With the help of Ukrainian historian and diplomat Dmytro Ishchenko, Hromadske is launching a new series of articles on the history of international relations.
The occupation of Crimea and the outbreak of conflict in the east of Ukraine in 2014 brought the country to the forefront of international affairs in the twenty-first century. In the centuries prior to Ukraine’s independence in 1991, its role in international affairs was subordinate to the diplomacy of first the Russian Empire and then the Soviet Union, but this wasn’t always the case.
Writing for Hromadske, Ukrainian historian and diplomat Dmytro Ishchenko explains Ukraine’s central role in early modern diplomacy.
The events of the last few years made the world increasingly aware of what can be deemed as "the Matter of Ukraine." From the perspective of sometimes toffee-nosed historians, the aforementioned phenomenon comes as no surprise at all. The country in question (these dignified scholars would say) always turned out to be in the very thick of international showdowns. Such involvement entailed devious diplomacy, elaborate intrigues, as well as daring undertakings suitable for the best of historical fiction. Alexander Dumas, Sir Walter Scott, and other masters of the genre, however, touched upon Ukrainian affairs only briefly–but this neglect was hardly intentional. A great deal of Eastern Europe’s past still rests in the shadows of time, and it is our audacious intention to do something about it.
Today’s column will reveal a few of those multilateral diplomatic schemes, in which Ukrainians of the early modern era played their peculiar part.
The Cossack Diplomatic Mission to Persia
By the end of the 16th century, Ukrainian Cossackdom already enjoyed a noticeable role on the political scene of Europe. Having incorporated a diverse set of social groups –with the scions of the local princely houses on the top and various gentlemen of fortune in the vanguard –it concocted a solid knightly ideology for exhibitory heroic and quite profitable self-representation. The Cossacks, according to their own vainglorious manifestos, had descended from the Roksolans –the nation of the same Sarmatian origin, of which the nobility in Poland and Lithuania had been boasting for some decades. The other versions of this genealogical myth denominated both the Khazars and the boyars of Kyivan Rus as the forefathers of "the Cossack people." Backed by the credentials of good pedigree, the "knights of the Steppe" were to erect their portion of the antemurale Christianitatis –the symbolic blood-and-iron "wall" that would protect Christian Europe from the triumphant march of Islam. The wall-building rhetoric and its unfading efficiency in the matters of political advancement appeared to be particularly helpful in the unstable world of European alliances.
Just as the Valois before him, Henry IV –the first Bourbon on the French throne –believed that the main threat for France came almost exclusively from the House of Habsburg. The notion of this unceasing competition provoked the further growth of the earlier conspiratorial ties between Paris and the Ottomans –the "demonic race," in whom "all good Christians" were officially expected to see their primary foe. The Habsburgian camp had to search for friends among "the enemies of the enemy," and Persia, which had lost a number of its provinces to Turkey, seemed like the perfect choice. Persian rulers were equally interested in an anti-Turkish alignment, but the key European courts happened to be too far for a swift consolidation. At this point, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Cossacks, the formal vassals of Poland’s monarch, came into the picture as fully legitimate and very important actors.
The shaping of that exotic block, which was to be stretching from the North Sea to the Persian Gulf, might have remained a complete mystery to us, had it not been for the memoirs of one man – the artistic aristocrat from Italy– Pietro della Valle (1586-1652).
Pietro della Valle (1586-1652). This is the portrait from one of the 17th century editions of della Valle’s memoirs, in which he described his visits to Istanbul, Jerusalem, Baghdad, the provinces of Persia and India, as well as the customs and manners of the Orient. The author was a very interesting character himself. Born into an old noble family of Rome, he became a person of some renown at a very tender age. Young Pietro was an acclaimed poet, a musician, an expert in antique myths, a student of classical language, and a very decent swordsman. In 1614, unhappy in love, he left Italy for the Ottoman Empire. Having learned Turkish and Arabic, della Valle journeyed through the Holy Land. There he saw a portrait of a beautiful Christian woman from Baghdad. He found her and she became his wife. In 1617, Abbas the Great of Persia invited the newly wed couple to live at the Shah’s court. In 1626, Pietro returned to Rome and was received with honours in artistic circles and at the Papal palace. Before his death in 1652, della Valle wrote a number of musical works and librettos while refining his eloquently composed "Travels." Source: www.archive.org
Here’s what we can say on the basis of his notes and some other historical data.
