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The Origins of the Ukrainian Nation: The Cossack State

Months ago, when I began writing about the war in Ukraine I put together a very brief history of the country or rather the concept of Ukraine as a country.

This is the commonly accepted flag of the Ukrainian Cossack State (1649-1764)

When I began telling the story of Ukraine I promised a deep dive into the Cossack state so here it is, propelled by the great sense of patriotism that I’ve felt during this week of Ukraine’s annual Independence Day celebrations, remembering 24 August 1991 when Ukraine declared independence from the collapsing of the Soviet Union.

While Kiev itself dates to around the tenth century, the Kievan Rus (a large federation of North-Eastern Europe) incorporating Kiev, Chernihiv and Pereiaslav dates to slightly afterwards. These settlers were of Scandinavian and other Viking origin. What is intersting about the Kiev Rus is that Russia also draws much of its origins from this historical movement.

The subsequent years were followed by Mongol invasion which made any sense of unification almost impossible. For this reason any nationalistic Ukrainian move doesn’t come until the seventeenth century with the establishment of the Ukrainian Cossack – the first independent Ukrainian state (Cossack meaning “free people”, those who escaped their Polish rulers).

Source: Gene Thorp, The Washington Post (9 March 2015)

While ultimately this state came to answer to Russia it existed as an independent entity from 1648 to 1764 at which time it was divided between Russia and Austria. It is of course more complicated than this so keep reading!

The map shown here is from the Washington post (2015) and illustrates this era of the Ukrainian Cossack State. The green line represents present day Ukraine while the shades of pink/blue show the fall of the state. As you can see the right bank was "acquired" by Russia first (this was the period of relative independence) while the left bank "fell" later (this portion was returned to Polish/Lithuanian rule and later divided further with Austria). To understand what each of these things means keep reading!

The Origins of the Cossack (Ukrainian) State, 1648

The man behind the initial united Cossack State was Bohdan Khmeknytsky, a military commander of one of the regions in central Ukraine that at the time was under Polish-Lithuanian control (there were numerous Cossack regiments that he united).

Khmeknytsky led the campaign against the Poles and was able to reign triumphant to establish an independent Ukraine.

This 19th century painting depicts the triumphant entry of a united Ukraine's leader (Khmeknytsky) into Kyiv, 1648

This is believed to be one of the banners from Khmeknytsky's campaign (Source: Army Museum Stockholm, Sweden)

Independence is great however if you can't build stability and ensure independence it does become a problem. The state couldn't rely on Ottoman support and the neighbouring Crimean State was not a friend so with no other option the Ukrainian state turned to Russia.

To ensure the preservation of the new united Ukrainian state an agreement was made with Russia that effectively made the state an independent protectorate of Russia in the mid-1650s. This did lead to the Russian-Polish war of 1654-1667 which saw the state divided (along the Dnieper River) between Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Ironically, the Russian portion experienced a great deal of autonomy while that under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth did not and was resumed back into the fold of what had existed before the uprising. Further, this portion was even occupied by the Ottoman Empire between 1672-1699.

While the war was taking place Ukraine had internal politics to deal with. Unfortunately, this independent Ukrainian period was marred by civil war an instability. After Khmelnytsky’s death in 1657 his 16-year old son was elected as his successor however he was very young and very inexperienced. He was ultimately replaced and years would pass before an independent and stable Ukrainian state would be established.

Portrait of Bohdan Khmelnytsky by unknown artist, c. 1650 (Source: Tarnow District Museum, Poland)

The Era of Ukrainian Development, 1687-1707

The next great ruler of the state was Ivan Mazepa who managed to reunite the factions and bring great stability with cultural progression especially within the realm of the arts.

During this era Ukrainian culture flourished with high literacy levels and multiple languages embraced locally. The predominate religion was Orthodoxy and in 1686 the leading body was changed from that in Constantinople to Moscow.

External affairs would interrupt local peace though when Russia went to war with Sweden in 1700. The war would last until 1721 and impact the Ukrainian state. With Russia occupied by the war with Sweden Poland decided to invade Ukraine.

Ivan Mazepa portrait by an unknown artist, c. 19th century (Source: Dnipro Art Museum, Ukraine)

Russia refused to come to the aid of Ukrainian and it appeared they may even invade to ensure their own territory so Mazepa made the decision to align the state with Sweden who promised total Ukrainian independence when they won the war with Russia.

Spoiler – Sweden didn’t win (in fact it signalled the end of the Swedish Empire as a great power) and though the bigger war would go on for another decade in Ukraine the results were more swiftly felt.

Russia crushed any opposition, deposed Mazepa and killed any dreams of Ukrainian independence. Over 900 Cossacks were executed on the grounds of treason and any autonomy the state once held was all but gone.

Mazepa is an interesting figure to depict as either a hero or villain. He was in power as the head of the state from 1687 to 1708. I mentioned that he switched sides to Sweden but what I didn’t mention was that he actually deserted the army to do so! This casts a different light over his rule doesn’t it?

To this day his part in history is not recognised by Russia and he remains excommunicated by the Russian orthodox church. His role in Ukraine’s history remains a topic for debate with many different opinions existing with Ukraine itself. Was he a hero or was he a turncoat?

Both of these Ukrainian historical figures have featured on the currency of Ukraine (see below).

The Fall of the Ukrainian State, 1764

Remember how recently I have written a lot about Catherine “the great” (click here for Catherine Blogs) and her ethnic conquering and cleansing across the Russian Empire? (see blogs about Abkhazia and Adyghe) Now we reach the part of history where the Ukrainian State suffers its final blow.

Under Catherine the Cossack Ukrainian state was destroyed and the region directly incorporated into Russia in 1764. Despite this the administration of the state attempted to continue for another decade but on 5 June 1775 Russian forces attacked, confiscating the treasury and any other administrative items.

Thus Ukraine as an independent state was no more and it wouldn't be until 1917 that any attempts at declaring independence would occur. These would ultimately fail and it has only been for the last 31 years that Ukraine has existed as an independent nation. To read more on the history of Ukraine click here.


Further Reading (A Selection):


  • Ishaan Tharoor and Gene Thorp, "How Ukraine Became Ukraine in 7 Maps", The Washington Post (9 March 2015)

  • Geographica World Atlas and Encyclopaedia (2008: Random House Australia)

  • The World 1st Edition (Lonely Planet, 2014)


Disclaimer: The observations and comments made in this blog are made after reflecting on the news stories and histories I read. History plays a big part in how I understand the present so my comments largely take into account history and the role it has in the present. After all, those who do not learn from history are destined to repeat it.

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