Artwork: Olena Burdeina (FA_Photo) via Photoshop
If you ask Ukrainians about the most famous figures of Ukraine, Bohdan Khmelnytsky (1595–1657) will undoubtedly be among the first names they mention. Khmelnytsky played a crucial role in shaping Ukraine’s national identity and political history. His activities led to the creation of the Hetmanate, an autonomous Cossack territory that later came under the control of the Russian Empire, and this became an essential stage in the history of Ukraine and Eastern Europe as a whole.
The life of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, like the lives of many historical figures, is filled not only with public events but also with personal stories that influence the course of historical events. Olena Chaplynska and Olena Vyhovska, two women in his entourage, are examples of the significant impact women had on history. Their actions and relationships with Khmelnytsky not only played a role in his personal life but also had implications for the broader political and social developments of the time.
The importance of recognizing and studying the role of women in history is often overshadowed by more general historical narratives. The lives of individuals such as Chaplynska and Vyhovska demonstrate that women were not only witnesses to historical events but also active participants who shaped the political landscape of their era.
OLENA CHAPLYNSKA — THE WOMAN WHO IGNITED THE FIRE OF REBELLION
The entire history of the Ukrainian Cossacks is steeped in the history of sex and competition for women. However, professional historians of the nineteenth century preferred to ignore this, actively spreading the myth that the Cossacks lived exclusively in a fraternal society and, at best, simply did not notice women. However, the facts show the opposite.
The largest and bloodiest Cossack rebellion, which led to the civil war in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and, ultimately, to a series of defeats that buried the country in the ashes of history, happened precisely because of a woman named Olena. Like beautiful Helen, she became the bone of contention between Ukrainians and Poles.
According to the most common version, Olena was an orphan and lived in her guardian’s house, Bohdan Khmelnytsky (1595–1657), a Chyhyryn centurion. After the death of his first wife, the girl helped to manage the estate. Most likely, she had an intimate relationship with the lord, as he repeatedly emphasized that she was his woman. However, in this case, Olena was not married to Khmelnytsky, who married her after the Cossack rebellion began in January 1649.
Olena fell in love with Danylo Chaplynsky, a sub-regional governor who had land claims to Subotiv, the Khmelnytsky property. Taking advantage of the lord’s absence, Chaplynsky raided his estate (a common practice in pre-trial settlements between the gentry), robbed it, and took the beautiful Olena with him.
Khmelnytsky began to complain, and Chaplynsky, in order not to be accused of defiling the girl, married her in a Catholic ceremony. Having failed to achieve justice, suffering new harassment, arrest, and accusations, Khmelnytsky rebelled.
Eventually, Bohdan won his Olena. After his victories at Zhovti Vody and Korsun, he announced his intention to marry Ms. Chaplynska. While Chaplynsky himself was still alive and breathing. Olena accompanied Bohdan Khmelnytsky as his official wife from that time on.
In the summer of 1650, the Venetian ambassador Alberto Vimina visited Chyhyryn and met with the hetman and his hetmanship.
He wrote in his diary:
«I cannot say for sure what view the Cossacks hold on marriage, and I have to think that they recognize divorce or polygamy. After all, there are many among them who have left their ugly and elderly wives and married young and beautiful ones. Hetman set an example for everyone… For he married the wife of a Polish nobleman, Chaplynsky, a favorite of Aleksander Koniecpolski, the royal cornet, who is said to have been the cause of the past troubles.»
The Metropolitan of Kyiv refused to marry Olena Chaplynska and Bohdan Khmelnytsky, which was done by Patriarch Paisius of Constantinople. Moreover, the patriarch did it in a hurry — the bride was not in time for her groom, and the patriarch did not want to wait. After the wedding in absentia, Paisius sent Olena gifts — «absolution and the act of marriage» — and three candles that seem to ignite themselves, the milk of the Blessed Virgin, and a plate of lemons.
At official receptions, Olena was always by her husband’s side. In November 1650, the Moscow envoy Arsenii Sukhanov described a dinner at the hetman’s house given in honor of the visit of the Patriarch of Corinth to Chyhyryn:
«The hetman ordered everyone to sit down at the table: the metropolitan of Corinth sat at the edge of the table, the hetman’s wife sat to the left of the metropolitan, the metropolitan of Nazareth sat on the bench, and the hetman sat opposite him in armchairs…»
Olena influenced political and diplomatic affairs: envoys of the King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth addressed her, there were cases of her intercession for the Poles from the embassy, but there were also expressions of her anger when she ordered the looting of crown soldiers who surrendered to the Cossack mercy. And despite the growing authority of the hetman’s wife in Chyhyryn, not all was well in her family.
The stepson, Tymish, had a short temper and was hostile to Olena, his father’s wife. When Bohdan was in camp, preparing for a battle in the spring of 1651, he accused his stepmother of stealing gold and adultery and said that he was following his father’s orders by punishing the woman. Olena was punished by having her throat cut.
After her death, Bohdan was distraught, although historians have never known the true motives for the execution of the beautiful Olena, nor whether Hetman Khmelnytsky himself ordered it.
OLENA VYHOVSKA — AN INFLUENTIAL DAUGHTER OF BOHDAN KHMELNYTSKYI
The daughter of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, who was also named Olena, had a wayward and unrestrained character. She got everything from her father. During the Christmas Congress of the officers in 1656, she married Danylo Vyhovsky, the brother of Ivan Vyhovsky, Khmelnytsky’s clerk. The wedding was lavish, with almost royal honors given to the newlyweds. They were married by the Metropolitan of Kyiv in Chyhyryn, and foreign ambassadors from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Sweden, the Crimean Khan, Wallachia, and Moldova were present.
Olena Khmelnytska-Vyhovska gained considerable political weight after her father’s death. Her husband represented the interests of Ivan Vyhovsky, who became hetman and negotiated with envoys of the King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Danylo invited one of them to his estate, and he went to church on the eve of the dinner for the newcomers.
The envoy Krystof Peretyatkovych himself described the following scene in his diary: «Meanwhile, Danylo’s wife, Khmelnytsky’s daughter, comes out of the room and says: “Lyasheyk, don’t wait for dinner or carriages,” and closed the door behind her. I felt like I had a chill. I quickly ran to the apartment and, having mounted the horses with the servants… I hurried to Korsun.»
Olena’s first husband was taken prisoner by the Moscovites, tortured, and then executed. His mutilated body was brought back, and everyone in Chyhyryn was shocked by what they saw. Olena Vyhovska could not forgive her brother, Yurii Khmelnytsky, for his pro-Moscow sympathies. When Yurii tried to visit her at the estate to express his condolences, Olena threw a log at him and did not allow him to enter. Since then, there has been no harmony between Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s children.
After becoming a widow, however, this lady did not retire from the political scene but married for the second time to Kyiv Colonel Pavlo Teteria. The Poles claimed that Olena used her wealth to buy a mace for her husband. However, the wayward Olena was quickly disappointed in her choice. She participated in an elders’ plot to overthrow her husband from the hetmanate.
The hetmans had an extensive network of informants, who were then called confidants. Her agents sent news, particularly from the Kyiv Ascension Monastery in Pechersk. With the help of this network, according to the Poles, Olena organized riots against the crown troops throughout Right-Bank Ukraine.
The King personally ordered the detention of Hetman Teteria’s wife. Olena was indeed detained and transported to Lviv. She was imprisoned for some time but later returned to Ukraine. However, her name soon disappeared from the chronicles for unknown reasons.