Voltaire – ‘Ukraine always aspired to Liberty’, Prince of Ukraine Mazeppa, Czar Peter I of Muscovy


Voltaire (1694-1778) was a French Enlightenment writer, philosopher, satirist, and historian. One of Voltaire’s best-known histories is History of Charles XII (1731). The quotes below are taken from the 1851 translation of the work into English published in New York by Leavitt Company. It is available at Archive.org. (That is the reason why the name Ukraine is spelled in such a way). One of the values of the History is that Voltaire was a contemporary of the great events he described in his work.

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“Ukrania hath always aspired to liberty; but being surrounded by Muscovy, the dominions of the grand seignior, and Poland, it has been obliged to choose a protector, and consequently a master, in one of these three states. The Ukranians at first put themselves under the protection of the Poles, who treated them with great severity. They afterwards submitted to the Russians, who governed them with despotic sway. They had originally the privilege of electing a prince under the name of general; but they were soon deprived of that right; and their general was nominated by the court of Moscow. The person who then filled that station was a Polish gentleman, named Mazeppa, and born in the palatinate of Podolia. He had been brought up as a page to John Casimir, and had received some tincture of learning in his court. An intrigue, which he had had in his youth with the lady of a Polish gentleman, having been discovered, the husband caused him to be bound stark-naked upon a wild horse, and let him go in that condition. The horse, who had been brought out of Ukrania, returned to his own country, and carried Mazeppa along with him, half-dead with hunger and fatigue. Some of the country people gave him assistance; and he lived among them for a long time, and signalized himself in several excursions against the Tartars. The superiority of his knowledge gained him great respect among the Cossacks; and his reputation daily increasing, the czar found it necessary to make him prince of Ukrania…

While he was one day at table with the czar at Moscow, the emperor proposed to him to discipline the Cossacks, and to render them more dependent. Mazeppa replied, that the situation of Ukrania, and the genius of the nation, were insuperable obstacles to such a scheme. The czar who began to be overheated with wine, and who had not always the command of his passions, called him a traitor, and threatened to have him impaled. Mazeppa, on his return to Ukrania, formed the design of a revolt; and the execution of it was greatly facilitated by the Swedish army, which soon after appeared on his frontiers. He resolved to render himself independent, and to erect Ukrania and some other ruins of the Russian empire into a powerful kingdom. Brave, enterprising, and indefatigable, though advanced in years, he entered into a secret league with the king of Sweden, to hasten the downfal of the czar, and to convert it to his own advantage…”

Comment. As can be seen, in 1731, Voltaire was not just familiar with the name Ukraine. For him it was

First, the nation very distinctly different from Muscovy-Russia;

Second, it was a state in which the Cossacks played the leading role;

Third, the term Ukraine was not a recent name even in 1731 because already at the time the European intellectual elite to which Voltaire belonged knew of the long history of Ukraine’s struggle for Freedom.

Fourth, Voltaire’s opinion of Muscovite-Russians in the same book: “The Muscovites were less civilized than the Mexicans, when discovered by Corte: born the slaves of masters as barbarous as themselves, they were sunk into a state of the most profound ignorance, into a total want of all the arts and sciences, and into such an insensibility of that want, as effectually suppressed every exertion of industry.”

The many wars between Muscovy and Ukraine over the past centuries in reality have been the Single War between Slavery and Freedom, Darkness and Light.

You may want to read why Voltaire and his contemporaries called Peter I the czar of Muscovy >

One of Lord Byron’s most famous poems devoted to Ivan Mazepa >

Signatures of Mazeppa (left) and Peter I (right):

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