Kyiv hosts international scholarly conference on Hetman Mazepa and his age

The tragic, controversial, and utterly cruel period of Ivan Mazepa’s reign effectively determined Ukraine’s fate for centuries to come. The hetman, who was one of Ukraine’s most prominent statesmen, has always been and will remain in the focus of attention not only of professional historians but everyone who considers Ukraine their Motherland. Even given the incredible complexity of Mazepa’s personality, the contemporary Ukrainian’s attitude to him is the attitude to the very idea of an independent Ukrainian state as such.

That is precisely why this longest-ruling hetman in Ukrainian history (over 21 years) was deified and cursed, extolled and defamed, admired and hated. People have sought, to a much lesser extent, to understand his accomplishments and failures and comprehend the motives behind his actions. Meanwhile, Mazepa’s rule and the causes and precursors of both the nation’s tragedy and the hetman’s personal misfortune in 1708-09 undoubtedly have academic and practical value because they help us understand why and how a sovereign state can come into being on our territory, and how and why it can perish.

Therefore, the “Mazepa question” is still an extremely relevant topic today, in the light of our present-day ideological and political conflicts. This was the understanding of the participants and guests of the international scholarly conference “Ivan Mazepa and His Age: History, Culture, and National Memory,” which was held at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, with one away session in Poltava. Scholars from Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Sweden, Italy, and other countries set themselves the task of objectively analyzing Mazepa’s role on the basis of older and newly-found historical sources presented in the context of Mazepa’s age and Ukraine’s national history.

In his opening address, Serhii Kvit, the president of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, emphasized that a deep understanding of Mazepa is of paramount importance for Ukraine’s intellectual milieu. There is an urgent need to achieve this understanding in three dimensions: 1) the political dimension: the October 1708 military and political pact between Mazepa and Charles XII of Sweden became the cornerstone of Ukraine’s political tradition; 2) the historical dimension: it is necessary to provide a thorough and comprehensive account of all the circumstances that led Mazepa to take this step; and 3) Mazepa in the context of the history of ideas, which is an extremely interesting, extensive, and little researched topic. According to Kvit, this is the range of issues that historians specializing in Mazepa will have to address.

Professor Viacheslav Briukhovetsky, President Emeritus of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, said that for centuries Mazepa has been considered from only two standpoints: first, for well-known reasons and circumstances he was proclaimed a “traitor,” and second, he was viewed as a flawless national hero, who never made a single serious mistake; an almost iconic figure. Briukhovetsky emphasized that Mazepa was unquestionably a representative of Ukraine’s national elite. (Apropos of elites, we need to remember one basic truth: they do not so much change as a result of political will or election results, but are determined by the course of history.) However, Mazepa did not rise to power simply in order to join the elite; rather, he was an inherently gifted and unique personality.

Academician Valerii Smolii, the director of the Institute of Ukrainian History at the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, reminded the audience that the Mazepist scholarly and literary tradition has deep historical and intellectual roots ranging from scholarly studies to narratives about his private life to folklore. (The folkloric depiction of Mazepa is, incidentally, an exceptionally interesting research topic.) According to Smolii, the event structure of Mazepa’s age is unlikely to be supplemented in the near future because the general outline of what happened is clear.

But this pertains only to the general scheme of things, whereas historical research also requires a mandatory expansion of the source base. Much has already been done in this respect. For example, Hetman Mazepa’s decrees and a two-volume collection of his letters have been published, and there is increasing cooperation among such gifted researchers as Serhii Pavlenko, Viacheslav Stanislavsky, and Tatiana Tairova-Yakovleva. Smolii expressed concern about the huge, and widening, abyss between fundamental and applied research (and, to a certain extent, mass consciousness) which applies also to research on Mazepa.

Vladyslav Verstiuk, one of the directors of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, presented a fascinating paper in which he named Ukraine’s two truly great hetmans — Bohdan Khmelnytsky and Mazepa. The former pointed with his mace in the direction of our northern neighbor, while the latter tried his utmost to free our country from this neighbor. The “unification” of these two distinctly different worlds, the Muscovite kingdom and the Ukrainian Cossack state, was in fact a violent and bloody absorption of the latter by the former, which became irreversible after Mazepa’s defeat at Poltava, thereby setting the stage for further developments.

