Five Centuries of Turbulent Life on the Russian Steppes

By Philip Longworth

Chapter Four-Part II; Conclusion

“Bogdan Chmielnicki and a Cossack struggle for Independence”


     He organized the Cossacks on a regional basis into sixteen regiments varying considerably in size. Each was commanded by a colonel and divided into sub-regional ‘hundreds’, also with considerable variations both in number and in complement. Civil and military administration were to a large extent co-terminus. Though the burgher courts continued to function Cossacks also sat on them, and they became subject to the Cossack government in practice.

     Bogdan’s military headquarters at Chigirin became the center, too, of civil government. The old Cossack staff titles were retained, but in practice the obozny, commander of artillery and ordnance, acted as chief of staff, the Secretary of the Host became a sort of Secretary of State, and the general esaul, a chief of police. Legal and constitutional forms remained much as before, but the pattern of power had changed. On every level the machinery for running an army was geared to administering a state within a state. It was a system that bears comparison with early Prussian civil service, and with the rule of Cromwell’s major-generals in contemporary England. But, influenced by Polish forms, it differed markedly from governmental systems of other Cossack communities, including the Sich.


     Bogdan always treated the Zaporozhian ataman with respect, and made a practice of consulting him, but the Sich remained outside the system. Whereas Zaporozhians maintained their democracy, Bogdan arrogated most powers to himself, insisting on the right to cancel the elections of all officers as the old-style hetmans had done.

Like a head of state, he minted coins bearing his own name, and, like any military dictator he kept a personal bodyguard. Though formally subject to the decisions of a general assembly, he rarely called one. But autocrat though he was, his powers were limited-and, in a sense, created-by the fragility of the political situation. He had to satisfy the restless mass beneath him, and yet avoid another clash with Poland which might bring ruin to the order he created.

     A registration of 40,000 Cossacks still failed to accommodate up to ten times that number who now claimed the status. Bogdan was forced to dissemble. He registered 50,000 and ascribed another 20,000 to a private army raised by his son Timofei. A master politician, he kept two lists: one for submission to Warsaw, the other, much larger, for internal purposes. Even so, most peasants had to be content with the freedom to follow the Orthodox religion-and outside the three Cossack provinces they had not even that satisfaction. It was a sour experience to return to landlords’ rule again even if their masters were not Catholics. Feeling themselves betrayed, many fled to virgin lands east of the Dnieper populating what came to be known as the Slobodskaya Ukraine. And many serfs who remained, having once tasted freedom, now refused to accept the old system again.

     They had the sympathy of some of the Cossack colonels, one of whom, Nechai, Colonel of Bratslav, actually led a riot against the local magnate Koretski, and earned Bogdan’s displeasure. That winter, there were many peasant disturbances in the Ukraine. Bogdan set out to suppress them and this did not endear him to the peasantry. In March 1650, runaways to Zaporozhiye chose themselves a new hetman to rival Bogdan. The movement was stamped on, its leader executed, but Bogdan felt it necessary to make some concessions to the lower orders. He was reconciled to Colonel Nechai and closed his eyes to some anti-Polish disturbances which forced Kisel, among other landlords, to flee the Ukraine. But Bogdan dared go no further without inviting another war with Poland. Even if the Ukraine could defend itself alone in the short term, another war would bring ruin to the countryside and threaten economic chaos and collapse. Powerful allies were no easier to find than they had been. He pressed the Tsar for a firm alliance without success. The Turks offered him ‘an everlasting peace’, allowing the Cossacks free navigation of the Black Sea and the Aegean, and free trade with the Turkish Empire, but the terms were exclusively commercial. Venice offered an alliance, but it was directed against the Turks, not Poland.


