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East Central Europe, A History of

12: The First Half of the Seventeenth Century

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When Henry IV or rather his minister, Sully, outlined an international organization of Europe, they attributed to East Central Europe, represented by Poland, an important place at the border of their Christian Republic from which not only the Ottoman Empire but also Orthodox Russia was excluded. Nevertheless the policies of both of these powers profoundly influenced the European state system and its precarious balance. France herself took advantage of it, cooperating with Turkey against the Habsburgs, from 1536 on, and the latter started their cooperation with Russia against the possible allies of France in Central Europe even earlier. Similar combinations reappeared time and again in the seventeenth century. But at its very beginning another possibility seemed to open up: the establishment of permanent political and cultural ties between East European Russia and her neighbors in Central Europe.

    Such a situation developed during Russia’s “time of troubles.” As indicated in that very designation, it was primarily an internal crisis on apparently dynastic grounds, but also on much deeper social and constitutional grounds, which, however, at the same time offered a tempting opportunity for foreign interference. In that respect a first occasion was the appearance of the famous pretender, Demetrius, who claimed to be a son of Ivan the Terrible. He wanted to regain his father’s throne, occupied since 1598 by Boris Godunov. His fascinating story started, indeed, in Poland, where that Russian exile found a haven in 1603 and succeeded in arousing the interest of both the king and the papal nuncio, since he made promises of cooperation with Poland and of religious union with Rome if assisted in realizing his objectives. He did not, however, inspire sufficient confidence to receive any official support. When he invaded Russia the following year it was only with a limited participation of individual Polish magnates, including non-Catholics and opponents of the royal government, and of a number of Ukrainian Cozacks, thrilled by that adventure and following the example of the Russian Don Cozacks who also rebelled against Moscow.

    The sudden death of Boris Godunov facilitated the victory of the pretender in 1605. As czar he did not keep any promises made to Poland or to the Catholic Church, but even so, his marriage with a Polish lady, and Polish and Western influence at his court, contributed to the revolt of the following year in which he was killed without having established closer relations between Russia and her neighbors. Polish support given to another pseudo-Demetrius, an obvious impostor who pretended to be Ivan’s son, was again entirely unofficial and only created trouble for King Sigismund III when in 1609 he finally decided to interfere with the chaotic situation in Russia.

    The direct cause of the Polish invasion was the alliance which the new czar, Vasil Shuysky, concluded in the preceding year with Sweden. Asking for Swedish support, he had to pay a twofold price: the Swedes, entering the civil war in Russia, occupied a fairly large and important section of the country, including the city and region of Novgorod, and furthermore, Vasil in turn promised to cooperate with them against Poland. This was, of course, an open challenge to Sigismund III, because since 1600 he had been at war with his uncle, Charles IX of Sweden. The rivalry within the Vasa dynasty was now combined with the old rivalry of both countries in the Baltic lands where the Poles hoped to gain Estonia, while the Swedes, in spite of spectacular Polish-Lithuanian victories, penetrated deeply into Livonia.

    Facing the Swedish-Russian alliance, the commonwealth had to choose between two different war aims and programs. Stanislaw Zolkiewski, the nephew of Jan Zamoyski and continuator of his political and military activities, after defeating Shuysky’s forces in the battle of Klushino in 1610 and taking him prisoner, together with his brothers, favored the idea of some kind of union between Poland and Russia in a spirit of reconciliation and cultural and constitutional assimilation. He succeeded in concluding a formal agreement with a strong party of prominent boyars, based upon the election of the king s son, Wladyslaw, as czar of Russia. The young prince was supposed to become an Orthodox and, following the Polish example, the czarist autocracy would have been limited in favor of the boyars.

    Sigismund III hesitated, however, to confirm that agreement. He did not want his son to go to Moscow or to change his religion, and tried to be accepted as czar himself. Such a personal union of both countries under a ruler known for his strong Catholic convictions had, of course, even less chance of success than Zolkiewski’s initiative. It soon became apparent that the Commonwealth and the Czardom were so far apart and basically so different from each other that a repetition of the federal experiment which had succeeded so well in Polish-Lithuanian relations was out of the question. No Polish candidate was acceptable to the majority of the Russians, just as all Russian candidatures to the Polish throne had been and would be complete failures. Muscovite Russia, already a vast Eurasian power soon to reach the Pacific, could not possibly join the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the Western community to which all East Central Europe by now definitely belonged.

