The Myth of Mazepa

In Russian historiography the Battle of Poltava is seen as a defining moment in Russian state building; a path towards establishing its Empire, and becoming a major player in European political culture. Victory over Charles XII and the Swedish Empire allowed Moscow to expand externally, while internally centralizing and synthesizing the socio-political identity of the Russian people. The Ukrainian historical narrative, however, also views this event as part of its growth towards statehood – but for opposite reasons. The emergence of the Ukrainian nation-state in the 20th century has led to scholarly debate concerning the historical significance of the war, which has become just as much a beacon for the unification of the Ukrainian people as it has persisted in the past for the Russians. The debate’s impasse fixates itself on the events leading up to the Battle of Poltava, and more to the point, the historiographical interpretations of Ivan Mazepa: the 17th century leader of the Cossack polity who achieved notoriety for abruptly rebelling against the Tsar after years of faithful service.

In the shadow of the Russo-Ukrainian war of 2014, the tale of Ivan Mazepa and both Moscow and Ukraine’s perspectives then and now should act as a reminder of the constant cycle of Russian demonization of those who rebel, and Ukraine’s near-religion to rebellious counter culture that continues to this day.

When placing the Russian and Ukrainian narratives side by side, there is a significant overlap in the amount of events discussed. However, by nature of their viewpoints, each interprets the significance and meaning of these events in entirely different ways. At the core of this divide is the Russian belief in an autocratic state that subordinates all of its social groups, while in direct opposition is that of the Ukrainian narrative which is deeply associated with notions of elemental revolt and a vision towards national independence.[1] In regards to Mazepa, the former cemented his legacy with that of treachery, while the latter sees him as a symbol of an eternal national struggle against foreign occupation. This divergence in the way Mazepa is characterized has resulted in two diametrically opposed viewpoints, both of which overemphasize, and omit, relevant historical information. The consequences of this have resulted in the politicizing and flawed biopic historicization of a man who is neither deserving of contemptuous vilification nor overt heroization. By engaging in non-partisan analysis of the events leading up to and including the Battle of Poltava, we can better understand not only the justification for each historical perspective, but also why each does not entirely correspond to the reality of the situation.




To properly give context to the events used to justify (or repeal) the definition of Mazepa as a traitor, it is important to first understand the relationship of the Hetmanate (Cossack state) to Moscow, and the political climate shift that occurred over the course of their association with one another. Firstly, the Treaty of Pereyaslav (1654) which saw the Cossacks unite with the Russian state can be seen as an exchange of loyalty for legal and religious protection. Though the Hetmanate viewed their rights recognized by Moscow as a de jure recognition of sovereignty, the Tsar interpreted this as de facto annexation rather than cooperation. In reality, the autocratic influence of Moscow did not initially penetrate the Ukrainian lands all too much. The agency of foreign affairs (Malorossiiskii Prikaz) drew distinct legal boundaries between the two regions.[2] Further to the point, the Hetmanate had its own diplomat in Moscow to voice complaints directly to the Tsar, and the taxes collected were minimal and not collected with any regularity (they did not even cover the cost needed to station Russian troops in cities).[3] Although the relationship between the two states was one of alliance and co-existence, scholars agree it was a foregone conclusion that Ukraine would be completely absorbed into the Russian state with time, and that it was the Russian Tsar Peter himself who sought to undermine what autonomy remained.[4]

In Dolbilov and Miller’s book, Zapadnye okrainy Rossiiskoi imperii, they hold that the Cossack political community was “too immature to be considered a genuine state.”[5] Subtelny describes the two requirements of statehood to be the possession of both a standing army and a specialized bureaucracy.[6] While on the periphery they met these requirements, they lacked specialization in either of these distinct areas.[7] So, while the Hetmanate sought out a mutually beneficial alliance or confederation, the reality of the transaction was that Muscovy would further fulfill these functions as well as its own as an absolutist state, while the Hetmanate would recede its autonomy to that of a protectorate or vassal state, bound in obedience. The terms of obedience between vassal and overlord define both the expected conduct between the Hetmanate and Russia, as well as the personal relationship Mazepa would have with Peter.

Moscow’s view


Like many other topics that have been vigorously silenced or cast as taboo within the Russian or later Soviet historiography, these narratives maintained a stranglehold over how events were to be interpreted. Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian historical narrative existed in unison, and not parallel, with that of Russia’s history. For Russians, textbook definition of Mazepa was that of a “disgraceful traitor who abandoned his allegiance to the Russian Tsar Peter the Great.”[8] During the Soviet era, the name of Mazepa was associated with Ukrainian political leaders such as Mykhailo Hrushevsky and Symon Petliura.[9] This sentiment did not belong to Russians alone. It has been documented that the consensus among Ukrainian authors was that Mazepa’s revolt was “the most vivid example of Cossack antagonism toward Russia.”[10] The Russian state, in order to perpetuate the ‘Petrine myth’, enshrined Mazepa as more than just a military traitor, but rather one who betrayed Orthodox Christianity and the unity of Slavic peoples itself.[11] This condemnation of Mazepa’s “unpardonable sin” has held legacy for more two hundred years since the Battle of Poltava with the Russian Orthodox Church continuing his anathematization on an annual basis.[12] The legend of his actions grew exponentially. As Peter instituted reforms which abolished Ukrainian autonomy, pretext was needed and Mazepa’s regime was cast as a scapegoat. In 1722, he declared the purpose of his new committee (the Kollegiia) to be “for no other purpose than to protect the [Ukrainian] people from the unfairness of their courts and oppression of the [Cossack officers].”[13]

