Pylyp Orlyk (1672-1742) | Number 150

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brief lives

Hilarius Bogbinder tells us about an innovative Ukrainian philosopher, democracy theorist and activist against tyranny.

Chances are you’ve never heard of Pylyp Orlyk (1672-1742), or perhaps any other Ukrainian philosopher for that matter – Gregory Skovoroda (1722-1794), perhaps? Either way, you should have; for Orlyk, a Cossack politician, was the first to establish a democratic standard for the separation of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. If you’re American, you might be familiar with James Madison’s conclusion in Federalist Document 51 (1787), that “The structure of government should provide appropriate checks and balances between the different departments”; and if you are European, you may have read Charles Montesquieu’s famous maxim in The Spirit of Laws (1748) that “When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person or in the same body of magistrates, there can be no liberty”. These deep and insightful arguments have made a lasting contribution to political and legal philosophy. But they weren’t original. They were first launched not in Paris or Philadelphia, but in Poland by exiled thinker and politician Pylyp Stepanovych Orlyk. He did so in 1710, in a document known in Ukrainian as Konstytutsiya Pylypa Orlyka – merely, Constitution of Pylyp Orlyk. Its rather long and hilarious real title was Pacta et Constitutiones Legum Libertatumque Exercitus Zaporoviensis – roughly translated as Agreements and Constitutions of Zaporovia Army Laws and Freedoms. As usual at the time, the document was in Latin.

We know relatively little about Orlyk’s life, but what little we can find in the annals suggests that he was more than just a politician. He started as a philosophy student at Kyiv National University, Mohyla Academy. In one of the few biographical notices written about him, “General characteristics of Pylyp Orlyk” (B. Krupnvtskyi, Annals 6, 1958), we learn that “classical authors such as Herodotus, Strabo, Pliny, Virgil, etc., were well known to him…His scientific interests lay more or less in the field of theology, history and politics. He is interested in legal problems as they are presented by contemporary authors. As a politician, he drew his knowledge of world events from French, Italian and Dutch newspapers. After his studies, he became an adviser to the so-called ‘ hetman‘, Ivan Mazepa. The Hetman (“leader”) was the elected leader of the Cossacks.

Perhaps unknown to many, as well as being excellent horsemen, the Cossacks were a remarkably democratic and egalitarian group. It is worth understanding a little about them to fully appreciate the thoughts of Orlyk. Their name comes from the old East Slavic word Kozak, which means ‘free men’. It was appropriate. Originally they had been a loose band of former serfs who roamed the plains, but they gradually developed remarkably democratic institutions. A study of them pointed out that “the Don Cossacks constitute the only society in Russia which succeeded in building a democracy during the 16th and 17th centuries… All questions were debated and decided in the assembly called Club of the Don army, where each Cossack had a place with the right to speak and vote. All the leaders were elected by the Club” (The fabulous fate of the Don Cossacks, Vladimir Kostov, 2011, p.265). So in the 16th century, as Russia descended into tyranny under Ivan the Terrible, the Cossacks experimented with democracy, pluralism and egalitarianism in a way that at the time could only be compared to the cantons Swiss and Italian city-states. Yet they were unable to fully decide their own affairs. In the Treaty of Pereyaslav (1654), the Ukrainians had pledged allegiance to the Muscovite Tsar (although apparently the original document was lost!). This agreement gave the Ukrainians relatively extensive autonomy while being formally under Russian suzerainty. It was not optimal, but the Ukrainians had little choice.

Pylyp Orlyk
Image © Venantius J Pinto 2022. To see more of his art, please visit

Their relatively peaceful relations with the Russians will change. Orlyk was at the center of things when it happened.

Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725) was unhappy with Mazepa as Hetman; and when Mazepa learned that the Tsar intended to kidnap him, he entered into an alliance with the Swedish king Charles XII. At that time, Orlyk was Mazepa’s aide-de-camp. He wrote his letters and was instrumental in establishing an anti-Russian coalition. Upon the death of his mentor, Orlyk was elected the new Hetman. However, soon after the Russians overpowered the Ukrainians and Orlyk was forced to flee to Poland, where his Constitution has been drafted. He then traveled to Sweden. He then lived in Thessaloniki, then ruled by the Ottoman Empire.