    The concrete program of the king and his closest advisers was therefore strictly limited. He wanted to regain the borderlands which Moscow had conquered a hundred years before. In the present situation, the province of Smolensk, with the strategically important city which capitulated in 1611 after a long siege, was reclaimed by Lithuania, to join the other White Ruthenian provinces of the grand duchy. Severia with Chernigov, lost by Lithuania in 1500, would now come under the administration of the kingdom of Poland, along with the other Ukrainian lands.

    That result was, indeed, achieved in the armistice finally concluded at Deulino in 1618, but not before a long struggle that was exhausting for both sides. Invited by their partisans among the Russian boyars, Polish-Lithuanian forces had entered Moscow and there defended themselves in the Kremlin for more than two years. But their very presence in Russia’s capital contributed to a strong reaction of Russian nationalism which in 1613 resulted in the election of a new dynasty, the Romanovs, who united the Russian people against all foreign invaders when the native pretenders had disappeared one after the others. Wladyslaw of Poland was not yet prepared to give up his title of czar based upon the election of 1611, but it had no more real significance than his father’s Swedish title.

    The appeal to Sweden, which had started foreign intervention and provoked the Polish one, also resulted in territorial losses for Russia. The Swedes evacuated purely Russian territory, but in the treaty of 1617 the new czar, Michael Romanov, had to restore to them the controversial section of Baltic coast between Estonia and Finland which Boris Godunov had regained. After such a dangerous crisis, there remained, therefore, in Russia a strong resentment against the Western powers which, one way or another, had profited from it, and Russia’s new frontier continued to be a limit between two different regions of the continent. West of that line, all White Ruthenian and Ukrainian lands were now part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth again, associated with the West, and Moscow’s advances in the preceding century seemed to be canceled.

    Russia was, however, not prepared to accept that situation. After the rather disappointing experience with the Swedish alliance she never repeated it in spite of the continuing hostility between the two Vasa kingdoms which was so harmful to East Central Europe. The Romanovs, particularly Czar Michael’s father and co-ruler, Philaret, who returned from Polish captivity and was now patriarch of Moscow, were rather inclined to cooperate with the Ottoman Empire against Poland, the Patriarchate of Constantinople serving as intermediary, particularly in the time of Cyril Lucaris. But when the Turkish onslaught against Poland started in 1620, Russia had not yet recovered from the “time of troubles.” It was therefore not before Sigismund III’s death in 1632 that she tried for the first time to take her revenge and, in particular, to retake Smolensk. But Wladyslaw IV, who had been unanimously elected after his father, surrounded the Russian army which besieged that city, and in spite of a simultaneous Turkish attack, Poland was so successful in that new war that the peace treaty of Polanovka in 1634 simply made final the stipulations of the armistice of 1618. At last Wladyslaw gave up his title of czar.

    Polish-Russian relations now seemed stabilized, but as a matter of fact Russia was only waiting for a better occasion to repay the invasion of 1609 and to interfere in Poland s internal situation if and when, in turn, that country should enter a period of troubles. That did not occur, however, before 1648, a critical year in all European history, and it was to be a tragic result of the unsolved problem of the Ukrainian Cozacks. Until that date the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth enjoyed a period of prosperity which even serious losses in the Swedish war (1621—1629) could not completely upset. That war could hardly be compared with the horrors of the contemporary Thirty Years’ War in the Western part of Central Europe, a conflict which Poland fortunately avoided, but not without suffering from its repercussions.


The Thirty Years’ War, the main event in Europe’s history during the first half of the seventeenth century, was primarily a “time of troubles” in the Holy Roman Empire which was more and more identified with Germany. The war, therefore, directly affected only the western part of Central Europe, and foreign intervention came exclusively from the Scandinavian North and from the West. But there were moments when it seemed that Poland too might become involved, and in any case her Western policy was unavoidably influenced by the events in her German neighborhood. Furthermore, the possessions of the Habsburgs outside the empire, particularly in Hungary, were drawn into the turmoil with consequences reaching as far as Transylvania and the part of Central Europe which was occupied by the Turks. Finally, it so happened that the civil war started in that part  of the empire which was predominantly Slavic and traditionally associated with East Central Europe—in Bohemia. That country which in the past had enjoyed a privileged position within the empire, and which had successfully defended its autonomy throughout the first century of Habsburg rule, was to suffer most profoundly from the consequences of the war whose first phase was specifically Bohemian and which must be considered a tragic turning point in the development of the Czech nation.

