Ukrainians in the Cobweb of International Affairs: Gregoire Orlik & France's 18th C. Foreign Policy
4 July, 2017

With the help of Ukrainian historian and diplomat Dmytro Ishchenko, Hromadske is launching a new series of articles on the history of international relations.

Since the occupation of Crimea and the outbreak of conflict in the east of Ukraine in 2014, Ukraine's diplomacy has been tested as the country's political leaders attempt to negotiate a lasting ceasefire in the Normandy format. Examining other Ukrainian connections to French diplomacy takes us back to the eighteenth century.

Writing for Hromadske, Ukrainian historian and diplomat Dmytro Ishchenko tells the story of Ukrainian-born Hrygir Orlyk or Gregoire d'Orlik, who rose to prominence in the military and diplomatic service of eighteenth-century France.

In the current travails of Eastern Europe, Ukraine (like any other polity endeavoring to defend its interests) is bound to rely on the finesse of her Diplomatic Service. And that makes the history of the aforementioned institution a fitting subject for at least a brief review. The latter, if centered on the foreign strategies of consecutive Ukrainian governments, may seem somewhat formal and dry. On the other hand, there is a less official, but much more attractive narrative –one, which tells about those Ukrainians who were destined to play significant parts in the stately spectacle of international relations. The troupe of these historical actors includes a man named Hrygir Orlyk or Gregoire d’Orlik –a gallant eighteenth-century diplomat and, in his later years, a skillful military commander in the service of the French Crown.

The present essay (composed in a deliberately informal and non-statist style) will speak of this dashing figure.

A detail of a gentleman’s portrait painted in the 1740s. Some Ukrainian historians believe that the person seen here is count Gregoire d’Orlik, as he was known in France, or Hrygir Orlyk, as he is often called in Ukraine (1702-1759). Source: Wikipedia.

The Early Years

The future dignitary of France was born in 1702, in the growing city of Baturyn, the then capital of the Ukrainian Hetmanate. His soon-to-be-famous father was Pylyp Orlyk –a high-positioned Cossack bureaucrat and a member of a noble family with Czech roots. He belonged to the closest friends of Hetman Ivan Mazepa and, since the year of his son’s birth, held the office of the "Clerk-General" –in other words, the chancellor and the foreign minister in the Hetmanate administration.

A page from the armorial encyclopedia "Orbis Poloni" written in 1642 by the famous Polish historian and theologian Simon Okolski (1580-1653). Along with a number of other noble families, the Orlyks owned this coat of arms known as "Nowina." Having moved from the Bohemian lands to the Grand Dukedom of Lithuania, the forebears of Pylyp Orlyk used the surname "de Laziska" in addition to the main family name. Pylyp’s son Hrygir, as a French courtier, procured a number of documents from the clan’s seat in Czechia proving his right to bear both surnames and the baronial title. Source:

In 1709, Mazepa, eager for his country’s independence, formed an alliance with the illustrious and indefatigable King of Sweden, Charles XII. The two marched their armies to face Peter I –the tsar of Russia, whose sovereignty over Ukraine the Hetman had officially repudiated.

Ivan Mazepa (1639-1709), the Hetman of the Zaporozhian Host (as the Left-bank Ukrainian autonomous polity, the Hetmanate, was officially called). A charismatic leader and a great patron of arts in the era of the "Sarmatian" Baroque, he rose against the Tsardom of Russia and its growing dominance over Cossack Ukraine. In the age of Romanticism, the story of his passionate life, glamorous rule, and tragic fall inspired a number of great European artists –Lord Byron wrote the poem "Mazeppa" in 1818, Victor Hugo produced the text of the same genre and with the same name in 1829, the Polish "Bard" Juliusz Slowacki composed the play "Mazepa" in 1840. Source:

The battle of Poltava proved to be irrecoverably disastrous for the allies, who were now forced to flee to the lands of the Ottoman Empire. In a few months, the rebellious Cossack leader died, and the "General Council" representing what was left of his followers chose Pylyp Orlyk to be their Hetman. In 1711, he signed an anti-Russian treaty with the Khanate of Crimea, while Hrygir, a nine-year-old child, was sent to the court of the Khan as a political hostage. Perhaps, this episode marked the beginning of the future diplomat’s career, to the progress of which the friends he made during his involuntary stay in Bakhchysarai made a notable contribution.