In 1617, the Safavid Shah of Persia, the illustrious Abbas the Great (1571-1629), was considering a "final push" in his long war against the Ottomans. In the letter to Sigismund III Vasa (1566-1632), King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, he proposed to combine forces. The Cossacks were suggested to fight in the forefront of the joint military operation.
The very same year, in Krakow, the capital of the Rzeczpospolita, a Polish-Ukrainian nobleman and a historian by the name of Marcin Paszkowski published a poem with the title "A Conversation between a Zaporozhian Cossack and a Persian Envoy." By today’s standards, this text was an exemplary geopolitical argumentation intended to justify the emerging alliance with the Safavids. In modern politics it would be disseminated as a major think-tank’s non-paper or as an "expert analysis." At the dawn of the 17th century, on the other hand, political programs were habitually promoted in exalted epic verse, to which, in its Renaissance or early-Baroque variation, the decision-makers of the epoch were aesthetically accustomed.
By this time, the Persians were no strangers to Europe. Shah Abbas had initiated diplomatic contacts with some European sovereigns as early as 1599. Since then, the Persian style in clothes was conspicuously popular among the aristocracy throughout the continent. In 1605, the Persian ambassador visited Krakow on the occasion of Sigismund’s second marriage. The idea of partnership between the two grand states, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Persia, evolved on a proper ceremonial foundation.
Entry of the wedding procession of Sigismund III Vasa into Krakow, c. 1605. A detail of a painting by Balthasar Gebhardt, the Hofmaler (court painter) of Archduke Ferdinand (1578-1637). The figure in the centre is the Ambassador of Abbas the Great. Source: Wiki Commons
Ukrainian Cossacks, meanwhile, launched their own diplomatic initiative.
Its roots sprang from the very hearty collaboration with the Georgians established sometime during the second half of the 16th century. That connection brought about numerous intermarriages, conjoined raids on the Turkish coast, as well as a fruitful economic enterprise: Georgian silk was in high demand across Europe, and the Cossacks provided security for the caravans of merchants from Georgia.
In 1618, a two thousand strong cohort of the Zaporozhians made camp in the land of their West Georgian ally, a lord in the coastal country we know as Samegrelo. From there, a band of forty riders started a long journey toward the capital of Persia. Only one of them, mentioned in the remaining documents as Stepan, a Cossack of Polish (probably noble) lineage, reached the Shah’s court. The other 39 emissaries stayed in the kingdom of Imereti, the ruler of which had persuaded the fresh-baked diplomats to wait for their comrade under his princely protection. Eventually, perhaps out of fear or simply counting upon political dividends, the hospitable host betrayed the visitants from Ukraine to his official overlords and masters – the Ottoman Turks.
Shah Abbas the Great and his court. A fresco from Chehel Sotoun palace (the Palace of Forty Columns), Isfahan, c, 1647. Source: Wiki Commons
Luckily for Stepan, he found a good friend in Pietro della Valle, who, as a member of Abbas’s closest circle, had been living in Persia for a few years. After some brainstorming, the Cossack ambassador and the Italian traveller presented the Zaporozhian strategy to the Shah. The latter was offered the service of 10 thousand Cossacks, whose operations were to be conducted from a military base on the eastern shore of the Black Sea. Abbas the Great felt more than pleased, for it was almost the very same idea he had suggested to King Sigismund. Stepan received a pile of letters, valuable presents, extremely expensive horses, and, with all that, headed back to Georgia.
In four days, however, the Shah, who had learned of the Imeretian infamy, ordered the Cossack to return to the royal residence for his own sake. For a number of months, Stepan led the life of an Oriental courtier, until the war between Persia and Turkey unexpectedly ended. The Persians recaptured a large part of their former territories, and Abbas, thereby, lost his earlier appetite for engineering the anti-Ottoman league. Instead, he made his Cossack guest a godfatherly proposal –to become a loyal subject of the glorious Safavid dynasty. Stepan politely refused in hopes of buying a little time to arrange his departure. He was joined by some of the Cossacks, who had managed to escape from Turkish captivity. Several nights later, under the cover of darkness, Pietro della Valle bid them goodbye as they hit the road. Due to the circumstances, their long way home was to lie through India …
After a brief punitive expedition to Imereti, the Zaporozhians, having received no news from their Persian embassy, reassembled along the Dnieper river for another campaign. This time, they were to deal with the Westerners and the Muscovites…
Sir Robert Shirley (1581-1628), another famous European adventurer at the court of the Shah. He and his brothers went from England to Persia in 1598. Abbas invited Robert to help reorganize the Persian army. Having succeeded in this, he then became Abass’s most trusted ambassador to many European capitals. Sir Robert travelled in his picturesque Oriental clothes, which could have caused the Persian fashion among the elites of Europe. As a key diplomat in the matter of the anti-Ottoman coalition, he might have met Ukrainian Cossacks and most definitely discussed with the Shah the possible role of the Zaporozhians in the war against the Turks. A panting by an unknown artist. Source: Wiki Commons.