    The tension in Bohemia, which had been rapidly growing from the beginning of the reign of Emperor Mathias, was again, as in the Hussite period, religious, national, and constitutional at the same time though this time hardly social. The so-called “defenestration” of May 23, 1618, i.e., the throwing out of two leading Catholic court officials from a window of the royal castle in Prague, was the signal for the outbreak of a revolution in defense of Bohemia’s state rights against forceful centralization and of religious freedom for the Protestants. It was the leader of the German Protestants, the Calvinist Elector Palatine Frederick, who was chosen king of Bohemia the following year after Emperor Mathias  death and the deposition in Bohemia of his successor Ferdinand II. However, Frederick’s crushing defeat in the battle of the White Mountain outside Prague, on November 8, 1620, also had disastrous consequences for Czech nationalism.

    For the repression which followed not only abolished the old constitution and the privileges of the Estates, leaving them only the right to vote taxes and making the king residing in Vienna practically absolute, not only outlawed the Protestants who were exiled, but also contributed to the Germanization of the country. The German language now became official, on a footing of equality with the Czech and soon gaining actual predominance, and the composition of the nobility the leading class under the circumstances—was completely changed. Those who were executed or exiled, and whose lands were confiscated, had been mostly Czechs attached to the national tradition, while those who replaced them as landowners and high officials were a cosmopolitan group who came from all Habsburg lands, but the majority of whom were of German origin or culture.

    In addition to all that, Bohemia continued to be a badly devastated battlefield during the whole war, suffering a cultural and economic decline which particularly affected the Czech population. Its spiritual leaders, like the famous educator Jan Amos Komensky had to live and work abroad, and during that dark age of Czech national culture which was to last until the great revival of the nineteenth century, Bohemia’s history was more than ever before connected with the history of Germany and of the Habsburg dynasty. The liquidation of most of the Czech nobility in 1620, as well as the subsequent Germanization of the rest, was to affect permanently the social structure of the Czech nation so that the revolt of 1618 produced just the opposite of what was expected.

    Even before that rebellion had openly started, disturbances in Silesia, mainly on religious grounds, attracted the attention of Poland, raising hopes that this formerly Polish province could be regained on that occasion. The king himself seemed to realize that opportunity when the bishop of Breslau, his brother-in-law Archduke Charles, facing a Lutheran revolt in 1616, asked for assistance by Polish troops and designated a son of Sigismund III as his successor. Later, however, the interest in Silesia was apparent rather among those Poles who, in sympathy with the Czechs, were prepared to turn against the Habsburgs, while the king, who successively married two Austrian archduchesses, remained faithful to his pro-Habsburg orientation and rendered them a valuable service in the critical year of 1619.

    It was then that the Hungarian opposition against the Habsburgs, largely Protestant as in Bohemia, tried to take advantage of the civil war there and to assist the rebels by besieging Vienna. They had a prominent leader in the person of Gabriel Bethlen who in 1613 had been made prince of Transylvania. A Calvinist, like most of his predecessors, particularly Stephen Bocskay, prominent at the beginning of the century, Bethlen was aiming at the unification of Hungary and her liberation from Austrian control. Threatened from two sides, Ferdinand II asked for Polish assistance, and while the Diet refused it, Sigismund III privately recruited mercenaries, the so-called “Lissowczyki,” who with Cozack participation marched against Bethlen and forced him to lift the siege of Vienna. But since most of Hungary continued to be under the rule of the Turks, who were always hostile to the Habsburgs, while Bethlen carefully avoided any open conflict with them, even such an unofficial Polish interference drew Poland into a war with Turkey.

    In spite of continuous Cozack raids against Turkish possessions, Zolkiewski had tried to avoid it, but now he decided to support the friendly prince of Moldavia whom the Turks had deposed, and the Polish army advanced as far as Cecora. Receiving no adequate Moldavian or Cozack assistance, however, Zolkiewski had to retreat and was himself killed in action in December, 1620. Although the emperor refused any help, glad to see Poland diverted from his Bohemian troubles, a rapidly mobilized Polish-Lithuanian army, this time with strong Cozack participation under Peter Konashevych, stopped the Turkish invasion under Sultan Osman II in the battle of Chocim and obtained honorable peace conditions in 1621.

