Although there is no definite proof of the date of Khmelnytsky's birth, Ukrainian historian Mykhaylo Maksymovych suggests that it is likely 27 December 1595 (St. Theodore's day). As was the custom in the Orthodox Church, he was baptized with one of his middle names, Theodor, translated into Ukrainian as Bohdan. A biography of Khmelnytsky by Smoliy and Stepankov, however, suggests that it is more likely he was born on 9 November (feast day of St Zenoby, 30 October in Julian calendar) and was baptised on 11 November (feast day of St. Theodore in the Catholic Church).
Khmelnytsky was probably born in the village of Subotiv, near Chyhyryn in the Crown of the Kingdom of Poland at the estate of his father Mykhailo Khmelnytsky. His father, a courtier of Great Crown Hetman Stanisław Żółkiewski, was of noble birth and belonged to the Clan Massalski, Abdank or Syrokomla, but there has been controversy as to whether Bohdan belonged to the szlachta (Polish term for noblemen). Some sources state that in 1590 his father Mykhailo was appointed as a sotnyk for the Korsun-Chyhyryn starosta Jan Daniłowicz, who continued to colonize the new Ukrainian lands near the Dnieper river. According to the above-mentioned-source, Mykhailo established Chyhyryn and later his own family estates of Subotiv (5 miles from Chyhyryn) and Novoseltsi. Khmelnytsky identified as a noble, and his father's status as a deputy Starosta (elder) of Chyhyryn helped him to be considered as such by others. During the Uprising, however, Khmelnytsky would stress his mother's Cossack roots and his father's exploits with the Cossacks of the Sich.
Khmelnytsky's early education cannot be documented. Several historians believe he received his elementary schooling from a church clerk until he was sent to one of Kiev's Orthodox fraternity schools. He continued his education in Polish at a Jesuit college, possibly in Jarosław, but more likely in Lviv in the school founded by hetman Żółkiewski. He completed his schooling by 1617, acquiring a broad knowledge of world history and learning Polish and Latin. Later he learned Turkish, Tatar, and French. Unlike many of the other Jesuit students, he did not embrace Roman Catholicism but remained Orthodox.
Bohdan Khmelnytsky married Hanna Somkivna, a daughter of a rich Pereyaslavl Cossack; the couple settled in Subotiv. By the second half of the 1620s, they had three daughters: Stepanida, Olena, and Kateryna. His first son Tymish (Tymofiy) was born in 1632, and another son Yuriy was born in 1640.
Upon completion of his studies in 1617, Khmelnytsky entered into service with the Cossacks. As early as 1619 he was sent together with his father to Moldavia, when the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth entered into war against the Ottoman Empire. His first military engagement was a tragic one. During the battle of Cecora (Țuțora) on 17 September 1620, his father was killed, and young Khmelnytsky, among many others including future hetman Stanisław Koniecpolski, was captured by the Turks. He spent the next two years in captivity in Constantinople as a prisoner of an Ottoman Kapudan Pasha (presumably Parlak Mustafa Pasha). Other sources claim that he spent his slavery in Ottoman Navy on galleys as an oarsman, where he picked up a knowledge of Turkic languages.
While there is no concrete evidence as to his return to Ukraine, most historians believe Khmelnytsky either escaped or was ransomed. Sources vary as to his benefactor — his mother, friends, the Polish king — but perhaps by Krzysztof Zbaraski, ambassador of the Commonwealth to the Ottomans. In 1622 he paid 30,000 thalers in ransom for all prisoners of war captured at the Battle of Cecora. Upon return to Subotiv, Khmelnytsky took over operating his father's estate and became a registered Cossack in the Chyhyryn Regiment. He was later promoted to pysar (a historical officer title among Cossacks). From 1625, he participated in several sea raids on Constantinople together with Zaporozhian Cossacks. In those raids he earned his title of sotnyk (a leader of a hundred).
During this period his widowed mother remarried, to Belarusian noble Vasyl Stavetsky, and moved to his estate, leaving Khmelnytsky in charge of Subotiv. Within year she gave birth to another son, Hryhoriy; later he took his mother's name, becoming known as Hryhoriy Khmelnytsky. For a short time, the senior Khmelnytsky served as a koniuszy to hetman Mikołaj Potocki but departed relatively quickly after a personal conflict.
