Re-Fighting the Northern War: The Celebration of the Battle of Poltava in Russia

By
F. Joseph Dresen

"The celebration of the 300th anniversary of the Battle of Poltava is an official event by order of President Dmitri Medvedev," said Tatiana Tairova-Yakovleva, Professor, Department of History and Head, Center for Ukrainian Studies, St. Petersburg State University at a 9 November 2009 lecture at the Kennan Institute. The celebration has been commemorated in Russia by a series of academic conferences, reports, museum exhibits, and new films and television programs. In keeping with Soviet-era practice, the Battle of Poltava is being celebrated this year as a "300-year reunion of Russia and Ukraine."

Tairova-Yakovleva observed that both Russia and Ukraine have seized on Poltava as a nation-defining event. For Russia, Poltava is part of a heroic past that Russian leaders are trying to promote as part of the Russian national identity. "Peter I is one of the few Russian total heroes," she said, and Poltava is a name familiar to most Russians. It represents a victory over a Western military power of the era, Charles XII's Sweden, and it resulted in Russia consolidating its power in Ukraine.

Ukrainian historians, according to Tairova-Yakovleva, say that Russia has every right to commemorate Poltava, but espouse their own interpretation of the event. Ukraine constructed a monument in Poltava to Hetman Ivan Mazepa, the Ukrainian ruler who sided with Charles XII against Peter I. In addition, it promoted the 350th anniversary of the Battle of Konotop, where a Russian army was routed after a long siege of a Ukrainian fortress by combined Ukrainian, Tatar, and Polish forces. Tairova-Yakovleva commented that the Ukrainian commemorations were a bit odd. The monument to Mazepa was built on the site of his greatest defeat and in the territory of his enemies. The victory at Konotop was achieved only through the aid of Tatar allies and did not result in Ukrainian independence.

The various commemorations have resulted in the creation of new studies, publications, and exhibits. An exhibit at the State Hermitage Museum includes Russian and Swedish artifacts from the military campaign. A new publication features personal documents from Peter I. Perhaps most popular, Tairova-Yakovleva said, are the detailed military histories of the war and the Battle of Poltava. One of the more heated debates within these various historical interpretations focuses on the role played by Mazepa, as either a traitor or a tragic figure.

Traditional Russian and Soviet historians brand Mazepa as a traitor, and that interpretation remains the official line. For example, Tairova-Yakovleva said, the Poltava issue of the mainstream journal Rodina was comprised of two parts: professional histories of the battle itself, and essays on the "traitor" Mazepa. Recent historiography is presenting a competing view, however. Tairova-Yakovleva noted that Peter I had issued orders and proclamations in the early years of the Great Northern War with Sweden preceding Poltava that, counter to the Russian-Ukrainian treaty in force, infringed on Ukrainian autonomy and left Ukraine weakened in the face of its own enemies. Another Russian historian, Evgeney Anisimov, has recently compared Mazepa to Simon Bolivar and Giuseppe Garibaldi, historical figures who successfully fought for independent states in South America. According to Anisimov, Mazepa is reviled because he lost. Asked for her own view, Tairova-Yakovleva replied: "For me, Mazepa was a leader of his nation. It was a different time, and he represented his people."

For Tairova-Yakovleva, there is a more important issue at stake than whether or not Mazepa was a traitor. She argued for more accurate popular histories of Ukraine that would infuse facts into the popular narrative surrounding Mazepa and the Battle of Poltava. "Many Russian historians continue to deny the existence of a Ukrainian state, or of Ukrainian nationhood," stressed Tairova-Yakovleva. "They simply do not read the books"{ containing new findings at odds with established interpretations. Overcoming the established view is a goal potentially made more difficult by the Historical Truth Commission convened by President Medvedev, and chaired by his chief of staff, Sergey Naryshkin, to counter attempts to "rewrite history."

In the meantime, Tairova-Yakovleva said, Poltava will continue to have different meanings to different people. She reported that Naryshkin emphasized the traditional Russian interpretation at a ceremony commemorating Poltava, calling it "the main event in East European history…It brought Russia into the West and united Russia and Ukraine." Another viewpoint was expressed by a woman interviewed on Ukrainian television. When asked who won the battle of Poltava, she replied, "We did." When asked who she meant, she replied, "The Soviets." Tairova-Yakovleva surmised that the real history behind Poltava is fading in memory.

Blair Ruble, Director, Kennan Institute

 

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