In addition to the political reasons to vilify Mazepa, it need also be noted that the first historiography of Russia, The Sinopsis, appeared in 1670-74. In it, Ukraine is presented as an inseparable part of the Russian nation.[14] A rejection of meta-Russian nationality,[15] and abridging the historical narrative of the two nations, it disinherited the Ukrainian claim to ‘historic statehood.’[16] As a figure who attempted to cede lands from the Russian autocracy and divide the unity acquired by the Orthodox Church, it is easy to understand why such a large number people, Russian and Ukrainian alike, took reproach with Mazepa’s actions.


A game of thrones


A matter of contention among historians of either narrative is whether Mazepa desired Ukrainian independence apart from the influence of Muscovy, or if he instead sought political and territorial reunion with the Polish state. These two concepts are at odds as the former cites a need to reacquire the freedoms, which the Treaty of Pereyaslav originally brought, as a cause for divorce with Russia, while the latter implies Mazepa’s intention to undo the treaty entirely. Textbooks of the Soviet period state “Mazepa sought to return Left-bank Ukraine to Polish control” while striking “secret deals with Poland and Sweden against Russia.”[17] While dismissed documentation of the events, such as the Istoria Rusov (1770), state that collusion with Poland was driven by a desire for personal vengeance,[18] Nicholas Kostomarov, an historian and biographer of Mazepa, agrees with this assessment in principle. He describes Mazepa as an “egoist in the trust sense of the word,” who was not only a traitor to Russia, but to Ukrainian society and its democratic structure.[19]

The portrayal of Mazepa as man against all may seem excessive, but there is overt evidence to support it. In September of 1707 Tsar Peter sent instructions to Mazepa in confidence, outlining his intent to not return the city of Bila Tserkva and its environs to Poland in contradiction to a previous agreement between the two.[20] Mazepa proceeded to reveal these plans to the Polish Wojewoda in hopes of playing the sides off one another, revealing to them Peter’s intent on seizing territory beyond Lviv (for more on these discussion’s see Orest Subtelny’s On the eve of Poltava : The letters of Ivan Mazepa to Adam Sieniawski).[21] In another instance of diplomatic backroom dealings, Mazepa refused the Tsar’s request to send 10,000 Cossacks to the aid of Polish noble and military leader Adam Sieniawski, exclaiming that Cossacks would not work under Polish rule.[22] Interestingly enough, secret correspondences inked by Mazepa show that by the summer of 1708 he had actually been plotting alongside Sieniawski in a game of thrones, pressing him to obtain the Polish Crown.[23] In direct contradiction to his previous statements, Mazepa assured Sieniawski that the Cossacks would unquestionably serve him. As Subtelny explains, Mazepa’s correspondence with Sieniawski shows that he wanted to give the impression to Poland that “the Commonwealth had no greater opportunity to regain Ukraine than at [that] moment.”[24] Between the rhetoric that Mazepa intended to “preserve [he and his starshyna] from Muscovite slavery,”[25] and Peter’s residual claims that Mazepa would rather “return the Ukrainians into Polish slavery,”[26] it remains to be seen the ultimate truth behind the intent of these dealings. However, notwithstanding the pretext or goals in mind, it is doubtless that in these instances Mazepa betrayed both his peers and rivals.

Russian aggression


Although many have condemned Mazepa’s conduct, a large number of eyewitnesses and historians have since justified Mazepa’s goal of seceding from the Russian state.[27]Following the war, Mazepa may have become the scapegoat for what caused Moscow to tighten its grip on Ukrainian society, but the reality was that this was inevitable. Given the circumstances he was faced with at the time, it is difficult to comprehend how an almost seventy year old, childless (and thus heirless) Hetman could be motivated for selfish reasons. After all, he did maintain good standing with the Tsar who even requested he be granted the title of Prince of the Holy Roman Empire.[28] As English historian L.R. Lewitter observed, the treatment of the civilian population by the Russian army before the war “was more reminiscent of a punitive expedition than of allied troops.”[29] At the time, there were constant protests against the Russian pillaging of homes, stealing provisions, and the rape and battery of women.[30] The conduct of Russian troops reached such critical levels that Peter himself had to threaten death upon any soldier found committing these acts.[31]