     So Bogdan set about forming a confederacy of little powers with Moldavia, Wallachia,

and Transylvania. His plan was a curious mixture of political strategy and dynastic ambition, and included a marriage between his son Timosh, and Roxanda, daughter of Lupul, Lord of Moldavia. But before anything came of it, Polish troops clattered the Ukraine yet again. Aware that Bogdan was conducting talks with foreign states in contravention of the Treaty of Zborow, they had begun secret preparations several months before, proceeding carefully at first for lack of funds. But there was no lack of unemployed mercenaries to be hired at reasonable prices now that the Thirty Years’ War was over and by the beginning of 1650, the Poles had raised a considerable force of professionals. They struck in February and drew first blood, surprising the Bratslav regiment at Krasny while the Cossacks, celebrating a holiday, were mostly drunk. They were soon overwhelmed and their colonel, Nechai, hero of the Podolian peasants, was among those killed.

     Colonel Bohun halted the Poles at Vinnitsa and another Cossack force went north to guard against an invasion from Lithuania, gaining time for Bogdan to rally the people for war. But this time, the forces were slow to gather. The people were tired, afflicted by famine and depressed at Nechai’s death. And now, Bogdan himself was struck down by a personal disaster. A barrel of money had been missed from his chancery. Bogdan delegated his son, Timosh, to investigate the loss. Suspicion fell on one of Bogdan’s favorites, and under torture the man confessed not only to stealing the gold, but to committing adultery with Helen, Bogdan’s wife. It was further alleged that Helen planned to poison her husband. In a daze, Bogdan agreed to her execution. Timosh made all the arrangements. The lovers were stripped, lashed together and so hanged above the city gates.


     Always disposed to melancholy, Bogdan sought oblivion in drink. Overwhelmed by domestic tragedy, the great leader, the consummate politician, forgot the public crisis and sat irritable and unapproachable in his rooms. His aides could rouse him from his torpor to intermittent bouts of action only with the greatest difficulty and sometimes not at all.

It was May, and the King was already on his way to take command of the main Polish army, before Bogdan moved. He headed for Zbarazh, there to await the arrival of the Khan, who had set out reluctantly at the insistence of the Turks. The battle took place in June at a place called Beresteczko.

     Bogdan’s army was smaller than the Polish, and most of it no better than a rabble. But it was made up of passionate men, Ukrainians fighting for their homes, their rights, and their freedom and fired by a religious spirit of crusaders. The Cossacks, followed by the Tatars, swept into attack ‘like thunder clouds blown by a storm’. They were thrown back with heavy casualties. Tujai Bej of Perekop, whom the Khan had sent to help in 1648, was among those killed. That evening the Khan warned Bogdan that if there were no victory the following day, he would probably withdraw.

     The next morning, the field was obscured by mists wafting up from the surrounding marshes. The Cossacks had corralled their wagons into a tabor; the Tatars were drawn up into a semi-circle to their left. Bogdan, temporarily emergent from his alcoholic fog, rode around the ranks, bearing an orb and a sword blessed in Jerusalem, to encourage the men.

This time, it was the Poles who attacked, and about three in the afternoon, they succeeded in making a small breach in the tabor. They were soon driven out again, but the Khan had seen the incident, and promptly turned his horse away. His beys and mursas followed, and soon the entire Tatar contingent was sweeping away from the battlefield.

Bogdan himself immediately set off after the Khan, leaving command to a Colonel Dzhedzhaliya. As the rains poured down on the bloody field of Beresteczko, the toll of dead mounted and doom loomed large for the heavily outnumbered Cossacks. They fought on, hoping for Bogdan’s imminent return, shortened the perimeter, scarred the ground with trenches, and made brave sorties. But the red pennants of the enemy (Poland) crowded ever closer round them; a torrent of missiles tore into their ranks; the ground trembled constantly beneath their feet.

