Mazeppa: Cossack, Hero and Betrayer

Does the name Mazepa mean anything to you? Perhaps if you are from Ukraine or Poland, but maybe not. Hopefully Pyotr Ilvich Tchaikovsky would be a name that you would be more familiar with. Well, it is of an opera of his, and a symphonic poem by Liszt that we are going to talk about today and the deeds and story of a Cossack Hetman: Ivan Stepanovych Mazepa. But first let’s set the scenery for you…

Poland,  (or the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth, depending on how picky you want to be) 17th century, a young man is born into a decent family, the month is March and the year 1639. His mother’s side of the family had strong connections to the Cossacks for generations. After being educated by the Jesuits in Warsaw the young man is sent to serve to the court of John II Casimir, and was put in charge of dealing with the business of the Polish court in Ukraine, as an emissary or a diplomat if you like. And at this stage of his career, according to Franz Liszt, Mr. Ivan Stepanovych Mazepa gets involved in a love affair with a polish lady called Madam Falbowska, and this romance is the reason why the gentleman mentioned above was tie naked to a horse and sent back to Ukraine…Where then he joins the Cossacks and become a renown officer. His work was first premiered in 1854 and was focused in Mazepa’s glory days which, as we will see later, is a clear example of Romantic interpretations and stories of the 19th Century.

Tchaikovsky’s story follows the romance but in a different way. His libretto was based on the narrative poem written by Alexander Pushkin known as Poltava and that situated the events closer to the battle, to which we will refer later on. The premiere took place in 1884, and much to Tchaikovsky’s disappointment, the critics ripped it apart.  Now returning to history itself, as it happens, young Mazepa did become a Cossack. After his father’s death, he inherited his title of Czernihów cup-barer and through hard work he rose in the Cossack ranks, eventually serving General Yesaul in 1686. Shortly afterwards, he gained for himself the position of Hetman of the Left-bank of Ukraine, which meant he became a man of wealth. This title of Hetman had only become an official rank a few decades before Mazepa became one himself. In general terms it was one of the higher rankings for the military officers within the Cossack Hetmanate in the Dnieper Ukraine. His great moment of glory came after the Right-bank Cossack Hetman lead an uprising in Poland, which Ivan dealt with personally with the authority of Tsar Peter I of Russia. However, at this time Russian was fighting the Great Northern War against Sweden, which did affect and diminish Russia’s power. The Tsar then decided the best thing would be to re-centralise power back to Russia, but this was something Mazepa could not agree with, as it reduced the importance and authority of the Cossack Hetmanate in Ukraine and the agreement signed in 1654, known as the Treaty of Pereyaslav which provided Ukraine with some autonomy with the protection of the Tsar. Peter I then decided he would not provide support against king Charles XII of Sweden and his recently acquired ally, the Polish King Stanislaus Leszczynski, who was threatening the Ukraine, which in Mazepa’s eyes was a clear violation of the treaty…And thus he decided to turn sides, and join Sweden and Poland against the Tsar. And it is in fact around this time that Tchaikovsky’s story takes place.

The action in Mazeppa begins with the hero’s visit to a fellow Cossack household: Kochubey. He had a daughter and Mazepa wanted to propose her marriage, but Kochubey refused to. His daughter Mariya was, nevertheless, captivated by Mazepa and left his father and family to go with his beloved. Kochubey then turned on his friend and advised the Tsar of Mazepa’s treason. According to Tchaikovsky’s story the Tsar does not believe such a betrayal, hence  Kochubey is tortured and beheaded just as his daughter and wife come to plea for his life and forgiveness, but it is too late…In reality what happened is that Mazepa took some of his men with him, only around 3000, and when the Tsar knew of his treason he went on a rampage over Ukraine. The grievances to both sides could only be solved in battle. Thus the Masters of cold steppes of the East met in battle at Poltava. The Russians claimed victory over the combination of Swedish, Polish and Ukrainian troops. Mazepa just managed to escape alongside king Charles XII; both of them retired to the fortress of Bendery, where Mazepa shortly afterwards perished. In the opera however, things are more dramatic. We do not know of Mazepa’s death but of his escape. He is confronted by Mariya’s suitor, Andrei, who had been set aside when she run away with Mazepa. Andrei challenges Ivan, and ends up dead. Then Mariya appears on scene: she has been driven by madness. She cannot identified Mazepa in her twisted mental state, as she is still shocked by her father’s death and the late events. Mazepa is advised that troops are approaching after them. He is trying to comfort Mariya and take her with him, but she is unaware of reality of events and reluctantly Mariya is left behind, and Mazepa leaves the scene.

And thus this sad story ends, with the figure of one who is acclaimed to be a Ukrainian national hero, and yet is seen as a traitor and unworthy of the statue due at Kiev that President Yushchenko advised in 2009 would be erected in his name…

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