Khmelnytsky ran his estate and advanced in rank in his regiment. He first became a sotnyk and later advanced to the rank of a regiment scribe. He had significant negotiation skills and commanded respect of his fellow Cossacks. On 30 August 1637, he was included in a delegation to Warsaw to plead the Cossacks' case before the Polish King Władysław IV. Serving in the army of a Polish magnate and respected commander, hetman Stanisław Koniecpolski, he participated in a successful campaign when the Commonwealth army (and his regiment) scored a decisive victory over the Crimean Khanate in 1644. According to archival documents, he also had a meeting in Warsaw with the French ambassador Count De Bregie, during which he discussed the possibility of Cossack participation in war in France. Sources vary as to whether in April 1645 he travelled to France (to Fontainebleau) to discuss further details of Cossack service in France; this claim is supported by Ukrainian historiography but disputed by Polish scholarship. In October 1644 around 2,000 (two thousand) Polish infantry soldiers (some scholars think they were Cossacks, but the French sources do not identify them as such) went to France by sea via Gdańsk and Calais, where they participated in the siege and capture of Dunkirk.
Upon the death of magnate Stanisław Koniecpolski, an advocate of fair treatment of Cossacks, his successor, Aleksander, redrew the maps of his possessions. He laid claim to Khmelnytsky's estate, claiming it as his. Trying to find protection from this grab by the powerful magnate, Khmelnytsky wrote numerous appeals and letters to different representatives of the Polish crown but to no avail. At the end of 1645 the Chyhyryn starosta Daniel Czapliński officially received authority from Koniecpolski to seize Khmelnytsky's Subotiv estate.
In the summer of 1646, Khmelnytsky arranged an audience with King Władysław IV to plead his case, as he had favourable standing at the court. Władysław, who wanted Cossacks on his side in the wars he planned, gave Khmelnytsky a royal charter, protecting his rights to the Subotiv estate. But, because of the structure of the Commonwealth at that time and the lawlessness of Ukraine, even the King was not able to prevent a confrontation with local magnates. In the beginning of 1647, Daniel Czapliński started to harass Khmelnytsky in order to force him off the land. On two occasions the magnate had Subotiv raided: considerable property damage was done and Khmelnytsky's son Yuriy was badly beaten. Finally, in April 1647, Czapliński succeeded in evicting Khmelnytsky from the land, and he was forced to move with his large family to a relative's house in Chyhyryn.
In May 1647, Khmelnytsky arranged a second audience with the king to plead his case but found him unwilling to confront a powerful magnate. In addition to losing the estate, Khmelnytsky suffered the loss of his wife Hanna, and he was left alone with their children. He promptly remarried, to Motrona (Helena Czaplinska), the so-called "Helen of the steppe". He was less successful in real estate, and was unable to regain the land and property of his estate or financial compensation for it. During this time, he met several higher Polish officials to discuss the Cossacks' war with the Tatars, and used this occasion again to plead his case with Czapliński, still unsuccessfully.
While Khmelnytsky found no support from the Polish officials, he found it in his Cossack friends and subordinates. His Chyhyryn regiment and others were on his side. All through the autumn of 1647 Khmelnytsky travelled from one regiment to another, and had numerous consultations with Cossack leaders throughout Ukraine. His activity raised suspicion among the local Polish authorities already used to Cossack revolts; he was promptly arrested. Koniecpolski issued an order for his execution, but the Chyhyryn Cossack polkovnyk, who held Khmelnytsky, was persuaded to release him. Not willing to tempt fate any further, Khmelnytsky headed for the Zaporozhian Sich with a group of his supporters.
While the Czapliński Affair is generally regarded as the immediate cause of the uprising, it was primarily a catalyst for actions representing rising popular discontent. Religion, ethnicity, and economics factored into this discontent. While the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth remained a union of nations, a sizable population of Orthodox Ruthenians were ignored. Oppressed by the Polish magnates, they took their wrath out on Poles, as well as Jewish traders, who often managed the estates of Polish nobles. The advent of the Counter-Reformation worsened relations between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. Many Orthodox Ukrainians considered the Union of Brest as a threat to their Orthodox faith.
At the end of 1647 Khmelnytsky reached the estuary of the Dnieper river. On 7 December, his small detachment (300–500 men), with the help of registered Cossacks who went over to his side, disarmed the small Polish detachment guarding the area and took over the Zaporozhian Sich. The Poles attempted to retake the Sich but were decisively defeated as more registered Cossacks joined the forces. At the end of January 1648, a Cossack Rada was called and Khmelnytsky was unanimously elected a hetman. A period of feverish activity followed. Cossacks were sent with hetman's letters to many regions of Ukraine calling on Cossacks and Orthodox peasants to join the rebellion, Khortytsia was fortified, efforts were made to acquire and make weapons and ammunition, and emissaries were sent to the Khan of Crimea, İslâm III Giray.