The Pacts and Constitutions of Rights and Freedoms of the Zaporozhian Host, known as the Constitution of Pylyp Orlyk in Latin (shown above) and in Early Modern Ukrainian (below). The "Constitution" has three main themes – 1) the independence of Ukrainian Hetmanate backed by Sweden, the Ottoman Empire and the Khanate of Crimea, 2) the limitation of Hetman’s power and the functioning of the Cossack parliament, 3) state support for vulnerable social groups of Ukraine. Declared on the day of Orlyk’s election, "the Pacts" were a form of a political contract between the Hetman and the Cossacks. Many in Ukraine, including historians, entertain the notion of this document’s unprecedented nature. Despite some undoubtedly original features, its text follows the tradition of similar contracts between the monarch and the nobility in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Cossack elites saw themselves as rightful heirs to that political practice. Source:

In Sweden and Germany

Having eventually followed his family to Sweden, Hrygir joined the Royal Guards Regiment as an officer candidate. In 1716, still a boy, he took part in his first major battle. After the campaign, which had ended the same year, the young "flag bearer" entered the University of Lund. Already skilled in fencing and other gentlemanly arts, the new student set about mastering Latin and French along with philosophy and music.

This portrait of Charles XII (1682-1718) was painted three years prior to the campaign of 1709. Charles, Pylyp Orlyk’s long-time comrade-in-arms, spent much time at Lund between 1716- 1718. The Hetman’s heir might have often met the king, who owed the Orlyks a large amount of money. Unable to return the debt at once, the Swedish ruler compensated this failure by hearty conversations with Hrygir. The experience of being on friendly terms with the royalty proved to be particularly advantageous later on. The death of their royal patron in 1718 brought about bad news for the exiles from Ukraine. The new government in Stockholm turned to a friendly line toward Russia, and the Mazepian Diaspora never accepted this change of political climate. Source: Wikipedia.

In 1720, Pylyp and Hrygir moved to Dresden, where the younger Orlyk became a lieutenant in the cavalry guard of Saxony’s Elector Augustus II. Backed by Russia and Austria, this German sovereign had been chosen King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. In 1704, Charles XII invaded Poland to install his political puppet, Stanislaw I Leszczynski, as the "elected" monarch of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The 1709 defeat crushed all plans of a Swedish-led military and political block stretching from the North to the Black Sea. Augustus returned to the Rzeczpospolita, where he henceforth ruled under the watchful eye of Peter I. Even the German lands of this unhappy prince began to feel the presence of Russia. Her spies settled all over Saxony, and the Orlyks, as the wanted enemies of the Russian Empire, were compelled to seek another abode. They went to Poland, from there Pylyp tried to reach the Zaporozhian Cossacks who had built their new Sich in the South-Ukrainian lands controlled by the Crimean Khan. En route, the Hetman was captured by the Ottomans, whose "honorable prisoner" he remained till 1738. Left on his own, Hrygir found employment as aide-de-camp to Stanislaw Rzewuski, one of the highest-ranking military officers in Poland and the governor of Belz Voivodeship in Western Ukraine.

In the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

On the rainy morning of October 28, 1729, Hrygir Orlyk entered the Embassy of France in Warsaw, and, having done so, embarked on a new journey through the murky waters of European diplomacy. That day, the French Ambassador, Antoine-Felix de Monti, gathered a few extremely important Polish aristocrats, whose political sympathies lay with Stanislaw Leszczynski –the pariah ostracized two decades earlier. The idea to restore him to the thrones of Poland and Lithuania appealed to the Commonwealth’s grandees disturbed by the absolutist ambitions of Augustus II. The interests of Paris in the affair was even simpler –to ensure French influence in the central parts of the continent and, in one stroke, to settle a peculiarly delicate family business. Since 1725, Louis XV of France had been married to Marie Leszczynska, Stanislaw’s daughter, which meant that for the sake of the Bourbons’ reputation, the king’s father-in-law had to be given his royal job back. The plan was set in motion, and between the years of 1729 and 1736, Hrygir planted himself as a noticeable player in this very intricate matter.

