Ivan Stepanovich Mazepa

The Ukrainian Cossack leader Ivan Stepanovich Mazepa (ca. 1644-1709) is considered a traitor by Russian historians, a great patriot by Ukrainian historians.

Neither the place nor the date of the birth of Ivan Mazepa can be given with certainty, but there is evidence that he was born a Polish subject in what is now the Ukraine and that his parents were landed gentry of the Eastern Orthodox faith. He received an excellent education and then went into the service of the Polish king John Casimir as a courtier. Soon, however, he became involved in a scandal, was dismissed from the royal court, and was forced to return to his home. There, his amorous misconduct provoked a jealous husband into having him bound naked to the back of an unreined horse and exposed to the uncertainty of rescue. When extricated from that misadventure, he left for the eastern Ukraine and entered the military service of the newly organized Ukrainian Cossack state, which had received Russian aid in shaking off Polish rule and accepted autonomous status under Russia.

On the strength of his ability and cleverness, Mazepa advanced rapidly, reaching the rank of inspector general while still in his early 30s. He also succeeded in winning favor among influential men in Moscow and, when Peter I became czar, in gaining his complete confidence. With the aid of his Russian friends, he was elected hetman (chief) of the Ukrainian Cossack state in 1687.

As hetman, Mazepa found it necessary to devote much of his time to coping with turbulent and rebellious groups under his jurisdiction. But he managed to build new schools and churches in the area and to bring a measure of justice to the peasants and the rank-and-file Cossacks. His chief goal became the freeing of his people from Russian domination and the formation, under his rule, of an independent state including all of the Ukraine. Yet he was careful to continue cultivating the Czar's trust, even at the cost of sending Cossack contingents to fight for Russia, in order to gain time for finding the outside assistance he would need to achieve his ultimate goal.

The war between Russia and Sweden which began in 1700 fed the discontent among the hetman's people as it dragged on, disrupting their commerce and giving the Czar reason to call an increased number of them into combat. Hoping to capitalize on this discontent as well as to take advantage of Sweden's hostility to Russia, Mazepa began secret negotiations in 1705 with Sweden and Poland, then under a pro-Swedish ruler. The outcome was an understanding that a united Ukraine ruled by Mazepa would be federated with Poland in return for Mazepa's provision of aid to Sweden. Rumors of these traitorous dealings reached Czar Peter, but he retained his faith in the hetman; and Mazepa, while waiting for a favorable opportunity to join the Swedes, continued to maintain the appearance of loyalty to the Czar.

When Sweden's Charles XII invaded Russia in the fall of 1708, Mazepa believed that his opportunity had come. He expected to be able to summon not only the Ukrainian Cossacks but also other Cossacks and the Crimean Tatars to follow him to the Swedish side. When ordered by Peter to bring his Cossacks to join the Russians, he pleaded illness as an excuse for delay, hoping to gain time in which to organize a large-scale defection. However, he soon learned that he was not to have that time, for one of the Czar's most trusted generals, accompanied by a military contingent, was on the way to Baturin, the Cossack headquarters, to investigate.

With no choice but to flee before he had completed preparations for an open break, Mazepa hastily left Baturin with about 1,500 Cossacks late in October and, calling all other Cossacks to join him, made his way to the chief Swedish camp in the northern part of the Ukraine. The consequences of that flight were inauspicious for his cause: few Cossacks answered his call, the Russian troops ravaged Baturin, and the Czar tightened his hold over the Ukrainian Cossacks by having a docile hetman elected to replace Mazepa.

The only hope remaining for Mazepa lay in Swedish military strength; and when the Swedes were decisively defeated by the Russians at Poltava on June 27, 1709, even that hope was dissipated. He had to join Charles XII in hazardous flight to Turkey, the nearest place of safety. Despite Peter's efforts to extradite Mazepa, the aged and ailing hetman was given sanctuary in Turkey. He died there, of natural causes, a few months later.

Further Reading on Ivan Stepanovich Mazepa

There is very little material in English on Mazepa. A brief and interesting account of his life is given in Clarence Manning, The Story of the Ukraine (1947).

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