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The Battle of Konotop 1659

Oleg Rumyantsev
Giovanna Brogi Bercoff

Konotop 1659: exploring alternatives in East European history

Serhii Plokhy

Texte intégral

1In late June 1659, two armies faced each other near the town of Konotop in the Cossack hetmanate. One was led by a top Muscovite military commander of the era, Prince Aleksei Trubetskoi, the other by two East European rulers, hetman Ivan Vyhovsky of Ukraine and Khan Mehmed giray IV of the Crimea. The coalition forces included Polish detachments as well. The composition of the two armies attested to the dramatic reconfiguration of military and political alliances in the region since 1654, when the Cossacks had sworn allegiance to the Muscovite tsar in the Ukrainian town of Pereiaslav. The fortunes of both the Muscovites and the Cossacks had prospered spectacularly thereafter. Together they managed to defeat the armies of their traditional enemy, the king of Poland. The Cossack armies led by hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky reached the city of Lviv and established control over most of Ukrainian ethnic territory; the Muscovites, under the command of Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich, captured Vilnius and, together with the Cossacks, established their hold over Belarus.

2Relations between the two allies began to deteriorate in the autumn of 1656, when the Muscovites, against the wishes of their Cossack partners, signed a separate armistice with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in Vilnius. The Muscovites feared that the fall of Poland-Lithuania would promote the rise of their other competitor in the Baltics — Sweden. The Cossacks, burdened by no such concerns, considered the Vilnius armistice a breach of the contract into which they had entered at Pereiaslav. This was the beginning of a divergence that would lead to confrontation on the battlefield of Konotop. The two former allies had different geostrategic goals in the region and incompatible views of the Pereiaslav Agreement. For the Muscovite tsar, that agreement signified the unconditional submission of new subjects under his high hand, while the Ukrainian hetman regarded it as a conditional contract from which one party could withdraw if the other did not fulfill its obligations.

3Ivan Vyhovsky, the Ukrainian hetman who succeeded Khmelnytsky, the “father of Pereiaslav,” in the summer of 1657, believed that the tsar was not living up to his responsibility to protect his new subjects from their traditional enemies, the Poles. The tsar was also trying to establish control over the hetmanate by appointing military governors (voevodas) and encouraging internal opposition to Vyhovsky. In 1658 Vyhovsky decided on a drastic political realignment. He concluded a treaty with representatives of the Polish king, who agreed to readmit Cossack Ukraine to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and reform the latter by creating a third constituent, the grand Duchy of Rus’, whose status would be comparable to that of the grand Duchy of Lithuania. The Union of hadiach, as the new agreement was called after the town in the hetmanate where the negotiations took place, had the potential to reconfigure not only the Commonwealth but also the structure of East European politics.

4The battle that took place near Konotop in late June 1659 was a continuation of the Muscovite-Cossack war that began in the fall of 1658, soon after the signing of the Union of hadiach. The Cossack and Tatar detachments managed to lure a good portion of the Muscovite army into a trap: after crossing the river one day and pursuing the retreating Cossacks and Tatars the next, the Muscovite cavalry was suddenly assaulted by the main body of the Crimean forces, of whose arrival the Muscovite commanders had had no reliable information. The Muscovite horsemen attempted a retreat but could not cross a river valley that the Cossacks had flooded the previous night. Muscovite losses were enormous, especially among the boyars and the officer corps. When the rest of the Muscovite army began its retreat from Konotop, which it had besieged for the previous two months, the Cossack detachment beleaguered there sallied forth to join the rest of the coalition army in pursuit of the Muscovites. Having suffered heavy losses, Aleksei Trubetskoi managed to withdraw to the town of Putyvl on the Muscovite side of the Russo-Ukrainian border. It was a stunning victory for the Polish-Tatar-Cossack coalition. News of the unprecedented defeat of the tsar’s previously invincible forces reached Moscow, causing panic there. Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich suggested that Patriarch Nikon to move to a monastery with better fortifications and ordered that the Moscow palisades be reinforced. Rumor had it that he was planning to flee beyond the Volga.