Stanislaw Leszczynski (1677-1766). The portrait on the left was painted during his first reign in 1709, the one on the right –in 1731, when Leszczynski was preparing to return his monarchical power in the Rzeczpospolita. Source: Wikipedia.

A Diplomatic Agent of France

For four years, the son of the exiled Cossack Hetman, traveled back and forth between Warsaw and Paris with multiple detours to Stockholm, Istanbul, and Bakhchysarai. Acting as a diplomatic agent of France and an officer of the French royal army, he promoted his father’s cause as well: France’s officials, the Khan of Crimea and Stanislaw Leszczynski –all promised the young man to help Pylyp Orlyk in his attempts to restore the independent Ukrainian Hetmanate. In the meantime, Hrygir (or, Gregoire, as he was called in French) was assigned to prepare the ground for the wide alliance against Russia. The Ottomans, the Tatars, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth were to form its vanguard, whereas Leszczynski, as King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, would be providing a backbone for the whole endeavor.

In 1733, Augustus II died, and Hrygir/Gregoire entered upon one of his most triumphant missions – to bring the French candidate to the throne from Paris, where he had been comfortably staying, to Warsaw (along with a million florins to secure Leszczynski’s election by the szlachta). The Russians, who wanted to see Augustus’ son at the head of the Rzeczpospolita, employed a few dozens cutthroat brigands to stop Stanislaw from coming. Nevertheless, Captain Orlyk with only one French nobleman beside him managed to pass all the mortal obstacles on this perilous voyage.

Leszczynski got the crown for the second time, but, in just three years, he lost it to Augustus III of Saxony –the faithful protégé of Russia. Gregoire, however, remained in good books of Louis XV, who, in 1737, intended to make his favorite Cossack France’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. When the King’s idea became known in St. Petersburg, the Russian court realized that the younger Orlyk was much more dangerous than the older one. A whole camarilla of Russia’s functionaries agreed that this annoying Ukrainian had to be dealt with.

Louis XV (1710-1774), known as Louis the Beloved, the King of France since 1715. For his service in favor of the French Crown, Hrygor Orlyk received from this monarch a number of presents, a large estate in Lorraine, the title of count, and the king’s unwavering trust. Source: Wikipedia.

Further Career and Russian Assassins

In the late 1730s, Gregoire joined the Secret du Roi –King Louis’ special intelligence service comprised of his most trusted gentilehommes. In 1738, Orlyk (or d’Orlik, as his surname was spelled in France) went to Turkey to renew the negotiations on the anti-Russian union. In Istanbul, he met an old friend named Malcolm Sinclair –a Swedish officer and diplomat of Scottish descent. Both men were Russia’s inappeasable foes, and both became targets for Russian assassins. When their talks with the Sultan were completed, the emissaries traveled together until April 1739. Then, Gregoire headed for Paris, while Sinclair chose the shortest way to Sweden. In Silesia, he ran into two Russian officers, who, earlier, had been sent to do away with d’Orlik. Having lost him, they galloped about Germany in fading hope of fulfilling the task. When the Swedish agent suddenly passed by, the desperate hitmen decided to attack him instead. They ambushed his carriage and brutally killed its passenger.

Baron Malcolm Sinclair (1690-1739), officer and diplomat serving the Crown of Sweden. Source:

Apparently, the murder was far from being "clean." There were some witnesses, who later testified in Stockholm. Despite the fact that St. Petersburg denied any involvement into this "vile business," the bellicose party in the Swedish establishment made use of the affair. The elites and the commoners of the realm shared the same anti-Russian feelings, which meant that the war was imminent. Marching to its battlefields and seeing their soldiers off, the Swedes sang the "Sinclairvisan" –the song about the death of Baron Sinclair composed by the popular writer Anders Odel.

