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2021, canvas, oil, 100 X 80 cm. 

Prince Dmytro Korybut-Vyshnevetsky (Baida)

 Prince Dmytro Vyshnevetsky (1517–63), nicknamed Baida by the Cossacks, is considered one of the most obscure historical figures of Ukraine. Nevertheless, he had an enormous impact on the course of history not only in Ukraine but also in all of Eastern Europe. Vyshnevetsky successfully consolidated the Dniprovian Cossacks into a military political organization—the Zaporozhian Cossack Army, which continued to be active long after the death of its founder and played a crucial role in the establishment of Ukrainian statehood.


During the Soviet era, an unofficial ban existed on artistic works about the early Cossacks and their leaders. The Communists detested the fact that the Cossack leaders were members of the nobility, and they especially minimized Prince Dmytro (Baida) Vyshnevetsky and Samiilo Kishka’s contribution to the formation of the Cossack state, the Hetmanate. The actions of Baida and other Cossack elites gravely undermined Marx’s theory of class struggle, according to which the representatives of different social strata were supposed to be enemies.

Dmytro was born in 1517 in the town of Vyshnivеts (probably around November 8—the Feast of St. Demetrius) and was the oldest of four sons of Ivan Mykhailovych Vyshnevetsky by his first wife, Anastasiia Semenivna (née Olizar).


One of Dmytro’s grandfathers, Mykhailo Vyshnevetsky, was a well-known fighter in skirmishes against the Tatars, and the other one was purportedly of Serbian heritage. Like his own father, Dmytro Vyshnevetsky professed Orthodox Christianity.

The Vyshnevetskys could trace their lineage back to the Gediminas dynasty and were one of the richest and most respected families in Central and Eastern Europe. Being the oldest son of Prince Ivan Vyshnevetsky, Dmytro fully inherited his father’s title, the main castle, vast lands, and family riches. Dmytro Vyshnevetsky’s bloodline included the

rulers of Kyivan Rus' as well as the first kings of Rus’, grand dukes of Lithuania, and rulers of Poland, Czechia, and a number of other countries.


In 1548–9, under the command of Bernard Pretwicz, Dmytro Vyshnevetsky participated in an advance on Ochakiv—a military outpost of the Ottoman Empire. During this time, a major shift had to have taken place, prompting Vyshnevetsky to abandon the lifestyle befitting his social status and to dedicate himself entirely to fighting the Tatar-Turkish invasion. It is reasonable to suggest that Vyshnevetsky was one of few persons in positions of power at the time who realized that the continuous plundering of Ukrainian lands by the Turks and Tatars—causing the death or captivity of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians—could result in the assimilation and total destruction of the Ukrainian nation. It is safe to assume that Dmytro made a solemn promise to God to keep fighting the enemy, and also possibly of celibacy, as did some crusading knights in the Middle Ages. Dmytro Vyshnevetsky never married and had no children, including no known illegitimate ones. Nothing is known about any mistresses either, even though a young (eligible) rich prince should have been greatly popular with women. Thus, it is likely that Baida dedicated his celibacy to the cause of defending his fatherland. In his 1550 letter to Sigismund II Augustus, who was Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland, Bernard Pretwicz described prince Dmytro as bold and courageous in battle, with exceptional talent for military operations. According to some dated information, Sigismund II Augustus appointed Vyshnevetsky as starosta for the fortress towns of Cherkasy and Kaniv, but newer historical research suggests that his only appointment was as governor of Khortytsia. Vyshnevetsky applied to the king for money, weapons, and men for the construction of a sich ‘fortified castle’ south of the rapids on the Dnipro. When Sigismund II Augustus provided nothing, at his own expense Baida erected a large, six-tower fort on Mala Khortytsia Island with the capacity to accommodate up to two thousand warriors. It is not widely known that in the mid-16th century, Mala Khortytsia (now Baida Island) was three times the size of what it is today, stretching south almost to the wetlands of the main Velyka Khortytsia Island. Over the years, two-thirds of the island have been washed away by the dammed waters of the Dnipro.


