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Cossack - Kozak
Kozaks after sending the Sultan a note; oil; by Ilya Repnin
Kozaks after sending the Sultan a note; oil; by Ilya Repnin

© Council on Foreign Relations Press
Posted with permission.

The mid-seventeenth century represented post-Rus' Ukraine's best chance of reestablishing an independent political existence. Because of Ukraine's borderland status, something of a primitive political elite had come into existence by the late sixteenth century: the Cossacks. Cossackdom emerged as a haven for escaping serfs, slaves, and peasants beyond the bounds of established political authority in the vast Ukrainian steppes. Their lair was the Sich, an island stronghold on the south Dnieper. From there the Cossacks launched attacks on Turks and Tatars and defended their autonomy from the encroachments of Poles and Russians. Their exploits became the stuff of Ukrainian legend and ...[arguably] the basis of Ukrainian national identity. In time, some of these "social bandits" were co-opted by the Polish authorities, who "registered" them as frontier allies of the Rzecz Pospolita, or Commonwealth. Even so, both registered and unregistered Cossacks continually engaged in rebellions against the expansion of Polish rule and obligations throughout most of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The Cossack rebellions culminated in the great insurrection led by their hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky in 1648. Cossack defense of their prerogatives merged with popular dissatisfaction with the harshness of Polish landlord rule and Orthodox opposition to the Counter-Reformation to produce a massive revolt that encompassed all strata of Ukrainian society. As Khmelnytsky's armies defeated the Poles in several battles, Orthodox battled Catholics and peasants massacred Jews. In the end, Khmelnytsky established an independent Cossack state. Independence was short-lived, however, since in 1654, facing military threats on all sides, Khmelnytsky signed a treaty of alliance with the tsar of Muscovy at Pereyaslav. Several decades of incessant warfare then followed, as Ukraine was transformed into a battleground among Turks, Tatars, Poles, Russians, and Ukrainians. By the late seventeenth century, when the dust had settled, the Right Bank, utterly devastated and largely depopulated, remained Polish, while the Left Bank, which survived the period of the "Ruin" more or less intact, remained home to the Hetmanate-but in a new incarnation, as an autonomous political unit subordinated to the Russian tsar. The Ukrainian hetmans defended their rights, but to no avail. Hetman Ivan Mazepa actually attempted to secede from Russia with the assistance of Charles XII of Sweden, but both went down to defeat by Peter the Great at Poltava in 1709. Finally, by the late eighteenth century, Catherine the Great, in her enthusiasm to establish a modem bureaucratic state, abolished the Hetmanate and destroyed the Sich as well.

Could the Cossacks have succeeded in maintaining an independent polity! An analysis of its international environment suggests not. For reasons directly related to Ukraine's peculiar status as an unincorporated territory situated at the intersection of several realms, Ukrainian elites lacked the means to assert their political will over the long run. Although the Cossacks were formidable fighters, they were in the end no match for the well organized and better-supplied armies of the Turks, Russians, Tatars, and Poles. Seen from this point of view, Khmelnytsky's temporary success seems to have been due to the international "correlation of forces" in general and in Eastern Europe in particular. Poland had been weakened by the Thirty Years' War, Muscovy had just emerged from the Time of Troubles, while the Ottomans were pursuing empire in the Balkans and southeastern Europe. With a power vacuum in Ukraine, the Cossacks were able to assert themselves temporarily; once this window of opportunity had closed, state-building became well-nigh impossible.

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