Pushkin wrote so many terrific works, it would be hard to name a favorite. But — gun to head — I would have to admit that mine is the epic poem Poltava. Of which here is one of my favorite passages. A very powerful scene. The context: Cossack Hetman Mazepa, treasonously conspiring against his ruler, Tsar Peter I (sometimes with Sweden, sometimes with Poland), has plotted to frame his subordinate, Ataman Kochubei. The latter happens to be Mazepa’s (involuntary) father-in-law, since the elderly Mazepa has seduced and then eloped with Kochubei’s young daughter. Kochubei has always been loyal to Russia and to the Tsar, but has been tortured into making a false confession. On the night before his execution, Kochubei has an interesting conversation with Mazepa’s henchperson:
|Орлик: Мы знаем,||Orlik: We know|
|Что ты несчетно был богат;||That you were rich;|
|Мы знаем: не единый клад||We know you buried treasure|
|Тобой в Диканьке укрываем.||Somewhere in Dikanka.|
|Свершиться казнь твоя должна;||Your execution will take place;|
|Твое имение сполна||Your estate, in full|
|В казну поступит войсковую.||Will be confiscated by the army.|
|Таков закон. Я указую||Such is the law. I order you|
|Тебе последний долг: открой,||As your final duty: divulge|
|Где клады, скрытые тобой?||Where you hid the treasure?|
|Так, не ошиблись вы: три клада||You’re not wrong: 3 treasures|
|В сей жизни были мне отрада.||In this life brought me joy.|
|И первый клад мой честь была,||And the first of these, my honor,|
|Клад этот пытка отняла;||Torture wrenched it from me;|
|Другой был клад невозвратимый||The second treasure can never be returned:|
|Честь дочери моей любимой.||The honor of my beloved daughter.|
|Я день и ночь над ним дрожал:||I fretted over it day and night;|
|Мазепа этот клад украл.||Mazepa stole it from me.|
|Но сохранил я клад последний,||But I have kept my last treasure,|
|Мой третий клад: святую месть.||My third treasure: holy vengeance.|
|Ее готовлюсь богу снесть.||I offer this up to God.|
“We Shall Rebuild The Cities, We Shall Win Back Our land!”
And so I have this piece which evokes images of Mazepa and the fateful battle of Poltava. In which the loyal Kochubei was finally avenged postumously. But who is Mazepa here, and who is Kochubei?
Was it Marx or Engels who once wrote that history always repeats itself — but the second time as farce? For Act I we have the tragic hero, then in Act II they bring in the clowns.
The Russian blogosphere is having a field day with this story. In which the Swedes, virtue signalling so madly their arms almost fell off, gifting Zelensky with some historical document from their archives. Allegedly a letter (actually a xerox copy) from the 18th century signed by Swedish King Karl XII. In the letter Karl orders his Ambassador to Constantinople to “recognize” the Zaporozhian Sich. Whatever “recognize” means in this context. Because the chronology is such, according to historians:
- Tsar Peter I seized Narva in 1704. Whereupon Karl XII moved his troops into the Ukraine, hoping to strike at Russia from its southern flank.
- Hetman Mazepa switched sides from Russia to Sweden and offered to Karl his entire troop of Cossacks. In return, he asked the Swedish King to appoint him Governor over Vitebsk and Polotsk, once these territories had been wrested from Russia. These are the events which Pushkin wrote about in his poem. Some of the Cossacks did indeed follow Mazepa, but most remained loyal to the Tsar.
- Karl XII as a result suffered a crushing military defeat in 1709, at the battle of Poltava. And Sweden was never again quite the Empire it used to be. Which is why it still smarts with rage and hates Russia so much.
- Mazepa, having to kiss goodbye his dream of ruling Vitebsk, fled, along with Karl, to the Turkish fortress of Bendery, where he soon died. Cause of Mazepa’s death is unknown. There are many legends, one of which: He was captured by his fellow Cossacks and strapped backwards onto his own horse, which kept on running all night until the Hetman died. Another legend has it that Mazepa was eaten alive by lice (lice, that theme, again!) but it is also possible that he died a natural death.
- The letter in question, of whose copy Zelensky is now the proud owner, was written in 1711, in other words two years after the fateful defeat at Poltava. Hence it is unclear exactly what Karl thought he could control in Zaporozhie at that point. In any case, the letter was preserved in the Swedish National Archives.
A copy of the letter was handed to Zelensky by the visiting Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson. Zelensky was tickled pink and used this dubious gift to spew his usual bloviations about Cossacks and Ukrainian freedom. Analysts don’t see much point in Zelensky’s PR over this letter, except to repeat usual Ukrainian B.S. over their ancient claims as a sovereign nation. Claims that are usually based, as in the Mazepa example, on a series of betrayals and military defeats.