While the terror in the countryside may have helped justify the need to revolt against the existing order, what necessitated Mazepa to make a move was much more direct. Rumors in military circles spread that the Tsar intended to annex the Hetmanate outright. This plan would have Mazepa relieved of his position and Count Alexander Menshikov act as reigning Hetman, [32] effectively turning the polity into a puppet regime. In discovering this treachery against him, Mazepa gives evidence that his interests lay with that of his people (threatened with ethnic cleansing) when he explained that “they [the Tsardom] want the officer corps annihilated, our cities turned over to their administration, and their governors appointed. If our people should oppose them, they would send them beyond the Volga, and [Ukraine] will be settled by their own people.”[33] In a report to Peter dated October 17, 1708, Menshikov himself admitted that Mazepa’s actions were “not for the sake of his person, but for the whole of Ukraine.”[34] With Mazepa’s career focused on creating a politically and economically stable state,[35] it is safe to assume his priorities did not change when faced with opposition. Rather than an act of self-motivated treachery, his switch to the side of Sweden has been seen as an act of desperation, as well as a ‘challenge to fate’.[36] In remarking on his newly forged alliance, Mazepa stated, “necessity has forced us to this since we, a free and unconquered nation, seek the means to preserve ourselves.”[37] Given the circumstances surrounding him, and the fate his people awaited should he have relinquished his authority, there is enough evidence to support the heroization of Mazepa as a man seeking the wellbeing of his people. Ultimately, the conduct of the Russian presence in the country along with his impending usurpation by the Tsar left Mazepa and his people without an independent future in the Russian Empire.

Don Cossacks

Vox Populi


Considering the praise Mazepa receives from contemporary Ukrainian historiographers and people alike, it is surprising that despite his apparent devotion to the wellbeing of the populace, he received very little popular support in return. It has come to light that when Mazepa presented his intent to withdraw from Russian suzerainty, his colonels were surprised when he “stressed the tyranny and barbarity of the Russians” who had “encroached upon the liberties of the Cossacks” as his reasoning.[38] In truth, many of his men deserted him in favor of the Tsar when faced with the decision, leaving him with no more than a thousand men and three willful officers.[39] It is even said that the Cossack colonels would have taken him prisoner had they enough forces at their disposal.[40] The question in this context is whether they disagreed on ideological grounds, or if they would rather not foolishly test their fate against the Tsar as he would. One theory states that the majority of Cossacks had long been dissatisfied with their leader and that this act against Russia, who they had long been giving their lives in defense of (by his own orders), was the last straw. Lacking internal support, ideological motives would have shifted as his only means of survival (both politically and literally) at this point would be joining with the Swedish forces.[41] It is not surprising that the Cossacks under his command would remain loyal to Peter, for a few years prior in 1706, Mezepa and his men protected him from an uprising of Don Cossacks led by Kindrat Bulavin.[42]

Prior to the Great Northern War, the relationship between Hetman and Tsar were as good as they had ever been.[43] It should not have come as a surprise to Mazepa that Russia would seek to integrate the two lands, as he knew full well the Kolomak Articles obliged him as Hetman to “unite by every method and means the [Ukrainian] people with the [Russian] people.”[44] While Hetmans that preceded him distanced themselves from Moscow, Mazepa sought to bring the two polities closer together. For years he had obeyed the Tsar’s orders, put down anti-Russian movements, and allowed many of his people to die on a massive scale serving the Russian cause.[45] Numerous documents have even caused others to note of his pro-Russian attitude.[46]

The fact that his only act of opposition to the Tsar, in light of all that had blighted his people, had occurred only when his position of power was immediately threatened does little to support the concept of Mazepa as a true hero. In addition to all of the above, it should also be noted that upon allying with the Swedes, their troops proceeded to ravish the countryside as badly as the Russians had.[47] The peasantry held a negative attitude towards these unwelcomed foreigners,[48]and considering the brutality his defection caused to his people, his lost gamble can be considered far from heroic. From this perspective it is hard to fathom how in Ukrainian society would find a place in memory for Mezepa other than as a figure who acted as catalyst for destruction continued destruction and future oppression.

Ivan Mazepa and Charles XII



By analyzing the depth of events surrounding what would culminate at Poltava, understanding the Myth of Mazepa is far from straightforward. In Russian historiography, Mazepa has encapsulated all of the evils of Ukrainian nationalism, a mantle later inherited by Stepan Bandera and today’s Dmytro Yarosh. While he certainly is no Brutus, he neither is Bohdan Khmelnytsky. In betraying the confidence of Peter in hopes of leveraging the country’s future, Mazepa did act traitorously and is deserving of his title. While his attempt to pit all sides against one another to better position himself, at the very least, is an indication of his cunning as a statesman while at most a political opportunist. The question of whether Mazepa would have ‘made out of Little Russia a little Poland’[49] will have to remain in the annals of history a topic of debate and theorization. True treachery lies in its intent, and in Mazepa’s case, there is convincing evidence for both the argument of him being self-interested, as well as the view that he placed the wellbeing of his people at the forefront.

The German Schwahenspiegel, a source of customary law in East Central Europe, justifies Mazepa’s actions providing that we only owe our sovereigns service as long as they defend us.[50] Every Hetman prior to Mazepa had considered or attempted to break off relations with Russia,[51] so it becomes questionable as to why he has received such damning and praiseworthy depictions over the years. ‘National history belongs to the politics of history,’ and this takes place through the use of the past to mobilize the population for political purposes.[52] As an objective view of the man would see him at neither extreme between villain or saint, the personification of Ivan Mazepa can be summarized as one of applied history at its finest, interpreting his motives beyond what occurred; turning a man into a symbol – a myth.



[1] Rudnytsky, Ivan L. “A Study of Cossack History.” Slavic Review (The American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, 1972), 875.

[2] Subtelny, Orest. “Russia and the Ukraine: The Difference That Peter I Made.” Russian Review (Blackwell Publishing) 39, no. 1 (Jan 1980) 8.

