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25: The Cossacks

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AT the beginning of the 16th century the illimitable steppe of south-eastern Europe, extending from the Dnieper to the Urals, had no settled population. Hunters and fishermen frequented its innumerable rivers, returning home laden with rich store of fish and pelts, while runaway serfs occasionally settled in small communities beneath the shelter of the fortresses built, from time to time, to guard the southern frontiers of Poland and Muscovy. Obliged, for fear of the Tatars, to go about with arms in their hands, these settlers gradually grew strong enough to raid their raiders, selling the booty thus acquired to the merchants of Muscovy and Poland. Moreover, the Turks and Tatars being the natural enemies of Christendom, a war of extermination against them was regarded by the Cossacks as a sacred duty. Curiously enough, these champions of orthodoxy borrowed the name, which has stuck to them ever since, from their "dog-headed" adversaries. The rank and file of the Tatar soldiery were known as Kazaki, or Cossacks, a word meaning "freebooters," and this term came to be applied indiscriminately to all the free dwellers in the Ukraine, or border-lands. As time went on the Cossacks multiplied exceedingly. Their daring grew with their numbers, and at last they came to be a constant annoyance to all their neighbours, both Christian and Mussulman, frequently involving Poland in dangerous and unprofitable wars with the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, it is not too much to say that, until the days of Sobieski, the Cossacks were invariably the chief cause of the breaches between the Porte and the Republic. We have seen how carefully the Jagiellos avoided participating in any of the crusades directed by the Holy See against the arch- enemies of the Cross. So successful was their prudential abstention that no regular war occurred between Turkey and Poland during the two centuries of their sway. The first actual collisions, the Cecora campaign of 1620 and the Khotin War of 1621 (for John Albert's Moldavian raid does not count), were due to the depredations of the Cossacks upon the dominions of the sultan by land and sea, and in all subsequent treaties between the two powers the most essential clause was always that which bound the Republic to keep its freebooters in order.

But in the meantime the Cossacks themselves had become a semi-independent community. The origin of the Cossack state is still somewhat obscure, but the germs of it are visible as early as the beginning of the 16th century. The union of Lublin, which led to the polonization of Lithuania, was the immediate occasion of a consider- able exodus to the lowlands of the Dnieper of those serfs who desired to escape from the taxes of the Polish government and the tyranny of the Polish landlords. Stephen Bįthory presently converted the pick of them into six registered regiments of 1000 each for the defence of the border. Ultimately the island of Hortica, just below the falls of the Dnieper, was fixed upon as their headquarters; and on the numerous islands of that broad river there gradually arose the famous Cossack community known as the Zaporoskskaya Syech, or Settlement behind the Falls, whence the Dnieperian Cossacks were known, generally, as Zaporozhians, or Backfallsmen.¹ The Cossack kosh, or commonwealth, had the privilege of electing its hetman, or chief, and his chief officers, the starshins. The hetman, after election, received from the king of Poland direct the insignia of his office, viz. the bulawa, or baton, the bunchuk, or horse-tail standard, and his official seal; but he was responsible for his actions to the kosh alone,

¹ Cf. American Backwoodsmen.


and an inquiry into his conduct was held at the expiration of his term of office in the obschaya shkoda, or general assembly. In time of peace his power was little more than that of the responsible minister of a constitutional republic; but in time of warfare he was a dictator, and disobedience to his orders in the field was punishable by death.

The Cossacks were supposed to be left alone as much as possible by the Polish government so long as they faithfully fulfilled their chief obligation of guarding the frontiers of the Republic from Tatar raids. But the relations between a community of freebooters, mostly composed of fugitive serfs and refugees, and a government of small squires who regarded the Cossacks as a mere rabble were bound to be difficult at the best of times, and political and religious differences presently supervened. The Cossacks, mostly of Lithuanian origin, belonged to the Orthodox religion, so far as they belonged to any religion at all, and the Jagiellos had been very careful to safeguard the religious liberties of their Lithuanian subjects, especially as the Poles themselves were indifferent on the subject. But, at the beginning of the 17th century, when the current of the Catholic reaction was running very strongly and the Jesuits, after subduing the Protestants, began to undermine the position of the Orthodox Church in Lithuania, a more intolerant spirit began to prevail. The old Calvinist nobility of Lithuania were speedily reconverted; a Uniate Church in connexion with Rome was established; Greek Orthodox congregations, if not generally persecuted, were at least depressed and straitened; and the Cossacks began to hate the Pans, or Polish lords, not merely as tyrants, but as heretics. Yet all these obstacles to a good understanding might perhaps have been surmounted if only the Polish diet had treated the Cossacks with common fairness and common sense. In 1619 the Polish government was obliged to prohibit absolutely the piratical raids of the Cossacks in the Black Sea, where they habitually destroyed Turkish property to the value of millions. At the same time, by the compact of Rastawica, the sejm undertook to allow the Cossacks, partly as wages, partly as compensation, 40,000 (raised by the compact of Kurukow to 60,000) gulden and 170 wagons of cloth per annum. These terms were never kept, despite the earnest remonstrances of the king and the complaints of the aggrieved borderers. Parsimony prevailed, as usual, over prudence, and when the Cossacks showed unmistakable signs of restiveness, the Poles irritated them still further by ordering the construction of the strong fortress of Kudak at the confluence of the Dnieper and the Samara, to overawe the Zaporozhian community. This further act of repression led to two terrible Cossack risings, in 1635 and 1636, put down only with the utmost difficulty, whereupon the diet of 1638 deprived the Cossacks of all their ancient privileges, abolished the elective hetmanship, and substituted for it a commission of Polish noblemen with absolute power, so that the Cossacks might well declare that those who hated them were lords over them.

