Chmielnicki, Bogdan

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Chmielnicki, Bogdan

[1595–AUGUST 6, 1657]

Seventeenth-century Cossack ruler

Frequently identified by the Polish translation of his name, Bogdan (or Bohdan) Chmielnicki was hetman (supreme head) of the Cossacks based in southcentral Ukraine from 1648 until his death. He is also widely known by the Ukrainian form of his name, Bohdan Khmel'nyts'kyi. During the decade of his rule, Chmielnicki was responsible for leading a successful revolt against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which dominated Ukraine at the time, and for bringing the lands he controlled under the authority of the tsardom of Muscovy in 1654.

During the first half of the seventeenth century much of Ukraine was a borderland region of southeastern Poland-Lithuania, beyond which a no-man's land separated it from the Ottoman Empire and its client state, the Crimean Tatar Khanate. Until 1648 Chmielnicki was what is known as a registered Cossack, that is, a kind of landowning petty gentryman of Orthodox Christian faith in the service of the Polish kingdom, as opposed to the Zaporozhian Cossacks, that is, military freebooters who lived in the no-man's borderland and opposed any kind of government control. In 1647 Chmielnicki clashed with a local Polish official over financial and personal matters, and finding no legal satisfaction, he fled in early 1648 to join the Zaporozhian Cossacks, who then elected him as their leader or hetman.

In his new role, Chmielnicki formed an alliance with the Crimean Tatars and within a few months he defeated the Polish army in several battles. He then pressed the government to grant further privileges to both the registered and Zaporozhian Cossacks as well as a large degree of autonomy for Ukraine. With the breakdown of Polish authority, spontaneous peasant revolts broke out in central Ukraine in the summer of 1648; the peasants were later joined by Zaporozhian Cossack forces, who expanded the scope of the revolts. The objective of the peasant and Zaporozhian marauders was to remove from Ukraine those who were perceived as their oppressor, first and foremost the Polish noble landlords, Jewish estate managers, Roman Catholic clergy and town dwellers, and fellow Christians known as Uniates (i.e., former Orthodox adherents who recognized the Roman pope as head of their church).

As for Chmielnicki himself, he and his armies did not participate in such revolts nor in the accompanying atrocities against civilians. As a petty gentryman, he hoped to remain under Poland-Lithuania provided that the state granted to the registered Cossacks the privileges that effectively would have amounted to their status as nobles. Chmielnicki was only partially successful, although he did manage to establish a Cossack state in 1649. Conflict with Poland persisted, however, and the civilian population, in particular Poles and Jews, continued to suffer losses until at least 1652.

Polish sources have traditionally depicted Chmielnicki in a very negative light, accusing him of having precipitated the steady decline of Poland's power in eastern Europe until eventually the state completely disappeared in the late eighteenth century. This image of Chmielnicki as a destroyer was preserved in the Polish psyche through the nineteenth-century novels of the Nobel Prize-winning author Henryk Sienkiewicz. Jewish authors have been even more critical of Chmielnicki, in some cases characterizing him as the government official responsible for the first Holocaust perpetrated against Jews. Seventeenth-century Jewish chronicles, in particular, those of Nathan Hannover and Sabbatai Cohen, reported alleged Jewish losses ranging from 60,000 to 100,000 deaths and the destruction of 300 communities. Present-day Israeli scholars (Shaul Stampfer and Bernard D. Weinryb among them) have pointed out that these figures are grossly exaggerated and speak instead of the annihilation of 18,000 to 20,000 lives. Yet despite the fact that Chmielnicki's "control of events was rather limited," as conceded by the Encyclopedia Judaica, that same source also notes he is depicted in Jewish annals as "Chmiel the Wicked, one of the most sinister oppressors of Jews of all generations" (1972, p. 481).

In stark contrast to Polish and Jewish sources, traditional Russian historiography, in part repeated by later Soviet authors, considers Chmielnicki in a positive light as the leader who brought the Orthodox "Little Russians" (i.e., Ukrainians) into the political fold of Muscovy and its successor state, the Russian Empire. Most interesting is the Ukrainian image, which is decidedly mixed. The nineteenth-century national bard of Ukraine, Taras Shevchenko, consistently rejected any notion of Chmielnicki as a hero and portrayed him instead as a treacherous leader who sold out his country to the Muscovites (Russians). Last, general histories of Ukraine depict, and the popular image is, a Chmielnicki who single-handedly created an independent "Ukrainian" state. The strongly contrasting historical memories of Chmielnicki have contributed to the persisting negative stereotypes that Poles and Jews, on the one hand, and Ukrainians, on the other, have of each other.

SEE ALSO Anti-Semitism; Cossacks


Hanover, Nathan (1983). Abyss of Despair/Yeven Metzulah: The Famous 17th-Century Chronicle Depicting Jewish Life in Russia and Poland during the Chmielnicki Massacres of 1648–1649. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Books.

Hrushevsky, Mykhailo (2002). History of Ukraine-Rus. Vol. 8: The Cossack Age, 1626–1650. Edmonton, Canada: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies Press.

Sysyn, Frank E. (1988). "The Jewish Factor in the Khmelnytsky Uprising." In Ukrainian-Jewish Relations in Historical Perspective, ed. Peter J. Potichnyj and Howard Aster. Edmonton, Canada: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies

Sysyn, Frank E., and Shaul Stampfer (2003). "Jews, Cossacks, Poles, and Peasants in 1648 Ukraine." Jewish History 17(2):115–139, 207–227.

Vernadsky, George (1941). Bohdan, Hetman of Ukraine. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.

Paul Robert Magocsi