18 January 2018

The promise of Pereyaslavl

Vasiliy Buturlin at Kiev

In my series before on the invaluable work of Gyorgi Fedotov, in detailing a believer’s-eye view of Russian spirituality and revealing the inner content of Russia’s religious ‘folk-history’ from a sympathetic view in The Russian Religious Mind, I noted in the context of his discussion on Russia’s tradition of attempting to approximate a just-war praxis in the absence of a hard-and-fast doxa that the early radical, kenotic and humble spirituality of the early Kievan Rus’ degenerated in several ways.

Fedotov describes it thus: the first places where this degeneration took place were in Galich and Kiev themselves. Their spirituality was infected, from their long contacts with Poland-Lithuania and polities further west, by a certain kind of upper-class pride – an emphasis on honour and revenge. Nextly, Vladimir and Moscow. The spiritual authorities in Vladimir and Moscow did not succumb to this emphasis on honour and revenge, and outwardly they still condemned even their own princes for pride, cruelty and violence. But instead they took refuge in a kind of self-protective political cynicism. The religious genius and political expediency became too narrowly conflated. Only in Novgorod did Fedotov comprehend a safe haven, at least temporarily, for the old caritative and kenotic spiritual values of Old Rus’.

The 18th of January, an important date in the history of early-modern Russia under the early Romanovs, marks the conclusion of the Rada of Pereyaslavl between the Cossack hetman Senovi Bogdan Khmelnitskiy and Tsar Alexis the Quiet. Bogdan Khmelnitskiy was the leader of the bloody, messy Cossack uprising against Poland, and he drew his support not from the nobility but from the lower classes. (Even Rusin peasantry, some of the poorest people in Europe long-oppressed under the Polish państwo, joined in the uprising.) As with Tsar Alexis himself, Bogdan’s legacy is mixed. I am not talking merely about his shameful treatment of the Jews or of the kholops (a servile institution which, to his credit, Tsar Alexis did abolish).

I’m talking more about the contradictory spiritual principles which Bogdan Khmelnitskiy’s uprising represented. As a Polish-educated nobleman, Bogdan had of course inherited in full the Galician-Kievan distortion of Christian ethics. He had a haughty and high-handed character, quick to anger and revenge. Much of his motivation in warring with the Poles came from his personal enmity with the overbearing Polish lordling Daniel Czapliński, who murdered his son and kidnapped his wife during one of Bogdan’s absences. His campaign was as much about offended honour and personal revenge as it was about justice for the people of Ruthenia in any broader sense. The transformation of the Zaporizhian Cossacks from a quasi-democratic steppe league into a more Westernised hereditary noble warrior caste was, in fact, largely Khmelnitskiy’s doing. And yet, by the lights of the time he did acquit himself with regard to the common people. Khmelnitskiy did have a sense of noblesse oblige toward the poor which he could exercise… when it suited him. To the poorer Ruthenians who joined his campaign, he was their ‘Moses’, their ‘redeemer and liberator’.

Khmelnitskiy wasn’t perfect – he was prideful, and held an immense capacity in his high-born heart for spite, revenge and cruelty. But he could also embody some of the best tendencies of Rus’ caritative spirituality. The reunion of the lands under the Cossack hetmanate with the Great Russian Tsardom was also accomplished through a council of accord on 18th January 1654: the Rada of Pereyaslavl, during which the Cossacks met with Vasiliy Vasil’evich Buturlin, the representative of Tsar Alexis, and came unanimously to the decision to place themselves under Russian military protection with a number of guarantees of their autonomy. That council represented the humane traditions of the Cossacks and the Russians both, the spirit of sobornost’ that characterised even the zemsky sobor which chose Alexis’s father Michael Fedorovich as the Tsar of Moscow. The later abrogation of that treaty which united the lands of the Cossacks with those of Great Russia, however, was largely a result of the wanton, unilateral treachery of the later Cossack hetman Ivan Mazepa.

Mazepa represents the other side of the coin from Khmelnitskiy, even though they occupy a similar position in nationalist mythology in the country which claims them both. The two of them had similar educations and upbringings. Khmelnitskiy may have established the Cossacks as a class of landowning nobles; Mazepa exploited this system to his own benefit, amassing vast swathes of land for himself and becoming a ‘patron of the arts’ at a time when such things were an ostentatious affect. He was a masterful manipulator, a schemer and, if the legends Lord Byron, Victor Hugo, Franz Liszt et al. spread so salaciously are to be believed, a seducer. He made his name as a loyalist to the Russian Tsar, particularly in his early career. However, he quickly saw that the winds were blowing in another direction, made plans to defect as early as 1706, and indeed so did, to the Swedish king Charles XII when the opportunity presented itself in 1708.

Whereas Khmelnitskiy had at least some sense of noblesse oblige, Mazepa had none, unless it burnished his own reputation. Khmelnitskiy saw fit to consult with his fellow-Cossacks before and at the Rada of Pereyaslavl. Mazepa did no such thing. No council was called; no consultation with the other Cossacks took place. His sudden defection from Tsar Peter I came as a shock to those Cossacks not under his direct command. It’s telling that even though Peter’s reaction to the betrayal was swift, brutal and deliberately-galling, executing over 5,000 Cossacks at one stroke at Mazepa’s home base of Baturlin, most of the remaining Cossacks still flocked to his banner – and not out of fear or cowardice. After all, Mazepa had not consulted them first. He had not only betrayed the Tsar, he had betrayed them. The campaign Mazepa led against his own former comrades was every bit as brutal as Peter’s reprisal; the Swedes he supported were indiscriminate in their violence against civilians, and the lands of the hetmanate were laid waste with a fury born of the Thirty Years’ War to which the Swedes had also been party. The diminishment under later Tsars of the liberties and autonomy Tsar Alexis promised them at Pereyaslavl, is to be attributed as much to the civil war between them as it is to the policies of Tsar Peter the Great.

As if to prove Dr Samuel Johnson’s maxim that ‘(false) patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel’, one of the first things that Mazepa did upon his defection was to defend himself as a ‘true son of the Fatherland’ to his second-hand man Ivan Il’ich Skoropadskiy, and urge him to attack the Muscovites. Skoropadskiy was taken aback by this, but not for long. The civil war among the Cossacks was accompanied by a ‘war of manifestos’ between Mazepa and Skoropadskiy, with each of them attempting to rally support by proto-nationalistic references to the ‘fatherland’.

As to the Treaty of Pereyaslavl itself, it went into decline from there, as noted above. The substance of the Treaty, the sobornyy-conciliar openness with which it was concluded, the willingness of Vasiliy Buturlin and the Cossacks to come to a peaceful and even-handed accord between them, stands in stark contrast to its later furtive, unilateral abrogation. But it did, for a time, represent a high-water mark in the relationship between the successor-countries to Kievan Rus’. God willing something similar may one day happen again.

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