Initially, Polish authorities took the news of Khmelnytsky's arrival at the Sich and reports about the rebellion lightly. The two sides exchanged lists of demands: the Poles asked the Cossacks to surrender the mutinous leader and disband, while Khmelnytsky and the Rada demanded that the Commonwealth restore the Cossacks' ancient rights, stop the advance of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, yield the right to appoint Orthodox leaders of the Sich and of the Registered Cossack regiments, and to remove Commonwealth troops from Ukraine. The Polish magnates considered the demands an affront, and an army headed by Stefan Potocki moved in the direction of the Sich.
Had the Cossacks stayed at Khortytsia, they might have been defeated, as in many other rebellions. However, Khmelnytsky marched against the Poles. The two armies met on 16 May 1648 at Zhovti Vody, where, aided by the Tatars of Tugay Bey, the Cossacks inflicted their first crushing defeat on the Commonwealth. It was repeated soon afterwards, with the same success, at the Battle of Korsuń on 26 May 1648. Khmelnytsky used his diplomatic and military skills: under his leadership, the Cossack army moved to battle positions following his plans, Cossacks were proactive and decisive in their manoeuvrers and attacks, and most importantly, he gained the support of both large contingents of registered Cossacks and the Crimean Khan, his crucial ally for the many battles to come.
At Christmas in 1648, Khmelnytsky made a triumphant entry into Kiev, where he was hailed as "the Moses, saviour, redeemer, and liberator of the people from Polish captivity... the illustrious ruler of Rus." The Patriarch of Jerusalem Paiseus, who was visiting Kiev at this time, referred to Khmelnytsky as the Prince of Rus, the head of an independent Ukrainian state, according to contemporaries. In February 1649, during negotiations in Pereiaslav with a Polish delegation headed by Senator Adam Kysil, Khmelnytsky declared that he was "the sole autocrat of Rus" and that he had "enough power in Ukraine, Podilia, and Volhynia... in his land and principality stretching as far as Lviv, Chełm, and Halych."
I already did more than was thinking before, now I will obtain what I revised recently. I will liberate out of the Polish woe all of the Ruthenian people! Before I was fighting for the insults and injustice caused to me, now I will fight for our Orthodox faith. And all people will help me in that all the way to Lublin and Krakow, and I won't back off from the people as they are our right hand. And for the purpose lest you won't attack cossacks by conquering peasants, I will have two, three hundred thousands of them.
The Polish envoys recognized that Khmelnytsky claimed to be leader of the Zaporozhian Cossacks but also of Ukraine and the heritage of the Rus. A Vilnius panegyric in Khmelnytsky's honour (1650–1651) said: "While in Poland it is King Jan II Casimir Vasa, in Rus it is Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky."
After the period of initial military successes, the state-building process began. His leadership was demonstrated in all areas of state-building: military, administration, finance, economics and culture. Khmelnytsky made the Zaporozhian Host the supreme power in the new Ukrainian state and unified all the spheres of Ukrainian society under his authority. Khmelnytsky built a new government system and developed military and civilian administration.
A new generation of statesmen and military leaders came to the forefront: Ivan Vyhovsky, Pavlo Teteria, Danylo Nechai and Ivan Nechai, Ivan Bohun, Hryhoriy Hulyanytsky. From Cossack polkovnyks, officers, and military commanders, a new elite within the Cossack Hetman state was born. Throughout the years, the elite preserved and maintained the autonomy of the Cossack Hetmanate in the face of Russia's attempt to curb it. It was also instrumental in the onset of the period of Ruin that followed, eventually destroying most of the achievements of the Khmelnytsky era.
Khmelnytsky's initial successes were followed by a series of setbacks as neither Khmelnytsky nor the Commonwealth had enough strength to stabilise the situation or to inflict a defeat on the enemy. What followed was a period of intermittent warfare and several peace treaties, which were seldom upheld. From spring 1649 onward, the situation turned for the worse for the Cossacks; as Polish attacks increased in frequency, they became more successful. The resulting Treaty of Zboriv on 18 August 1649 was unfavourable for the Cossacks. It was followed by another defeat at the battle of Berestechko on 18 June 1651 in which the Tatars betrayed Khmelnytsky and held the hetman captive. The Cossacks suffered a crushing defeat, with an estimated 30,000 casualties. They were forced to sign the Treaty of Bila Tserkva, which favoured the Poland–Lithuanian. Warfare broke open again and, in the years that followed, the two sides were almost perpetually at war. Now, the Crimean Tatars played a decisive role and did not allow either side to prevail. It was in their interests to keep both Ukraine and the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth from getting too strong and becoming an effective power in the region.