[3] Subtelny, “Russia and the Ukraine: The Difference That Peter I Made”, 17.

[4] Subtelny, “Russia and the Ukraine: The Difference That Peter I Made”,

[5] Dolbilov, Mikhail Dmitrievich, and Aleksei Ilich Miller. Zapadnye okrainy Rossiiskoi imperii. (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2006), 35.

[6] Subtelny, “Russia and the Ukraine: The Difference That Peter I Made”, 7.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Boyko, Nataliya. “Ukraine: Villain Today, Hero Tomorrow.” Chalkboard. Apr 22, 2009.

[9] Manning, Clarence A. Hetman of Ukraine: Ivan Mazeppa. (New York: Bookman Associates, 1957), 223

[10] Plokhy, Serhii. “The Ghosts of Pereyaslav: Russo-Ukrainian Historical Debates in the Post-Soviet Era.” Europe-Asia Studies (Taylor & Francis, Ltd., 2001), 491.

[11] Karatnycky, Adrian, and Alexander J. Motyl. “Historical Battle Lines.” Wall Street Journal. July 9, 2009.

[12] Subtelny, Orest. The Mazepists : Ukrainian separatism in the early eighteenth century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), 23,

[13] Subtelny, “Russia and the Ukraine: The Difference That Peter I Made”, 12.

[14] Kohut, Zenon E. Russian centralism and Ukrainian autonomy : imperial absorption in the Hetmanate 1760s-1830s. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 5.

[15] Kohut, Russian centralism and Ukrainian autonomy : imperial absorption in the Hetmanate 1760s-1830s. 16.

[16] Szporluk, Roman. “From an Imperial Periphery to a Sovereign State.” Daedalus (The MIT Press) 126, no. 3 (Summer 1997), 98.

[17] Boyko, “Ukraine: Villain Today, Hero Tomorrow.”

[18] Grob, Thomas. “‘Mazepa’ as a symbolic figure of Ukrainian autonomy.” In Democracy and myth in Russia and Eastern Europe, edited by Alexander Wöl and Harald Wydra, 87-93. (New York: Routledge, 2007), 87

[19] Grob, “‘Mazepa’ as a symbolic figure of Ukrainian autonomy,” 87.

[20] Subtelny, Orest, ed. On the eve of Poltava : the letters of Ivan Mazepa to Adam Sieniawski, 1704-1708. (Ukrainian Academy of Arts and Sciences in the United States, 1975).

[21] Subtelny, On the eve of Poltava : the letters of Ivan Mazepa to Adam Sieniawski, 1704-1708.

[22] Manning, Hetman of Ukraine: Ivan Mazeppa, 223.

[23] Subtelny, On the eve of Poltava : the letters of Ivan Mazepa to Adam Sieniawski, 1704-1708.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Subtelny, Ukrainian separatism in the early eighteenth century, 28.

[27] Ibid., 13.

[28] Mackiw, Theodore. “Hetman Mazepa in Contemporary Western European Sources, 1687—1709.” ІЗБОРНИК: Історія України IX-XVIII ст. Першоджерела та інтерпретації. n.d.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Mackiw, Theodore. English reports on Mazepa, Hetman of Ukraine and Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, 1687-1709. New York: Ukrainian Historical Association, 1983), 119.

[32] Mackiw, Theodore. Hetman Mazepa in Contemporary Western European Sources, 1687—1709.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Kappeler, Andreas. “Mazepa.” Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas (Research Library) 56, no. 3 (2008): 425.

[36] Siundiukov, Ihor, and Nadia Tysiachna. Tatiana Tairova-Yakovleva: “Hetman Mazepa is a remarkable figure that will pique interest for centuries to come” (2008).

[37] Mackiw, Theodore. “Hetman Mazepa in Contemporary Western European Sources, 1687—1709.”

[38] Mackiw, English reports on Mazepa, Hetman of Ukraine and Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, 1687-1709, 72.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Subtelny, (1975) 20

[43] Mackiw, Theodore. “Hetman Mazepa in Contemporary Western European Sources, 1687—1709.”

[44] Kraliuk, Petro. “Mazepa’s many faces: constructive, tragic, tragicomic.” The Day. Jul 7, 2009.

[45] Kraliuk, “Mazepa’s many faces: constructive, tragic, tragicomic.”

[46] Kraliuk, “Mazepa’s many faces: constructive, tragic, tragicomic.”

[47] Mackiw, English reports on Mazepa, Hetman of Ukraine and Prince of the Holy Roman Empire, 1687-1709.

[48] Kraliuk, “Mazepa’s many faces: constructive, tragic, tragicomic.”

[49] Szporluk, “From an Imperial Periphery to a Sovereign State,” 98.

[50] Mackiw, Theodore. “Hetman Mazepa in Contemporary Western European Sources, 1687—1709.”

[51] Subtelny, “Russia and the Ukraine: The Difference That Peter I Made”, 17.

[52] Jilge, Wilfried. “Politics of History and the Second World War,” 104.


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Ethnic Cleansing or Ethnic Cleansings? The Polish-Ukrainian civil war in Galicia-Volhynia

Galicia and Volhynia have, over their history, long been subject to changes of power. In the twentieth century and with the outbreak of both World Wars, this fact could not revisit itself more often. The region, home to both Poles and Ukrainians, became locked in war between the two groups as they struggled for post-war sovereignty against a sprawling Germany and Soviet Union. While these two groups have not always been on amiable terms (primarily due to the centuries-long struggle for Ukrainian independence), World War II brought any and all tensions to the forefront, and it is under these multiple occupations that a devastating civil war, and series of ethnic cleansings, were made possible.