5The fate of the future of Muscovite power in Ukraine hung in the balance. Since the battle was a disastrous defeat for the Muscovite forces, it seemed at first to guarantee a sound military foundation for the political arrangement established the previous year by the Polish and Ukrainian negotiators. But that is where the story of a victorious battle ends and the narrative of a war disastrous for the Ukrainian hetmanate continues. The battle was won, but history missed its putative turning point. In the summer of 1658 many expected a Tatar assault on Moscow. It never came. That summer the Crimean Tatars launched more than a dozen attacks on Muscovite territory, burning villages and taking close to twenty-five thousand captives. Yet this Muscovite reversal brought about no change in the balance of power in Ukraine or in Eastern Europe generally. In September Ivan Vyhovsky was forced to resign the hetmancy in the face of a revolt against his rule that was supported by Muscovy but had its own indigenous roots.

6The Cossack elite and the rank-and-file Cossacks were unhappy with the conditions of the Union of hadiach, which denied most Cossack officers the prospect of attaining noble status, reduced the Cossack host, and limited the hetmanate’s autonomy. Dissatisfied with Vyhovsky’s policies, the Cossack elite replaced him with Yurii Khmelnytsky, the son of the founder of the Cossack state, Bohdan Khmelnytsky. The Muscovite voevodas approved the results of the election, seizing the opportunity to deprive the son of some of the rights granted to his father, while still offering the Cossacks a better deal than the Poles had given them at hadiach. But the Muscovites’capacity to turn military defeat into political victory was soon tested by a new defection. In 1659 Yurii Khmelnytsky switched sides, taking the Polish king as his protector. The fratricidal struggle in Ukraine entered a new stage, known as the Ruin, which left most of the Cossack lands on the Right Bank of the Dnieper uninhabitable.


7Konotop became a classic example of the situation in which one side wins a battle but loses the war. Why did it happen? Until recently, this question remained without a satisfactory answer. Historiographic debate on the battle focused on the number of Muscovite casualties, which ranged from five thousand to fifty thousand, depending on the sources consulted. The authors of the papers in the present collection expand the debate by considering the military, political, social, and cultural context of the battle. They also deal with its reflection in historical and literary writings from the early modern era to the present. The essays have their origin in papers presented at a conference on the 350th anniversary of the Battle of Konotop organized in Venice in December 2009 by giovanna Brogi Bercoff of the University of Milan. The authors come from USA, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, and Italy. They represent a variety of disciplines, traditions, and schools of thought, as well as different levels of mastery of English, slightly unaligned transliteration systems, and distinct conventions of documentation. For all that, the essays contribute to our understanding of the battle, its outcome, era, and legacy in a number of unexpected and historiographically productive ways.

8The collection opens with a revisionist essay by Natalia Yakovenko on the attitudes of the Ruthenian nobility and Orthodox hierarchs toward the Cossack revolts in the decade leading up to the Union of hadiach and the Battle of Konotop. Nobles and clergymen in the rebel ranks were among the main supporters of hetman Ivan Vyhovsky’s policy of reconciliation with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. To understand why Vyhovsky fell and the Battle of Konotop became a mere footnote in the international history of the region, one would need to examine the differences between the Cossack and nobiliary visions of Ukrainian statehood and its relation to Ukraine’s immediate neighbors. Ever since the publication in 1912 of Wacław Lipiński’s revolutionary studies on the role of the nobility in the Khmelnytsky Uprising, most students of the era have gone out of their way to emphasize various aspects of collaboration between the old Cossack elite and the Ruthenian nobility that joined the Cossack ranks in 1648. Natalia Yakovenko departs from this tradition, considering the nobles and hierarchs as social groups with agendas of their own that often did not coincide or coexist peacefully with the purposes of the “old Cossacks.” As she points out, some members of the nobility joined the rebel ranks voluntarily, while others did so under duress. Others still opposed the revolt altogether. Contrary to the position taken by many of her predecessors, Yakovenko shows that the choices made by nobles in 1648 and thereafter were not always determined by religious allegiance or sense of national identity. The Cossack officers on the one hand and the Ruthenian nobles and Orthodox hierarchs on the other remained distinct groups long after the start of the Khmelnytsky Uprising.

