The Great RevoltThe great uprising of 1648 was one of the most cataclysmic events in Ukrainian history. Indeed, it is difficult to find a similar revolt of such magnitude, intensity, and impact in the early modern history of all of Europe. But why Ukraine? What features did it possess that predisposed it to such a tremendous outburst? The recently colonized eastern provinces of Kiev, Bratslav, and Chernihiv that provided the stage for the revolt were unique not only in the Commonwealth, but in all of Europe. They were the domain, on the one hand, of some of Europe's most powerful and wealthy magnates and, on the other, of a population that was willing and able to fight effectively for its interests. In other words, in newly colonized Ukraine, some of Europe's most exploitive feudal lords confronted some of its most defiant masses.
(Subtelny, 1994, p. 123)
The magnates' penchant for coercion was most evident in their treatment of the peasantry. After attracting the peasants to their vast latifundia by means of obligation-free slobody, they clamped down on them as soon as the time limits on them expired. Their demands grew increasingly greater, especially after what seemed to be the final defeat of the Cossack and peasant rebels in 1638.|
Formerly unburdened peasants were suddenly forced to provide their lords with three or four days of labor a week. In addition, they had to furnish noblemen landowners with assorted personal services, while at the same time continuing to pay a tax on their homes and farm animals to the royal treasury. To make matters worse, the magnates in Ukraine frequently resorted to the hated practice of arenda, or leasing, in which the leaseholder (arendar) agreed that anything he could squeeze out of the peasants above a set figure was his profit. Forbidden to own land, but allowed to lease it, Jews often became leaseholders. Thus, on the vast lands of the Ostrorog family, for example, there were about 4000 Jewish leaseholders, and in 1616, over half the crown lands in Ukraine were leased out to Jewish entrepreneurs. Because they had to make good their investment in a relatively short period of two or three years, they exploited the properties and peasants mercilessly, without regard for future consequences. It was not uncommon for a leaseholder to demand six or seven days of labor from the peasants and, with the help of the magnates' minions, to drive them into the fields.
Another form of leaseholding was the leasing out of an estate's monopoly on the production and sale of alcohol and tobacco to a leaseholder, who then charged the peasants whatever price he wished for these prized commodities. Needless to say, such practices did not make Jews popular with the Ukrainian population. As the English historian Norman Davies puts it, Jewish participation in the oppressive practices of the noble/Jewish alliance "provided the most important single cause of the terrible retribution which would descend on them on several occasions in the future."
(Subtelny, 1994, p. 124)
Unlike peasants in other parts of the Commonwealth and even in Western Ukraine, the inhabitants of the
Dnieper basin were not only unaccustomed to the burdens of serfdom, but also unwilling to accept them. Regardless of what the magnates contended, many considered themselves to be freemen. Among the Cossacks, for example, it was an article of faith, if not of fact, that in 1582 King Batory had granted Cossacks privileges that made them almost equal to noblemen. For their part, the numerous townsmen argued that, by definition, they were self-governing and free. And after decades on a sloboda, it was difficult to convince a frontier peasant that he was not his own master. It was irrelevant how legally justifiable these perceptions were. The point was that most of the inhabitants of the frontier believed that freeman status was rightfully theirs and this belief greatly increased their willingness to resist the Liakhy, as they called the Poles. The Polish Catholic persecution of Orthodoxy only heightened Ukrainian recalcitrance.|
Combined with the frontier-Ukrainians' inclination to revolt was their general aptitude for fighting. Mass uprisings in early modern Europe were usually characterized by a lack of organization and military expertise. In this regard, the Ukrainian case was different. Foreign travelers frequently noted that life on the dangerous frontier forced even common peasants and townsmen to become proficient in the use of firearms. Moreover, the Cossacks provided the discontented with a core of well-organized, highly skilled fighting men. Even their recent defeats provided Ukrainian Cossacks with experience in fighting regular armies and pitched battles. Thus, as the magnates intensified their exploitation, Ukrainian frontier society increased its willingness and ability to withstand it. Only a spark was needed to set off a vast conflagration.
Bohdan KhmelnytskyRarely do individuals dominate epochal developments as completely as did Bohdan Khmelnytsky the great Ukrainian uprising of 1648. Because of his great personal impact on events that changed the course of Ukrainian and East European history, scholars consider him to be Ukraine's greatest military and political leader.