Such was the condition of affairs in the Ukraine when Wladislaus IV. proposed to make the Cossacks the pivot of his foreign policy and his domestic reforms. His far-reaching plans were based upon two facts, the absolute devotion of the Zaporozhians to himself personally, and the knowledge, secretly conveyed to him by Stanislaus Koniecpolski, that the whole of the Ukraine was in a ferment. He proposed to provoke the Tatars to a rupture by repudiating the humiliating tribute with which the Republic had so long and so vainly endeavoured to buy off their incessant raids. In case of such rupture he meant, at the head of 100,000 Cossacks, to fall upon the Crimea itself, the seat of their power, and exterminate the Khanate. This he calculated would bring about a retaliatory invasion of Poland by the Turks, which would justify him in taking the field against them also with all the forces of the Republic. In case of success he would be able to impose the will of a victorious king upon a discredited diet, and reform the constitution on an English or Swedish model. Events seemed at first to favour this audacious speculation. Almost simultaneously a civil war broke out in the Crimea and the Porte declared war against the Venetian republic, with which Wladislaus at once concluded an offensive and defensive alliance (1645). He then bade the Cossacks prepare their boats for a raid upon the Turkish galleys, and secured the co-operation of the tsar in the Crimean expedition by a special treaty. Unfortunately Venice, for her own safety's sake, insisted on the publication of Wladislaus's anti-Turkish alliance; the Porte, well informed of the course of Polish affairs, remained strictly neutral despite the most outrageous provocations; and Wladislaus, bound by his coronation oath not to undertake an offensive war, found himself at the mercy of the diet which, full of consternation and rage assembled at Warsaw on the 2nd of May 1647. It is needless to say that the Venetian alliance was repudiated and the royal power still further reduced. A year later Wladislaus died at his hunting-box at Merecz, at the very moment when the long-impending tempest which he himself had conjured up burst with overwhelming fury over the territories of the Republic.

The prime mover of the great rebellion of 1648, which shook the Polish state to its very foundations, was the Cossack Bohdan Chmielnicki, who had been initiated in all the plans of Wladislaus IV. and, with good reason, feared to be the first victim of the Polish magnates when the king's designs were unmasked and frustrated. To save himself he hit upon the novel and terrible expedient of uniting the Tatars and the Cossacks in a determined onslaught upon the Republic, whose inward weakness, despite its brave outward show, he had been quick to discern. On the 18th of April 1648, at the general assembly of the Zaporozhians, he openly expressed his intention of proceeding against the Poles and was elected hetman by acclamation; on the 19th of May he annihilated a small detached Polish corps on the banks of the river Zheltndya Vodui, and seven days later overwhelmed the army of the Polish grand-hetman, massacring 8500 of his 10,000 men and sending the grand-hetman himself and all his officers in chains to the Crimea. The immediate consequence of these victories was the outburst of a khlopskaya zloba, or "serfs' fury." Throughout the Ukraine the gentry were hunted down, flayed, burnt, blinded and sawn asunder. Every manor-house and castle was reduced to ashes. Every Uniate or Catholic priest who could be caught was hung up before his own high altar, along with a Jew and a hog. The panic-stricken inhabitants fled to the nearest strongholds, and soon the rebels were swarming over the palatinates of Volhynia and Podolia. Meanwhile the Polish army, 40,000 strong, with 100 guns, was assembling on the frontier. It consisted almost entirely of the noble militia, and was tricked out with a splendour more befitting a bridal pageant than a battle array. For Chmielnicki and his host these splendid cavaliers expressed the utmost contempt. "This rabble must be chased with whips, not smitten with swords," they cried . On the 23rd of September the two armies encountered near Pildawa, and after a stubborn three days' contest the gallant Polish pageant was scattered to the winds. The steppe for miles around was strewn with corpses, and the Cossacks are said to have reaped 10,000,000 guldens worth of booty when the fight was over. All Poland now lay at Chmielnicki's feet, and the road to the defenceless capital was open before him but he wasted two precious months in vain before the fortress of Zamosc, and then the newly elected king of Poland, John Casimir, Wladislaus IV.'s brother privately opened negotiations with the rebel, officially recognized him by sending him the bulawa and the other insignia of the hetman's dignity, and promised his "faithful Zaporozhians" the restoration of all their ancient liberties if they would break off their alliance with the Tatars and await the arrival of peace commissioners at Pereyaslavl. But the negotiations at Pereyaslavl came to nothing. Chmielnicki's conditions of peace were so extravagant that the Polish commissioners durst not accept them, and in 1649 he again invaded Poland with a countless host of Cossacks and Tatars. Again, however, he made the mistake of attacking a fortress, which delayed his advance for a month, and gave John Casimir time to collect an army for the relief of the besieged. By the compact of Zborów (Aug. 21, 1649) Chmielnicki was recognized as hetman of the Zaporozhians, whose registered number was now raised from 6000 to 40,000, a general amnesty was also granted, and it was agreed that all official dignities in the Orthodox palatinates of Lithuania should henceforth be held solely by the Orthodox gentry. For the next eighteen months Chmielnicki ruled the Ukraine like a sovereign prince. He made Chigirin, his native place, the Cossack capital, subdivided the country into sixteen provinces and entered into direct relations with foreign powers. His attempt to carve a principality for his son out of Moldavia led to the outbreak of a third war between suzerain and subject in February 1651 . But fortune so long Bohdan's friend, now deserted him, and at Beresteczko (July 1, 1651) the Cossack chieftain was utterly routed by Stephen Czarniecki. All hope of an independent Cossackdom was now at an end, yet it was not Poland but Muscovy which reaped the fruits of Czarniecki's victory.