The interpretation of the Battle of Poltava and its aftermath remains a highly acute political problem, said Verstiuk, which are convincingly demonstrated by two books published in Moscow. One is entitled Vtorzhenie shvedskoi armii na Getmanshchinu. Izmena i tragediia Mazepy (The Incursion of Swedish Troops into the Hetman State: Mazepa’s Treason and Tragedy), while the second is called Bitva pri Lesnoi — mat Poltavskoi viktorii (The Battle of Lesnaia, Mother of the Battle of Poltava). It is easy to understand the positions from which the authors of these “works” describe the events of 1708-09 and their decisive impact on Ukraine. It should be added that both of these books were published by the Institute of Russian History at the Russian Academy of Sciences within the framework of the government-sponsored patriotic education program for 2008-2009. Both works contain the epigraph “For Russian-Ukrainian Fraternity.”

The presence (and the very existence) of our Ukrainian state was indicated at the conference only by the fact that Briukhovetsky read a message to the conference participants from President Viktor Yushchenko, which states in part: “After many centuries Mazepa is attracting increasing attention from historians and the general public. It is symbolic that your conference is being held at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy to whose development our glorious hetman made a great contribution. He was an outstanding military leader and statesman, and a builder of culture. The peak of Mazepa’s diplomatic activity was the signing of the Ukrainian-Swedish military and political pact whose 300th anniversary we will be marking at the end of this year.” The members of Ukraine’s top government bodies were conspicuous by their absence, with only one staff member of the Presidential Secretariat in attendance.

The opening addresses were followed by thematic discussions. Dr. Taras Chukhlib spoke about the role of the Ukrainian Hetman state in international relations during the Great Northern War. He dwelled on the motives behind Mazepa’s decision in the context of the norms governing international relations in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. They required mutual military and political responsibility from rulers of different calibers (in this case, Peter I and Mazepa), rather than the blind subordination of one to the other. Dr. Chukhlib also noted that after the Battle of Poltava the Russian tsar viewed Ukraine as merely one of the provinces in the empire he was crafting rather than an autonomous Cossack state with its own system of self-government.

Swedish historian Kristian Gerner spoke on the topic “Ukraine and Sweden: Constructing a Shared History.” In his opinion, the Ukrainian Cossack state was an outpost of Europeanness on the territory of Eastern Europe, which was convincingly exemplified by the Ukrainian Baroque of the 17th and 18th centuries and the works of Lazar Baranovych. Mazepa found himself in a situation where he had no other way of defending the independent Ukrainian Cossack state except by doing what he did, said the Swedish historian. This is confirmed by data from Swedish archives, which, as Gerner stressed, are always open to Ukrainian researchers, and the younger generation is especially welcome to make use of them. Now that Ukraine is on its way to the community of democratic European states, new vistas for efficient cooperation in this area are opening up.

“Ivan Mazepa made an outstanding contribution to the creation of the Russian Empire by maintaining close ties to Peter I for 18 years and acting as his closest adviser for military, diplomatic, and even ecclesiastical affairs, until such time as the interests of the Ukrainian Hetmanate (to be more precise, its ruling military elite-I.S.) and the emergent Russian Empire went their separate ways once and for all.” This paradoxical, and even tragic, thesis was voiced by Tatiana Tairova-Yakovleva, who spoke on the topic “Ivan Mazepa and the Russian Empire.”

This noted Russian historian said that the fact that Mazepa was effectively a hostage to the rapidly changing situation in Russia played a fatal role in his life. In the fall of 1708, when Charles XII’s troops were advancing into the territory of the Hetmanate, Mazepa, who was acknowledged by Peter I as second in rank in the whole empire after Chancellor Fedor Golovin, and who played an extremely important role in his accession to power in 1689, found himself in a dire predicament.

This tragic situation was observed in the subsequent history of Ukraine many more times: before openly speaking in favor of an independent Ukrainian state, prominent Ukrainian statesmen were forced to serve the interests of a country that was alien, if not loathsome, to them. They often did so in a brilliant and professional way for decades, thereby undermining their fellow countrymen’s trust in them. See Tatiana Tairova-Yakovleva’s interview with The Day in the current issue.