One of the arguments put forth by the government in Moscow in support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was that this region was not a ‘real’ country, with its own separate history, but merely one historical region of the greater Russian people, which includes White Russians (Belarusians), Red Russians (Ukrainians), and so on. It is correct to say that an autonomous state called ‘Ukraine’ did not formally exist until it emerged in the aftermath of the First World War as one of the Soviet republics, but the term certainly existed long before that, as seen on this map from the 18th century.
One of the issues in establishing an internationally recognised autonomous state based on ethnographic lines, as nationalists have known since the early 19th century, is in localising an autonomous history, often one connected to a long-term ruling dynasty, like the Valois in France or the Habsburgs in Austria. The Ukrainians do not have this, at least not as a unified polity—though there was briefly a monarchy proposed by the Germans during World War I, to be headed by Archduke Wilhelm of Austria-Hungary. But much further back in time there had been a cluster of semi-autonomous princes from this region, many tracing their origins back to the dynasty of Prince Rurik whose family established dominion over the area north of the Black Sea that became known as Rus’. This term came to be Latinised and then spread into western tongues as ‘Ruthenia’. At the height of their power in the 16th and 17th centuries, these Ruthenian princes, though nominally subjects of the king of Poland, owned so much land and exercised such a degree of autonomy, that they were sometimes known in Polish as królewięta, ‘little kings’. One of the greatest of these families were the Wiśniowiecki, whose lands were at one point equal to some of the smaller kingdoms of western Europe. Generations of them served the joint monarchy of Poland-Lithuania, as statesmen and soldiers, and one of them even rose to the position of its king: Michael I Korybut Wiśniowiecki, who reigned from 1669 to 1673.
Wiśniowiecki looks like an incredibly impossible name to pronounce to anyone not used to Polish names. An alternative spelling, a transliteration from the Cyrillic used in Ukrainian, is actually a bit simpler: Vyshnevetsky (Вишневе́цькі). I had to pronounce it once in a talk at an academic conference, so I practiced beforehand by breaking it into parts and saying ‘vishna’ and ‘vetsky’. The family took their name from their chief place of residence in the early modern period, Vyshnevets Palace. This is one of these immense palaces virtually unknown to western travellers, similar to those explored in Belarus and Ukraine in my post about the Radziwill princes. It is located in western Ukraine, in the area that was formerly the province of Volhynia, east of the city of Lviv. Volhynia (or Volyn’) and the neighbouring region of Galicia were at one point autonomous medieval principalities. Their eastern borderlands, in continual contact with Slavic Cossacks and Turkic Tatars and other peoples of the steppes, is what probably initially gave this region its name, ukraina, or ‘borderland’. By the 13th century, much of this region was taken from the fragmenting Rus’ dominions by the Grand Princes of Lithuania, whose power and reach was expanding from the west. One of these Lithuanian princes, Korybut, built a castle here in 1395, and passed it on to his descendants. One of these, Michał or Michael, made it his main seat in the early 16th century, transforming it from a defensive fortress into a princely residence, and adopted its name as his own surname. Vyshnevets Castle was destroyed and rebuilt several times over the next two centuries, until taking its present form as a grand neo-classical palace in the 1720s, with its own church and formal gardens. The builder, Prince Michał Serwacy Wiśniowiecki, was however the last of his family, and when he died in 1744, the palace passed to the Mniszech family who held it until the 1850s. It then passed through several owners and underwent severe decline. It became a museum in the 1920s, served as Gestapo headquarters when the region was occupied by the Germans during the Second World War, then suffered a great fire in 1944. Partly restored in the 1960s, it wasn’t until 2005 that a grand restoration project was launched, and now Vyshnevets can once again be considered one of the finest country houses in Ukraine.