The Order of the Christian Militia
Since 1616, Ukrainian Cossacks had a new leader – Hetman Petro Konashevych-Sahaydachnyy, under whom the Zaporozhian Host matured into both an internationally recognised military force and the self-appointed protector of culture and education in Ukraine.
Petro Konashevych-Sahaydachnyy (1582- 1622), Hetman of Ukrainian Zaporozhian Cossacks between 1616 and 1622. Woodcut in the book of poems, written by Cassian Sakowicz, rector of the Kyivan Brotherhood School, written on the occasion of the Hetman’s death, 1622. Source: Wiki Commons.
Sahaydachnyy was a member of the old Ruthenian nobility that remained loyal to the Orthodox Church. In 1618, he participated in the bellicose affair of Sigismund’s son, Wladislaw Vasa, who tried to take the throne of Muscovy by sword. Some years earlier, a group of renegade boyars had proclaimed him the Tsar of Russia, and this act of political crookery set off a long chain of dramatic events. Acting as a shock unit of Wladislaw’s army, 20 thousand Zaporozhians left a notoriously bloody mark along the whole route of that controversial campaign.
Zaporozhian Cossacks in "chaika" boats attacking Turkish galleys in the Black Sea, c.1636. British Library, London. Zaporozhian fleet added to the Cossacks’ reputation of the then equivalent of special and shock forces. Source: Wiki Commons.
At the very same time, the Cossack Hetman joined the magnificently smart set of European aristocrats negotiating a NATO-type coalition of the period. In that century, it took the shape of the "Anti-Turkish Christian League," or, as its founding fathers called it, the "Order of the Christian Militia." The mastermind behind this format was Charles de Gonzaga, Duke de Mantua de Montferrat de Rethel and de Nevers. Said prince managed to assure various cliques at the royal courts of Europe that the crusade he was planning was a very good idea. Through his grandmother, Charles de Gonzaga was a descendant of the Byzantine's Palaiologos imperial dynasty. The Greeks under the Ottoman rule readily recognized him as their rightful king, whereas the Balkan Christians were about to follow this trend.
Ukrainian Cossacks aspired for a noticeable function in the whole endeavor, the success of which was to be marked by the Christian re-conquest of Constantinople. Sahaydachnyy and de Gonzaga discussed a variety of land and maritime operations, predominantly of a hazardous and commando-style nature.
Charles de Gonzaga (1580-1637), Duke of Mantua , Duke of Montferrat, Duke of Rethel and Nevers. Source: Wiki Commons.
Who knows to what ends that would have led, the knights of the debated “Order,” had this chivalrous project actually worked out. Its original supporters grew preoccupied with the prospective might of the new European crusaders. The Habsburgs and their companions felt threatened by the fact that de Gonzaga owed allegiance to the French king Louis XIII. The latter, or rather his advisors, seeing the majestic ambitions of France’s vassal, were quite suspicious as well. Shortly afterward, all potential participants of the League found themselves in the violent whirlpool of the Thirty Years War, or, as was the Cossacks’ case, in the struggle for their political rights.
Perhaps, this historical failure is one of those, to which a modern pundit or a policy analyst might artfully refer in a certain contemporaneous context –for example, while making a point about the unclear future of what is called "collective security in Europe."
We, by contrast, would optimistically refrain from such comparisons, at least, until they become too evident or inexorable.
Instead of a Conclusion
Having convinced ourselves to leave the other histories of diplomatic manoeuvring for a subsequent article, we could attempt to justify the very practice of glimpsing into the past –a practice both ancient and honourable. Well, if we are to speculate on this subject or to question what lessons we ought to derive from the anecdotes we’ve just told, it might be best to acknowledge how curiously interconnected the threads of history are. And, of course, how much spiffier (as compared to our own day) the costumes of bygone eras were.
It is upon these and other matters that we shall dwell on in future occasions.
/ 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.