9The picture becomes even more complex when Yakovenko goes on to discuss divisions within the noble stratum itself. On the one hand, the Ruthenian nobility on both sides of the Polish-Cossack divide maintained a certain level of solidarity and wanted to bring hostilities to an end. On the other hand, there were major regional divisions within the noble stratum outside the hetmanate that manifested themselves in attitudes toward the Union of hadiach, which promised the realization of the nobility’s longdreamt-of grand Duchy of Rus’. Part of the Ruthenian nobility supported the Union; others were offended that the treaty had been negotiated with the Cossacks without their participation. Fissures also emerged in the Orthodox hierarchy. Yakovenko’s research prompts the suggestion that the failure of the Union of hadiach was as much a result of the split between the Ruthenian nobles outside the Cossack lands as it was of friction between the Cossack and noble camps among the rebels. The Ruthenian nobility simply failed to present a united front and insist on Polish fulfillment of the treaty provisions. In Yakovenko’s view, the Battle of Konotop and the subsequent Cossack ouster of Vyhovsky marked the beginning of a new schism in Ukrainian noble society: from this point on, divisions between the Polish Right Bank and the Muscovite Left Bank would play an increasingly important role. Both groups would eventually adjust their views and loyalties to the reality of living under the rule of kings or tsars.

10In many ways, Oleg Rumiantsev picks up where Natalia Yakovenko leaves off the story of the elites that tried to reconcile their patriotic feelings for the hetmanate with their loyalty to the tsar. He examines the Russo-Ukrainian war of 1658 – 59 as described in the Ukrainian chronicles, the most important of which were written in the eighteenth century. They are as much historical treatises as traditional chronicles. Rumiantsev reconstructs the events of the war and the course of the Battle of Konotop on the basis of the Eyewitness Chronicle, the Dvoretsky Chronicle, and the chronicles of hryhorii hrabianka and Samiilo Velychko. He considers their accounts of developments and evaluates the chroniclers’contribution to our knowledge of them. He also shows how Samiilo Velychko and others tried to steer a course between loyalty to their land and to the tsar. None of the chroniclers had a high opinion of Ivan Vyhovsky or his policy of reconciliation with Poland. For that reason, and probably also out of loyalty to the tsar, they did not rejoice in Vyhovsky’s victory at Konotop. But neither did they welcome the incursion of Muscovite armies into Ukraine. Roman Rakushka-Romanovsky, who wrote the Eyewitness Chronicle, and Samiilo Velychko described the cruelty with which the Muscovite troops treated the local population. Moreover, Velychko interpreted the khan’s order to kill Prince Semen Pozharsky, a Russian military commander who fell into Tatar hands, as retribution for the devastation of the town of Sribne, which Pozharsky’s forces had captured earlier in the campaign. As can be judged from Rumiantsev’s essay, early modern Ukrainian historical writing was quite ambiguous with regard to the Battle of Konotop and the Union of hadiach. The authors of numerous chronicles despised Polish rule but also had no liking for Muscovite political dominance or military presence in the hetmanate.

11Piotr Kroll takes a different approach to Konotop, shifting from the Ukrainian to the Polish side of the story. he looks in particular at the vicissitudes of military cooperation between the three coalition partners — the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Crimean Khanate, and the hetmanate. He proceeds from the premise that the Union of hadiach and the restructured Commonwealth that it envisioned could survive only with the backing of military force, as the Muscovites would never willingly have given up the Cossack and other Commonwealth territories they had acquired during the previous five years. Kroll argues that hetman Vyhovsky had a threefold political and military agenda as he entered into negotiations with Polish representatives on what would become the Union of hadiach. he wanted to convince the Polish king to conclude a peace treaty with Sweden, which would make the two countries allies in a war on Muscovy; to help the Cossacks persuade the Crimean khan to send military assistance to the hetmanate; and, last but not least, to prepare the Polish army to intervene in case of a Cossack-Muscovite conflict. As things turned out, it proved much easier to obtain Crimean support for the Cossacks than to arrange Polish cooperation. The Poles continued to fight the Swedes, and by early 1659 it was the khan who was trying to persuade the king to help the Cossacks, not vice versa. And at Konotop it was the Crimean cavalry, not the Polish troops that constituted the main fighting force of the coalition.