Chmielnicki, by suddenly laying bare the nakedness of the Polish republic, had opened the eyes of Muscovy to the fact that her secular enemy was no longer formidable. Three years after his defeat at Beresteczko, Chmielnicki, finding himself unable to cope with the Poles, single-handed, very reluctantly transferred his allegiance to the tsar, and the same year the tsar's armies invaded Poland, still bleeding from the all but mortal wounds inflicted on her by the Cossacks. The war thus begun, and known in Russian history as the Thirteen Years War, far exceeded even the Thirty Years' War in grossness and brutality. It resembled nothing so much as a hideous scramble of ravening beasts and obscene fowls for the dismembered limbs of a headless carcase, for such did Poland seem to all the world before the war was half over. In the summer of 1655, moreover, while the Republic was still reeling beneath the shock of the Muscovite invasion, Charles X. of Sweden, on the flimsiest of pretexts, forced a war upon reluctant and inoffensive Poland, simply to gratify his greed of martial glory, and before the year was out his forces had occupied the capital, the coronation city and the best half of the land. King John Casimir, betrayed and abandoned by his own subjects, fled to Silesia, and profiting by the cataclysm which, for the moment had swept the Polish state out of existence, the Muscovites, unopposed, quickly appropriated nearly everything which was not already occupied by the Swedes. At this crisis Poland owed her salvation to two events - the formation of a general league against Sweden, brought about by the apprehensive court of Vienna, and an almost simultaneous popular outburst of religious enthusiasm on the part of the Polish people. The first of these events, to be dated from the alliance between the emperor Leopold and John Casimir, on the 27th of May 1657, led to a truce with the tsar and the welcome diversion of all the Muscovite forces against Swedish Livonia. The second event, which began with the heroic and successful defence of the monastery of Czenstochowa by Prior Kordecki against the Swedes, resulted in the return of the Polish king from exile, the formation of a national army under Stephen Czarniecki and the recovery of almost all the lost provinces from the Swedes, who were driven back headlong to the sea, where with difficulty they held their own. On the sudden death of Charles X. (Feb. 13, 1660), Poland gladly seized the opportunity of adjusting all her outstanding differences with Sweden. By the peace of Oliva (May 3, 1660), made under French mediation, John Casimir ceded Livonia, and renounced all claim to the Swedish crown. The war with Muscovy was then prosecuted with renewed energy and extraordinary success. In the autumn of 1661 the Russian commanders were routed at Zeromsk, and nearly all the eastern provinces were recovered. In 1664 a peace congress was opened at Durovicha and the prospects of Poland seemed most brilliant; but at the very moment when she needed all her armed strength to sustain her diplomacy the rebellion of one of her leading magnates, Prince Lubomirsky, involved her in a dangerous civil war, compelled her to reopen negotiations with the Muscovites, at Andrussowo, under far more unfavourable conditions, and after protracted negotiations practically to accept the Muscovite terms. By the truce of Andrussowo (Feb. 11, 1667) Poland received back from Muscovy Vitebsk, Polotsk and Polish Livonia, but ceded in perpetuity Smolensk Syeversk, Chernigov and the whole of the eastern bank of the Dnieper, including the towns of Konolop, Gadyach, Pereyaslavl, Mirgorod, Poltava and Izyum. The Cossacks of the Dnieper were henceforth to be under the joint dominion of the tsar and the king of Poland. Kiev, the religious metropolis of western Russia, was to remain in the hands of Muscovy for two years.


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