The tragedy not only marked the decay of the Ukrainian Cossack state and its absorption into the Russian empire. The destruction of Baturyn, the greatest military arsenal and food store in Ukraine upon which Sweden’s king relied, enabled Russia to achieve victory over Sweden in the Battle of Poltava in 1709, which changed the course of the Great Northern War and secured Russia’s place among the great powers. Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin is seeking to revive this power, cynically speaking about “unity” between Ukrainians and Russians. Thanks to the efforts of historians during the last 30 years of academic freedom, the bloody nature of this “unity” has been revealed [/editorial]
The Baturyn massacre was never properly researched prior to Ukraine regaining independence in 1991. Since 1995, archaeologists have been digging in Baturyn: in 1995–97 and 2000–2010, archaeologists explored more than 5,000 square meters of land. Along with state funding initiated by the third Ukrainian president Victor Yushchenko, research was sponsored and conducted by the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies (CIUS), the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies (PIMS) at the University of Toronto, and the Shevchenko Scientific Society of America (NTSh-A). Importantly, the archaeological findings have fully supported data from historical documents that recorded the cruel massacre of civilians in Baturyn.
Historical pretext: Hetman Ivan Mazepa and the Great Northern War
In 1667, the Ukrainian Cossack state was separated from the Zaporozhian Host, and according to the truce of Andrusovo was divided between the Moscow Tsardom and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth along the Dnipro river. All three parts had wide autonomy, with elected Cossack hetmans and councils, although both the Commonwealth and the Tsardom tried to suppress Cossack rights.
He also built a new residency in Baturyn and a monastery close to the city. Mazepa was always a legendary figure in European culture. Poets and composers wrote poems, operas, and dramas that combined both historical facts and legends about Mazepa with different interpretations. One of the first and best known was the Lord Byron poem Mazeppa from 1818, with the next poem by Victor Hugo, drama by Juliusz Slowacki, operas by Marie Grandval and Pyotr Tchaikovsky, Transcendental Etude №4 and symphonic poem Mazeppa by Franz Liszt.
Mazepa’s policy was a difficult balancing act between formal loyalty to Moscow and friendly relations with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, with an aim towards the development of economic, military, and cultural strength of the Cossack state and unification of all its parts.
However, things had worsened with the outbreak of the Great Northern War between Muscovy and the Swedish Kingdom (1700-1721). Trying to turn the Moscow tsardom into a modern empire and mobilize forces, Peter I started taking Cossack troops from Ukraine for his war, exploiting the economy of the country and concentrating power. His decree of 1707 de-facto liquidated Cossack autonomy, which Mazepa was unwilling to accept.
At this point, Mazepa allied himself with Swedish King Charles XII. This was the beginning of the tragedy of Baturyn.
In 1707 King Charles XII marched eastward towards Moscow with the best European army to push the Muscovite state away from the Baltic Sea and Central Europe. In response, the Russian Tsar Peter I resolved to use the ancient tactic of withdrawing deep into the country and destroying all supplies and storage facilities on the enemy’s way, known as scorched earth tactics. After the Swedish supply column was destroyed near Lesnaya on 9 October, the Swedish king had no choice but to search for winter rest and supplies for his main forces in Ukraine to continue the war.
For that supply purpose, Baturyn was of key importance – the Cossack capital was heavily armed with nearly 100 cannons and a 6,000-strong garrison. Mazepa had amassed a huge storage of food and gunpowder that would be enough for the entire Sweden army.
At the end of October 1708, the hetman sent a letter to Colonel Skoropadskyi of Starodub outlining the reasons that led him to conclude the Ukrainian-Swedish alliance with Charles XII:
“Moscow has long had all sorts of intentions towards us, and recently began to seize Ukrainian cities, expel from them the plundered and impoverished inhabitants, and populate them with their troops. I had a secret warning from my friends, and I can clearly see that the enemy wants to take us – the hetman, all the officers, colonels and all the military leadership – into the hands of his tyrannical captivity, eradicate the Zaporozhian name and turn everyone into dragoons and soldiers, and to subject the entire Ukrainian people to eternal slavery. I learned about this and realized that Moscow came to us not to protect us from the Swedes, but to destroy us with fire, robbery and murder. And so, with the consent of all the officers, we decided to surrender to the protection of the Swedish king in the hope that he would defend us from the Moscow tyrannical yoke and restore our rights to our freedom…”
The siege and massacre of Baturyn
The key role of the capture of Baturyn for Russian victory is illustrated by the fact that during the subsequent Battle of Poltava, which determined the outcome of the war, the Russian army had nearly a hundred cannons, and the Swedish army, having thirty-four cannons, used only four during the battle because of a lack of gunpowder.