12Why this particular turn of events? Kroll highlights the difficulties of the Polish treasury in paying the troops that were supposed to help Vyhovsky. given this financial default, the Polish army of seventeen thousand declared a confederation — a form of legitimized mutiny under Commonwealth law — and did not make ready to leave for Ukraine until September 1659, more than two months after the Battle of Konotop. Even then, the available troop strength was considered insufficient for battle. The Poles did not join forces with other regiments until late October 1659. By that time Ivan Vyhovsky, the main Cossack proponent of the Union of hadiach, was out of office. He was deposed by the Cossack officers, who switched sides when they realized that Polish assistance was not forthcoming. The victory at Konotop, achieved largely with the support of the Crimean khan, was not consolidated by the Polish side, even though Poland was not only a party to the Union of hadiach but was also supposed to be one of its main beneficiaries. Vyhovsky had no prospect of single-handedly continuing his struggle against Muscovy or of pushing through the unpopular provisions of the Union of hadiach at a Cossack assembly: the treaty provided for the return of the Polish and Ruthenian nobility to Ukraine. Consequently, Kroll blames the Polish side for the failure of the Union. Lacking funds and faced with a mutiny of his troops, the Polish king was in no position to deliver on his treaty commitments.

13By the fall of 1659, whatever military advantages accrued to the Cossack-Polish-Tatar coalition had been reversed, and the authors of the Union of hadiach faced the defeat of their hopes. The Union indeed became a “dead letter,” writes Mariusz Drozdowski, but the idea lived on. As he demonstrates in his essay, the next two decades witnessed numerous attempts to revive it on both the Polish and the Ukrainian sides. The first such attempt was made in October 1660, a year after the ouster of Vyhovsky, when the fortunes of war changed in favor of Poland. That month, at Chudniv and Slobodyshche, Polish forces dealt major defeats to the Muscovites and their Cossack allies, led by hetman Yurii Khmelnytsky. The Cossacks decided to switch sides once again, declaring their readiness to acknowledge the king’s suzerainty under the terms of the Union of hadiach. The Poles were hesitant. Many considered the Union a concession forced on the Commonwealth by unfavorable circumstances. The agreement eventually signed with the Cossacks promised all that had been stipulated by the Union of hadiach except the creation of a grand Duchy of Rus’. Without that key provision, the chances of Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation were nil. Drozdowski blames the Polish nobility, which placed its own privileges above the task of securing the borderlands, for turning the new agreement into another “dead letter.”

14Still, the idea of the Union of hadiach and a commonwealth of three nations lived on — at least, as Drozdowski shows, in the minds of the Cossack elite. He demonstrates that instructions presented by Cossack envoys to the Commonwealth Diets of 1664 and 1666 were informed by the provisions of the Union of hadiach. Direct references to the Union were included in a Polish-Ukrainian agreement signed in October 1667 by the future king of Poland, Jan Sobieski, and by one of the best-known Cossack hetmans of the second half of the seventeenth century, Petro Doroshenko. The hadiach Articles also formed the basis of the Cossack negotiating position at their deliberations with Polish representatives in the town of Ostrih in 1670. The Cossacks did not get very far in either case. What they were offered instead of the grand Duchy and other provisions of the Union was a return to the king’s rule with guarantees of religious freedom and estate rights. The idea of a commonwealth of three nations dreamed up by the Ruthenian nobility was buried forever. This was confirmed in the negotiations conducted with the Cossacks by Jan Sobieski after his election to the throne in 1674. The Cossacks were not the formidable adversaries they once had been, and the Polish state would not grant the concessions they asked for. Once again, Drozdowski lays the blame at the feet of the nobility, which refused to make the Cossacks partners and co-owners of the Commonwealth.

15Ksenia Konstantynenko’s essay traces changes in Italian depictions of the Cossacks through the late sixteenth century and most of the seventeenth, linking Venice (and Italy), where the conference took place, with its faraway subject — the Cossacks of Ukraine. The essay is concerned with outsiders’views of the Cossack wars of the period, often introduced into Italian historiography and literature by the Venetians, who had a long-standing interest in political and military developments in Eastern Europe. If most previous students of Cossack subjects in the Italian “literature of fact” were interested largely in “fact”, mining the narratives of the period for information about developments in the region, Konstantynenko puts the emphasis on “literature.” She claims that throughout the entire period, one topos maintained its importance in Italian description of Ukraine and its inhabitants. It was first introduced into European letters by Maciej Miechowski, who depicted the northern Black Sea region in the early sixteenth century as an ultimate frontier, a land of abundance populated by strange animals and brave but ruthless Barbarians who combined the features of ancient Sarmatians and Amazons.