    But even now Poland could not take any position in the German war which soon entered its second (Danish) phase, because before Christian of Denmark invaded Germany a much greater Scandinavian warrior, Gustavus Adolphus, had launched another Swedish invasion against Poland. Already during the truce between 1618 and 1620, he had established close relations with the Hohenzollerns of Brandenburg, who since the extinction of the Ansbach line in 1618 were in possession of the Polish fief of East Prussia. And in the very days of September, 1621 when the forces of the commonwealth were halting the Turks at Chocim, the Swedes occupied Riga and most of Livonia.

    Sigismund III still had illusions of regaining the Swedish crown with the aid of the Habsburgs, but precisely because the Poles did not want to get entangled in the Thirty Years’  War, the Diets voted taxes only for the defense of the commonwealth. Even that defense proved extremely difficult when in 1625 Gustavus Adolphus renewed his aggression, with the connivance of the Elector of Brandenburg, and occupied not only the Duchy of East Prussia but also the whole Polish coast of Royal Prussia, with only the exception of Danzig which put up a strong resistance. In the following years, particularly in 1627 and 1629, the Polish army under Stanislaw Koniecpolski, and even the young and rather small Polish navy, won important victories. Contrary to the endeavors of the emperor, who wanted the Polish-Swedish war to continue in order to prevent the intervention of Gustavus Adolphus in Germany, a six-year truce was signed at Altmark. Livonia remained, however, in the hands of the Swedes, who also continued to occupy the most important ports of both the Prussias, while some towns of Royal Prussia were held by the Elector of Brandenburg.

    French mediation, with the participation of an English diplomat, Sir Thomas Roe, who was unusually interested in the affairs of Eastern Europe, contributed to the conclusion of that armistice which made possible Sweden’s invasion of Germany. And it was Richelieu’s France which again, in the presence of Dutch and English mediators, helped to negotiate another armistice in 1635, that of Stumsdorf. This was for a much longer period of twenty-six years and was more satisfactory to Poland, since the Swedes gave up the occupation of the Polish-Prussian ports and the control of the customs there. Such an agreement could at last appease the Polish-Swedish conflict because the death of Gustavus Adolphus in the Battle of Lutzen (1632), in the same year in which his Polish cousin and opponent Sigismund III died after a reign of almost half a century, had greatly changed the situation. During the minority of Queen Christina, the last of the Swedish Vasas, Sweden had suffered setbacks in Germany and was no longer in a position to continue her imperialistic policy, while the new king of Poland, Wladyslaw IV, after his successes in the east in the wars with Russia and Turkey, hoped to play a leading part in the negotiations which were supposed to end the war in Germany.

    As a matter of fact, that war now entered its last phase. It was characterized by the intervention of France, which now tried more than ever before to have Poland on her side. Wladyslaw IV hesitated. His first marriage in 1637 with a sister of Ferdinand III, the new emperor, resulted in such a tension of French-Polish relations that the king’s brother, John Casimir, who was on his way to Spain where he planned to accept the position of admiral, was arrested in France and kept in prison for almost two years or until 1640. It was only three years later that Wladyslaw IV again started negotiating with Mazarin. His second marriage with Princess Louise Marie de Gonzague-Nevers, who came to Poland in 1646, indicated a final turn in his policy. It could, however, hardly affect the issue of the Thirty Years’ War which was approaching its end, and without breaking with the emperor, the King of Poland, in the last years of his life, concentrated on his plan for an anti-Turkish league.

    This project could seem well justified, both by the increase of the Ottoman danger which Western Christendom had badly neglected during the Thirty Years’  War, and by the urgent need for finding some constructive role for the Ukrainian Cozacks whose discontent could no longer be repressed.


The dozen years before the crisis of 1648 seemed to be a period of peace for East Central Europe, particularly if contrasted with the situation in the West during the last phase of the Thirty Years’ War. Such a lull was, however, nothing but an illusory quietness before the outbreak of a general conflagration, unusual even in the war-torn history of that region of the continent. It all started with another Cozack insurrection against the Polish administration of the Ukraine, but this time the conflict did not remain localized there, as it had been on earlier occasions. On the contrary, all neighboring countries gradually became involved, and the balance of power was deeply affected throughout the whole of Europe. Since general peace was not restored before the end of the century, it might be said that immediately after the Thirty Years’ War in Western Europe, there was a less known but equally important Fifty Years’ War in Eastern Europe, divided, just as the other had been, into various phases, and leading to the great Northern War at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Far from being exclusively a military and diplomatic problem, that series of wars resulted in a deep constitutional and social crisis.

