Bogdan Chmielnicki

The Cossack leader Bogdan Chmielnicki (1595-1657) led the Dnieper Cossacks in the Ukrainian war of liberation against Polish rule in 1648.

Bogdan Chmielnicki, or Khmelnitskii, was born in Pereyaslav in the Polish-controlled Ukraine. His father was a registered Cossack and proprietor of a small farm and flour mill at Czehrin near the Dnieper River. Bogdan was educated in the school of one of the Orthodox brotherhoods and also studied at the Jesuit school in Yaroslav.

When his father died, Chmielnicki assumed management of the small family estate. He ran into difficulty, however, when a Polish lord claimed ownership of the land. Chmielnicki was summoned before a tribunal and dispossessed of his small estate. He eventually fled to the south, where he joined the Zaporozhan Cossacks. Anxious for revenge, Chmielnicki raised an army from among the Cossacks, and he also gained wide support from the Crimean Tatars and the oppressed Russian peasantry of the Ukraine. In the spring of 1648, with a force of about 300,000 men, he defeated two Polish armies sent against him.

The rather limited character of Chmielnicki's ambitions enabled a peace treaty to be concluded with the Polish king in August 1649. Chmielnicki was recognized as hetman, or Cossack leader, and allowed to retain an armed force of 40,000 Cossacks, but no provision was made for the peasantry, thousands of whom had immigrated to the Donets Basin under Russian protection. War broke out again in 1650, and Chmielnicki, now deserted by the Crimean Tatars, was compelled to accept a peace which reduced the number of registered Cossacks to 20,000.

At this point Chmielnicki sent an urgent appeal to Alexis, the Russian czar, for support. Although he had ignored earlier appeals, Alexis agreed to take Hetman Chmielnicki and his entire army, "with their towns and lands," under his protection. The final agreement was made at Pereyaslav in January 1654. Although there is some debate over its meaning, the agreement seems to have represented unconditional Ukrainian acceptance of Moscow's authority. It should be noted, however, that in later years the Ukrainians acquired good reason to complain of the Russian government, which eventually abrogated entirely the considerable autonomy granted to the Ukrainians after they had sworn allegiance to the Muscovite czar.

Chmielnicki died on Aug. 6, 1657. His death opened the way for a succession of hetmans, who thought of Poland as a lesser danger than their Russian protectors. Their policy split the Ukraine; the left bank of the Dnieper tended to support Muscovy and carried on a civil war with the Polish sympathizers on the right bank. The Treaty of Andrusovo in 1667 confirmed this division.


Further Reading on Bogdan Chmielnicki

The only biography of Chmielnicki in English is George Vernadsky, Bogdan, Hetman of the Ukraine (1941). Brief sketches of Chmielnicki are presented in William Cresson, The Cossacks: Their History and Country (1919), and Maurice Hindus, The Cossacks: The Story of a Warrior People (1945). The best general history of the period is V. O. Kliuchevskii, A History of Russia, vol. 3 (1931).