The Greatest Constitution the World Never Saw

Why you should care

Because some consider Pylyp Orlyk’s 1710 document, which was never enacted, to be the true predecessor of democratic politics. 

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Considering the magnitude of the defeat, it was surprising Cossack nobleman Pylyp Orlyk had the energy to even put pen to paper — let alone conceive of a visionary political idea that would shape Ukrainian thinking for centuries to come. The army of Swedish King Charles XII, along with its local Zaporozhian Cossack allies, had just been routed by Peter I of Russia across what’s now central Ukraine, diminishing Sweden’s standing as one of the continent’s dominant powers and cementing Russia’s grip over Eastern Europe.

Thousands died in the June 1709 campaign, and Charles fled southwest to Ottoman-controlled territory, now part of Moldova. With him came Cossack leader Ivan Mazepa, as well as Orlyk, Mazepa’s trusted and well-educated counselor. Defeated, Orlyk was not discouraged: Fluent in several languages and conversant in political theory, he threw himself into a political project envisaging a form of democratic rule over the territory the Cossacks had just abandoned — but had increasingly come to consider their own.

Not only was the resulting document a landmark in Ukrainian political thought, but some believe the Orlyk Constitution, as it’s known, was one of the world’s first such treatises, empowering the citizenry and introducing the separation of powers long before the American or French constitutions were enacted. Yet because history is written by the winners, it was lost to history, says Frank Sysyn, director of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies in Toronto. “The Orlyk Constitution and Orlyk’s activity,” he says, “becomes to a great degree symbolic in the way that lost causes can be symbolic.”

As legend has it, Mazepa fell out with the Russian tsar during a routine drinking party … in a betrayal over which Russia is still deeply bitter.

Early 18th century Eastern Europe was a complex web of ever-shifting political alliances. Imperial Russia was on the rise, seeking to snatch wide swaths of Northern Europe and maintain its control further south along the Black Sea. A key ally in this fight was the Cossack Hetmanate, a Russian protectorate run by the famously free-spirited Slavic warriors and considered a geographic and ideological predecessor to modern-day Ukraine.

For several decades, Moscow had afforded the region broad autonomy, but for Mazepa — the Cossack “hetman,” or leader — that apparently wasn’t enough. As legend has it, he fell out with the Russian tsar during a routine drinking party, and after Sweden promised him independence, he sided with the Swedes during the Great Northern War — taking with him several thousand fighters in a betrayal over which Russia is still deeply bitter. After their defeat, Mazepa and his men were forced into exile, where he died and was replaced by Orlyk upon approval from a military council.

The burgeoning Cossack dream of independence, however, lived on. The day Orlyk took over, April 5, 1710, he introduced his life’s greatest work: “The Pacts and Constitutions of Rights and Freedoms of the Zaporozhian Host.” The document established an array of civil liberties and rights guaranteed by the state — conceived for the first time as an explicitly Ukrainian political entity — which was to be comprised of elected leaders. “So it would’ve been a kind of republicanism,” says Sysyn, a leading historian of Ukraine, “but with a sovereign leadership.” The overarching principal, Sysyn adds, was to establish a largely democratic system to replace an absolutist ancien régime — in other words, the epitome of Enlightenment Era thinking. Signed by the Cossacks, as representatives of the population, and the hetman, it resembled the agreements between Eastern European nobles and their rulers typical to the time.

But many Ukrainian scholars are more unequivocal about the constitution’s wider importance. Viktor Shyshkin, a former judge on Ukraine’s Constitutional Court, points to French philosophers Montesquieu and Voltaire — credited with developing much of modern democratic theory — and notes they were just teenagers when Orlyk put his own theories on paper, suggesting he preceded them. Orlyk had proposed the hetman’s power be limited and overseen by a General Council, whose authority was to eventually derive from elected administrative-territorial units. Any legal infractions or criminal activities were to be heard by a court, thereby effectively creating, some would argue, an independent judicial branch — an idea later developed by Montesquieu in his 1748 treatise The Spirit of the Laws, widely recognized for conceiving of the three separate branches of power. “With regard to its political and legal implementation,” Shyshkin wrote in a 2007 analysis, “the Ukrainian hetman was undoubtedly the first to do this.”

Revolutionary or not, Orlyk’s constitution was never put into practice, even though it was recognized at the time by Sweden and Ottoman Turkey. Orlyk remained in exile, the first in what would become a long tradition of Ukrainian political activity from the safety of foreign soil, and Russia reasserted its control over the Hetmanate, whose autonomy was all but abolished as a result of Mazepa’s revolt. In modern-day Ukraine, however, especially amid the revival of national consciousness after the 2014 pro-democratic revolution, officials have attempted to resurrect its memory — somewhat painful though it might be — through public commemorations. “Orlyk’s constitution evokes pride in Ukrainians,” Shyshkin writes, “and at the same time, bitterness that stems from an enormous intellectual loss.”

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