    For Poland, the only fully independent power which earlier crises had left in East Central Europe, the “Deluge,” as the crisis following 1648 is called in the national tradition, was indeed a “time of troubles,” as long and serious as that in Russia a few decades before. It was therefore easy to anticipate that Russia’s long-awaited revenge for the Polish intervention in her troubles would now take place. But it was not only in Moscow that the Ukrainian Cozacks found a support which in the long run proved hardly helpful to their real interests. Even before the czar’s decision to interfere openly, the revolution had been backed by an alliance with the Ukraine’s traditional enemy, the Khanate of the Crimea, and such cooperation with a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire necessarily led to intervention by the Turks themselves. All this made the troubles in the Ukraine a part of the great conflict between Christian Europe and Islam which was resumed in the seventeenth century.

    The new series of Muslim aggressions which in that century threatened large parts of the continent was rather unexpected. Since the death of Suleiman the Magnificent in 1566, and of his last grand vizier, Mohammed Sokolli, in 1579, the Ottoman Empire suffered from a complete lack of leadership even in the military field. But even after the Treaty of Zsitva Torok, which was concluded with Austria in 1606, the Ottoman Empire was still strong enough to keep all its earlier conquests. Nothing was changed in the desperate situation of the Christian peoples of the Balkans, where only in the isolated mountain regions of Montenegro and Albania some resistance and local self-government continued throughout the period. The reduced outposts of the still powerful Republic of Venice were neither secure nor a comfort to the Christian populations of the East who found Venetian domination hardly preferable to the Turkish, and who never looked for liberation toward Italian or German powers. The tiny Republic of Ragusa, that strange Slavic community organized on the model of Venice, was still a haven of comparative freedom but without the amazing sea power which it enjoyed in the preceding century.

    There was no basic change in the situation of partitioned Hungary either. The major part, directly under Turkish rule, was in a position almost as bad as the Balkans. The western and northern border region, which the Habsburgs succeeded in keeping under their rule, was making some progress, thanks to the fact that the Counter Reformation, which, as in Bohemia, had started as a centralizing and Germanizing factor, became associated with the genuine progress of Hungarian culture. Archbishop Péter Pázmány, acting by peaceful methods, combined Catholic propaganda with a constructive reform of education. In 1635, after short-lived attempts in earlier centuries, he founded the first Hungarian university which was to survive until the present. Before that university could be transferred to Buda, liberated from the Turks, it had its headquarters in the town of Nagyszombat.

    The Catholic Hungarians therefore preferred Habsburg rule to the Ottoman yoke from which only Austrian support could liberate the heart of their country. Some of their leaders, like Nicholas Esterházy who held the supreme office of palatine from 1625 to 1645, were even opposed to the continued existence of the Principality of Transylvania which could maintain its semi-independent status only by appeasing Turkey, and, which as a stronghold of Calvinism, persisted in the anti-Habsburg policy of Stephen Bocskay and Gabriel Bethlen. After the Bethlens, the Rákóczi family, one member of which had already been prince of Transylvania from 1606 to 1608, occupied the throne after 1630. That family wanted not only to defend Transylvania s freedom, but also to unite all Hungary under their leadership and to play a role in general European affairs in cooperation with Western Protestantism and with the other enemies of the Habsburgs.

    It was precisely in the critical year of 1648 that George Rákóczi II succeeded his father George I. His interference with the affairs of Poland where—like Bethlen before him—he hoped to gain the royal crown, had to end in disaster. Not only Austria but also Turkey was opposed to such a rise of Transylvania in a region where the Ottoman Empire itself came to see a new field of expansion.

    That Turkish policy of expansion was mainly directed by the Köprülüs, a family whose members occupied the office of grand vizier for more than half a century. While none of the sultans of the seventeenth century equaled their great predecessors, these viziers completely controlled the empire and hoped to stop its decline, not yet apparent to the outside world, by spectacular new victories. They realized, first, that the lack of unity among the Christian powers offered them a last chance of success, and they also became convinced that it would be comparatively easy to turn against Poland. Hence the repeated assaults against that country from the days of Cecora and Chocim, under Sigismund III, to the age of Jan Sobieski, Zolkiewski’s great-grandson.

