In 1708, Peter the Great destroyed Baturyn, a bastion of Cossack independence and culture


September/October 2023

Archaeology Magazine


On November 2, 1708, thousands of Russian troops acting on the orders of Czar Peter I, known as Peter the Great, stormed Baturyn, the Cossack capital in north-central Ukraine. The Cossack leader, or hetman, Ivan Mazepa—who had been a loyal vassal of the czar until not long before—had departed with much of his army several days earlier to join forces with the Swedish king Charles XII, Peter’s opponent in the Great Northern War (1700–1721). The fortified core of Baturyn consisted of a citadel on a high promontory overlooking the Seim River and a larger adjoining fortress densely packed with buildings, above which soared the brick Cathedral of the Holy Trinity. The citadel and fortress were each surrounded by defensive walls, earthen ramparts, and moats whose sides were lined with logs. Although they sustained heavy losses, the Russian forces managed to seize Baturyn, which proved to be a key victory.

Some 1,000 troops defending Baturyn scaled the fortification walls, crossed the moat, and stole away to rejoin Mazepa and the Swedes. The remaining 6,000 or so Cossacks and foreign mercenaries inside the fortress and citadel, along with a roughly equal number of civilians who had taken refuge there, were at the invaders’ mercy. Bent on punishing the populace for Mazepa’s betrayal, the attackers gave no quarter, slaughtering more than 11,000 in all, looting weapons, valuables, and provisions, and burning what remained. They also ventured just over a mile south to the suburb of Honcharivka, where Mazepa had built his private residence, a fortified villa featuring a three-story palace. They pillaged and torched this property as well. In a single day, the capital that Mazepa had spent two decades building into a cultural, artistic, and industrial center—and a symbol of Cossack independence—had been reduced to ash and ruin.

Starting in 2001, the Canada-Ukraine Archaeological Project, which includes members from the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies (CIUS) at the University of Alberta and Chernihiv College National University, excavated at multiple sites in Baturyn and its suburbs in an attempt to learn what life was like in the Cossack capital and to understand what happened when it was destroyed in 1708. These excavations, which have been led since 2012 by Yurii Sytyi of Chernihiv College National University, have been on hold since 2022 due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Based on some of the project’s early discoveries, in 2008 the Ukrainian government reconstructed the citadel and its fortifications. “In Ukraine, there’s not a single place that looks the way it did during the Cossacks’ time,” says Tatiana Tairova-Yakovleva, a historian of Ukraine and former director of the Center for Ukrainian Studies at St. Petersburg State University. “The archaeologists have done absolutely fascinating work. They were able to find the fortress and the residence of the hetman in Honcharivka, and this made the reconstruction

possible. Now you can see how at least some of the buildings looked in Mazepa’s time. Now we can start to understand these people’s mentality and how they lived.”