History generally credits the Frenchman Montesquieu (Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu) for the political theory known as the separation of powers. Montesquieu actually termed it the “distribution of powers,” in his 1748 treatise, The Spirit of the Laws, and his notion was that a society can protect itself from despotism and over-centralization of power by dividing government between legislative, executive, and judicial bodies.
But the first expression of this idea – the tripartite separation of governmental powers – actually appeared in a constitution nearly half a century earlier, in 1710, and not one written by a French noble (or an American Founding Father), but by a Slav – a Ukrainian Cossack chieftain and aide to one of Russian history’s most infamous turncoats.
After Peter I assumed the Russian throne in 1689, Ivan Mazepa, a rich and powerful hetman, or leader, of a band of Ukrainian Cossacks, served as a loyal and useful advisor to the young tsar. His Cossacks were instrumental in Peter’s wars against the Ottomans and Tatars, and a rich friendship grew between the two men, such that Cossack colonels joked that “the tsar would sooner disbelieve an angel than Mazepa.”
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Some will recognize here the last name of one of Russian literatureâ's most famous heroes: Ostap Bender, from Ilf and Petrov's The Twelve Chairs and The Little Golden Calf. Bender came into being as a Moldavian fort, then was conquered by the Turks in the sixteenth century, then was conquered by the Russians in the early nineteenth century, but it became part of Romania in 1918, and was Romanian when The Little Golden Calf was written. Notably, it is to Romania, at the end of the second novel, that Bender attempts to escape.
Mazepa’s decision led to ostracism and excommunication by the Orthodox Church and, during the Soviet era, designation as a symbol of â€œUkrainian bourgeois nationalism.â€ In post-Soviet Ukraine, his star has risen and he has begun to be seen as one of the first Ukrainian leaders to stand up to the tsar. In the West, meanwhile, aided in large part by a romantic-heroic poem by Byron, Mazepa has been seen as a symbol of resilience and independence. At least three towns in the US (in Minnesota, South Dakota, and Pennsylvania) are named for him.
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