The Myth of Mazepa

Mazepa conquest

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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