(Subtelny, 1994, p. 125)
But a typical case of magnate acquisitiveness and arrogance completely altered Khmelnytsky's life and with it the course of his country's history. In 1646, during his absence from [his estate] Subotiv, Daniel Czaplinski, a Polish nobleman backed by the local magnates, laid claim to Khmelnytsky's estate, raided it, killed his youngest son, and abducted the woman that the recently widowed Cossack captain [that is, Khmelnytsky himself] intended to marry. When numerous appeals to the court brought no satisfaction, the infuriated Khmelnytsky resolved to lead a revolt against the Poles.|
(Subtelny, 1994, p. 126)
While Khmelnytsky's victories stunned the Poles, they electrified the Ukrainians. First on the Right Bank [of the Dnipro River] and then on the Left Bank, Cossacks, peasants, and burghers rushed to form regiments and either joined the hetman or, led by numerous local leaders, staged mini-rebellions of their own. Many peasants and Cossacks used the opportunity to vent pent-up hatred against their oppressors. The so-called "Eye Witness Chronicle" paints a frightful picture of these events: "Wherever they found the szlachta [Poles], royal officials or Jews, they killed them all, sparing neither women nor children. They pillaged the estates of the Jews and nobles, burned [Catholic] churches and killed their priests, leaving nothing whole. It was a rare individual in
those days who had not soaked his hands in blood and participated in the pillage." Within a few months, almost all Polish nobles, officials, and priests had been wiped out or driven from Ukraine. Jewish losses were especially heavy because they were the most numerous and accessible representatives of the szlachta regime. Between 1648 and 1656, tens of thousands of Jews — given the lack of reliable data, it is impossible to establish more accurate figures — were killed by the rebels, and to this day the Khmelnytsky uprising is considered by Jews to be one of the most traumatic events in their history.|
Whenever they had the opportunity, the Polish magnates and nobles responded to the massacres in kind. The most notorious practitioner of the szlachta terror tactics was Jeremi Wisniowiecki, the wealthiest magnate in the land. When the rebellion caught him on his estates on the Left Bank, Wisniowiecki mustered his well-trained private army of 6000, gathered together as many of the terrified nobles, priests, and Jews as he could, and set off on an epic roundabout retreat to the West. Everywhere his forces moved, they tortured and killed Cossacks, peasants, women, and children, leaving behind them a grisly trail of corpses. Although Wisniowiecki's feats won him adulation in Poland, they so infuriated the Ukrainian masses that they would brook no talk of compromise and vowed to fight him to the death.
(Subtelny, 1994, pp. 127-128)
It is difficult to overestimate Khmelnytsky's impact on the course of Ukrainian history. Ukrainian, Polish, and Russian historians have compared his achievements to those of such giants of 17th-century history as Cromwell of England or Wallenstein of Bohemia. Studies of the hetman and his age frequently stress his ability to create so much from so little. Where a Ukrainian political entity had long since ceased to exist, he established a new one; out of hordes of unruly peasants and Cossacks he molded powerful, well-organized armies; from among a people abandoned by their traditional elite he found and united around him new, dynamic leaders. Most important, in a society bereft of self-confidence and a clear sense of identity, he instilled pride in itself and a will to defend its interests. An example of the momentous change in Ukrainian attitudes brought about by Khmelnytsky is provided by the words of a simple Cossack captain addressed to a high Polish official:
In regard to Your Grace's recent letter stating that we, the common people, should not dare to address such high officials as a [Polish] wojewoda, it should be known that we are now, thanks be to God, no longer common people but knights of the Zaporozhian Host ... and, may God grant Lord Bohdan Khmelnytsky health, we are now ruled by our colonels and not by your wojewody, by our captains and not by your starosty, and by our otamany and not by your judges. (Subtelny, 1994, pp. 137-138)
The fine points of scholarly evaluation have had little effect on the Ukrainian people's instinctive, unbounded admiration for "Batko (father) Bohdan." For the vast majority of Ukrainians, both in his day and up to the present, Khmelnytsky has towered as the great liberator, as the heroic figure who by the force of his personality and intellect roused Ukrainians from a centuries-long miasma of passivity and hopelessness and propelled them toward national and socioeconomic emancipation.|
(Subtelny, 1994, p. 138)