July 01, 2006

A Hetman Builds a Nation

In the ancient heart of Kiev, silhouetted against the medieval white walls of the Cathedral of St. Sophia, a stern faced man of bronze sits astride his horse. His mace, the sign of a Cossack leader, points to the East. The man and the image are burned into the Ukrainian collective consciousness. This is Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the most influential of Ukrainian Cossack leaders, heralded as one of Ukraine’s great nation-builders.

A closer inspection of this statue and its origins, however, speaks of Khmelnytsky’s conflict-ridden legacy. The monument was finished in 1888 under Tsarist rule. The eastward-pointing mace was intentional, for it points toward Moscow, to imply that Ukraine’s destiny lies with Russia, and that it was Khmelnytsky who brought about the fulfillment of that destiny. Thus, the very symbol of Ukrainian nationalism is also a symbol of Russia’s claim to its southwestern neighbor.

Born about 1595, Bohdan Zenovii Khmelnytsky was the son Mykhailo Khmelnytsky, a member of the lesser Ukrainian nobility. At the time, most of modern Ukraine was at least nominally part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, so Bohdan attended Jesuit School and learned Latin and Polish. He did not, however, convert from Orthodoxy to Roman Catholicism, as did many other Ukrainian nobles. He did, however, fight alongside his father at the battle of Cecora in 1620 – a disastrous defeat for the Commonwealth. Mykhailo was killed, and Bohdan was taken into Turkish captivity for two years, during which time he learned to speak Turkish and Tatar. In the 1620’s, he joined the Zaporozhian Cossacks and, in the decades that followed, probably took part in some raids against the Turks and Tatars, and was involved in the Cossack uprisings of 1632 and 1637. He further developed his military skills in France, his Cossacks having been invited there in 1645 by Cardinal Mazarin. In fact, he and his Cossacks seem to have played an important role in France’s taking of Dunkirk in 1646. 

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