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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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Ukraine Today July 19, 2009, 7:08 p.m.    

Thanks you/. At long last someone has put depicted Mazepa for what he was.

There are many lesson to be learnt from the Battle of Poltava that even apply today. The main one was the need for Politicians to represent to views of Ukrainians and not expect the Ukrainian people to blindly follow the leader. The falsification and attempts to r-writ history is of history is of major concern. When I first visited Poltava I had th opportunity to do so accompanied with a Swedish friend.

There are many Swedish tourists who visit Poltava. It would be great if the Swedish Government would offer to build a museum along the lines of the Vasa Ship to commemorate this battle. It could be backed up by a multi-media display or the battle and how it was played out and the lives of the soldiers at the time. Ukraine's history and connection to Sweden for back to the first settlement.

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Ukraine Today July 19, 2009, 7:14 p.m.    

It will be good when Ukraine finally gets around to redesigning their currency and turns the 10 Grv note into a coin. In looking at Ukraine's currency the other day I noticed that there is a small "Masonic" mark (two inverted "V"s) on some notes and coins. Could KP kindly write a story on why this symbol is on some of Ukraine's notes and coins?

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Lillian Horodysky July 21, 2009, 5:22 p.m.    

It's clear that the author doesn't understand the reality of Mazepa's situation and he is biased because he is Russian.

Mazepa had at an early point in his life, entered military service of the newly organized Ukrainian Cossak state, which had received help from Russia in shaking off Polish rule - and was given an autonomous status under Russia. Mazepa quickly rose through the ranks & became Hetman. He kept good relations with Peter I, while being able to keep Ukrainian automony.

He reigned-in various rebellious groups; built schools, churches & developed commerce in his jursdiction. Under him, everything flourished. He always wanted an independent state, but carefully built trust with Peter I until the time was right to break. When the war with Sweden started, he felt it was the right time to break from Russia; responding to the discontent of the people with their rights being violated, oppression & Peter's harsh demands were begining to threaten the Cossak state.

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Lillian Horodysky July 21, 2009, 5:34 p.m.    

Just as the Russians cannot accept Ukraine looking west today, they still lament when Mazepa was looking west centuries ago - challenging Russia for it's own flegling democratic independence. The Russians always call for Slavic unification, but they only want to dominate and destroy as history has shown.

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Anonymous Jan. 6, 2012, 4:58 p.m.    

Mazepa didn't have the majority support of Cossacks when he went against Russia.

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Anonymous Jan. 6, 2012, 5:04 p.m.    

Yes, Peter's support for Mazepa was crucial in maintaing the latter's grip on power.

There's no conclusive proof that Mazepa wanted to be something other than a regional chief as opposed to a separatist one.

In point of fact, most of the Cossacks on what's now known as Ukraine opposed his shift in alliance.

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Jaroslaw Sawka July 23, 2009, 11:38 p.m.    

Boris is the spin master with amnesia. It was Peter the NOT so Great (adopting a calender the rest of Europe was disgarding into garbage) who PANICKED when nearly surrounded by Swedish forces and began preparing papers of surrender until word reached him that Charles was wounded in battle! Mazepa did NOT panic because it is well known by EVERYONE except Boris Kagarlitsky that he was plotting for a long time to save Ukraine from the slow but certain genocide of the Russian bear, and he was correct -what kind of people kill every man,woman and child as was done in Baturyn!

Our Boris,the reliable propagandist, seems to have amnesia about the Baturyn massacre carried out Russian style...nothing comparable did the Ukrainians ever do to Russians.

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Anonymous Jan. 6, 2012, 5:08 p.m.    

Mazepa was certainly not great and defintely not greater than Peter.

Mazepa proved to be a loser, much unlike Peter.

The so-called &quot;Batura massacre&quot; was during a time of war. The armed combatants in that area were given the option to peacefully surrender. Instead, they chose to remain, after which a victorious attack was made. There were many survivors who were given the option to live in the Russian Empire with no discrimination against them.

Fortunately, most Ukrainians don't buy into the kind of bigoted anti-Russian nonsense that the likes of yourself state.

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