The assessment of any historical figure, whoever he was – a knight, a vanity man or a looter – is a difficult matter, ambiguous and useless by many indicators. The values, mentality, and criteria – these all are irreversibly changeable that, maybe, it’s impossible to finally come to a standstill and put a fat full stop.
Hetman Ivan Mazepa was, first and foremost, a politician. Who can succeed in idealizing a politician? His daily activity is an endless chain of tradeoffs: with those who are higher, with those who are close, with those who are lower. And with oneself, of course. Fair enough! With oneself… However, Mazepa’s attribution to the Ukrainian culture is grand, measureless and unprecedented. During the times of his governance, the fine art was blooming, and even more – the architecture. A new style appears – Ukrainian (or Cossack, or Mazepa’s) Barocco. Mazepa was a known Maecenas. He himself was skilled in arts. And to crown it all – Mazepa was feudal, he didn’t waste a chance to double his fortune. The Russian Orthodox Church still didn’t revoke anathema from Hetman Ivan Mazepa – for turning away from their tsar…
But all the above is nothing more than a stingy historical sum-up. Nothing major but dry facts. But do we live by facts and objective historical assessments? Not really. We live by ideas and symbols. So, Hetman Ivan Mazepa is one of the leading Ukrainian symbols. Like Princess Olga. Like Taras Shevchenko. Like Stepan Bandera. His assessment in the exclusively historical plane – his beliefs, activity, intentions, and plans – is now not so important, it had been substituted by symbolic, the sacral meaning of Ivan Mazepa. And in this sense, he is beyond time and beyond dry sober assessment.
Mazepa was born on March 30, 1639, in Mazepyntsi, the Kyiv Voivodeship. The father was a noble, converted to Cossacks in times of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, he served as the Ottoman of Bila Tserkva. The mother came from the old noble Bila Tserkva family. Had gotten married, she devoted herself to the family and upbringing of the children.
As a kid, Ivan was taught fencing, horse riding, military skills. After a while – Kyiv-Mohyla academy: languages, rhetoric, Latin… In his free time, the boy was into the arts, mainly into literature. Maybe, already then he took his writing up.
Mastered the sciences, Ivan no longer stayed at home. The father sent him to the court of the Polish king, John II Casimir. The boy quickly began the king’s page, garnered a great affection of the monarch. Later – until 1659 – Mazepa studied in Europe, where he was sent by the king for honing his education. Returned, he conducted important king’s missions – in the Ottoman Empire, Moscovia, Ukraine. He personally served hetman regalia on Pavlo Teteria. Step by step, he was learning about Ukrainian affairs, got interested, dug deeper and thought. As if he knew that in the future he would need it.
After a thunderous personal conflict with a Polish noble which was likely to have ended with a duel, Mazepa lost the affection of the Polish king and returned to Ukraine.
He lived in a family mansion for a while, in 1669 he joined the ranks of Petro Doroshenko. Since then and till the end of his life, Ivan Mazepa always cared about Ukraine’s government affairs. He married to Hanna Polovets, a bit older than him woman, a widow. Whether they had children or not, is unknown.
Hetman Petro Doroshenko, as once Polish king, intrusted Mazepa difficult and important diplomatic issues. From Rittmeister of the courtyard flag to the General Osaul – here is the career ladder Mazepa managed to develop under Doroshenko’s rule. Maybe, he would have managed to achieve other heights if he hadn’t been captured by the Zaporizhian Cossacks, conducting the regular diplomatic mission. Hetman of the Left Bank Ukraine, Ivan Samoylovych, who was handed over captured Mazepa, was surprised at his experience and knowledge in international affairs and kept him as a prisoner for a while. Mazepa became the military Osaul – now under Samoylovych leadership…
In fact, Ivan Mazepa got Hetman mace in 1687. Samoylovych suddenly fell out of Vasilii Holitsyn’s favor and was sent to Siberia. Mazepa was chosen among three candidates on the military council even though that council had purely formal meaning – the decision had been taken in the highest circles.