The exact dates of when the Khortytsia Sich was established and when it fell are unknown. Most likely, the fortress was built by 1555 or 1556 and defeated soon after, in 1557 or 1558. Historical sources offer 1552 and 1553 as possible dates of the start of the construction on Mala Khortytsia Island. Despite the fortress’s short-lived existence, Vyshnevetsky and his army of Cossacks succeeded in inflicting such significant losses on the Tatars and Turks that the Crimean Khan Devlet Giray twice sent his hordes to storm the Khortytsia Sich.

The total number of warriors in Devlet Giray’s army that stormed the Khortytsia fortress, possibly exceeding 50–60,000, included detachments of Turks, allied hordes of Budzhaks and Nogay Tatars, as well as Moldavians. It is known that during his advancement on Moscow in 1555, Devlet Giray’s horde numbered close to 60,000 men.


In 1556–8, the Khortytsia Sich housed about 1,500–2,000 Cossacks, which was several times the number of warriors at the Kaniv and Cherkasy fortifications during this same period. Thus, by the measures of the mid-16th century, this first of the Zaporozhian Siches can hardly be regarded as small. Some researchers have written about the Khortytsia garrison stationing 300 Cossacks within its walls on a permanent basis. Again, this is more than the number stationed at Cherkasy or Kaniv fortifications at that time. Some historians do not consider the Khortytsia fortress to be a Cossack sich, while others recognize it as being the first one.

In the 1990s, on the island of Mala Khortytsia archeologists discovered the remnants of a wooden fortress constructed of hewn wooden logs in addition to various Cossack artifacts: household items, dishes, and weapons of the mid-16th century. Historians have shown beyond a doubt that in the 1550s a quite solid fortification, built by Dmytro Vyshnevetsky and his Cossacks, existed on Mala Khortytsia island. The Khortytsia fortress had six towers and resembled the one at Kaniv. Archeological findings have strengthened the position of researchers (Yu. Mytsyk, V. Serhiichuk, H. Shvydko, N. Yakovenko) who consider Khortytsia to be the first of the Cossack siches.


Based out of Khortytsia, Vyshnevetsky organized the Dniprovian Cossacks into an effective military and civic enterprise. Some researchers, however, try to diminish Vyshnevetsky’s role in the history of Cossackdom, saying that the prince’s desire for new lands, to be settled by peasants, was the real reason behind his building the castle. On the other hand, in the mid-16th century, the territory beyond rapids was a wild steppe constantly roamed by bands of Tatars — small and large, up to hordes 50,000 strong — so that the Zaporozhian Cossacks could themselves begin to engage in animal husbandry on that territory only toward the end of the 17th century, after the major raids had dissipated. Agricultural activity on sich lands started even later, in the 18th century, enabling the Cossacks to strengthen their presence in the borderland. The Khortytsia fortress was built for the sole purpose of military defense and as a base for launching preemptive attacks on the Ottomans and the Crimean Khanate.


Motivated by his intention to unite forces against the Tatars, Vyshnevetsky established relations with the tsar of Muscovy, Ivan IV the Terrible. In the spring of 1556, a joint military advance on Crimea took place, in which the Muscovite forces were augmented by 300 of Vyshnevetsky’s Cossacks. Vyshnevetsky arrived in Moscow at the end of 1557 to take an oath of allegiance to the tsar. He unveiled his plan to the Muscovite politicians about including Lithuania in their joint struggle against the Tatars by dissuading Lithuania from its alliance with the Crimean Khanate.

