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Bohdan Khmelnytsky (c. 1595-1657)

Portrait of Bohdan Khmelnytsky - source:  Wikipedia  

One of the more influential characters in Ukrainian history, Bohdan Khmelnytsky may be viewed alternately as a hero or a villain, depending on ones’ historical perspective. Some accounts portray Khmelnytsky as a great leader and statesman, while others view him as a figure who left only destruction in his wake.

This much is true: Khmelnytsky was leader, from 1648-1657, of the Zaporozhian Cossacks who organized an uprising against Polish rule in Ukraine, which ultimately led to the transfer of the Ukrainian lands east of the Dnieper River from Polish to Russian control.

Irrespective of ones’ viewpoint, it is generally agreed “Khmelnytsky was the central figure in the uprising, who managed to keep the movement vital and under his control for a decade.” (1)

So, what is Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s connection to the town of Tluste, apart from the fact that his imposing statue now overlooks a small park on Hrushevskoho Str. on the plot of land where the villa of Baron Hirsch once stood?

Pawlyk (2) contends that Mykhaylo Khmelnytskyy, the father of Bohdan, once had a homestead in Tluste. The following is an abridged translation of the relevant passage in Pawlyk’s History of Tovste:

“Mykhaylo Khmelnytskyy once lived in Tovste castle, and he probably reconstructed and enlarged it after enemy attacks. From other sources, it is known that he was engaged in military campaigns. Mykhaylo Khmelnytskyy came from the well-known rich boyar family of Venzhyk Khmelnytskyy. This fact is confirmed by the coat-of-arms. He was married to Anastasiya, who was a daughter of Cossack Hetman Fedir Bohdan. The couple had only one son, Zinoviy Khmelnytsyy, who was given another name at christening – Bohdan.

Mykhaylo Khmelnytskyy was turned out of the town because of a crime of unknown description. Most probably this happened because he was an organizer of a peasants’ uprising, the first one of which took place in 1591. At the time, Ukrainian peasants were fighting against Polish landlords in Kyiv, Podillya, and Volyn.

Mykhaylo Khmelnytskyy had to move from Tovste to Chygyryn town, and he lost his former Tovste homestead. He managed to become a highly respected and rich person in this new place. In 1620, Mykhaylo and his son Bohdan took part in the battle of Poles against Turkish-Tatar troops in Moldavia. The Polish army was defeated. Bohdan was taken a prisoner and was sent to Turkey, where he was held in captivity for a long time. His father remained alive and until now no one knows what happened to him or where he is buried.”

As the original Ukrainian version of the text concerning Mykhaylo Khmelnytsky is much longer and more detailed (including references) than the brief summary above, it would be informative to investigate and substantiate this claim more thoroughly.

Another, differing account (3) holds that “Mykhaylo served the royal Hetman Stanislaw Zolkiewski and his son-in-law, Jan Danilowicz of Poland. For his good services, Mykhaylo obtained an estate in Subotiv. [His son] Bohdan was educated at a Jesuit College in Yaroslav where he studied the Polish and Latin languages. It was thought he also studied French. In 1620, his father was killed in the battle against the Poles at Cecora. Bohdan was taken captive by the Turks and held for two years until his mother collected enough ransom money.”

In any case, the details of the remainder of Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s tumultuous life are well documented. Encyclopedia Britannica (4) provides the following account:

“Although he had been educated in Poland and had served with Polish military forces against the Turks, Khmelnytsky, who had become chief of the Cossacks at Czyhryn, quarreled with the Polish governor of that region and was forced to flee (in December 1647) to the fortress of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, a semi-military community that had developed from runaway serfs, bandits, and traders who had settled along the Dnieper River. He then organized a rebellion among the Zaporozhian Cossacks and, with the support of the Crimean Tatars, marched against the Poles in April 1648. His victorious advance won him additional support from the dissatisfied peasants, townspeople, and clergy of Ukraine, who joined him in a mass uprising that enabled him to enter Poland proper and seize Lwów (now Lviv) in October 1648.

