Swedish sculptor Bernhard Englund travelled to Poltava in Ukraine last week to deliver a bust of the former Swedish king to a museum in the Ukrainian town. Karl XII led the Swedish army into a battle in which it was outnumbered and outmaneuvered by Russia’s Peter the Great.
For many West-leaning Ukrainians, the Swedish king is regarded as a positive force in the fight against Russian expansionism as personified by Peter I, Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter reports.
But when Ukraine on Saturday marks the 300th anniversary of a key battle fought on its soil between imperial Russia and Sweden, it is the role of a Cossack commander that is providing a new source for Russia-Ukraine acrimony.
The Battle of Poltava — fought on June 27th, 1709 in central Ukraine — is seen as the pivotal victory for Russia in its two-decade struggle with Karl XII.
It was recorded in Soviet-era text books as the moment Russia — under Peter the Great — replaced Sweden as the dominant power in Eastern Europe.
But amid the great power clash, the role of one Ukrainian commander, Ivan Mazepa, is providing fuel to the debate about Kiev’s allegiances in the tug-of-war between the country’s pro-Western and pro-Russian politicians.
The Ukrainian Cossack leader — a nationalist reformer who appears on the country’s 10-hryvnia notes — is remembered as a traitor by Moscow loyalists but a hero by Ukraine’s Western-leaning nationalists.
Mazepa — while formally allied with Peter the Great — switched sides and fought alongside Swedish forces, allegedly angered by Russian incursion on Ukraine’s autonomy and the Tsar’s failure to protect it against Polish attacks.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko slammed as “prolonged hysteria” this year Russian accusations of Mazepa’s “so-called betrayal” and created a new national award in the name of the controversial hero.
“Ivan Mazepa is not a traitor since he did not betray the Ukrainian people,” Yushchenko said.
“He had only one goal: to preserve the independence of the Ukrainian state.”
But the president’s pro-Russian opponents hit back.
“Yushchenko glorifies such figures to make an enemy out of Russia and we will not allow this,” said Valery Konovalyuk, a lawmaker with Ukraine’s Party of the Regions.
“With the help of intrigues and betrayals, Mazepa angled for his personal independence and not that of the Ukrainian people.”
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian People’s Party complained that the mayor of Poltava had banned it from marching to commemorate Ukrainian Cossacks who died in the battle, while approving a religious procession in the name of Russian victory.
Mazepa was vilified by Russia after the 1709 battle. Peter the Great ordered him anathematized by the Orthodox Church, while in works by the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin and composer Peter Tchaikovsky he was cast as a traitor.
In May, Russia lashed out at Ukraine’s preparations to mark the 300th anniversary, including plans to erect a monument to Mazepa.
These are attempts at “artificial, far-fetched confrontation with Russia,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
“We would like to remind the leaders of Ukraine that playing games with history, especially with hidden nationalist motives, has never led to any good,” it added.
Moscow has increasingly showed its ire over the efforts of Ukraine and other post-Soviet states to rehabilitate nationalist heroes, sidelined by Soviet historians.
Perhaps the fiercest clashes are over the memory of WWII. Russia sees its role in vanquishing Nazi Germany as incontestable, but many post-Soviet states see the Soviet front’s advance on their territories not as a liberation but an occupation.
Last month, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the creation of a commission to defend Russia from historical “falsifications” in a move that underscored disputes over history that has emerged since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Mazepa’s standing among Ukrainians, meanwhile, reflects the cultural and linguistic split existing between the Russian-speaking eastern part of the country and western Ukraine.
About 30 percent of the population views Mazepa as “a man who fought for the independence of Ukraine,” while 28 percent view him “as a turncoat who joined the enemy’s ranks,” according to an April survey by independent Ukrainian pollster the Research and Branding Group.