Prince Korybut has long been assumed to be the founder of the Wiśniowiecki / Vyshnevetsky dynasty. Seventeenth-century histories had no doubt this was true, and members of the family would add it to their first name—like King Michael Korybut noted above—to support their historical legitimacy as ruling princes. But this lineal connection has long been debated by historians: some consider that the Wiśniowiecki and other related Ruthenian princely families were in fact descendants of one of the branches of the House of Rurik (and have recently re-asserted this using DNA testing), or perhaps that they were simply the strongest local Ruthenian nobility who began to associate themselves with the former ruling family of Lithuania to strengthen their own claims to power and status. If we do accept the older family narrative, we should start by identifying who this Prince Korybut was.
The Grand Duchy of Lithuania was founded in the early 14th century by Gediminas, so the princes of his dynasty became known as the Gediminids. He had many sons—one of these, Algirdas, ruled himself as Grand Duke, and also had many (many) sons, including Kaributas. Kaributas was baptised as a Christian in 1380 and took the name Dmitry. He was given some of the newly conquered Ruthenian territories to rule, notably Novhorod-Siverskyi, aka the Duchy of Severia, northeast of the old Rus’ capital of Kiev (now Kyiv). He supported his older brother Grand Duke Jogaila in Lithuanian civil wars in the 1380s, and was instrumental in Jogaila’s acquisition of the throne of Poland in 1386 (Jogaila also took a Christian name as king, Władisław II, but his descendants are known as the Jagiellonians). But Dmitry-Korybut was defeated by their cousin Vytautas in 1393 and stripped of his duchy. He was later given new estates further to the west in Volhynia: Vyshnevets, as we’ve seen, plus nearby Zbarazh and Nesvich (Nieświcz in Polish), which later gave their names to different branches of his descendants.
One of the first of these descendants also has a fascinating story, though in a completely different region: Sigismund Korybut, son of Dmitry, was raised at the court of his uncle Jogaila/Władisław in Krakow, and was considered one of his potential successors as king of Poland, since the king for many years had no son. But in 1422, Sigismund’s life took a different turn when Vytautas, now ruling as Grand Duke of Lithuania, sent him to the Kingdom of Bohemia to try to oust King Sigismund of Hungary from that throne, with the support of the local religious group known as the Hussites. Sigismund Korybut successfully captured Prague and held it on Vytautas’ behalf until a letter from the Pope forced his recall to Lithuania in 1423. Nevertheless, he returned with his own army in 1424, and this time claimed the throne of Bohemia himself. He led the Hussites to victory over King Sigismund in 1426, but eventually left with his troops in 1428, under threat of papal excommunication.
At this point, the link between the Gediminid princes of Lithuania and the founders of the House of Wiśniowiecki is seen by some historians as weak. Sigismund either had a younger brother, Feodor, who took the title Prince of Nesvich and Zbarazh (two of the Volhynian properties granted to Dmitry, above), or else this Feodor was a local Ruthenian (ie Slavic) noble in the service of these Lithuanian princes. Prince Feodor was undoubtedly a magnate in the area, as he was appointed starost or governor of Podolia in 1432. His sons took the surname Nesvitsky (Nieswiecki in Polish). This family, as with many Ruthenian nobles, became increasingly Polonised in the 15th century, many adopting their language but also their religion—converting from Orthodoxy to Catholicism. They also adopted the Polish heraldry system, by which related clans all used the same coat-of-arms or ‘herb’. These were supposedly based on ancient warrior symbols and are pretty distinctive visually. That of the Korybut herb consists of a three-armed cross atop an upturned crescent moon over a six-pointed star.
The senior line of this clan changed their surname in the later 15th century from Nesvitsky to Zbaraski, after their primary seat at Zbarazh Castle (though a junior branch kept the name as Russian princes, until their extinction in the 19th century). Like other Ruthenian magnates who traced their origins back to either Rurik or Gediminas, they used the title kniaz, which translates as either prince or duke—this title clashed somewhat with the customs of the Polish nobility, who maintained that all nobles were equal and had no hierarchy of titles. Zbarazh had a wooden fortress as early as 1200. It was rebuilt in the early 17th century by Prince Krzysztof Zbaraski in stone as a grand fortress, with ramparts and bulwarks. In the 1630s it passed to the Wiśniowiecki branch of the family who redeveloped it as a proper princely palace. Like nearby Vyshnevets, it was frequently burned down by Cossacks, Turks or Russians, then rebuilt. By the 18th century Zbarazh was owned by the Potocki family, who kept it until the mid-19th century. Today it houses a museum of art, natural history and archaeology.
