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Mazepa was no national hero; he simply panicked

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July 16, 2009, 7:39 p.m. | Op-ed — by Boris Kagarlitsky
Boris Kagarlitsky writes that Ivan Mazepa, right up until the moment he switched to the Swedish side in the Battle of Poltava 300 years ago, was very pro-Russian. Moscow and Kyiv have found something new to argue about, and who would have thought that it would be an event that happened 300 years ago — the Battle of Poltava.

Of all the many events in Russian and European history, the Battle of Poltava is remarkably one of the least controversial. Its result, historical significance and consequences are never questioned. Both Swedish and Russian historians amicably agree that the battle marked the end of Sweden’s status as a dominant power and the emergence of the Russian empire at the forefront of Europe’s political life.

Russian and Swedish forces battled at Poltava, and Ukraine — which was split along the shore of the Dnipro River into the Polish and Muscovite parts — was nothing but the site of a major European confrontation. England, France, Denmark, Saxony and even Turkey were the countries that had the most at stake in the war’s outcome. The Battle of Poltava made a difference in one way or another for each of these countries, but it had little impact on Ukraine.

Unfortunately, the cause for the new ideological spat between Moscow and Kyiv is the fact that Ukrainian Kozak hetman Ivan Mazepa aligned himself with the Swedish forces against the Russians. Mazepa’s switch to the Swedish side is little more than a footnote in his personal biography. He underestimated the strength of the Russian army under Peter the Great.

Mazepa, whose portrait is widely featured during Ukrainian holidays, is perhaps the least appropriate figure to be honored as a national hero. Right up until he joined forces with the Swedes, Mazepa was very pro-Russia. He zealously worked to carry out Moscow’s policies in Ukraine and did more than any other hetman to turn Ukraine into a province of the Russian Empire. But when the supposedly invincible Swedish army appeared on the Ukrainian border, the hetman panicked and ran for cover by switching to the Swedish side.

The problem was that Mazepa could only offer the Swedish forces about 300 men — his personal guards and close associates. Making matters worse for the Swedes, Mazepa was unanimously replaced by hetman Ivan Skoropadsky, who brought a full complement of Ukrainian Cossack fighters to aid Peter the Great’s army at Poltava.

Who would have thought that 300 years later such a minor episode in the Great Northern War would become the subject of a political quarrel?

Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko declared the Battle of Poltava to be a tragedy and that the Swedish defeat deprived Ukraine of the chance to be independent and to develop along European lines. It sometimes happens that a person takes credit for another’s victory, but only the present Ukrainian administration has displayed the creativity to take credit for someone else’s defeat.

Ukraine’s political games with history have caused bewilderment in Sweden and indignation in Russia. But do Yushchenko’s antics differ substantially from the Kremlin’s own struggle against the “falsifiers of history”?


Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute of Globalization Studies in Moscow. The column was first published in the Moscow Times and is reprinted with the author's permission.
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