A Ukrainian is the author of one of the first constitutions in the world
313 years ago, the first Ukrainian Constitution was created. Despite the fact that most of modern-day Ukraine was under Moscow’s rule at that time, Ukrainian Hetman Pylyp Orlyk decided to draw up a document, which prescribed the conditions and structure of an independent Ukrainian state of the future.
The document fully corresponds to the features of contemporary constitutions as they are known. For the first time in European history, government powers were written into being divided into three branches. The prescription of a division of government powers has led many scholars to label the document as the first constitution in the world.
Learn more facts about the unique 300-year-old document in our special material.
Tough times call for important decisions
After the Battle of Poltava — the decisive and largest battle of the Great Northern War — in 1709, the Russian sphere of influence in Northern Europe expanded. Ukrainian Cossacks, who were allies of Sweden in this battle, retreated and lost control over the lands they previously roamed. As result, large parts of Ukrainian territories once again fell under the control of Moscow.
A year after the battle, Pylyp Orlyk was elected as the new Ukrainian Hetman. Despite de facto being a hetman in exile, Orlyk decided to create a document that would define Ukraine as a state of law in the event of its achievement of independence. And so, the first Ukrainian Constitution was developed.
A unique document ahead of its time
Formally, Orlyk’s Constitution was titled as The Treaties and Resolutions of the Rights and Freedoms of the Zaporozhian Army, but it fully corresponds to the features of contemporary constitutions as they are known.
In Europe and North America, such documents appeared decades later. As such, scholars consider Orlyk’s constitution as one of the first, if not the first, in the world. It was also the first document in Europe that established the separation of government powers into three branches: namely, the legislative, executive and judiciary branches.
The Treaties and Resolutions was a document that clearly described the structure of the Ukrainian state and established its borders. In a letter addressed to Swedish King Karl XII, Orlyk wrote that he wanted Ukraine to be free “from Moscow’s slavery and tyranny.” He imagined Ukraine as an independent state under the protectorate of Sweden, willing to do anything so long as Ukrainian lands were no longer under the rule of the Russian Empire.
The Constitution also had democratic principles, social protection for the poor and an anti-corruption orientation, as it postulated that the Hetman and colonels were not allowed to manage the state budget.
Overlooked by the world
Orlyk’s constitution was drawn up in two languages -— Old Ukrainian and Latin. The document was ahead of its time and had a significant influence on the European understanding of governance. Thanks to Orlyk’s The Treaties and Resolutions, Ukraine became known across Europe.
“With this constitution, Orlyk spends the next several decades negotiating with the monarchs of foreign countries on regaining Ukraine’s independence. It is on the basis of this document that he conducts diplomacy,” Ukrainian historian Oleksandr Alfyorov told DW.
Despite its uniqueness, the document was not widespread and, unfortunately, was never truly implemented. According to Alfyorov, if Ukraine had gained independence much earlier, Orlyk’s constitution would have been much more widespread and popular.
“History is always written by the winners. Perhaps that is why the Constitution was not imprinted in the minds of scientists, universities, and others. But now, perhaps, the time has come to have Orlyk’s Constitution on the table and draw attention to it,” Anna-Karin Hermodsson, Deputy Director for the National Archives of Sweden, where the Latin-language copy of Orlyk’s Constitution is stored, said in an interview with Radio Svoboda.
The Orlyk Constitution is of great importance today, as it demonstrates the long history of Ukraine’s aspirations for statehood and debunks Russian myths of Ukraine’s “recent conception.”