In the 16th century, the Zbaraski princes held important posts in the joint realms of Poland and Lithuania, especially key governorships in the far eastern lands bordering Muscovy, such as Pinsk or Vitebsk (now in Belarus) or even the important city of Kiev. Two successive governors in Kiev (today’s Kyiv) oversaw its transfer from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to the Kingdom of Poland after the formal creation of the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania in 1569.
The family, like many Ruthenian princes, thus became even closer to the Polish monarchy. Prince Janusz Zbaraski was voivode or governor of Bratslav, one of the two capitals of the region of Podolia (adjacent to Volhynia, and thus today also a part of Ukraine). His sons would each hold prominent ceremonial positions in the royal court of Poland. The elder, Jerzy, held the posts of Royal Carver and Royal Cupbearer, while Krzysztof was Master of the Stables (or ‘Grand Equerry’). Prince Jerzy Zbaraski was a strong supporter of King Sigismund III during an anti-absolutist noble rebellion of 1606-09, and later held the important command of Castellan of Krakow. He was also renowned as a patron of the arts. Krzysztof was also an important political player at court, and ambassador to the Ottoman Sultan, 1622-24. When Jerzy died in 1631, this branch of the wider Korybut clan came to an end.
Much of the vast estates of the Zbaraski princes passed to their junior kinsmen the Wiśniowiecki princes. These estates were concentrated mostly in the region east of Lviv, between the cities of Lutsk to the north and Ternopil in the south. In addition to Zbarazh Castle, they resided in another grand castle, Bilokrynytsya (Białokrynica in Polish), built in the 16th century in Renaissance style, destroyed by a Tatar invasion in 1603, and quickly rebuilt. It passed to the Wiśniowiecki in the 1630s, but by the 18th century, they preferred their residence at Vyshnevets a few miles to the south, and Bilokrynytsya declined. It was given to the Radziwills as a wedding gift in the 1720s and became part of their vast Volhynian landholdings. The grand palace that is there now is from the early 19th century.
As active members of the Polish court, the Zbaraskis also maintained a townhouse in Krakow, not far from the King’s residence in Wawel Castle. Zbaraski Palace was built in the 1540s on the main Market Square—Prince Jerzy imported a Flemish architect to redevelop it along fashionable late Renaissance lines. Today it houses the Goethe Institute in Krakow. They also had a country house in Poland, north of Krakow, called Pilica Castle, also re-built by Prince Jerzy in the early 17th century in an Italianate style. Both of these passed by inheritance to the Wiśniowiecki cousins in 1636, then to other families (notably the Warszyckis, who made Pilica their home).
So we too must follow this inheritance from the senior Zbaraski line to the junior Wiśniowiecki princes. Jumping back to the end of the 15th century, Prince Michael Zbaraski made his seat at Vyshnevets and took the surname Vishnevetsky (or Wiśniowiecki in Polish) for himself and his descendants. His brother Feodor, meanwhile, established his base at Poryck (Porytsk in Ukrainian, today called Pavlivka) in the western part of Volhynia, and also at nearby Woronczyn (Voronchyn). From these estates were derived the names of further cadet branches: Porycki and Woroniecki. The former was short-lived and died out by the 1630s; whereas the latter continues still today, formally recognised as princes within the Russian Empire in the mid-nineteenth century. I know very little about the Woroniecki princes (Voronetsky in Russian), so will have to come back and do another blog post about them someday.