An illustration to the "Sinclairvisan" showing Malcolm Sinclair and his killers, a captain and a lieutenant. Russia denied her involvement in the murder, claiming that there were no Russian military personnel in the area where the crime had been committed. The officers were secretly escorted to one of the forts in Siberia, where they lived under house arrest until 1743. That year, Elizabeth I, the new Empress of Russia, ordered to promote the captain to the rank of sub-colonel and the lieutenant to that of major. After this, the pair was sent to the garrison of Kazan. Source:

As for d’Orlik, he returned to France, then again went to Istanbul, and, in 1740, tried to persuade Louis XV to build the Zaporozhian Cossacks’ Sich on the Rhine. In France, he was becoming a known and celebrated persona.

In France

Gregoire d’Orlik’s service, as well as his wit and manners, made him particularly popular with both Louis and his official mistress Madame de Pompadour –a remarkably intelligent and influential woman. The queen consort, Marie Leszczynska, was the diplomat’s favorer too. His role in the second enthronement of Marie’s politically unlucky father and the fact that d’Orlik belonged to the Court’s most charming conversationalists made him a most welcome guest in the queen’s quarters.

Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour, known as "Madame de Pompadour" (1721- 1764), the mistress and a close confidant of Louis XV. Source:

Beyond Versailles, he was a frequent visitor at literary salons and, as many believe, a friend of Voltaire. In his renowned work "The History of Charles XII," the great philosopher offered a very sympathetic view on Ukraine, Ukrainian Cossacks, and Mazepa’s revolt. That, according to some researchers, was the result of Voltaire’s communication with Gregoire d’Orlik and, through him, with his father Pylyp.

François-Marie Arouet, known as Voltaire (1694-1778), French Enlightenment writer, historian, and philosopher. Voltaire and d’Orlik had common friends, who must have recommended the latter to the formed as the expert on Ukraine and Mazepa. He accomplished his "History of Charles XII, King of Sweden" in 1731. Source: Wikipedia.

In 1747, d’Orlik, now a count, married Louise-Hélène Le Brun de Dinteville, a young lady from an old aristocratic house. The same year, he purchased the colonel’s commission in the prestigious regiment known as the "Royal Swedes." Commanding this and other units of the king’s army was to define the next and final stage in his versatile career.

Military Exploits and Death

In 1754, the so-called Seven Year’s War began and Count d’Orlik led his regiment into the very vortex of that conflict. Insightful decisions and personal bravery earned him the promotion to the rank of junior and, in a short while, senior general. Apart from the Swedes and the French, he reportedly commanded a squadron of Zaporozhian Cossacks and a unit of Polish nobles, who held their Ukrainian-born leader in the highest respect.

On November 14, 1759, during the bloody battle near Minden, a city that belonged to Prussia, general d’Orlik was wounded in the chest. He died the very same day to the great grief of his family and King Louis.

The Battle of Rossbach (the 5th of November, 1757). This was one of the battles, in which d’Orlik distinguished himself. Despite his efforts, however, the French lost the day to Fredrick the Great of Prussia. Source:


The life of Hrygir Orlyk (or count Gregoire d’Orlik de Laziska, lieutenant-general of the French royal army, diplomat, and an agent of the French king’s intelligence service) proves how multifaceted the history of Ukrainians is. Unsurprisingly, this bright character has inspired some quasi-historical myths, like the one claiming that the commune Orly (known in France since the Late Middle Ages) and, correspondingly, Orly-Paris Airport are named after the Hetman’s son. The tales of that sort are hardly needed to supplement the biography we have presented here. What this flamboyant CV reveals to us could be described as the complex web of international intrigue involving kings, emperors, sultans, soldiers, courtiers and one diplomat of Cossack lineage right in the middle of it. That seems to be a non-trivial story of diplomacy’s evolution in both the all-European and Ukrainian past.

/Dmytro Ishchenko, PhD, historian and policy analyst at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, diplomat at the MFA of Ukraine and the Mission of Ukraine to the EU in 2002-2010.