    Poland was an immediate neighbor, not of the Ottoman Empire proper, but of its vassals in Transylvania, Moldavia, and in the Crimea, along an extended area of transition where frictions continuously occurred. An efficient resistance against the Muslims would have required the cooperation of all three Christian powers interested in that area: Austria, Poland, and Russia. The Catholic character of both Austria and Poland, as well as the lack of any real conflicts between the two countries, seemed to favor at least the cooperation of these two. That was precisely the opinion of Sigismund III and it was one of the reasons why Wladyslaw IV also hesitated to break with the Habsburgs. But the imperialism of that dynasty, the distrust of the Polish nobility toward their policy, which was based upon German interests and an absolute form of government, the sympathy with anti-Habsburg movements in Bohemia and in Hungary, and last but not least, the desire for friendly relations with France, the chief opponent of the Habsburgs all this made a close alliance with them completely impossible.

    Wladyslaw IV himself felt strong enough to assume the leadership of an anti-Turkish action without the Habsburgs, who had been weakened by the Thirty Years’ War. And Poland was distant enough not to raise any fear of supremacy among the peoples which were to be liberated from Ottoman domination. It was therefore toward her king, bearing the name of the hero of Varna, that even the Balkan populations were looking as toward the Christian monarch who would come to free them. It was only after Wladyslaw’s death and Russia’s victories over Poland that even a Catholic Croat priest, George Krizanich, would turn with similar hopes toward the czar, the leader of another Slavic power. Russia now seemed to be in a better position to fight the Muslims and to help the oppressed Balkan nations which were mostly Orthodox like herself.

    What these peoples of South Eastern Europe did not realize was, first, the aggressive policy of Moscow against her neighbors in the northern part of East Central Europe, and secondly, her desire to avoid any conflict with the Ottoman Empire as long as these neighbors were not defeated. On the contrary, since Poles and Lithuanians were Catholics, Orthodox Russia was rather inclined to cooperate against their commonwealth with Mohammedan Turkey in a common front sponsored by the Patriarch of Constantinople. In the time of Cyril Lucaris that program of action had been premature, but it was no accident that when his representative, the Patriarch of Jerusalem, returned from Moscow in 1620, he secretly ordained a new Orthodox metropolitan in Kiev, thus restoring the anti-Uniate hierarchy in the Ruthenian lands.

    It was then that for the first time the Ukrainian Cozacks, even their otherwise loyal leader Peter Konashevych, became interested in the religious issues raised by the Union of Brest, and were used as supporters of those Ruthenians who remained Greek-Orthodox. The new king, Wladyslaw IV, more tolerant than his father, tried to appease them immediately after his election in 1632. He divided the Ruthenian dioceses among Uniates and anti-Uniates, and besides the Uniate metropolitan he also officially recognized an Orthodox one in the person of Peter Mohyla. This prominent man was of Rumanian origin, a descendant of the family which had ruled Moldavia under Polish protection. He was himself loyal to the commonwealth and when he founded an Orthodox academy in Kiev, that first institution of higher education among the Eastern  was an outpost of Western though non-Catholic culture.

    Taking all this into consideration, Wladyslaw IV also hoped that his Orthodox subjects, and particularly the Cozacks, so experienced in fighting Turks and Tartars, would willingly cooperate in his anti-Ottoman expedition and that even Moscow would possibly change her traditional policy. A Russian attack against the Crimean Tartars, from whose raids Moscow had to suffer as much as Poland, was planned as the eastern wing of a concerted action in which Venice was supposed to be the Western ally. While that republic really entered a war with Turkey in defense of her remote colony, the island of Crete, which resisted for thirty years, Russian cooperation remained an illusion. And when the king had to give up his plan, never favored by the Polish Diet, the Cozacks soon came to an understanding with the Tartars of the Crimea and that anti-Polish league was to enjoy the full support of both Russia and Turkey.