Known as the Volhynian slaughter in Polish and Volhynian tragedy in Ukrainian, the Polish-Ukrainian conflict in Galicia-Volhynia was a tense and pitiless struggle between Poles of the Home Army (AK), partisans and self-defense formations, and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists’ (OUN) Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). Some scholars ascribing to certain national narratives, however, fail to realize the scale and reciprocal nature of the conflict from beginning to end, even though both sides struggled for identical goals through identical means. This period was not limited to a single campaign of ethnic cleansing, but rather an ongoing chain reaction of cleansings that began and culminated under the auspices of multiple occupational regimes actively seeking to provoke and maintain this state of chaos. By looking at the events that took place as part of an extended continuum with multiple actors, and not as an isolated or one-sided event that spanned only a handful of years, we can better understand both the causation that led to and perpetuated this conflict, as well as the true gravity of events that unfolded for both sides.

Thrice Occupied

The ethnic cleansing that occurred between Poles and their Ukrainian neighbors cannot be simplified or viewed as an isolated, sporadic, or one-sided event that occurred without precedent, evocation, or meaning. Even within the contemporary framework of it occurring as a byproduct of their mutual civil war, to fully understand the causal relationship that set these events in motion, one must place this civil conflict within the context of the World War that it paralleled. The instability of Galicia-Volhynia and the bordering region in general, can most easily be explained by its geographical misfortune of enduring a “triple occupation” that occurred in four successive waves.

Polish occupation fostered the growth of later insurgency

The first of these occupational waves took place in the aftermath of the First World War. The attempted creation of nation-states in Poland and Ukraine carried with them the same transitional issues similarly situated European states endured. In this transition away from an agrarian to a modern polity, cross-border friction over land ownership was only made worse by the authoritative policies of the Polish state at the time. With the newly reformed Polish state no longer imperial in design, ethnic cleavages were especially pronounced in the voivodships (provinces) within Galicia and Volhynia where the Polish elite continued to rule as a minority of the population. On a local level, first hand reports cite the killing of Ukrainians along the San River. On an official level, Poles ruled heavy-handedly from 1920-39. In defiance of the League of Nations and its attempt to demarcate a border between two ethnic groups (known as the Curzon Line) Poland occupied and proceeded to divide Ukrainian lands with the Soviet Union. Ukrainians considered Polish occupation to be thrust upon them, whereas Poles considered western Ukrainian lands to be a necessary possession for state security.  British commentary on government policy exclaimed that persecution provided Ukrainians with an “added consciousness and solidarity” and that Polish severity actually “increased the insecurity of the south-eastern frontier of the republic.” The Polish narrative tends to ignore the behavior and consequences of its interwar government. It should have come as no surprise, though, that the repressive policies of Jozef Pilsudski and the Polish colonization of Ukrainian territory fostered the growth of later Ukrainian insurgency.

Soviet occupation spawned even more hatred among the Ukrainian population, radicalizing it.

The second wave of occupation occurred in 1939 following the Soviet invasion of Poland. Already a region conducive to violent inter-ethnic conflict, the San now acted as the boundary between the zones established by the Soviets and Nazi Germany. Following the division of Poland, “everything changed.” Massive, state-organized political and ethnic violence carried out by both parties introduced a divided Poland to its first exposure of massive ethnic cleansing. From 1939 to 1941, “an unprecedented terror swept the recently conquered areas of Western Ukraine.” For Poles, tens of thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands were deported by both occupational regimes – Ukrainians also suffered immensely. Soviet occupation is said to have “decapitated” Polish and Ukrainian society, in which Galicia especially was completely torn apart. The mass devastation notwithstanding, Soviet occupation spawned even more hatred among the Ukrainian population, radicalizing it.

Nazi occupation had a clear cause and effect, with massacres beginning as early as 1941

The third wave, that in which Nazi Germany occupied Galicia and Volhynia, was the most decisive in converting these pent up frustrations into fully realized ethnic cleansing. While inter-ethnic violence between Poles and Ukrainians had been longstanding, Nazi occupation had a clear cause and effect, with massacres beginning as early as 1941. Under this new occupation the San River no longer acted as an important boundary. Instead, Volhynia was placed under the administration of the Nazi German colony called the Reichskommissariat Ukraine, and Galicia within the Generalgouvernment, which was part of Greater Germany itself. New social and political divisions were established in a short period: in Galicia, Ukrainians were elevated to positions of authority whereas in Volhynia, Poles retained authority within the German administration. Volhynia faced a harsher occupation in general, and due to its northern location, quickly became a battleground for Soviet partisans. Volhynian society was reduced to chaos by 1943.

Two soldiers of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army from Bukovina with captured Soviet and German weapons
Two soldiers of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army from Bukovina with captured Soviet and German weapons

Panic & Desperation

Hitler’s genocidal policy to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population, the Final Solution, began in 1942, but prior to this the population was already well exposed to an immense population displacement enforced by the Germans. Meanwhile, from Soviet Ukraine, propaganda promoted the possibility of a free and united “great Ukrainian people,” one that included Galicia and its crown jewel, Lviv. On the whole, the precedent for ethnic cleansing and the popularity of fascist and Bolshevik nationalism made perfect ingredients for what remained of a devastated society to reciprocate the words and actions of the newly imposed authority.