Preparations began in early 1558 for campaign against Crimea and for negotiations with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Vyshnevetsky and the Muscovite army set out on the route previously taken by Matvei Rzhevsky in 1556. Joined by Cossacks along the way, the plan was to penetrate deeply into Crimean territory. The khan had withdrawn all his forces beyond the Perekop ithsmus and stood ready for defensive actions. Meanwhile, negotiations with Lithuania were underway about the joint campaign against Crimea. The idea of eliminating the Tatar threat struck a chord with the Lithuanian government, but because of long-festering territorial disagreements with Muscovy concerning Chernihiv and Smolensk, the negotiations came to a dead end. Even despite the devastating 1558 raid by the Great Horde into Ukrainian territory, led by the qalgha, Lithuania renewed its alliance with Crimea. At Perekop, Vyshnevetsky received reinforcements from Rzhevsky’s military corps, sent from Moscow, and was planning an advance on Kozlov (or Hezlev, today’s Yevpatoriia), when suddenly he was summoned back to Moscow. The raid into Crimea’s interior took place the following year, in 1559, under the command of a voevoda by the name of Danila Adashev, who succeeded in capturing Tatar towns of Islam Kerman and Hazi Kerman on the Lower Dnipro. But this was not what Vyshnevetsky had envisioned. In addition, Muscovite foreign policy of 1558 took a turn to prioritize obtaining access to the Baltic Sea and led to negligence of the anti-Tatar campaigns.


Even today, Dmytro Vyshnevetsky is not widely recognized as the founder of the Don Cossack Army in 1560. That year, Prince “Baida” Vyshnevetsky led 5,000 Cossacks in an offensive against the Crimean Khanate. Upon reaching the mouth of the Don river, the Cossacks besieged the Turkish fortress of Azov, a bulwark in the Turks’ control of the north-eastern shoreline of the Sea of Azov. Knowing that he could not succeed in storming this well-protected fortress, Vyshnevetsky decided to outsmart the Turks strategically, by blocking their access to Russian territory and the eastern parts of Ukraine along the Don. Seventy kilometers north of Azov and up the Don river, Prince Dmytro lay the foundations for the Cossack town of Cherkaskyi Horodok — memorializing Cherkasy, the Ukrainian town where Vyshnevetsky started his military service — modelled on the Zaporozhian Host. As the Zaporozhian Sich served to cut off the Turks and Tatars from traveling up the Dnipro, Cherkaskyi Horodok was meant to block their access to the Don River. Mykhailo Cherkashenyn, a native of Cherkasy, became the first Don otaman, beginning the true and unembellished by modern myths history of the Don Cossacks. Leaving a Cossack guard on the Don, Dmytro Vyshnevetsky took the rest of his army on successful raids into the Kuban and then returned to Moscow. From that point on, Cherkaskyi Horodok became a hub of Cossack life in the Don region and, later on, a capital city of the Don Cossack Host.


The Livonian War started by Ivan the Terrible led to the further deterioration of Muscovite- Lithuanian relations and provoked Lithuania to war in 1561. In spite of the tsar’s order to get involved in the war, Dmytro Vyshnevetsky refused to fight against his fellow Christians and severed his ties with Muscovy. Today he is frowned upon for serving Muscovy for a few years, but it is important to understand his motives. Namely, Vyshnevetsky considered the Turks and Tatars to be the main enemy. Even without any help from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL) or Poland he faced the challenge of fighting the hordes virtually alone. However, although the prince was quite rich, his financial resources were not inexhaustible. Thus, in order to mount an effective resistance to the Ottoman Empire and to protect his native land, Baida Vyshnevetsky was forced to offer his services to the Muscovite tsar. But as soon as the tsar lost interest in fighting the infidels and waged war on the GDL, Vyshnevetsky immediately withdrew his support. It is interesting that Sigismund II did not hesitate to take him back “into his sovereign favour.” Dmytro Vyshnevetsky was even invited to speak at the Diet, where he was hailed as a hero, not admonished as a traitor. What is more, when Baida fell ill, he was treated by the grand duke’s own doctors.


During the last years of his life, Dmytro Vyshnevetsky took to building a new fortification on the Dniprovian island of Monastyrskyi, but the construction was never completed. Even before he had fully recuperated, Dmytro Vyshnevetsky became embroiled in an internal conflict in Moldavia. In 1563, the local Moldavian boyars staged an uprising against their unpopular hospodar by the name of Heraclid Despotul. Heraclid was overthrown and he was replaced by the boyars’ leader, named Tomşa. Some of the Moldavian boyars were not happy with Tomşa either, and invited Vyshnevetsky to be their new hospodar. Vyshnevetsky gladly accepted the offer and despite still feeling unwell and weakened by illness, he set out with a small retinue of 2–3,000 Cossacks, apparently meaning to establish an outpost in Moldavia for their struggle with the Turks and Tatars. It turned out, however, that the boyars who had invited him failed to provide the needed support. The Cossacks put up a brave fight but they were defeated, with some of them, including Vyshnevetsky himself, taken captive. Tomşa sent all the captives to Istanbul, where the Turkish sultan, Süleyman I Kanuni, ordered the execution of Vyshnevetsky and two of his companions and sent the remaining rank-and-file Cossacks to the galleys.