Khmelnytsky started looking for another foreign ally. Although the Cossacks had established their de facto independence from Poland, the new state needed legitimacy, which could be provided by a foreign monarch. In search of a protectorate, Khmelnytsky approached the Ottoman sultan in 1651, and formal embassies were exchanged. The Turks offered vassalship, like their other arrangements with contemporary Crimea, Moldavia and Wallachia. However, the idea of a union with the Muslim monarch was not acceptable to the general populace and most Cossacks.
The other possible ally was the Orthodox tsar of Russia. That government remained quite cautious and stayed away from the hostilities in Ukraine. In spite of numerous envoys and calls for help from Khmelnytsky in the name of the shared Orthodox faith, the tsar preferred to wait, until the threat of a Cossack-Ottoman union in 1653 finally forced him to action. The idea that the tsar might be favourable to taking Ukraine under his hand was communicated to the hetman and so diplomatic activity intensified.
After a series of negotiations, it was agreed that the Cossacks would accept overlordship by the Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich. To finalize the treaty, a Russian embassy led by boyar Vasily Buturlin came to Pereyaslav, where, on 18 January 1654, the Cossack Rada was called and the treaty concluded. Historians have not come to consensus in interpreting the intentions of the tsar and Khmelnytsky in signing this agreement. The treaty legitimized Russian claims to the capital of Kievan Rus' and strengthened the tsar's influence in the region. Khmelnytsky needed the treaty to gain a legitimate monarch's protection and support from a friendly Orthodox power.
Historians have differed in their reading of Khmelnytsky's goal with the union: whether it was to be a military union, a suzerainty, or a complete incorporation of Ukraine into the Tsardom of Russia.
The differences were expressed during the ceremony of the oath of allegiance to the tsar: the Russian envoy refused to reciprocate with an oath from the ruler to his subjects, as the Cossacks and Ruthenians expected since it was the custom of the Polish king.
Khmelnytsky stormed out of the church and threatened to cancel the entire treaty. The Cossacks decided to rescind the demand and abide by the treaty.
As a result of the 1654 Treaty of Pereyaslav, the geopolitical map of the region changed. Russia entered the scene, and the Cossacks' former allies, the Tatars, had gone over to the Polish side and initiated warfare against Khmelnytsky. Tatar raids depopulated whole areas of Ukraine. Cossacks, aided by the Tsar's army, took revenge on Polish possessions in Belarus, and in the spring of 1654, the Cossacks drove the Poles from much of the country. Sweden entered the mêlée. Old adversaries of both Poland and Russia, they occupied a share of Lithuania before the Russians could get there.
The occupation displeased Russia because the tsar sought to take over the Swedish Baltic provinces. In 1656, with the Commonwealth increasingly war-torn but also increasingly hostile and successful against the Swedes, the ruler of Transylvania, George II Rákóczi, also joined in. Charles X of Sweden had solicited his help because of the massive Polish popular opposition and resistance against the Swedes. Under blows from all sides, the Commonwealth barely survived.
Russia attacked Sweden in July 1656, while its forces were deeply involved in Poland. That war ended in status quo two years later, but it complicated matters for Khmelnytsky, as his ally was now fighting his overlord. In addition to diplomatic tensions between the tsar and Khmelnytsky, a number of other disagreements between the two surfaced. In particular, they concerned Russian officials' interference in the finances of the Cossack Hetmanate and in the newly captured Belarus. The tsar concluded a separate treaty with the Poles in Vilnius in 1656. The Hetman's emissaries were not even allowed to attend the negotiations.
Khmelnytsky wrote an irate letter to the tsar accusing him of breaking the Pereyaslav agreement. He compared the Swedes to the tsar and said that the former were more honourable and trustworthy than the Russians.
In Poland, the Cossack army and Transylvanian allies suffered a number of setbacks. As a result, Khmelnytsky had to deal with a Cossack rebellion on the home front. Troubling news also came from Crimea, as Tatars, in alliance with Poland, were preparing for a new invasion of Ukraine. Though already ill, Khmelnytsky continued to conduct diplomatic activity, at one point even receiving the tsar's envoys from his bed.
On 22 July, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and became paralysed after his audience with the Kiev Colonel Zhdanovich. His expedition to Halychyna had failed because of mutiny within his army. Less than a week later, Bohdan Khmelnytsky died at 5 a.m. on 27 July 1657. His funeral was held on 23 August, and his body was taken from his capital, Chyhyryn, to his estate, at Subotiv, for burial in his ancestral church. In 1664 a Polish hetman Stefan Czarniecki recaptured Subotiv, which according to some Ukrainian historians, ordered the bodies of the hetman and his son, Tymish, to be exhumed and desecrated, while others claim that is not the case.