1937 Linguistic map of the region
1937 Linguistic map of the region

The prelude to full scale ethnic cleansing by Ukrainian insurgents ends in 1943. Ukrainian leaders believed the war would end with attrition warfare exhausting both Germany and the Soviet Union. Out of this, a resurgent Poland would be the primary obstacle in the way of Ukrainian statehood. The Soviet counteroffensive that followed the battle of Stalingrad in January of 1943 led to a westward push by Soviet forces as they recaptured Ukraine proper, leading Ukrainian leaders to reason that a preemptive elimination of Poles from Ukraine would be the most they could aspire for in a relatively short period. In the words of Roman Shukhevych on 25 February 1944, due to the success of the Soviet forces it was “necessary to speed up the liquidation of the Poles,” “they must be totally wiped out.”

As the Soviet and German armies waged war on one another for control of Eastern Europe, the Polish-Ukrainian civil war continued to be fought for sovereignty over land that neither side still controlled. Nonetheless, claims were made whose terms were unnegotiable: politically active Poles wanted to restore the 1939 borders whereas Ukrainians called for primacy over their own ethnic territory. Ukrainian concerns of Polish intentions were not unfounded, and with the question of legitimate rule over Galicia-Volhynia reopened, political proposals had already been made to deport up to 500,000 Ukrainians from an imagined ‘post-war Poland with pre-war frontiers’. Dmowski’s National Democrats went as far as desiring the entire expulsion of Ukrainians from the Polish state. Talks that did take place were fruitless, as was the case in Lviv of 1942 between the OUN and Polish government-in-exile, the latter of which insisted Volhynia was a “mixed territory.” While some historians contest the legitimacy of Polish claims to these lands, Poles had indeed lived on these lands for centuries; Volhynia alone had a pre-war presence of 400,000.

The rejection of Polish land rights was not a view held among the radicalized; even moderate Ukrainians failed to see any legitimacy in Poland’s aspirations. However, the radical among the OUN were passionately determined to prevent the clock from being rolled back and instead wanted to revisit attempts to begin a Ukrainian nation-state. This was a difficult proposal, though, because the creation of states is harder to accomplish than the restoration of states. To expedite the process and acquire legitimacy among its population, ethnic cleansing was seen in this instance as a distinct political answer.

Debated Origins

In determining where, when, and how the conflict began and who threw the first stone, Polish and Ukrainian views differ greatly. Some Ukrainians are of the opinion that the conflict began with the killing of Ukrainian underground soldiers and activists by the Polish underground, who considered them German collaborators. Others reject this notion and claim that the killings began as an OUN initiative, unrelated to the prior actions of the Home Army. Another claim is that the Ukrainians of Volhynia turned on the Poles after Polish Soviet partisans arrived in region, singling out the Ukrainian population.

German and Soviet authorities actively pursued a policy of provocation to pit the two sides, Polish and Ukrainian, against each other in order to divide and conquer.

Regardless of which side shot the first bullet in the sequence of events culminating in the ethnic cleansing of 1943, neither side acted independently. Just as social tensions were brought to a boil by the multiple occupations the region endured, the German and Soviet authorities actively pursued a policy of provocation to pit the two sides, Polish and Ukrainian, against each other in order to divide and conquer. It is this factor which explains the issue of competing historical narratives of victimization from each side. Beginning in 1939, Soviet agents provoked conflict between Poles and Ukrainians in order to bring about “revolution” and justify the extension of the Ukrainian SSR into Polish territory beyond the San. In order to colonize the region and expand their Lebensraum (living space), Germans utilized preexisting tensions to let the colonized kill themselves off. In an example of “German meddling,” Germans offered Ukrainians a chance to persecute Poles in 1941-1942, and then, following Ukrainian desertions en masse to join the UPA, conscripted Poles to persecute Ukrainians the following two years. Another tactic used by Germans was to deploy, for example, forces against the Ukrainian population dressed as Polish soldiers, and vice versa. These provocative measures succeeded, so that each side remains steadfast in its conviction regarding victimhood and the actions of the historical “other.”

These provocations proved to be extremely successful, but how did they result in such widespread violence between both societies? The simple answer is that the attrition of war wore down both sides to such an extent that ethnic cleansing could not be prevented. A complete breakdown of governance and justice essentially decapitated civil and local society, leaving both sides to rely on their respective underground military organizations as the only source of authority. The Ukrainian organization in particular by 1943 was left only with its youngest and most radical supporters.




Ukrainian Bloodshed…

The Ukrainian Insurgent Army’s program of ethnic cleansing began in earnest in March 1943, but sporadic killings had already started through the fall of 1942; the earliest accounts being in the Sarny region of Volyn and continuing throughout the winter. Since Ukrainian police held a more significant role in Volhynia than Galicia, this made for an explosive situation when in March 1943, Ukrainians abandoned their roles in the German police, taking with them their weapons and firsthand experience in implementing German atrocities. The UPA’s forces in Volhynia would reach as many as 20,000 troops; however, approximately ninety percent of the UPA’s attacks would collectively take place in the Galician provinces of Stanislaviv, Drohobych, Ternopil, and Lviv. The majority of the UPA’s attacks in Volhynia aimed at cleansing the region occurred throughout March-April, July-August, then in tailed off by late December of that year.

