On 2 October, 2022, Ukrainian First Lady, Olena Zelenska, took part in the launching ceremony of the “Hetman Ivan Mazepa” corvette in Istanbul. This ship will be operational and integrated into the Ukrainian fleet in 2024 and is the first ADA class corvette built in Turkey for Kyiv. An agreement between the two countries will also allow Ukraine to obtain another corvette, as well as new drones.
The choice of a baptismal name for this future flagship of the Ukrainian fleet is not without meaning.
Ivan Mazepa (1639-1709) was a historical Ukrainian figure, who served as hetman (elected leader) of the Cossacks of Ukraine. Coming from a noble but modest family in Podolia, he joined the court of the King of Poland, John II Casimir Vasa, then travelled throughout Europe
However, Mazepa is not just a historical Ukrainian figure, he is the romantic hero par excellence, whose myth was created and amplified by the great European artists of the 19th century. As described by Voltaire, the most romantic episode of his life was when, having been found guilty of adultery, Mazepa’s body was coated with tar and he was tied naked to a horse. Ukrainian peasants saved him, and Mazepa would then discover the hard life of the Ukrainian people.
Recognized by Peter the Great who awarded him several titles, Mazepa opposed the increasing integration of Ukraine into the Russian Empire; Mazepa thus sided with King Charles XII of Sweden during the Great Northern War (1700-1721). However, after the Battle of Poltava (8 July, 1709), Mazepa’s army was defeated and he took refuge in Tighina, where he died on 2 October, 1709.
Lord Byron was the first to rekindle the memory of the Ukrainian hero through his poem, Mazepa, published in 1819. Victor Hugo also retold the story of Mazepa in his collection “Les Orientales” in 1829, which inspired Franz Liszt to write a symphonic poem in 1852.
Subsequently, other writers and poets, such as the Pole, Juliusz Slowacki, glorified this Ukrainian legend. The torture experienced by Ivan Mazepa also became the theme of several works of music and opera, composed by Michael William Balfe (1861) and Clémence de Granval (1892).
The adventures of this romantic hero have also been embodied in several paintings by some of the greatest artists, such as Théodore Géricault (1823), Eugène Delacroix (1824), Horace Vernet (1826), Louis Boulanger (1826) and Théodore Chassériau (1851). From a Russian perspective, artists have also interpreted the myth of Mazepa. However, while the Ukrainian hero personified courage and patriotism among European writers and painters, Pushkin regarded him as a traitor to Tsar Peter I in his poem “Poltava” (1829), which was later adapted into an opera by Tchaikovsky in 1883. The Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated him in the 19th century, and even after the fall of the Tsar, the Soviet regime saw in the legendary Mazepa a symbol of Ukrainian nationalism that had to be silenced. It was not until Ukraine regained its independence in 1991 that Kyiv resurrected its hero again; Mazepa thus appears on 10 Hryvnia banknotes and streets bear his name.
At the time of the Russian invasion, the myth of Mazepa resurfaced, as a result of this new corvette, but also in the artistic world. Tchaikovsky’s opera in a Swiss theatre was subsequently cancelled and the house of Victor Hugo in Paris honoured the Ukrainian hetman. Other events are to be encouraged so that the figure of Mazepa is better known, in order to understand how this Ukrainian hero is at the heart of one of the greatest European artistic movements of the 19th century: romanticism.
“Among the rest, Mazepa made His pillow in an old oak’s shade– Himself as rough, and scarce less old, The Ukraine’s hetman, calm and bold.”
Today, like yesterday, Mazepa symbolizes the strong links between Ukraine and Europe.