And this bearing in mind that the Baturyn garrison had had prior to its destruction 100 cannons and a huge storage of gunpowder.
In late October of 1708, Peter dispatched to Baturyn an entire corps of 20,000 soldiers commanded by his right-hand man Generalissimus Aleksandr Menshikov. The order was to destroy the Cossack capital and supplies there at any cost. While the Swedish army, accompanied by Mazepa, was already rushing to the city, Russians had only five days for the siege, from 27 October to the morning of 2 September.
Initially, Menshikov tried to persuade defenders of Baturyn but they kept their loyalty to Mazepa. According to the Moscow chronicler Ivan Zheliabuzkyi, who described the Baturyn garrison,
“He [Menshikov] sent negotiators many times demanding that the city be opened. But they didn’t listen, and began to fire from artillery.”
The garrison was commanded by four Cossack colonels with the best known Cossack infantry colonel Dmytro Chechel and also artillery captain Friedriech Königseck. Born in Prussia, Königseck served with the Cossacks for many years and had an estate near Baturyn.
Menshikov failed to capture the city during several attacks, but succeeded the night before Mazepa’s arrival, on 2 September. It is still unclear how he could capture this heavily armed city with a quite big garrison of about 6,000 men.
The three main versions are treachery of those in one of the towers, who started firing over the heads of the Muscovites, thus allowing them into the city; treachery of the Cossack officer Ivan Nis, who showed Menshikov a secret underground passage into the city; as well as a false attack by Menshikov troops from the one side at night with a subsequent real attack from the other side when part of the garrison was drawn away. As contemporary Ukrainian archaeologist Volodymyr Kovalenko writes, all versions have their proofs in written sources. Excavations have also confirmed the developed underground networks under Baturyn. Therefore, all versions are possible and even all three tactics could have been used by Menshikov simultaneously.
The 19th-century Ukrainian historian Mykola Kostomarov (1817-1885) wrote about these events after thorough study of both folklore legends and written sources:
“One of the cossack officers, Ivan Nis, came to Menshikov and showed him a secret way to get into Baturyn. Nis allegedly pointed the way in the Baturyn wall. Menshikov sent soldiers there. Simultaneously, an attack was launched from the other side.”
While exact details of how Muscovites captured the city remain unclear, the fact which all sources mention is the total massacre of almost all of the 12,000-15,000 inhabitants (garrison and civilians including women, children, and infants) and the destruction of the city by fire. Only about 1,000 managed to escape.
The event was widely covered in the European press of the time, including newsletters such as the English Daily Courant, London Gazzete, French Paris Gazette, Lettres Historique, Gazette de France, and the German Wöchentliche Relation amongst others. They contained lengthy articles about Mazepa, his alliance with the Sweden king, and the destruction of Baturyn. Gazette de France wrote:
“All the inhabitants of Baturyn, regardless of age and sex, are slaughtered, accordingly to the inhuman customs of the Muscovites… The whole of Ukraine is bathed in blood.”
According to the Lyzohub Chronicle of that time, many people were burned to death in houses. According to the Swedish historian Anders Fryxell, who wrote the history of Charles XII,
“Menshikov ordered the corpses of the leading Cossacks to be tied to boards and sent floating along the Seim River so that they would give the news to others about the perdition of Baturyn.”
Cossack elites also had their homesteads outside of Baturyn, up to 15 km around the fortress, including Mazepa’s palace in Honcharivka, the first building in western European baroque style on the left bank of the Dnipro. All these, including the St. Nicholas Krupytskyi Monastery, were completely destroyed by Menshikov during the siege of Baturyn, archaeologist Volodymyr Kovalenko writes.
The city itself was burnt entirely and quickly. Only the hetman’s archive, church bells, and some of the cannons were taken away by Muscovites while all the rest destroyed with many people burnt to death in their houses or churches where they tried to hide:
“Archaeologists studying the remains of the foundations of the hetman’s palace in the castle discovered that the fire was so intense that fragments of glass dishes had melted, and in some places the fire had even melted bricks. The massacre and destruction were so absolute that even two decades later eyewitnesses declared that ‘the city of Baturyn is entirely deserted, and everything in its bulwarks and walls has collapsed and become overgrown, and there is no new or old structure in both the castles, only two empty stone churches,’” Kovalenko mentions.