Many victims included innocent Polish civilians, but some analysis has shown that main targets still included AK and partisan formations, indicating that the UPA’s presence was not limited to punitive actions against ethnic Poles but also retained its military purpose in this war. The goal of the OUN was not to exterminate each and every Pole, but rather to swiftly and brutally enforce the resettlement of all Poles to the west of the Curzon Line, preventing any future possibility of claims toward the territory being “mixed.” In addition to Poles, factionalism within the OUN caused Ukrainian insurgents to kill tens of thousands of Ukrainians for siding with either the Melnyk or Borovets factions. Ukrainians who converted to Roman Catholicism were also killed.

By January 1944 the war had spread to Galicia but demographic conditions favoring Poles likely caused a reduction in the violence. Polish families, unlike in Volhynia, were presented a warning with the option of flight. Notices left on doors of Polish residences in Galicia stated the rationale behind their actions: “Because the Polish government and Polish people collaborate with the Bolsheviks and are bent on destroying the Ukrainian people on their own land, [name] is hereby called upon to move to native Polish soil…” Ethnic cleansing by the UPA was highly political in nature, and in addition to Poles and Melnykite Ukrainians, the course of the war tallied an estimate of 22 thousand pro-Soviet Ukrainian civilian losses at the hands of the UPA. By the spring of 1945, the UPA and AK had come to a truce, but conflict between Ukrainians and Soviet and pro-Communist Polish forces continued.

and Polish Bloodshed

Even prior to the “official” outbreak of ethnic cleansing by Ukrainians, massacres aimed at the Ukrainian population of Kholm had started as early as 1942.

Historians in the Ukrainian diaspora focus on the Polish “retaliatory” actions that occurred during this conflict, and rightly so. Much like the preemptive nature of the Ukrainian attacks in Volhynia, as early as 1941 Poles equated war with Germany to war with Ukrainians for Galicia-Volhynia, and sought to achieve a quick “armed occupation.” In order to carry out retaliatory actions against Ukrainian aggressors, Polish partisans created self-defense formations. Retaliation, however, was carried out inch for inch, and was ‘hardly less fierce’. Warnings to Ukrainians made in 1943 stated that every village burned would result in two Ukrainian villages being razed, and for every Pole killed, two Ukrainians would be killed in his place immediately. Orders issued in February of 1944 by Polish Home Army commander Lt. Kazimierz Babinski said only children would be spared; however, a month later a massacre by Polish partisans occurred in Kholm killing 1,500, of whom 70% were women and children. The largest groups (namely the Wiklina, Kozaka, Korczaka detachments of the Polish Home Army) played a considerable role, cleansing the Ukrainian population from Kowal, Wlodzimierz, and Lubomel in 1943-44. By the middle of 1944 the feeling of many Poles was that they would still retake or even extend territory into Ukraine. That summer approximately 150 villages, home to 15,000 Ukrainians, had been razed in so-called retaliatory measures.

Attacks aimed at eliminating civilian populations were not uncommon from the Polish side. Even prior to the “official” outbreak of ethnic cleansing by Ukrainians, massacres aimed at the Ukrainian population of Kholm had started as early as 1942. Often, even when no direct orders from the Polish government-in-exile were given, this had no bearing on impeding retaliatory measures, causing Ukrainians civilians in many cases to be killed indiscriminately and on sight. Retaliation also took place by proxy, whereby upon hearing new of killings in Volhynia, for instance, Poles in Galicia would take up arms against local Ukrainians.

Members of the Polish 27th Home Army Infantry Division, created from from former Polish policemen to fight the UPA who had, like many in the UPA, deserted German service.
Members of the Polish 27th Home Army Infantry Division, created from from former Polish policemen to fight the UPA who had, like many in the UPA, deserted German service.

Following the German retreat, Poles ethnically cleansed their environs to an even greater degree, spreading from neighboring villages to isolated settlements. By late 1945 and into 1946, the modus operandi of the Polish Army was to attack UPA units in order to justify attacking Ukrainian settlements, wait for Ukrainian retaliation, and use that as further justification for “retaliation.” These methods were cyclical, and clearly illustrate the reciprocal nature of this conflict. A multidimensional conflict, Polish retaliation and instigation took several forms: fighting Ukrainians as German policemen, NKVD battalions, Soviet partisans, and as self-defense militias and members of the Home Army.

From 1944-47, during the final occupational wave in the region, Soviet forces in collaboration with local Polish communists enacted a broad and final act of ethnic cleansing to end the conflict once and for all. Much like the original goals proposed by Polish and Ukrainian leaders, Soviet-mandated ethnic cleansing was used as a means to an end with violence utilized to solidify and legitimize state control. Polish veteran officers who had served as partisans during the Second World War were unsympathetic, and like the UPA in 1943, they knew that the war would only be won by “drastic measures.” Ultimately, both Ukrainians and Poles were purged of their land on a staggering scale. In order to solve this “Ukrainian problem,” a series of deportations and forced relocations, named Operation Vistula, acted as a direct successor of, and brought an end to, the ‘ethnic redefinition’ of Poland and Ukraine as states virtually homogenous in their ethnic composition. The goal of each side was finally, painstakingly, actualized.

