With such a powerful ally as tsarist Russia, Khmelnytsky was no longer forced into compromises with Poland. Hence, Ukrainians were no longer threatened with the restoration of Polish rule. However, the old social antagonisms (between the Polish nobility and the majority of Ukrainians) were replaced by new ones between the lower strata of Ukrainian society and the new Ukrainian elite. This elite, which supplanted the previous Polish blue-blooded elite, was comprised of the hetman and his loyal Cossack officers. As ruler of Ukraine, Khmelnytsky made considerable efforts to turn his commanders into large, feudal-type landowners. Over 20 of his universals addressed this task. Of course, Khmelnytsky did not forget about himself either. By joining the estates of the Polish magnates, the Potockis and Koniecpolskis, Khmelnytsky effectively became one of the richest Ukrainians of his day.

The realization that they were masters of the situation came quickly to the Cossack officers, and they began tormenting rank-and-file Cossacks with all kinds of requisitions. According to some accounts, these turned out to be heavier than those imposed during Polish rule. This could not fail to give rise to another wave of antagonistic moods in Ukraine, which intensified particularly in late 1656 and early 1657, when the Zaporozhian Sich became the center of an anti-hetman opposition. Insurgent Cossacks were intending to stage a campaign against “Chyhyryn, the hetman, his secretary, colonels, and other Cossack officers.” However, in the spring of 1657 Khmelnytsky’s forces suppressed the insurgency, executing all of its leaders. This was the last punitive campaign of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, who died in August 1657.

Volodymyr Horak is a historian based in Ukraine.

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