Archaeological evidence of the tragedy
During 1995-2008, archaeologists discovered hundreds of skeletons, almost a hundred buried without any traces of Christian rites. There were men, women, children, and infants with traces of violence. Kovalenko describes several examples:
“Almost at the wall of the destroyed palace archaeologists discovered the burial site of a woman between the ages of twenty and thirty, whose frontal lobe shows traces of a blow inflicted by a curved weapon, such as a broadsword or a saber, which had sliced the skull neatly in half… The blow was inflicted by a tall individual who was facing the woman… The cut mark shows that the broadsword penetrated three to four cm into the skull, after which it split in two by itself. The skeleton of another young woman was found with her face shattered by a blunt instrument (possibly the butt of a musket)… The bones of the lower third of the forearm of a teenage girl (15–18 years old) were shattered… Buried next to a child between the ages of nine and twelve, with a bullet hole at the back of the head, was a little girl between the ages of five and seven, whose forehead was wrapped with a thin silver band sewn onto a red ribbon… Also found were the remains of a woman, a young man, and a teenager, all with fatal skull fractures. Archaeologists also uncovered dozens of skeletons of children between one and five years old, who had been laid in a row in shallow pits.”
The highest death toll has been ascertained by archaeologists in the castle and in the ruins of the Church of the Life-Giving Trinity, where Cossack wives and children were hiding. The results of the 2006–2009 archaeological excavations confirm what was described in the Mahilioŭ Chronicle, Kovalenko asserts, citing the Chronicle:
“In keeping with the tsar’s decree, all military and city inhabitants were cut down and stabbed. In concealed spots and hiding places, wherever the sick, the gray-haired, and innocent young maidens were found, those were raped, and after being raped they were stabbed, and the monastery was plundered and [the monks] were massacred… The more important city people, saving their lives, with their treasures, with their wives, with their children, fled to the Baturyn church, built with the funds of that Hetman Mazepa, and they locked themselves in there. But like lions and predatory wolves, enraged, the Muscovite army, expecting to find treasures there, [and] after dragging a cannon, they shot out the doors that were solid, and whatever lay people and clerics they found there they completely cut them down, they raped maidens on the church altars, and seized the hidden treasures there, and devastated the city and burned it down. To this day none of the people in the town of Baturyn are allowed to build homes and live.”
Many corpses of civilians were also found throughout the town that had died violently under different circumstances. The children found were mostly no older than ten years old, and there were several infants. For example:
“Next to house no. 2 they uncovered the remains of a child who was buried without the benefit of a coffin—another victim of the massacre of 1708. In dig site 1 (1997), archaeologists discovered the remains (a skull) of a teenager in the cavity of a burned house located in the unfortified settlement; the burial pit cuts across the layer of the 1708 fire. Another skeleton, which was discovered in a house destroyed by the conflagration, was discovered in the trench in the fall of 2003. In 2005 archaeologists also discovered the burial site of an early eighteenth-century teenage girl, who must have hidden inside a grain pit during the slaughter in Baturyn, where she died of smoke inhalation.”
Striking is the absence of skeletons of adult males among the burial sites of the victims. Possibly, the bodies of the defenders of Baturyn as well as the bodies of Menshikov’s soldiers were buried in mass graves as yet undiscovered.
An interesting account of the aftermath of the storming of Baturyn was recorded in the diary of Peter I that Kovalenko cites:
“The city of Baturyn (where Mazepa the traitor had his residence) was taken without great losses, and we captured the foremost thieves, Colonel Chechel and the general Cossack captain, Königseck, with several of their confederates; and we killed the rest, and burned down that city with everything and destroyed it to its foundations.”
There are many other accounts and archaeological data mentioned by Kovalenko, where one can find additional details.
In 2005-2010, on the initiative of third Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko, the Hetman’s Capital National Historical and Cultural Reserve was established in Baturyn. Thanks to the efforts of Yushchenko and rich financial support from the Ukrainian diaspora, the Baturyn Massacre has been properly researched by historians and commemorated in Ukraine, along with another nationwide tragedy, the Holodomor, also researched and properly commemorated during Yushchenko’s presidency.
The main architectural landmark of Baturyn was the seven-domed Church of the Life-Giving Trinity, funded by Hetman Ivan Mazepa. It was one of the largest churches in the Cossack State, with a length of 38.7 m and a width of 24.1 m and was discovered during 2007-2008 excavations. The excavations became possible thanks to joint efforts of scientists, government and patrons. Two private buildings, where the foundations of the church were located, were bought and demolished at the expense of sponsorship. The excavation area reached 1,500 square meters, which had to be studied with shovels and brushes.
In 2008, the citadel of the Baturyn fortress with the church of St. Resurrection and the original hetman’s residence of the XVII century were reconstructed on the basis of archaeological sources and became part of the museum and national reserve.
In 2016-2017, archaeologists continued excavations on the Baturyn suburb of Honcharivka, where Hetman Mazepa built his main residence – a beautiful brick palace on three floors with an attic. In 1708, the Moscow army plundered and burned this architectural landmark. In 2016-2017, the expedition also continued excavating the estate of Cossack Judge General Vasyl Kochubey (circa 1700) on the western outskirts of Baturyn.