After winning more victories in 1649, Khmelnytsky made peace with the new Polish king John Casimir, concluding the Compact of Zborów (Aug. 18, 1649); its terms permitted him to establish a virtually independent Cossack principality in Ukraine. The treaty satisfied neither the Polish gentry nor Khmelnytsky's followers, many of whom remained subject to Polish landlords; therefore, he renewed the war in the spring of 1651 but was defeated at the Battle of Beresteczko in June and was compelled to accept a new, less advantageous treaty. He then sought aid from Moscow against Poland and in 1654 directed his Cossacks to take an oath of allegiance to Alexis, the tsar of Russia.

The Russians subsequently invaded Poland, but Khmelnytsky, not content with his pact with Alexis, entered into secret negotiations with Sweden, which was also at war with Poland. He was about to conclude a treaty with the Swedes, placing the Cossacks under Swedish rule, when he died [in 1657].

Khmelnytsky sought autonomy for his Cossack followers but succeeded only in devastating their formerly flourishing Dnieper lands and in subjecting them to the rule of Moscow, which gained control of Ukraine east of the Dnieper and gradually curtailed their liberties.”

This description of Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s military exploits provides little information about the nature of the popular uprising nor its consequences, whereas it is widely acknowledged elsewhere that many Jews were killed during the course of the rebellion. Indeed, after detailed analysis, Stampfer contends that as many as 18,000-20,000 Jews died out of a population of 40,000; an immense number even if it is much lower than many previous estimates (5).

To understand the prevailing attitudes and cultural context within which the Khmelnytsky uprising occurred, one may turn to other descriptions of Ukrainian society during the first half of the seventeenth century. Rosman (6) provides this account:

“During the Cossack-Peasant Revolt that began in the Ukrainian provinces of the Commonwealth in 1648, anti-Jewish violence reached a peak unprecedented in Europe for ferocity and number of victims. This revolt, originally fomented by the Cossacks to protest their treatment at the hands of the Polish government, eventually took on the character of a full-scale, popular peasant uprising, fought over a range of ethnic, religious, social, and economic divides. The revolt was initially directed at Polish noblemen and Church – in some cases, even Orthodox – institutions. Yet the identification of the Jews with the Poles, their large number, the heritage of anti-Jewish violence, and the Jews’ overwhelmingly predominant urban and civilian status guaranteed that they would be the primary victims.”

This explanation is consistent with others (7), which describe in even more detail the relationship between the Polish ruling class, the peasantry, and the Jewish population who found themselves as intermediaries between the two:

“For centuries after the creation of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Orthodox people of Ruthenia had felt oppressed by the Polish nobles, Catholic priests and Jewish traders. Although Ruthenian nobility enjoyed full rights, they were quickly polonized and therefore were alienated from the common people; the advent of the Counter-Reformation worsened the relationship between the Orthodox and Catholic churches. Unwilling to attend to the details of administration themselves, Polish magnates made Jewish traders their go-betweens in transactions with the peasants of Ukraine. The magnates sold and leased certain privileges to the Jews for a lump sum and, while enjoying themselves at their courts, left it to the Jewish leaseholders and collectors to become objects of hatred to the oppressed and long-suffering peasants.”

As Sysyn (8) points out, there was clearly a perception among the Ukrainian populace that “Jews played a significant role in the magnate-noble order that was imposing it on a restive population…. In the new society of estates being established in Ukraine, Jews functioned as a corporate order. Whether they were powerful leaseholders or petty craftsmen, they were linked as a group to a declining royal power and more directly to the magnate landowning order. Within their own ‘order’ they had social mobility, and they were perceived as a group supporting that order.”

Kohut (9) notes that in the centuries since the uprising and massacre, stereotypes have been created on both sides of the divide, as to who was ultimately responsible for the calamitous turn of events:

“Ukrainian historians have shown little empathy for the tragedy that befell the Jewish community, implying that the Jewish massacres were understandable, if not justified, in the wake of unbearable oppression.”

He too notes that early Cossack chronicles portray Jews as the agents of the Poles. As the leaseholders and stewards of the absentee lords, the Jews were perceived to be taking advantage of the Cossacks and peasants through the mechanisms of economic exploitation, the liquor monopoly, the collection of various taxes, etc.:

“Jewish commentators, on the other hand, frequently have presented the massacres as a uniquely anti-Jewish phenomenon, paying little attention to the complex social, religious, and national context, and have mitigated or ignored the violence perpetrated against non-Jewish Poles and Ukrainian Uniates.”

