The Cossack Uprising


Jacek Wypych, February 2001


The 17th century was a volatile period in the Ukrainian steppes. The region was part of the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania, and had been the epicenter of several rebellions early in the century. In 1638, a particularly bloody uprising was put down by Mikolaj Potocki, a Polish general. The steppes seemed to calm down, and all was quiet for some years. However, under the surface, the situation was anything but calm. The Poles ruled the Cossacks with an iron hand – and a considerable military presence. To control the unruly Cossacks, the Poles oppressed them greatly – and ultimately brought them to the point of another rebellion. The Cossacks only needed a leader.


In 1646, local Polish nobles seized the estates of Bogdan Zenobi Chmielnicki, a Cossack captain. When he tried to seek justice, Chmielnicki was thrown in jail and had the rest of his property stolen. One of Chmielnicki’s friends secured his release, and Chmielnicki, having lost everything, decided in his outrage to lead a Cossack rebellion. To this end, in the fall of 1647, Chmielnicki stole from another Cossack officer letters from the Polish King Wladyslaw IV in which the monarch seemed to support the idea of a Cossack Host that was more or less independent of Polish nobility. With these letters in hand, Chmielnicki toured the Ukrainian steppes to find support for his intended uprising.


Tatars to align with the Cossacks against Poland. The Tatars agreed, and the khan assigned Tuhai-bey to lead the Tatar horde wherever the Cossacks led. When the Cossacks heard of this alliance, they elected Chmielnicki to be Hetman and plans were secretly drawn for the war to start in the spring of 1648.
Poland soon found out about Chmielnicki’s plans and decided to preemptively attack the Cossacks. Potocki, with many registered Cossacks on his side, invaded Ukraine shortly after Easter in 1648. He sent his son Stephan as forward guard – but the inexperienced young Potocki went too far ahead of his father’s main forces and became isolated and then surrounded at Zolte Wody by Chmielnicki. Stephan Potocki was killed and his force decimated in the battle that followed. The Cossacks had won the first battle of their revolution.


Chmielnicki marched to the Upper Dnieper and met the main force of the Polish army at Korsun. The registered Cossacks on the Polish side promptly joined Chmielnicki. When Potocki saw the size of the joint Cossack and Tatar army he ordered retreat. The retreating army fell right into a Cossack ambush where it was completely slaughtered. The Polish army had been defeated.

Soon thereafter, news reached Chmielnicki that king Wladyslaw IV died. Chmielnicki and the Cossacks had trusted the Polish king, and Chmielnicki had dealt with him in the past. The Cossacks had hoped to reach a negotiated peace with the king, knowing that success in securing total independence for Ukraine was unrealistic. With the king’s death, such hopes became unlikely.


During the kingless interim, Poland raised another army to face the Cossacks. The next battle occurred at Wolyn in late 1648. The Poles were defeated and retreated to Zamosc, where prince Jeremiah Wisniowiecki and his personal army joined them. Chmielnicki besieged the city, but then Jan Casimir was elected the new king of Poland on November 20, 1648. The new king begged Chmielnicki to cease military operations until royal commissars could arrive and negotiate with the Cossacks. Chmielnicki  obliged and returned to Kiev. 


Chmielnicki had thought only of the Cossacks when he embarked on his revolution. Upon arriving in Kiev, however, he became exposed to the larger picture of Ukraine and her non-Cossack inhabitants. Chmielnicki began to view his position and his responsibility in a new way. In 1649, the Polish commissars arrived, prepared to give a host of concessions to Chmielnicki and the Cossacks. However, by this time, Chmielnicki had decided to fight not only for Cossack rights, but also for the independence of all of Ukraine from the Commonwealth. This he told to the commissars.