Khmelnytsky had a crucial influence on the history of Ukraine. He not only shaped the future of Ukraine but affected the balance of power in Europe, as the weakening of Poland-Lithuania was exploited by Austria, Saxony, Prussia, and Russia. His actions and role in events were viewed differently by different contemporaries, and even now there are greatly differing perspectives on his legacy.
In Ukraine, Khmelnytsky is generally regarded as a national hero. A city and a region of the country bear his name. His image is prominently displayed on Ukrainian banknotes and his monument in the centre of Kiev is the focal point of the Ukrainian capital. There have also been several issues of the Order of Bohdan Khmelnytsky — one of the highest decorations in Ukraine and in the former Soviet Union.
However, with all this positive appreciation of his legacy, even in Ukraine it is far from being unanimous. He is criticised for his union with Russia, which in the view of some, proved to be disastrous for the future of the country. Prominent Ukrainian poet, Taras Shevchenko, was one of Khmelnytsky's very vocal and harsh critics. Others criticize him for his alliance with the Crimean Tatars, which permitted the latter to take a large number of Ukrainian peasants as slaves. (The Cossacks as a military caste did not protect the 'kholopy', the lowest stratum of the Ukrainian people). Folk songs capture this. On the balance, the view of his legacy in present-day Ukraine is more positive than negative, with some critics acknowledging that the union with Russia was dictated by necessity and an attempt to survive in those difficult times.
Khmelnytsky's role in the history of the Polish State has been viewed mostly in a negative light. The rebellion of 1648 proved to be the end of the Golden Age of the Commonwealth and the beginning of its demise. Although it survived the rebellion and the following attacks, within 100 years it was divided among Russia, Prussia, and Austria in the partitions of Poland. Many blamed Khmelnytsky for the decline of the Commonwealth. Polish historians such as Ludwik Kubala compared Khmelnytsky with the influence of Oliver Cromwell in England.
Khmelnytsky has been a subject to several works in the 19th century Polish literature, but the most notable treatment of him in Polish literature is found in Henryk Sienkiewicz's With Fire and Sword. The rather critical portrayal of him by Sienkiewicz has been moderated in the 1999 movie adaptation by Jerzy Hoffman.
The official Russian historiography stressed the fact that Khmelnytsky entered into union with Moscow's Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich with an expressed desire to "re-unify" Ukraine with Russia. This view corresponded with the official theory of Moscow as an heir of the Kievan Rus', which appropriately gathered its former territories.
Khmelnytsky was viewed as a national hero of Russia for bringing Ukraine into the "eternal union" of all the Russias — Great, Little and White Russia. As such, he was much respected and venerated in Imperial Russia. His role was presented as a model for all Ukrainians to follow: to aspire for closer ties with Great Russia. This view was expressed in a monument commissioned by the Russian nationalist Mikhail Yuzefovich, which was installed in the centre of Kiev in 1888.
Russian authorities decided the original version of the monument (created by Russian sculptor Mikhail Mikeshin) was too xenophobic; it was to depict a vanquished Pole, Jew, and a Catholic priest under the hoofs of the horse. The inscription on the monument reads "To Bohdan Khmelnitsky from one and indivisible Russia." Mikeshin also created the Monument to the Millennium of Russia in Novgorod, which has Khmelnytsky shown as one of Russia's prominent figures.
Soviet historiography followed in many ways the Imperial Russian theory of re-unification while adding the class struggle dimension to the story. Khmelnytsky was praised not only for re-unifying Ukraine with Russia, but also for organizing the class struggle of oppressed Ukrainian peasants against Polish exploiters.
The assessment of Khmelnytsky in Jewish history is overwhelmingly negative because he used Jews as scapegoats and sought to eradicate Jews from Ukraine. The Khmelnytsky Uprising led to the deaths of an estimated 18,000-100,000 Jews. Atrocity stories about massacre victims who had been buried alive, cut to pieces or forced to kill one another spread throughout Europe and beyond. The pogroms contributed to a revival of the ideas of Isaac Luria, who revered the Kabbalah, and the identification of Sabbatai Zevi as the Messiah. Orest Subtelny writes:
Between 1648 and 1656, tens of thousands of Jews—given the lack of reliable data, it is impossible to establish more accurate figures—were killed by the rebels, and to this day the Khmelnytsky uprising is considered by Jews to be one of the most traumatic events in their history.