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© Copyright
© Copyright

All rights reserved. Any use of the image without the permission of the author is prohibited. Copyright © 

© Copyright

2021, canvas, oil, 100 X 80 cm. 

Ivan Sirko

(?  – 1680)


Ivan Dmytrovych Sirko was a multi-term kish otaman of the Zaporozhian Host, a talented military leader of the Ukrainian Cossacks, colonel of the Kharkiv regiment, and commander of several successful military campaigns against the Crimean Khanate in the 1660s and 1670s.

The birthplace of Ivan Sirko has long been debated among scholars. For example, Dmytro Yavornytsky, a recognized researcher of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, considered the kish otaman’s place of birth to be Merefa town in Sloboda Ukraine. On the other hand, Yurii Mytsyk, a historian with expert knowledge of Cossack Ukraine, insists that Sirko was born in Podilia into an Orthodox family of petty gentry. He arrived in Sloboda Ukraine much later, where he became a founder (osadchyi) of Merefa in 1665.


As a historical figure, Ivan Sirko is shrouded in various legends, stories, and outright fabrications. A plethora of his biographical “facts” has been refuted by historians today due to the absence of verifiable documentation. At the same time, the image of this Cossack leader persists as one of the most romanticized and immortalized literary characters in the Cossack era of Ukrainian history. As described by Volodymyr Masliichuk, Ivan Sirko “personified an anarchistic character with an innate sense of justice and other additional virtues that were very much liked by historians who were discovering the heroic world of the common people.” The question of the earliest mention of Ivan Sirko in historical sources remains unanswered. Researchers have differing views concerning the start of his military career.

What is known, though, is that Sirko started being particularly active at the time of the national liberation revolution, especially in the military campaigns at Zhvanets castle in the fall of 1653, when he supported Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky. Later, from 1657 to 1659 Sirko actively opposed Ivan Vyhovsky’s orientation toward an alliance with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Crimean Khanate. Organized by Ivan Sirko, military advance on Akkerman (now Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi) and the Nogay settlements in the late summer of 1659 prevented Ivan Vyhovsky from capitalizing on his victory in the Battle of Konotop to continue joint military campaigns with the Tatars in Muscovite territory.


In the fall of the same year, Sirko supported Yurii Khmelnytsky in the struggle for the hetman’s mace. Starting in the spring of 1660, Ivan Sirko stayed at the Sich. He rejected the terms of the Treaty of Chudniv signed by Yurii Khmelnytsky with the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1660. Simultaneously, he also maintained neutrality when it came to hetman’s war with the Left-Bank regiments and the Muscovite army. In the fall of 1662 Ivan Sirko was elected Kish otaman for the first time. In the next five years he took active part in battles against Polish armies and regiments of the Right-Bank hetman, Pavlo Teteria. He also mounted several successful campaigns to Crimea.


At the beginning of 1664 Sirko, together with the former hetman Ivan Vyhovsky, took a decisive stance against Hetman Petro Doroshenko leaning toward an alliance with the Ottoman Empire, and remained staunchly anti-Muslim. Sirko supported reconciliation with the Commonwealth, which was achieved by the Treaty of Ostrih (1670) between Mykhailo Khanenko and Michał Korybut Wiśniowiecki of Poland. Because of his meddling in the struggle for the hetman’s mace in Left-Bank Ukraine, Sirko was arrested by the Left-Bank Cossack starshyna in the spring of 1672 and exiled to Tobolsk (today a city in Tiumen oblast, RF) by the Muscovite Tsar Aleksei Mikhailovich. He returned from exile in 1673.

Ivan Sirko spent the latter part of his life organizing numerous other military expeditions, striving to preserve rights and liberties of the Zaporozhian Cossacks and engaging in active diplomatic relations with the Hetmanate, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Muscovy, and the Crimean Khanate. He was known for his unhesitating bravery and military talent, which bred countless legends around his persona. Still in his lifetime, Sirko was popularized in many songs, legends, and stories about him, which described him as a hero, “a knight of the steppe,” and the epitome of the best virtues that a Zaporozhian Cossack could possess. At the same time, we should not forget that the activities undertaken by Ivan Sirko often undermined the fulfillment of aspirations of the Cossack hetmans for Ukrainian statehood. In particular, there were several instances (in 1659, 1667, and in the 1670s) when Sirko’s actions blocked the attempts of Ukrainian hetmans to form a Cossack state independent of both Muscovy and the Commonwealth.


Not surprisingly, the Ukrainian historian Dmytro Doroshenko blamed Sirko for his unprincipled politics, demagogic tendencies, and even the absence of rational reasoning in his actions. Nevertheless, after a popular book, Iak kozaky voiuvaly (How the Cossacks Fought) was published in 1990, the pervading positive idealistic image of Ivan Sirko began to be cultivated. According to this publication, “the famed Cossack leader was a deeply religious man, an altruistic ascetic who almost never consumed alcohol and was known for his strength, valour, and high moral standards.”

Ivan Sirko died at his own apiary on the Hrushivka estate near the Chortomlyk Sich. He was buried near the village of Kapulivky (today Nikopol district, Dnipro oblast). In 1967 Sirko’s remains were reinterred at the opposite end of the village because the new Kakhovka Reservoir posed the threat of flooding the area. In 1920, based on an anthropological reconstruction performed by Halyna Lebedynska, a student of Mykhailo Herasymov, a new sculpture of Sirko, created by Valentyn Shkoda of Nikopol, was installed at the gravesite in Storozhova Mohyla,. The previous statue of Kish otaman Sirko was moved to the schoolyard in Kapulivky; it still stands there today, thanks to the efforts of L.F. Burda, a teacher and recognized local historian.

Volodymyr Masliichuk thinks that overall, “Ivan Sirko’s image conveys a part of the Ukrainian national idea about the historical past.” Much is imagined or assigned in this image, but at the same time, Sirko’s positive literary presence, formed by Ukrainian writers, has become best suited for illustration in works of art.


History of painting the Ivan Sirko portrait


In the 1980s, based on the discovery of the remains of Ivan Sirko during an excavation, anthropologist Halyna Lebedynska (a student of the renowned Soviet anthropologist

Mykhailo Herasymov) sculpted a portrait of the kish otaman at an old age. An idea occurred to me to paint the famous otaman at a younger age, based on the existing anthropologically researched sculpture. In addition, I decided to recode the innumerable stories about Sirko’s ability to turn into a wolf. In my opinion, it is utter nonsense. I prefer a different legend that when once upon a time Ivan Sirko rescued some wolf pups, their mother wolf took to following Sirko out of gratitude and often alerted him about imminent danger. Thus, in the portrait, I have pictured the legendary she-wolf and her pups alongside the Cossack otaman Ivan Sirko.


Translated from Ukrainian by Iryna Fedoriw.

English language editing by Ksenia Maryniak

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