Voltaire on Mazepa and Early Eighteenth-Century Ukraine

By Prymak, Thomas M. | Canadian Journal of History, Autumn 2012 | Go to article overview

Voltaire on Mazepa and Early Eighteenth-Century Ukraine


Prymak, Thomas M., Canadian Journal of History


J'ay vu un temps oh vous n 'aimiez gueres l'histoire. Ce n'est apres tout qu'un ramas de tracasseries qu'on fait aux morts [... history is, after all, nothing but the pack of tricks that the living play on the dead].

--Voltaire, Letter of 9 February 1757, to Pierre Robert Le Cornier de Cideville.

Francois-Marie Arouet, or Voltaire (1694-1778) as he is better known to history, was one of the outstanding figures of the French Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. He was the Enlightenment philosophe par excellence, a prolific writer, a poet, playwright, and novelist, a wit and satirist, whose sharp pen was loved and feared all over the Europe of his day from England to Russia. He was a deist, an advocate of "reason" in affairs public and private, and a fierce critic of superstition and the abuses within the Roman Catholic Church and the ancien regime under which he lived. His battle cry against superstition, censorship, and fanaticism "ecrasez l'infame" (crush the infamy) rings throughout both his published works and private letters. (1)

Although today Voltaire is known primarily as a satirist who, for example, savagely ridiculed philosophical optimism in his tale titled Candide (1759), in his own day he was also well-known as a historian who was critical of what he believed to have been the narrow interests and scholarly pedantry of many of the historians who had preceded him. Striving to write "philosophical" history which took up big themes, paying much attention to story and style, avoiding laborious and annalistic history, and jettisoning much of the traditional scholarly apparatus, such as extensive citation of sources in footnotes or elsewhere, in his various historical works he described many of the most important people and events of his own time, or, at least, of the times immediately preceding him. His Le siecle de Louis XIV described France in the age of the "sun king" and expanded the field of history from wars and politics to economics, law, culture, manners and morals; his wide-ranging Essai sur les moeurs et l'esprit des nations also attempted to expand it geographically and culturally beyond Europe and Christianity to encompass China, India, the Americas, and the lands of Islam. Both works shifted the emphasis in history from ancient Greece and Rome, that is, classical antiquity, to more modern times. (2)

All three of these shifts, that is, from politics to culture, from western Europe narrowly defined to a wider world, and from classical antiquity to modern history are present in his historical works touching upon eastern Europe in general and the Ukraine of the Cossack ruler or "Hetman," Ivan Mazepa (1639-1709), in particular. Hetman Mazepa, already an important political figure in his own right, and well respected throughout the various far-flung Ukrainian lands for his patronage of architecture, literature, and the arts, was to make a great impression upon European opinion by his unexpected revolt against Russian rule, and Voltaire did not ignore this surprising event. (3)

Although Voltaire never penned a separate essay or historical work specifically about Mazepa's Ukraine, he did touch upon this land in two very different histories dealing with eastern Europe, or "le nord," or "l 'Europe septentrionale," as it was then usually called. The first is his Histoire de Charles XII roi de Suede (1731) which was his first important historical work and a great success, reprinted many times during his lifetime and many more afterwards. This history described the military exploits of the young and warlike king of Sweden whose career took him from Scandinavia through parts of Germany and the vast Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and after many great victories, into Ukraine where he suffered his first great defeat at the hands of the Russians, or "Muscovites" as they were then usually known. This defeat occurred at the Battle of Poltava (1709) in the eastern part of that country. …

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