Neither the failure of the king’s anti-Turkish scheme nor the personal wrong which Bohdan Khmelnitsky (Chmielnicki), a distinguished Cozack leader of noble origin, had suffered from another member of the gentry, can fully explain the origin of the Cozack insurrection of 1648 and even less its unusual violence. The reasons for the outbreak and for Khmelnitsky’s amazing success were much deeper. The whole Cozack problem which troubled the Ukraine during the preceding half century had never found any satisfactory solution. In the latter part of the reign of Sigismund III, and again in 1638, whenever the Cozacks were not used in larger number in foreign wars, uprisings of those who were not included in the official register and who were threatened with being reduced to serfdom had taken place, and the repressions, which were particularly severe in the last instance, only created an even stronger tension. Such dissatisfaction of the Cozack masses could easily be used by an ambitious leader who would succeed in making it at the same time a religious and a national issue, thus appealing to a large section of the Orthodox Ruthenian population. Whether or not Khmelnitsky had such an intention from the outset, is difficult to determine. He pretended not to rise against the king, who was said to have encouraged the Cozacks to defend their rights, but only against the rich magnates who held the highest offices and most of the land in the Ukraine. However, the alliance which he at once concluded with the khan of the Crimea, who sent him considerable auxiliary forces, made the civil war an international problem and was a real threat to the commonwealth.

    Without sufficiently realizing this, inadequate Polish forces which were sent against the rebels suffered a series of humiliating defeats. In the midst of a chaotic situation Wladyslaw IV died, and of his two brothers, John Casimir, formerly a Jesuit and a cardinal, who seemed to be more popular among the Cozacks, was unanimously elected. In agreement with the grand chancellor, George Ossolinski, the main adviser of his predecessor, he tried a policy of appeasement, contrary to the opinion of Prince Jeremiah Wisniowiecki who wanted to crush the insurrection with the same ruthlessness which the Cozacks themselves, with their Tartar allies, inflicted upon all opponents, particularly nobles, Jews, and Uniates. When, however, all negotiations failed in view of Khmelnitsky’s claim to the complete control of the Ukraine, the new king proved an excellent war leader and diplomat. In 1649 he moved to the rescue of the castle of Zbaraz, where a small army under Wisniowiecki desperately defended itself against overwhelming forces, and although the battle at nearby Zborow remained undecided, John Casimir succeeded in making a separate peace with the Tartars. The result was a compromise with the Cozack leader which raised the number of registered Cozacks to forty thousand and granted them as a group, including their families, full autonomy in the three provinces of the Ukraine where the Union of Brest was to be abolished and all offices reserved for Orthodox.

    While the Polish Diet refused to ratify the clause directed against the Union, Khmelnitsky realized that the Cozack masses which were not registered would turn against him if the Zborow agreement were strictly kept. And since he had already decided to create a Ukrainian state entirely free from Poland, he started looking for Russian or Turkish help. But although he placed the Ukraine under the sultan s protection in the spring of 1651, and made another alliance with the khan of the Crimea, the battle of Beresteczko in June of that year ended in a great Polish victory after three days. The peace concluded a few months later limited the number of registered Cozacks to twenty thousand and their territory to the Kiev region. This was of course even less acceptable to the revolutionary forces than the former agreement, Khmelnitsky was only waiting for an occasion to turn away from Poland and to get better conditions from another power. After a series of rather fantastic projects of cooperation with Moldavia, Transylvania, and Dissident elements inside Poland, he finally decided for Moscow.

    Czar Alexius, the son and successor of Michael, the first Romanov, was closely observing the developments in the Ukraine, and the growing troubles during the year 1653 finally convinced him and his council that the situation was ripe for Russian intervention. When Poland refused his mediation in the conflict with the Cozacks, he decided to grant the latter his protection, fully aware that such a step involved a war with the commonwealth. But even before the czar invaded his western neighbor, he had to face difficulties in the negotiations with the Cozacks themselves. These were conducted by the Russian envoy Buturlin at Pereyaslav near Kiev.

    The Cozacks had soon to find out that they would gain very little by transferring their allegiance. First they were told that the czar could not be expected to swear to his subjects, so that the final pact, signed on January 18, 1654, was not a bilateral treaty but a submission of the Ukraine to the czar. Furthermore, the text was so worded that it could be subject to different interpretations in the most important matter of self-government. Far from creating an independent Ukrainian state, the Pact of Pereyaslav merely defined the conditions of autonomy, not of the territory which would come under Russian rule but only of the Cozack community without, it is true, the previous discrimination between registered Cozacks and the others. Of course Khmelnitsky kept his office of “hetman,” as the Cozack leaders were called, but the election of his successors would require a ratification by the czar who would also control the foreign relations of the Cozacks, particularly with Poland and Turkey.