     Still Bogdan did not return. It is not clear why. Either he was kept prisoner by the Khan, or else he was persisting in his efforts to bring the Tatars back, realizing that if he failed, the battle was lost anyway. In any case, the Khan, chewing his sunflower seeds and spitting the husks out periodically upon the floor, remained impervious to Bogdan’s fretting. This was a Cossack problem, not his. Morale in the Cossack camp began to fall. At night extra guards had to be posted to check the increasing flow of deserters. Dissentions arose among the colonels, and at last Dzhedzhaliya asked for an armistice. The Poles insisted that Bogdan and all the senior officers surrender and submit to the Sejm’s decision on their future and that of Ukraine. The rebels, especially the peasants, declared they would rather die than accept such terms, and after a stormy assembly Dzhedzhaliya was replaced by the more popular and dashing Colonel Bohun.


     The Cossacks prepared to fight on, slaughtered their prisoners, passed on encouraging rumors of Bogdan’s imminent return, and sang lusty choruses to drown the cries of the dying. But the Poles held them in a vice, and after ten days even Bohun concluded he must save at least a remnant of the Cossack force. That night shadowy figures made a brushwood path over the marshes to the rear of the battle-scarred tabor. In silence, most of the Cossacks crept out along it. Awaking to find themselves betrayed, many peasants panicked and rushed headlong into the marsh only to be sucked down. The Poles broke into the camp and set about the remaining rebels and camp-followers sparing neither women nor children. Eighteen guns, twenty standards, Bogdan’s war chest and regalia of office fell into Polish hands. Isolated groups still held out in the marshes for a time. A band of three hundred fought on till only one remained alive. He maneuvered a boat along a creek and there shot down his assailants one by one, until his powder ran out, then defended himself with a scythe. For three hours this Cossack held out ‘against all assaults’, refusing the Kings’ offer to spare his life. A German mercenary’s pike ran through him at last, and when his corpse was examined, they found no fewer than fourteen bullets in it.

     Such was the stuff of a Cossack. But for all their courage, it was a disastrous summer for the Cossacks. Beresteczko was their greatest, but not only defeat. Kiev, the pearl at the center of Bogdan’s short-lived empire, was occupied. And then the plague came to scourge the Ukraine. Weeks later Bogdan re-appeared at last. He found the country in turmoil. A ‘black’ assembly called in his absence had repudiated him, and roaming bands of partisans still refused him recognition. But the wily politician had not lost his old persuasive powers, and realizing that he was the man most likely to salvage something from the wreck of Cossack fortunes, the majority came to accept his authority again, albeit less enthusiastically than before.

Meanwhile, the King had returned to Warsaw, and many of the gentry, having discharged their feudal duties, followed him. Wisniowiecki, the old scourge of the Cossacks, died soon after Beresteczko and the Polish army moved forward still, they were finding food increasingly difficult to obtain, and, hampered by guerrillas and reduced by disease, the impetus went out of their advance.

     Bogdan, by contrast, had recovered his old energies. The old amorist, now in his mid-fifties, had collected a third wife, Anna Zolotarenka, sister of the Colonel of Korsun. The marriage had reinvigorated him. He collected 4,000 men, and ordered a general muster. Then a force of plunder-hungry Tatars joined him, and the Poles realized that they must offer terms a good deal softer than those of Beresteczko.

     Nevertheless, the treaty Bogdan negotiated at Belaya Tserkov in September, with the King’s emissary, Adam Kisel, displeased both the peasants and the Cossacks. The register was to be reduced to 20,000 who must all reside in the province of Kiev, which angered Cossack resident outside it. The rights of the Orthodox Church were confirmed, but Jews were to be allowed to return. Direct exchanges with the Tatars and all foreign governments were forbidden. But these were the best terms he could get. Bogdan duly swore allegiance to the King with a great show of humility and copious tears, which, in the words of a French commentator, ‘he had always ready to shed, when the necessity of his affairs required’.