The Toll

Figures of the conflict are largely a contested matter requiring further impartial research due to current estimates being far from narrowed or consistent.  Polish scholars have  evidenced 34,647 deaths to date, and as a general rule, cumulative deaths in Volhynia range from 35 thousand on the low end, but can go as high as double that or more; most reasonable estimates cap at the 50-60 thousand range, however. Totals from Galicia go as low as 10 and high as 25 thousand; and Lublin and Rezeszow 5 thousand (which equaled Ukainian deaths by Poles). Part of this discrepancy is likely due to Polish historians inflating figures, and another reason is due to a lack of accounting for deportations and executions that occurred during this triple-occupation. For this latter reason, Ivan Katchanovski believes the lower bound of the Volhynian figure to be more accurate. Ukrainian deaths from this period of ethnic cleansing are also estimated to be as high as 30 thousand in Ukraine. In Poland, 11 thousand Ukrainians are said to have been killed, exceeding the 7 thousand Poles who perished there as well. All said, when comparing the most modest of findings, over 50 thousand Polish in comparison to a rough excess of 40 thousand Ukrainian casualties (and recalling the tens of thousands of additional Ukrainians who were killed in intra-ethnic violence), further illustrates the mutually exhaustive nature ethnic cleansing was for both sides in this conflict.

Both sides were positioned, motivated, and subsequently suffered in a relatively equal manner during the events that took place in Galicia-Volhynia. What may have begun as a series of sporadic clashes was provoked and focused into an exhaustive ethnic cleansing campaign that not only brought upon itself retaliation, but reciprocation. The Ukrainian campaign was especially brutal in its earliest months but as time wore on the Polish response made for substantial losses on both sides. Presented to be a force that acted in retaliation, in reality, the Polish forces are equally as guilty as the Ukrainian for aggression in the battle to stake the post-war claim to Galicia and Volhynia. Taking place in the heart of the eastern front, the actions of both Nazi and Soviet genocide and ethnic cleansing transferred to the local levels, and continued well beyond the end of the war. What began as two states trying to carve out their very own legitimate nation states in the face of losing what they once had, in the end resulted in neither attaining their wish.

By Mat Babiak, editing contributions courtesy of Paul Robert Magocsi

Footnotes & Bibliography (full citations)

Snyder: Putin’s Eurasianism

Concerning the formation of a Eurasian Union of post-Soviet states, Timothy Snyder elaborates on the ideological roots of Putin politics, and the underpinnings of the propaganda that fuels it. Often times those who oppose Russian imperialism are labelled as fascists by state media in attempts to discredit opposing views. Snyder discusses in his upcoming piece for the New York Review both the obvious irony in such criticism, as well as the foundations of what may ultimately amount to Russian fascism in open policy.

The ethnic purification of the communist legacy is precisely the logic of National Bolshevism, which is the foundational ideology of Eurasianism today. Putin himself is an admirer of the philosopher Ivan Ilin, who wanted Russia to be a nationalist dictatorship.

The Eurasian ideology draws an entirely different lesson from the twentieth century. Founded around 2001 by the Russian political scientist Aleksandr Dugin, it proposes the realization of National Bolshevism. Rather than rejecting totalitarian ideologies, Eurasianism calls upon politicians of the twenty-first century to draw what is useful from both fascism and Stalinism. Dugin’s major work, The Foundations of Geopolitics, published in 1997, follows closely the ideas of Carl Schmitt, the leading Nazi political theorist. Eurasianism is not only the ideological source of the Eurasian Union, it is also the creed of a number of people in the Putin administration, and the moving force of a rather active far-right Russian youth movement. For years Dugin has openly supported the division and colonization of Ukraine.

The point man for Eurasian and Ukrainian policy in the Kremlin is Sergei Glazyev, an economist who like Dugin tends to combine radical nationalism with nostalgia for Bolshevism. He was a member of the Communist Party and a Communist deputy in the Russian parliament before cofounding a far-right party called Rodina, or Motherland. In 2005 some of its deputies signed a petition to the Russian prosecutor general asking that all Jewish organizations be banned from Russia. Later that year Motherland was banned from taking part in further elections after complaints that its advertisements incited racial hatred.

Why exactly do people with such views think they can call other people fascists? And why does anyone on the Western left take them seriously? One line of reasoning seems to run like this: the Russians won World War II, and therefore can be trusted to spot Nazis. Much is wrong with this. World War II on the eastern front was fought chiefly in what was then Soviet Ukraine and Soviet Belarus, not in Soviet Russia. Five percent of Russia was occupied by the Germans; all of Ukraine was occupied by the Germans. Apart from the Jews, whose suffering was by far the worst, the main victims of Nazi policies were not Russians but Ukrainians and Belarusians. There was no Russian army fighting in World War II, but rather a Soviet Red Army. Its soldiers were disproportionately Ukrainian, since it took so many losses in Ukraine and recruited from the local population. The army group that liberated Auschwitz was called the First Ukrainian Front.

Timothy Snyder is an American historian and Professor of History at Yale University.

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