As for the Wiśniowiecki, they were much more prominent in the seventeenth century, forming two lines, one descended from Prince Iwan (d. 1542) and the other from his brother Prince Aleksander (d. 1555). Iwan’s second son Andrzej rose to the dominant position in his family’s region, as Voivode of Volhynia in 1576, but it was the elder son, Dymitr, who became one of the most famous members of the family, known today by the Ukrainian spelling of his name, Dmytro Vyshnevetsky, or his nickname ‘Baida’. Baida (байда) means someone who is easy-going or somewhat mischievous, and he is considered a folk hero to Ukrainians today as the founder of a proto-state in the central Dnieper (Dnipro) river valley, as first ‘Hetman of the Cossacks’, though the historical evidence doesn’t really support this title. Here’s a rather overblown folksong about Baida: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YfkcDElc8Nk&t=67s. A current joke is circulating today in Ukraine, that President Biden might himself have a bit of Baida in his ancestry…
A hetman is the title given to a military commander in various Slavic countries, and is thought to be derived either from the Germanic Hauptmann or the Turkic ataman, which conveniently (or confusingly for linguists) have similar meanings as a leader of men. Prince Dmytro Vyshnevetsky was appointed governor of the Lithuanian district of Cherkasy in about 1550. This city was at the heart of Cossack country—a Slavic, Orthodox semi-nomadic people who occupied the steppes north of the Black Sea—and Dmytro was instrumental in organising them into a fighting force to defend their autonomy versus the Crimean Tatars. Displeased with the way the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Sigismund II Augustus, governed this frontier zone, he defected to the service of Tsar Ivan IV (the ‘Terrible’) and brought the Cossacks along with him, greatly expanding Moscow’s influence in these southern regions. In particular, he constructed a strategic fortification in the Dnieper for the Cossacks, called the Zaporozhian Sich, in 1552, from which this group of Cossacks would take their name. The Zaporozhian Cossacks (alongside the Don Cossacks, further to the east) would remain a powerful force, an autonomous state within a state, governed by its hetman, in Polish-Lithuanian then Russian history for the next two centuries.
Meanwhile, Prince Dmytro Vyshnevetsky was appointed by the Tsar as a governor of newly conquered Russian territories north of the Caucasus. He recruited men in this region and brought them north to aid in Ivan’s wars in the Baltic, but then changed sides again and took up another command in Lithuania, again fighting the Tatars and the Turks. In 1563, he decided to get involved in the internal politics of Moldavia, a principality to the south which was a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire. In angling perhaps to be named its prince, he upset the Ottoman hornets’ nest and ended up in a prison cell in Constantinople where he was tortured and died. His influence in the region however was not forgotten, and in subsequent decades, the Zaporozhian Cossack hetmanate would transfer its allegiance from Russia to Poland-Lithuania (most of this region was transferred from Lithuania to Poland in 1569), and would remain a centre of Ukrainian proto-nationalism in the centuries to come (as we shall see below).
Baida had no children, so the senior line of the House of Wiśniowiecki was carried on by his nephew, Prince Konstanty, who maintained the family’s local influence as administrator of Cherkasy, and in 1638 was appointed Voivode of Ruthenia (the name given to the district around Lviv, Lwów in Polish). Konstanty had been drawn into Russian political affairs however, earlier in the century through his connections to second wife’s sister Marina Mniszech, briefly Tsaritsa of Russia (see below). His son Janusz rose to the high court office of Master of the Royal Stables of the Polish Crown, and his daughter Mariana married one of the leading Polish magnates, Jakub Sobieski—their son Jan would be elected King of Poland to follow his cousin Michael Wiśniowiecki in 1674. Both of Janusz’s sons were voivodes of Polish or Lithuanian regions and also appointed to high court offices: the elder, Dymitr was Grand Hetman of the Polish Crown in 1676 and Voivode of Krakow in 1678; while in the next generation his nephew Janusz Antoni was Marshal of the Court of Lithuania in 1699 and Voivode of Vilnius, 1704, then of Krakow, 1706.