In exile, he devoted himself to philosophical research and correspondence in Latin, French, Polish and Ukrainian. All his letters have been duly transcribed into his notebook, which is a treasure trove for historians. In these he related, “the misbehavior of his rude servants, the local food, his bag after a day’s shooting on the plains, [and] stories told to him by tailors, interpreters and bodyguards, Jesuits, consuls, doctors, spies and Turkish judges and governors” (Salonika: The City of Ghosts, Mark Mazower2005, p.107).

Although leader of his country, Orlyk never saw him again. He died in Moldavia in 1742.

The constitution of the Constitution

None of Orlyk’s writings was as influential as Konstytutsiya. It is important to point out that its constitution is not a legal document, like, say, Magna Carta or the US Constitution, but rather a short essay on opposition to tyranny and the principles of a governed state. democratic.

So what exactly did Orlyk write there, and why was it so important? Orlyk is keen to point out that “the good of the fatherland is always debated in private and in public, both in times of war and in times of peace” and that it was bad for a country when autocrats prevented the decisions of the leaders of be discussed (Article 6). This point is explicitly directed against the autocratic government and, implicitly, against Moscow. In dictatorships, as he writes, “autocratic powers legitimized such a right by their own authority”. The remedy was democracy, with “eminent, judicious, and meritorious persons elected to the general council” and a sort of senate whose members would be appointed by the elected hetman. In the future, nothing should be decided “except by their authority without their will” (article 6).

Countries with dictators are often characterized by corruption. Powerful individuals – perhaps today we would call them oligarchs – would be likely to try to bribe the government. Orlyk, more than many other contemporary writers, was aware of this and took steps against it:

“The hetman should not be guided by any gifts or favors and should not appoint anyone to the rank of colonel or to any other military or civil office in return for a bribe, nor assign anyone arbitrarily to these positions. That military and civil officers, especially colonels, should be elected by free vote and after the election be confirmed by the authority of the hetman.
(Quoted in From Autonomy to Independence: The Evolution of Ukrainian Political ThoughtSong Hong, 2019, p.64.)

This was just one of the ways Orlyk was ahead of its time. Many established constitutions written later contain provisions for impeachment – ​​removal of the president or ruler. Such clauses were not part of the constitutional framework that John Locke developed in his Second Treaty of Government (1689). Orlyk, however, was prescient enough to include it: “If anything is found in the actions of the Grand Hetman which is inconsistent with the rights and freedoms of the Grand Hetman, or which is prejudicial to the State, then the Sergeant Major , the colonels and general councilors will be called to account by particular votes or in private, if need be, to denounce it” (art. 6). But Orlyk is equally clear that the Hetman must not step down until due process has been followed. Indeed, while being judged, “the Great Hetman must not repent”, but equally, he must not “revenge himself, but rather must try to correct the shortcomings”.

Constitutional findings

Pylyp Orlyk

Like all documents, that of Orlyk Constitution was written in a particular context. Documents cannot be easily transplanted from their native soil to foreign lands, nor easily adapted over time. Although we may admire the great political minds of the past, such as Plato (429-347 BCE), Aristotle (384-322 BCE) or even Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), we do not enact their ideas in their entirety. It is the same with the constitution of Orlyk. Yet, in many ways, his Konstytutsiya transcended the parochial concerns of the early 18th century. Orlyk made it clear in his introduction that the reason for writing was motivated by “the State of Moscow, by its many culpable methods, which violated rights and freedoms…” Maybe history is repeating itself? Certainly, many of his compatriots in 2022 would agree with Orlyk’s assessment that “the state of Moscow, being able to realize its evil intentions…has always wanted to annex our cities to its provinces” (Introduction). And besides making stipulations on the prince’s rules and conduct, Orlyk’s Constitution also makes political demands, some of which are oddly relevant today: “the lands under the rule of Moscow must be returned to the territory of origin” (article 4). When Sweden returned the original copy of Orlyk Constitution in Ukraine in June 2021, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told his parliament that “a Constitution is the final chord in the symphony of state formation” (Speech in the Verkhovna Rada, June 28, 2021).

Since the start of the war with Russia in February 2022, and even before, Ukrainians have emphasized that they are a European country and a democracy governed by the rule of law. Reading Orlyk Constitution of 1710, we realize that Ukraine is not only part of the family of constitutional democracies, they based this tradition. This is perhaps another reason to say “Glory to Ukraine!”

Slava Ukrainian!

© Hilarius Bogbinder 2022

Hilarius Bogbinder is a Danish-born writer and translator. He studied politics and theology at Oxford University and lives in London.