     So far from breaking the agreement, he never carried it out. The situation was beyond his control. There was a fresh wave of peasant attacks on the gentry, and a mass emigration east across the Dnieper. Bogdan was forced to submit a register of 40,000 Cossacks. The Sejm refused to confirm it, and he refused to make another. He dared not. His association with the unpopular treaty made him fear for his position. Henceforth he kept a wary eye on popular colonels like Bohun who might exploit the growing opposition. He was to have at least three of his potential rivals killed.

     But the suspicious Bogdan retained his dynastic ambitions. Since the Cossacks’ defeat, Lupul of Moldavia had called off the marriage arranged between his daughter and Bogdan’s son, but Bogdan was determined it should still take place and in May 1652, only eight months after concluding the arrangement, he set out to enforce the marriage contract, in open contravention of his undertaking to the King of Poland. Polish troops barred his way, but at the battle of Batoh, he swept them aside. The army rode on, and Timosh led his bride back in triumph to Chigirin.


      Home again, Bogdan coolly applied to Warsaw for forgiveness, displaying a modern grasp of the techniques of manipulating facts by explaining that the battle ‘was caused by the Polish commander attacking his son’. Unnerved by this latest defeat, the Poles did nothing.  It was a stalemate again. But there was no reconciliation and by the spring of 1653 the King was building yet another army with which to destroy the Ukrainian viper’ nest for good. Meanwhile, Lupul, Bogdan’s kinsman now and his ally once again, was proving a liability rather than an asset. Invaders from Transylvania and Wallachia threw him out of his capitol, Jassey, and he called for Bogdan’s help. Timosh rode out to the rescue, threw the intruders out, but then pressed his luck too far by invading Wallachia. Trapped in the fortress of Sochav, Timosh sent out for his father, but before Bogdan could arrive, Timosh was wounded, a truce was arranged, and the Cossacks left for home. On the way home, Timosh’s wound developed gangrene. Instead of a beleaguered army, Bogdan met a cortege. His cup of sorrows, twice filled already, overflowed again.

     Bogdan left the Ukraine virtually unguarded but the poles had started late. Now he stirred himself from mourning, called up the Tatars and the Zaporozhians, and marched off to meet the King. No great battle was necessary, however. It was late autumn and turning cold, and the Polish army, inadequately provisioned and no winter clothing, was dissolving away. The King could not go on. So, again, he bought the Tatars off, promising to pay them tribute and to observe the terms of Zborow. Bogdan was not a party to the agreement, but he seemed content.

    Yet, after six years of destruction, plague and famine, with vast once prosperous districts reduced to derelict graveyards, it was clear that the Ukraine could not support an independent status. Though it was rich in natural resources, could manufacture gunpowder, had a nascent iron industry, and was potentially the granary of Eastern Europe, it could not meet its needs in time of war. The Cossacks had won no major battle without Tatar aid, and, had had to import armaments and even grain from Muscovy. To develop its economy it needed peace and this, the Poles would never allow.

      Time and again, Cossacks and peasants had united against their enemy, but in peace they were split into many factions, which even Bogdan, with his consummate political ability and well-timed ruthlessness, could barely control. For all his brilliant attempts to balance aspirations at home and pressures from outside, he knew that Ukraine could not survive much longer on an almost permanent war-time footing. He must find a strong protecting power.

     But the Khan was unreliable and Turkish protection would rouse all of Christendom against him. An alliance with Moldavia, Wallachia and Transylvania would prove too complex and too weak, and Sweden was too far away-a strategic essential Bogdan understood but which Mazepa was later fatally to ignore.  There remained only Muscovy.


She had given moral and economic support throughout the struggle. Her people shared the same religion, common origins and customs, and fundamentally the same language with the Cossacks of Ukraine. And at last it seemed that she would take them under her wing.