16While this topos can be detected in almost all later writings on the subject, the seventeenth century also brought new approaches to the subject. These can be linked not only to a change in models of literary depiction and imagination but also to the political and military interests of the Italian states. As the Ukrainian Cossacks became important participants in wars against the Ottoman Empire — the main military and geopolitical adversary of Venice and other early modern Italian states — the depiction of the Cossacks in Italian literature took on new characteristics. In writings of the first half of the century they are often portrayed as brave Christian warriors who defended their faith and homeland against Muslim invaders. This image accorded closely with the depiction of the Cossacks in Polish literature after the Battle of Khotyn (1621), in which Cossack detachments helped the Polish army defeat the Ottoman forces led by Sultan Osman II. It was also congruent with the Poles’conception of their country as Antemurale Christianitatis. The outbreak of the Khmelnytsky Uprising and the possibility of enlisting the hetmanate as an ally against the Ottomans helped develop a new image of the Cossacks as fighters for the freedom of their homeland.

17But once the Cossacks decided to part ways with the Polish king, they were regarded with growing suspicion by Italian authors, whose polities, patrons, and reading public still thought of the Commonwealth as a major ally in the anti-Ottoman struggle. Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky, portrayed by Alberto Vimina in positive terms as a leader of the Spartan type, was cast by his fellow Venetian Maiolino Bisaccioni as a traitor to the king soon after the Pereiaslav Agreement. The shift of the Cossacks (at least in buona parte) back toward Poland, as manifested by the conclusion of the Union of hadiach and the Battle of Konotop, gave rise to a more nuanced interpretation of the Cossack topos and Cossack political choices in the Italian “literature of fact.” In his Historia di Leopoldo Cesare (1670), galeazzo gualdo Priorato presented the Cossack-Polish conflict as a three-sided contest in which the Ukrainian Cossacks did their best to remain loyal to the king but were spurned by the selfish nobility. Surprisingly, some elements of Priorato’s interpretation of Cossack-Polish relations of the period stood the test of time and made their way into the modern literature of the subject.

18Tatiana Yakovleva brings the discussion of the Battle of Konotop and its era into the sphere of present-day political and historiographic concerns as she engages current Russian and, in part, Ukrainian historiography on the subject. Early in her essay, she asks why a battle that had no major influence on the political and military realities of the period has received so much attention in recent historiography. Her answer will not surprise anyone who closely follows current political developments in Russia and Ukraine. It is pure politics — a peculiar type of post-Soviet politics, one might add — whereby both countries and historiographic communities are trying to define their new identities. Yakovleva argues that when it comes to Russian interpetations of the battle and the period in general, the approaches chosen by some authors are anything but new. Like their imperial and Soviet predecessors, Russian historians of today are inclined to present all Ukrainian hetmans who rebelled against Muscovy as negative figures, reserving positive treatment for their opponents. Yakovleva takes particular note of the works of Igor Babulin, arguably the leading Russian expert on the battle and its era. In his work she finds not only the repetition of Soviet-era cliches but also inadequate knowledge of the sources and of recent and not so recent literature on the subject. The essay calls almost desperately for the depoliticization of research on the history of Russo-Ukrainian relations.

19It is heartening to think of this volume of essays as a step in just that direction. In analyzing a military victory that, oddly enough, did not change the course of history, the authors contribute to the exploration of historical alternatives and thus to a better understanding of the complexities of early modern international history.


‘Mykhailo Hrushevsky’ Professor of Ukrainian History at Harvard University. His interests in research touch upon the most controversial issues of Ukrainian history in the broad European context from the 17th century to the Yalta Conference. His many books are devoted to Cossacks, their religion and identity, to M. Hrushevsky, to the misterious author of the Istorija Rusov, to symbolism of religious and cultural life in pre-modern Ukraine.