Getting the mace, Ivan Mazepa made the unification of the Left Bank, the Right Bank, Zaporizhia and maybe Slobozhanska Ukraine under a single leadership his most important aspiration. The establishment of the strong Hetman authority, the state of the distinctly pro-European type and the preservation of the traditional Cossack order – weren’t the Ukrainian leaders of all times concerned about these noble thoughts?
It was during the times of his rule when Kyiv-Mohyla Collegium received the status of the academy (“Mohyla-Mazepa” academy), the campuses were built, the number of students grew up to two thousand. Mazepa generously allocated money to the church construction. He helped to publish the works of Ukrainian writers – Dmytro Tuptal, Afanasiy Zarudniy, Hryhoriy Dvoyeslov.
Far-sighted, sensible, scrupulous, mercantile, Mazepa actively contributed to the development of industrial production and trade or, speaking the contemporary language, agrarian sector. Under his leadership, the number of cities significantly increased. The merchant layer became much stronger. “From Bohdan to Ivan, there was no Hetman” – such a saying circulated in his times.
Mazepa was more cautious in politics. On starting. He always tried playing the role of the devoted vassal of Moscow. He understood that it’s vain to fight against Moscovia (or, maybe too early?) and that’s why he just tried to secure the maximum autonomy. Despite a strict prohibition of external political relationships, he was on speaking terms with royal courts of Europe, with Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, with Crimea.
After the ascent to the Moscow throne of Tsar Peter I in 1689, the old hetman always gave the young ruler wise advice on state affairs and managed to gain a huge attachment of the monarch – and this, in fact, is not surprising. Moscovian authorities unanimously repeated that “No Hetman was ever more useful and more profitable for the tsar than Ivan Stepanovich Mazepa”. The Ukrainian Hetman received many awards from the king, among them – the Order of St. Andrew, and also the title of the Prince of the Holy Roman Empire.
And maybe it would continue to be so. Maybe, the name Mazepa, written one day by golden letters on the stone of Moscow history, would have remained there, if the story – at the end of Hetman’s life – hadn’t decided to show him some unpleasant cards. Polish ally of Charles XII, Stanisław Leszczyński, threatened to attack Ukraine. Mazepa turned to Petro for help. The tsar replied, “I can’t give even ten people; struggle, as you know,” because he himself expected the attack from the Swedish.
Then Mazepa decided to tackle his state problems in another way. A fundamentally different way. The tsar violated his commitments to support Ukraine – and Mazepa, too, now didn’t consider himself bound by the old promises.
He turned to the army: “Brothers, our time has come; we will take advantage of this incident: we will take revenge on the Moskals for their continued violence over us, for all the cruelties and injustices committed by them, we will preserve our freedom and the rights of the Cossacks from their encroachments for future periods! That’s when it’s time to relinquish their yoke from us and make our Ukraine a free country and not dependent on anyone.”
What was further – no need to retell. All know it. Moscow’s reaction didn’t hesitate: “A new traitor, called Ivashka Mazepa, Ukrainian ex-Hetman or rather – Antichrist’s forerunner, a voracious wolf, covered with a sheep fur, a sneaky theft, the jar of snakes glittering with gold, boasting with honor and dignity but from the inside full of impurity, deceit, evil of the devil, cunning, untruth, enmity, hatred, torment, bloodshed, and murder…”
On this quote, on this rhetoric, which hardly changed until our days, we can finish. But in reality, it is not so important that Ivan Mazepa died in exile, raving about Motria, then mother, then Ukraine. And it is not so important on what day, month or year it happened. It is important that during his rule, for an unprecedentedly long time, almost 22 years – that by the present standards, probably, all 100! – hetman Ivan Mazepa managed to launch those state mechanisms, which brilliant wheels have been turning to this day. Whatever and wherever our and someone else’s history had in mind – Mazepa is beyond the time. The history is powerless – it just barely touches its treacherous waves on his foot.