Khmelnytsky, Bohdan (c. 1595–1657)

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KHMELNYTSKY, BOHDAN (c. 15951657), hetman of the Zaporozhian Cossack Host (16481657) and founder of the Hetmanate (Cossack state). Born into a family of Orthodox petty gentry, Khmelnytsky received a Jesuit education. Khmelnytsky took part in the Battle of Cecora (1620) and was taken as a prisoner to Istanbul for two years. He enlisted in the Chyhyryn Cossack regiment near his family holding of Subotiv and emerged during the Cossack revolts of 16371638 as military chancellor of the Zaporozhian Host, signing the capitulation of 27 December 1637. It is possible that he served among Cossack mercenary troops in France in 1644. In 1646, as captain of the Chyhyryn regiment, he accompanied a Cossack delegation to King Władysław IV Vasa (ruled 16321648), who sought to win the Cossacks over to his secret plans for a war against the Ottomans.

Khmelnytsky's life as an established Cossack took a radical turn in 1647 because of a personal and property dispute with a magnate's servitor. Khmelnytsky found no redress for the seizure of his estate and was arrested in November 1647. He escaped and fled to the traditional Cossack stronghold or sich, where he was proclaimed hetman in February 1648. He rallied the Cossacks, who smarted under the harsh Polish regime, to his cause and came to an agreement with the Crimean Khanate that ensured cavalry support for the Cossack infantry. In May, Khmelnytsky defeated the Polish armies sent after him. The death of the king in the same month threw the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, an elective monarchy, into crisis.

Although some historians believe that from the first Khmelnytsky had sought to overthrow Polish rule, in the initial phase of the revolt his demands centered on Cossack rights. Throughout 1648, as social war reigned in much of Ukraine and the commonwealth's elite fell into factional struggles over the election, Khmelnytsky energetically organized a military force and an administration of the territory he controlled. Defeating what remained of the commonwealth's forces in September, Khmelnytsky forces reached the limit of Ukrainian ethnic territory and influenced the election of John II Casimir Vasa (Jan II Kazimierz; ruled 16481668) as a pro-peace candidate. At the end of the year Khmelnytsky marched east, entering the ancient Ukrainian capital of Kyiv to the acclamation of the clergy and the other inhabitants that he was a Moses and a liberator from the "Polish bondage." He announced his plans to liberate the Ruthenian (Ukrainian-Belarusian) nation and declared that God had raised him up to be the autocrat of Rus'. These declarations of intentions to be the ruler of a new state could only be resolved by military victory. The Battle of Zboriv (August 1649) proved inconclusive because of the desertion of the Crimean khan, who was troubled by the rising power. Khmelnytsky was recognized as hetman with sweeping privileges, above all as the leader of a Cossack Host of forty thousand. But this fell far short of his earlier aspirations and endangered his position because the masses rejected the terms and the depredations of his Tatar allies.

From mid-1649 Khmelnytsky sought to keep the unwieldy coalition supporting him in Ukraine together as he searched for foreign allies and protectors against the commonwealth in a program to entrench his rule. Initially the Ottoman Empire seemed the most likely source, and the hetman sought to create a dynasty by marrying his son Tymish to the daughter of the Moldavian hospodar, an Ottoman vassal. Defeated by the Poles at Berestechko (June 1651), Khmelnytsky in turn defeated the Poles in June 1652 on an expedition to marry off his son. His Balkan policy ultimately ended in ruin and the death of his son (September 1653). Khmelnytsky then turned more seriously to the Muscovite tsar, taking an oath of loyalty to him in January 1654 at Pereiaslav but failing to receive an oath from him. Retaining far greater power in Ukraine than the terms negotiated, Khmelnytsky came to be disillusioned with Muscovy, especially after the truce between Muscovy and the commonwealth in November 1656. He joined a coalition with Sweden and Transylvania against the commonwealth (and Muscovite desires), but news of the failure of a Transylvanian-Ukrainian invasion reached him on his deathbed.

Khmelnytsky's major problem in his final years was the question of succession because his remaining son Iurii was a weak figure. Iurii initially succeeded him, but the Host soon turned instead to his chancellor Ivan Vyhovsky.

In a ten-year period the hetman had managed to create an effective army and civil administration and to turn his capital Chyhyryn into a center of international diplomacy. Khmelnytsky had not, however, found a secure place for the Hetmanate in the East European state system or a way to prevent foreign intervention in Cossack affairs. Contemporary and subsequent evaluations of him differed, with some seeing him as a brilliant state builder and diplomat, an equal of Oliver Cromwell (15991658) or Armand-Jean du Plessis, Cardinal Richelieu (15851642), while others saw him as chimerical, rash (above all in the terms he negotiated with Muscovy), given to bouts of drunkenness, and even a destructive despot similar to Tamerlane (Timur; 13361405) or Batu Khan (died 1255). Eighteenth-century Ukrainian historiography created a cult of Khmelnytsky as founder of the Hetmanate. Opinions varied in the nineteenth century, with the Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko (18141861) chiding him for his agreement with the Russians. Soviet historiography beginning in the 1950s praised him for bringing about the "reunification" of Ukraine and Russia. In the Jewish tradition he is decried as responsible for massacres of Jews during the uprising. He figures prominently in Polish historical imagination as an enemy of the Polish state.

See also Cossacks ; Khmelnytsky Uprising ; Poland-Lithuania, Commonwealth of, 15691795 ; Ukraine.


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Frank E. Sysyn