The last Wiśniowiecki of this senior branch was Janusz Antoni’s younger brother, Prince Michał Serwacy. He was an important commander of the Lithuanian army for many years (and is known as Mykolas Servacijus Višnioveckis in Lithuanian) and an influential—though not always on the winning side—player in Polish-Lithuanian politics in the early to mid-eighteenth century. He initially rose to prominence through his defeat of the Sapieha clan in the Lithuanian civil war of 1697-1702, and was appointed Grand Hetman of Lithuania (essentially, commander-in-chief of its armies, a position second only to the Grand Duke). He held this office, plus that of Voivode of Vilnius from 1706, until he was removed and exiled for supporting his kinsman Stanisław Leszczyński as king and grand duke versus the Saxon candidate Augustus the Strong (who took the throne from Leszczyński in 1709). Michał Serwacy reconciled with King Augustus in 1716, was appointed Grand Chancellor of Lithuania in 1720, and later supported the election of his son as king in 1733, with Russia’s support, in the War of Polish Succession. His reward was once again being appointed to the offices of Grand Hetman of Lithuania and Voivode of Vilnius in 1735. When he died in 1744, it was said to be one of the most lavish ceremonies seen anywhere in the 18th century.
The junior line of the House of Wiśniowiecki, founded by Prince Aleksander (d. 1555), also held a mixture of posts, as administrators of districts on their home turf in Volhynia or at the Polish court in Krakow and later Warsaw. They began in the 1580s to accumulate more estates further east, in the region east of Kyiv known as the ‘left bank’ of the Dnieper (or ‘Left Bank Ukraine’)—their lands grew to such a vast extent that the region was sometimes called Wiśniowieczczyzna (‘Wiśniowieckiland’). One of their new strongholds in this region was a castle at Lubny (Łubnie in Polish), not far from Poltava—it was one of the oldest towns in the area, and one of the largest by the 1620s. The family rebuilt the castle in the late 16th century, and founded the Mhar Monastery in 1619. The princely court here had a household at one point of over a hundred people and dominated estates populated by over 200,000 people. The castle at Lubny was completely destroyed in the Cossack uprisings of 1648—there’s nothing left to see today—and soon after this region was transferred to Russian rule.
Two of the cousins of this branch, Adam and Michał, alongside their cousin Konstanty noted above, became involved in the turbulent period of Russian history known as the ‘Time of Troubles’ (1598-1613). After the death of Tsar Fyodor I, the last of the ancient dynasty of Rurik, rumours spread of a prince claiming to be the late Tsar’s youngest (and supposedly dead) brother, Dmitri, who somehow ended up in Polish territory. In about 1603, the Wiśniowiecki cousins ‘discovered’ the Russian prince, and along with their relative by marriage, Jerzy Mniszech, mounted a Polish army with royal backing and the support of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, and launched their ‘Tsarevich’ into Russia, where he managed to take the throne and ruled for a year in 1605-06 (and married Mniszech’s daughter, Marina). Only a few days after the wedding, this ‘False Dmitri’ was dragged out of the Kremlin, hacked to pieces by a Russian mob and burned; the ashes were then fired rather dramatically from a cannon back towards Poland! Nevertheless, another False Dmitri turned up in 1607, was ‘recognised’ by his wife Marina and supported once again by the Wiśniowieckis and other Polish nobles, only to be murdered by a Tatar prince in his war camp in 1610.
We now come to the second of the grand warrior princes of the Wiśniowiecki clan, again associated with the Cossacks, but this time fighting to suppress them, not raising them up. Prince Jeremi (Yarema in Ukrainian) is known in history as ‘The Hammer of the Cossacks’, romanticised as the ultimate warrior knight of the steppes. He is sometimes given the extra titles of Prince of Lubny and Prince of Khorol, the other major estate of his family in Left Bank Ukraine. Prince Jeremi, born in 1612, had been raised by his mother, a strict Orthodox princess from Moldavia and her prominent Orthodox relatives, but had stunned his family and followers, and much of the old Ruthenian nobility by converting to Roman Catholicism in 1632, as members of the elder branch had already done, to better solidify their dynasty’s place at the court of the Polish kings in Krakow. This was seen as a major blow to any idea of Ruthenian nationalism in the region, but Jeremi was rewarded by being appointed Castellan of Kyiv in 1634 and Voivode of Ruthenia in 1646. He married the daughter of the Deputy Chancellor of the Kingdom, a Zamoyski, one of the other great magnate families of western Ukraine. Prince Wiśniowiecki was one of the richest men in Europe, and was able to raise his own private army of 4,000, later 6,000, men, which he led against Russia in the 1630s and the Tatars in the 1640s. He began to act almost as a law unto himself in Ruthenia, Volhynia and the Left Bank, seizing his neighbours’ lands without recourse to the law and even ignoring the authority of the ruling Vasa kings in far-off Poland, who were too afraid of his wealth and power to challenge him—though the King did deny him the office of Grand Hetman of the Crown which would have legitimised his military position in Poland.