Dmytro Vyshnevetsky’s life and death are the subject of a plethora of legends. In Polish, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian circles, legends began to circulate shortly after his tragic death. They described how, after being tortured, he was thrown down from a high tower and caught his rib on a hook sticking out of the wall. Or that he was deliberately hung by a rib from a hook, and he survived this punishment for three days, ceaselessly screaming at the Turks and cursing their faith. Only then, impatient with the mockery they had to endure, someone drew a bow and shot Dmytro. It was said also that the Turks cut out Baida’s heart, divided it among themselves, and ate it so as to acquire some of his courage and bravery. New details subsequently emerged: that the sultan enticed Vyshnevetsky to become a Turk by marrying the sultan’s daughter or granddaughter; that Dmytro was scornful of it all, and that even hanging by a rib, he shot at the sultan from a bow.


Ukrainian folklore worked the legend into a well-known epic song (duma) about the Cossack Baida. It is not clear, however, whether the song was compiled based on oral tales or whether Dmytro was indeed the prototype for the Baida character. In any case, Baida as a historical figure is not mentioned in any sources from that era, nor is Vyshnevetsky referred to as “Baida” in any of the written documents of the time. Nonetheless, the folklore tradition persists in connecting Baida to Dmytro Vyshnevetsky. Actually, named by the Turks as “the greatest enemy of the Sublime Porte,” Dmytro Vyshnevetsky forever entered the pantheon of Ukrainian heroes and became an epitome of courage, bravery, and an unbroken spirit.


Dmytro Vyshnevetsky’s impact on the course of Ukraine’s history and the whole Ukrainian nation was no less than epochal. Activities undertaken by Vyshnevetsky paved the way and provided the impetus for further development of the Ukrainian Cossack civilization.


The featured portrait is the work of one of the most talented artists in today’s Ukraine, Natalia Pavlusenko. We see Prince Dmytro (Baida) Vyshnevetsky dressed in the historically reconstructed princely clothing of the 16th century. Frankly, I am not used to Baida with a beard; I am more used to the widespread image of Baida, with a moustache, a forelock of hair, and a bow, in the portrait by an unknown artist produced in the first half of the 18th century. This portrait, however, was a reflection of the author’s own imagination of what the prince could have looked like, wearing the clothes of a rich noble at the turn of the 18th century. It’s a great disappointment that no image has survived of Dmytro Vyshnevetsky during his life and no one can be sure as to what he might have looked like. All the same, with the help of specialists Natalia Pavlusenko has reconstructed the actual historical garments worn by princes in those times.


Dmytro Voronskyi, historian, writer.



History of painting the Dmytro Vyshnevetsky portrait

I remember a curious event that took place in 2020 while I was working on this hetman’s portrait. Since no image has survived of Prince Dmytro during his life, posting my work on Facebook sparked a discussion. One side declared that in the 16th century Baida could not have worn a beard, while the other side stated the contrary. Within a few weeks Taras Chukhlib, a historian with a doctorate degree, settled the matter by making public an etching of Baida that was discovered by Bartosz Paprocki in a book on the heraldry of prominent knights of Poland, Lithuania, and Rus'. The image of Prince Dmytro Vyshnevetsky in the etching turned out to be very much like the one in my portrait. I must say, however, that this “coincidence” is only possible thanks to the invaluable research done by Serhii Shamenkov, who since 2017 has been providing me with meticulous consultations for all my portrait paintings.


Translated from Ukrainian by Iryna Fedoriw

English language editing by Ksenia Maryniak

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