As I was watching Roman Onufrijchuk's lectures on the Ukraine I was particularly captivated by the story of the Cossack Ivan Mazepa. Although I think Western audiences are more accustomed to thinking of the Ukrainian Cossacks as a band of totally unorganized rogues who pillaged and fought, my findings on Mazepa in the online Encyclopedia of Ukraine entirely contradicted this image. Apparently, Mazepa was a very organized and savvy Hetman, who sought not only to secure legal rights for the Cossacks, but to encourage within his Hetmanate an appreciation for literature, painting, and architecture. Indeed, the Encyclopedia of Ukraine states that some scholars now refer to the period of Mazepa's rule as the "Mazepa Renaissance" for its many advances in the humanities!
Most interesting to me were Mazepa's relations with Peter I of Russia. That a Cossack Hetman was even recognized by the Tsar, much less seen as a military and civil threat, indicates the magnitude of Mazepa's s sphere of influence. Mazepa and Peter I had initially formed an alliance, but it had become a burden on the entire Cossack population due to the Tsar's constant interference in their affairs and his exploitation of their labor. Soon, Peter I sought to abolish the Cossacks' status as "free agents" and to obliterate the Cossack order that bound the members together, assuming that Mazepa could not overpower him. Mazepa, however, began his own secret plotting with King Stanislaus of Poland and Charles XII of Sweden, forming an alliance that supported the independence of the Cossacks and their right to national self-determination. Moreover, Charles XII refused to make peace with Moscow until Ukraine and the Cossack lands were freed of Peter I's rule.
Unfortunately for Mazepa, the Russo-Swedish war, carried out on Ukrainian territories, resulted in a defeat for Charles XII, and Peter I was free to take his revenge on the Cossack dissenters. Russian forces captured Baturyn, Mazepa's capital, and massacred its 6,000 inhabitants. Peter I then began to persecute Mazepa's followers so that Mazepa, along with 3,000 of his loyal men, were forced to flee to Turkish-held territories. Mazepa's dream of an independent Cossack nation was extinguished.
Still, it amazes me that a little Cossack Hetman with some 10,000 men behind him managed to both battle and form alliances with some of Europe's greatest powers, and to be recognized by these powers as either a political equal or a serious military threat. This certainly speaks to Mazepa's skill as an orator, a politician, a military leader, and a statesman. And to think that he did all this not in the midst of a militant society, but as the head of a people who built Baroque churches, supported translations of the New Testament, and attended the Kyivan Mohyla Academy for higher learning!
If you'd like to learn more about Mazepa, here is a useful link: