July 01, 2018

Steppes Ahead

History generally credits the Frenchman Montesquieu (Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu) for the political theory known as the separation of powers. Montesquieu actually termed it the “distribution of powers,” in his 1748 treatise, The Spirit of the Laws, and his notion was that a society can protect itself from despotism and over-centralization of power by dividing government between legislative, executive, and judicial bodies.

But the first expression of this idea – the tripartite separation of governmental powers – actually appeared in a constitution nearly half a century earlier, in 1710, and not one written by a French noble (or an American Founding Father), but by a Slav – a Ukrainian Cossack chieftain and aide to one of Russian history’s most infamous turncoats.

After Peter I assumed the Russian throne in 1689, Ivan Mazepa, a rich and powerful hetman, or leader, of a band of Ukrainian Cossacks, served as a loyal and useful advisor to the young tsar. His Cossacks were instrumental in Peter’s wars against the Ottomans and Tatars, and a rich friendship grew between the two men, such that Cossack colonels joked that “the tsar would sooner disbelieve an angel than Mazepa.”

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