But the Crown was glad of his services when the Khmelnytsky Uprising exploded in the Dnieper Valley in Spring 1648. Bohdan Khmelnytsky was a respected Cossack commander, who, after years of service to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, was pushed into a corner by excessive aggression on the part of the encroaching Polish magnates and the Polish Catholic Church. By this point, the formerly Ruthenian Orthodox Prince Jeremi Wiśniowiecki represented both of these things, so the clash between them was epic. The Cossack forces, enlarged with Muslim Tatar allies, made significant inroads into western Ukraine—Khmelnytsky was seen as a liberating ‘Moses’ for his people, and he declared himself at one point a new prince of an independent Ruthenian state. He had a notable victory at one of the Wiśniowiecki estates, Zbarazh, in the summer of 1649, but his forces suffered an overwhelming defeat at the Battle of Berestechko in June 1651. This battle, which took place in Volhynia to the north of Zbarazh and Vyshnevets, is considered by some to be the largest land battle of 17th-century Europe, and was led in person by King John Casimir and Prince Jeremi Wiśniowiecki. The Tatars abandoned their Cossack allies and the uprising faded away. Two months later, the prince died suddenly—some suspected poisoning by a jealous king or rival magnates.
But 17 years later, King John Casimir abdicated from his thrones in Poland and Lithuania, and for the first time in nearly a century the dual monarchy was truly elective once more. The memory of Prince Jeremi Wiśniowiecki as defender of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth brought his son, young Michał Korybut—boasting a revival of this ancient ancestral name—to the forefront of candidates, and was supported by the majority of the nobility, those opposed to the importation of another foreign dynasty, French or Austrian, as was desired by many of the magnate clans. Wiśniowiecki, just 19, was duly elected in June 1669 as King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. His titles also stretched to Grand Prince of Ruthenia, Kiev, Volhynia, Podolia, and so on—ie, most of modern Ukraine. As King Michael I, he immediately faced serious opposition to his rule, notably by those pro-French magnates, led by the Primate of Poland (head of the Church) and none other than his cousin Jan Sobieski (head of the military, as Grand Hetman of the Crown). He attempted to counter this by arranging a marriage in 1670 with an Austrian princess, Archduchess Eleonora Maria, half-sister of the Holy Roman Emperor. The Commonwealth teetered on the brink of full scale civil war, averted only by the common threat of an Ottoman invasion, in June 1672. Sobieski took the lead as commander of the army, but King Michael decided to make peace, agreeing to a treaty with the Sultan in October that ceded the region of Podolia and agreeing to pay an annual tribute. The Poles were humiliated. Nevertheless, in Spring 1673, the King planned an invasion of his own, to undo this treaty, but he suddenly became ill and died in Lviv in November—maybe food poisoning? maybe murder? Sobieski then led the armies to a major victory only one day after the King’s death, and was soon elected king and grand duke himself in May 1674.
King Michał I Korybut Wiśniowiecki’s reign was brief, but could have left a more permanent legacy in the buildings he commissioned in Poland’s capital Warsaw. But the summer palace he built on the banks of the River Vistula, Smoszewo, a short distance to the northwest (near today’s Warsaw Airport), disappeared by the 20th century, and the family’s palace in the capital was entirely rebuilt in the early 19th century and now houses the Ministry of the Treasury. So it is in Ukraine where we see their legacy today, in the mighty and beautifully restored palaces at Vyshnevets and Zbarazh. Let us hope they are spared the horrors of war!
(images Wikimedia Commons)
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