And what was the role of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the leader of the uprising, in the greater scheme of things? It is reported that “Khmelnytsky told the people that the Poles had sold them as slaves ‘into the hands of the accursed Jews’. With this as their battle-cry, the Cossacks killed a large number of Jews during the years 1648–1649” (10). If his instigation were intentional and the direct cause for great numbers of people to be killed, it is of course understandable that he should be reviled by the Jewish community for having inflicted so much suffering.

However other commentators, including some Jewish authors, suggest that Khmelnytsky’s primary motivation was not to annihilate the Jews of seventeenth century Ukraine. Without diminishing the magnitude of the massacre, Stampfer (11) points out that “not all those who died were killed by the Ukrainian forces. Tatars allied with the Ukrainians were responsible for many of the victims, although how many is not known. Many Jews also died from disease and epidemics, malnutrition and other ‘non-violent’ forms of death…. Had Khmel’nyts’kyi intended to slaughter Jews indiscriminately and as end unto itself, the number of victims would surely have been higher.” Others suggest that “although Khmelnytsky's personal resentment influenced his ultimate decision to rid Ukraine of Polish domination, it seems that his ambition to secure the Nobles' privileges and the Cossacks' independance, was the main motive that led him to instigate an uprising of the Ruthenian people against them.” (12)

In the end, it is perhaps inevitable that all of the parties involved would retain their own version of “the truth”, and that aspects of that truth are likely to find contradictions among their respective accounts. In his article examining the historical image of Ukrainian Jews, Kohut (13) sums up very well these fundamentally different perspectives on Bohdan Khmelnytsky and the uprising he led:

“The Khmelnytsky Uprising is considered a great watershed, a defining moment, in a number of national historical narratives. The Poles came to regard the uprising as a historical misunderstanding that led the Cossacks to rebel against the 'civilizing mission' of Poland and eventually resulted in the loss of the easternmost territories of 'Greater Poland'. The Russians came to interpret the uprising as a major episode in the continuing 'gathering' of 'Russian' lands and in the transformation of Muscovy into a European power. Jews mourned the Khmelnytsky massacre as an unprecedented outburst of anti-Jewish violence, a precursor of the horrible pogroms of late imperial Russia, if not of the Holocaust. Finally, Ukrainians celebrated the uprising as a war of liberation from foreign oppression, a popular national movement resulting in the creation of the Cossack state and, in general, a defining moment in the shaping of the Ukrainian nation.”

In the end the facts speak for themselves and it is left for current and future generations to interpret them.


(1) Sysyn, F.E. “The Khmel’nyts’kyi Uprising: A characterization of the Ukrainian revolt”. Jewish History 17: 115-139, 2003. p. 130.

(2) Pawlyk, J. History of Tovste. Chortkiv, 2000. p. 27-30, and pers. comm.

(3) Free Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky;; last accessed on 31 August 2005.

(4) Encyclopedia Britannica 2003 Deluxe Edition CD-ROM.

(5) Stampfer, S. “What actually happened to the Jews of Ukraine in 1648?”. Jewish History 17: 207-227, 2003. p. 218.

(6) Rosman, M.J. Founder of Hasidism: a Quest for the Historical Ba’al Shem Tov. Berkeley, 1996. p. 45.

(7) Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Bohdan Khmelnytsky.; last accessed on 31 August 2005.

(8) Sysyn, F.E. “The Khmel’nyts’kyi Uprising: A characterization of the Ukrainian revolt”. Jewish History 17: 115-139, 2003. pp. 132-33.

(9) Kohut, Z. “The Khmelnytsky Uprising, the image of Jews, and the shaping of Ukrainian historical memory”. Jewish History 17: 141-163, 2003. p.142.

(10) Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Bohdan Khmelnytsky.; last accessed on 31 August 2005.

(11) Stampfer, S. “What actually happened to the Jews of Ukraine in 1648?”. Jewish History 17: 207-227, 2003. p. 221.

(12) Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Bohdan Khmelnytsky.; last accessed on 31 August 2005.

(13) Kohut, Z. “The Khmelnytsky Uprising, the image of Jews, and the shaping of Ukrainian historical memory”. Jewish History 17: 141-163, 2003. p.141.