    On the other side, the decision of 1654 was an outstanding success for Moscow which for the first time extended its domination over territories which the Muscovites used to call “Little Russia” and which now were supposed to be permanently united with their own Great Russia, i.e., Russia proper in the modern sense. Since no territorial limits were defined, the question was left in suspense as to how much of the old Rus or Ruthenia would come under Russian rule and, severed from the West, be connected with Eastern Europe. One thing was, however, obvious: the famous city of Kiev, developed into an important intellectual center and traditionally regarded as the mother of all Russian cities, would henceforth be under Moscow, thus increasing the prestige of the new Russia.

    It was indeed equally clear that the final solution of the whole problem, deeply affecting the balance of power in Europe, would depend on the outcome of Russia’s war against Poland, which started in the fall of the same year not only in the Ukraine where the czar s forces now supported the Cozacks but also in the White Ruthenian borderlands of the grand duchy of Lithuania, where Russia wanted, first of all, to reconquer Smolensk. When that fortress, after a long siege, capitulated in 1655, the Russians invaded Lithuania proper and on the eighth of August occupied and terribly sacked Wilno.

    When that happened the commonwealth was already invaded by another enemy, the Swedes, and the problem of the Cozacks who had established relations with the King of Sweden and urged him to march against Poland was now part of a general crisis in East Central Europe which, provoked by Khmelnitsky’s insurrection, turned into a conflict among numerous powers fighting one another and changing sides whenever convenient. So also did the Cozacks themselves, losing their hope of complete independence and facing the gradual liquidation of even their autonomy by Moscow.

    When Bogdan Khmelnitsky died in 1657, after trying in vain to strengthen his position by alliances with Sweden and Transylvania, the new hetman, Ivan Wyhowski, a candidate of the party who favored the idea of again coming into an agreement with Poland, started secret negotiations with King John Casimir, broke with the czar, and on September 16, 1658, concluded the Union of Hadziacz with the Polish representatives. It was much more than another concession of autonomy for the Cozacks, this time by Poland. The dualistic structure of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was transformed by placing beside the kingdom of Poland and the grand duchy of Lithuania, a “Ruthenian duchy,” on a footing of complete equality. The Cozack hetman was at the same time made palatine of Kiev and first senator of the new duchy and remained the commander in chief of a Cozack army with a peace strength of thirty thousand; the Cozacks were to be gradually admitted into the nobility. While the Orthodox received special rights in the duchy, including the admission of their hierarchy into the senate of the commonwealth, any progress of the Uniate church was forbidden on the duchy’s territory. That territory included, however, not all Ruthenian lands but only the three frontier provinces, called Ukrainian and associated with the Cozack tradition.

    Even so the new union, ratified at the Diet of Warsaw the following year, offered the best possible solution of the Cozack problem in its new phase of development. It could have been a constructive step forward in the organization of East Central Europe. Unfortunately it came too late and did not succeed either in restoring the old boundaries or in keeping the Ukraine associated with the West. After so many bloody struggles between Cozacks and Poles, there remained a mutual distrust whose victim was eventually Wyhowski himself. The Cozacks were far from being united in support of Poland in the decisive struggle with Moscow which, of course, wanted to keep the tremendous gains of 1654 and of the following campaign. After initial victories, with the cooperation of even the Tartars, the year 1659 ended with Wyhowski’s resignation. His successor, Khmelnitsky’s son George, first tried to keep the balance between Poland and Russia but soon placed the Ukraine once more under the czar’s protection.

    After another victorious Polish campaign against Russia in 1660, he surrendered to the king, but opposed by the partisans of Moscow, he resigned in 1663, entered a monastery, and left the Ukraine in a desperate condition of chaos and ruin the ultimate result of his father’s ambitious policy. Among the Cozacks there now appeared a third party, led by Peter Doroshenko. He returned to the idea of choosing the protection of Turkey, and in the ensuing three-cornered conflict between Poland, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire, with Tartar raids completing the destruction of the country on whatever side they were fighting, the fate of the Cozacks, of the Ukraine, and of the Ruthenian people could only be a partition among all three or at least between two of these powers.

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