     In October, 1653 the Zemski Sobor-the great assembly of the free classes of all Russia-recognized the Ukrainian Cossacks as a ‘free people’, no longer bound by their oaths to the Polish King and called for them to be brought under the Tsar’s protection. At the end of December, the Tsar’s envoy, Buturlin, came to Pereyaslav. Bogdan arrived there a few days later and summoned an assembly. The town became an ant-heap as thousands of black-coated Cossacks scurried into the central square. Then at eleven on the morning of 8 January, 1654, Bogdan’s stocky figure emerged, an aigrette glinting in his turban, an orb and scepter in either hand. He recommended that the Cossacks give their loyalty to the Tsar, and when the esaul of the Host called for their decision, the shouts of agreement—“We want to be under the Eastern Tsar!”—were overwhelming.

     A procession formed, and wound its way to the church to take the oath of allegiance. Then there was an unexpected check. Bogdan asked Buturlin to swear first that the Tsar would keep faith with his new subjects. The ambassador was amazed. The Tsar, as autocrat, could not have obligations to his subjects. The Cossacks must trust to his favor, which they would undoubtedly receive. There was an awkward pause. The feeling for Muscovy was not shared by Teterya, the esaul, nor by Bohun, and some other Cossack leaders. But the crowd outside was impatient, intolerant of subtleties. In the end only Bohun refused to swear. The Ukrainians had a new master. The Zaporozhians’ ataman had no objection to the arrangement so long as their own liberties were not endangered. He even proposed that his own people should follow the Ukrainians’ example, but they refused, and events were ultimately to prove them wise. By the following March, the details of the Union had been hammered out. Bogdan got most of what he asked. The Cossacks’ rights and freedoms, as they had existed ‘for ages in the Army of Zaporozhiye’, were confirmed. They would be subject to their own justice, and elect their own Hetman, though he must be confirmed in the office by the Tsar and must not treat with foreign states without the Tsar’s permission. Sixty thousand Cossacks would be registered—more than ever the Poles would have conceded. They would be paid rates, ranging from three rubles for a private to a thousand ducats for the Hetman, out of taxes to be raised in the Ukraine itself.


     But while the Cossacks were granted autonomy as a class the peasants got nothing. The Tsar rewarded members of the Cossack oligarchy with ‘perpetual and hereditary ownership’ of lands, villages and towns, but the peasants were ordered to return to service. The rule could not be immediately enforced. Feelings ran so high that many of the Cossack gentry dared not enter their new estates and Teterya went so far as to beg the Tsar’s emissary not to announce his grants for fear he might be lynched. Bogdan was slow to draw up the register. Some months after the conclusion of the agreement he had inscribed only 18,000 names, reporting that it was difficult to ascertain which of the 100,000 claimants were really Cossacks, and which were peasant runaways. Delay saved embarrassment and trouble. But, in time, the peasants were brought back under control and a new gentry class of Cossack elders was to take the place of its Polish predecessor.


     The Pereyaslav agreement did not bring peace to the Ukraine. The Poles were furious at the news and denounced the Cossacks as perjurors. But the Tsar had expected as much and now embarked on a pre-emptive war. Cossacks and Russian troops, already stationed at Kiev, marched north to Lithuania; more Russians, under Burturlin, and the Cossacks under Bogdan, mounted an offensive to the west. The war was marked with the same ferocity as its predecessors, and though this time the Tatars fought with them, the Poles soon sued for peace.



     The Cossacks were excluded from the conference table. Unable to suppress his taste for diplomacy, Bogdan had tried to inveigle Sweden into attacking the Poles. This had discountenanced the Tsar who never fully trusted him again, and with justice, for Bogdan continued to spin his webs of international intrigue.

     In 1657 Ukrainian Cossacks again invaded Poland, this time with Transylvanian aid. Burturlin arrived at Chigirin to remind Bogdan of his obligation not to embarrass the Tsar. The Hetman was dangerously ill and his aids tried to keep the Russians at bay, but promised to withdraw his men from Poland, and when a Polish emissary came to propose a Ukraine independent of both Russia and Poland, he gave him no satisfaction. Too near the other world to break more oaths, the old intriguer, it seemed had given up his plots at last.