Upon the commissars’ return to Poland, the Polish gentry was called up for service, while the professional army set out immediately to Wolyn to face the Cossacks. When the Poles saw the size of the combined Cossack and Tatar armies at Wolyn, they retreated to the fortress of Zbaraz and were soon reinforced by Wisniowiecki, among others. Chmielnicki besieged the fortress and began harassing the city with frequent bombardments and attacks. The situation in Zbaraz soon became desperate – the besieged armies were almost out of food and gunpowder. The Poles managed to get a message out to the king.


King Jan Casimir marched to Zbaraz without waiting for the gentry to fully assemble. Near Zbaraz, Chmielnicki surprised the king’s forces and surrounded them. The situation appeared hopeless – but the Poles managed to bribe the Tatar khan to betray the Cossacks. Chmielnicki found out about the betrayal and opened negotiations with the Poles in August of 1649. Although he did not secure independence for Ukraine, Chmielnicki did obtain many concessions for the Cossack host, including an official increase of its size from 6,000 to 40,000.


No fighting occurred until the winter of 1650. During the months in between, Chmielnicki feverishly tried to gain new allies. He held talks with the king of Sweden, prince of Transylvania, Muscovite tsar, Turkish sultan, Tatar khan, and even the Polish king. During the winter of 1650, seeing Chmielnicki was becoming increasingly popular with his neighbors, the Poles attacked the Cossacks once again, and were defeated at Vinnitsia. The Tatars joined the Cossacks for the next battle, which took place at Beresteczko. There, the Tatars once again betrayed the Cossacks and retreated from the battlefield. The Polish army then slaughtered the Cossacks.


A new treaty was signed between the Poles and the Cossacks in September of 1651 in Biala Cerkwia. This treaty limited the concessions gained by the Cossacks after the siege at Zbaraz – and was accepted by Chmielnicki only because his soldiers needed to recuperate. The next two years saw much minor fighting between the Poles and the Cossacks in Moldavia, with victories and defeats on both sides.


In 1653, the tsar of Muscovy announced the establishment of a protectorate over Ukraine. The tsar also promised Chmielnicki to send an army to attack Poland in the spring. In early 1654, the tsar sent delegates to the Cossack Hetman, and the entire Cossack Host gave vows of sovereignty to Muscovy. The treaty of Pereyaslav, as this came to be called, guaranteed Ukraine a high degree of autonomy, an army of 60,000, their own Hetman, and protection from all their enemies.


In this way ended the 1648 Cossack uprising against Poland. Officially, the Pereyaslav treaty gave Ukraine recognition as an independent and autonomous state – even though tied to Muscovy through the tsar. In reality, the fighting did not stop in 1654. The Muscovites attacked Poland as they had promised. The Cossacks fought alongside them. Later, the Cossacks joined Sweden in her war against the Poles.


In a way, Chmielnicki was successful. He brought independence to Ukraine. During the years of wars, all Polish institutions in the provinces of Kiev, Braclav, Popol, and Chihiryn were abolished and all Polish rule over those lands ceased. Cossack institutions sprung up in their place, and Cossack rule was established. Cossack armies replaced Polish armies. In addition to internal independence, the government of the Hetman became externally sovereign and gained some international recognition: Chmielnicki received and sent many delegates to European courts and capitals. The Cossacks even had a parliament of sorts – the Rada of the Zaporozhian Host. Ukraine had in fact become independent.


However, it took constant war to keep her independent. If war ceased, Polish nobles would return to their lands in Ukraine – and Polish armies would return to protect the nobles. If Poland failed to establish hegemony in the region, the Muscovites surely would. Or the Turks. Chmielnicki had known that Ukraine was independent only as long as she fought – so he kept her fighting as long as he lived.



Hrushevsky, Michael. _A History of Ukraine_. Yale University Press, 1941 

Wojcik, Zbigniew. _Dzikie Pola w Ogniu_. Warszawa: Wiedza Powszechna, 1961 

Davies, Norman. _Boze Igrzysko - Historia Polski_. Vol. 1. Krakow: Wydawnictwo Znak, 1998





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