     Concerned above all now for his family and his successor, he struggled out to address his last assembly. His farewell speech was an occasion for emotion. He thanked the Cossacks for their support through turbulent years, then offered up his scepter and other symbols of authority. They were free to choose a successor. Tearful Cossacks begged him to remain, but Bogdan was insistent. There must be no interregnum on his death. He recommended candidates to them—Vygovski, Secretary of the Host, Teterya, the esaul, and others—but the Cossacks would have none of them. They wanted Yuri, his sixteen-year-old son. Bogdan warned of his youth, of the dangers of the times. But they insisted. Fearful and yet content, an enigma to the end, Bogdan was helped away while the crowd hurled their hats into the air and fired off their muskets in one final, heartfelt tribute.


     For five days he lay paralyzed in his bed. Then a stroke ended all resistance. They buried him in the church near his old house at Subbotov. Seven years afterwards, during yet another incursion, the Poles had his bones dug up and thrown to the dogs. Ukraine was still to know no peace. The years that followed were ruinous. The solidarity the Cossacks promised at Bogdan’s last assembly dissolved almost immediately. Within a month of his death young Yuri was ousted by his guardian Vygovski and sent scampering to the shelter of the Sich. Vygovski threw his hand in with the Poles, showed contempt for the interests of the poorer Cossacks, and in 1658 used the Tatars and German mercenaries to suppress a popular revolt against his rule. Yuri returned next year on a tide of anti-Polish feeling and Vygovski fled to Poland. But the divisions among Ukrainian Cossackdom yawned ever wider. Faction fought faction, groups intrigued against each other, while wolfish neighbors backed rival groups. Ukraine had become the cockpit of Eastern Europe.

     The almost continual war between Poland and Russia which swung to and fro across the Ukraine soon resulted in its being torn in two. Teterya became Hetman of the western area, oriented towards Poland, and the Russia-dominated east fell under a rival Hetman, Bryukhovetski, who quickened the conversion of the Cossack oligarchy into a class of landed gentry. The Tsar created him a boyar, ennobled his chief collaborators and sent in Russian troops to help suppress the underprivileged Cossacks and peasants who rebelled against him. The peace concluded between Poland and Russia in January 1667 establishing an official frontier between east and west Ukraine. Though the fighting flared up again, the division proved lasting. Coup followed coup and puppet followed puppet, but under Muscovy all vestige of Cossackdom in the Ukraine was to disappear.



      The decline was not sudden. Long before Bogdan’s birth the Cossacks there had been infiltrated by an alien social structure which came insidiously to influence their own social patterns and values, and give them a radically different form from those of Cossack communities further to the east. The Sich had remained egalitarian, Bogdan had served there as a young man and he had retained ties with it, but he had been an heir to property and was by class, a member of the gentry. Though he led a brief Cossack resurgence, the short-lived state which he created was hardly a Cossack one. His great revolution had come too late. The lines dividing the poorer Cossacks from the peasants who aspired to Cossack status and the richer Cossacks from the Polish gentry, were already blurred. Even at the height of his power, Bogdan could not reconcile their differences. After him, the trend to inequality merely became more marked.


Mazepa, often cited as Bogdan’s spiritual successor for leading a revolt against Peter the Great, was to rebel in the interests not of the Cossacks, but of a group of gentry who happened to have Cossack origins. Whatever his own motives, and the facts leave plenty of scope for speculation, Bogdan’s revolution was more than this. He had proved himself capable, as none of his predecessors or successors were, of holding the disparate elements of the Ukraine together if not of reconciling their differences. A better general, a shrewder politician, it was due to him that the year 1648 showed the Ukrainian Cossacks united, determined to die rather than accept alien authority and alien values. It was not an isolated case. The Don, the Terek and the Yaik Cossacks also reacted violently against each new step an expanding state took towards controlling them. Everywhere Cossacks fought doggedly to preserve their own traditions, for freedom, and the right to rule themselves.