Taras Bulba.

The two most famous Russian novels that I had not read either in Russian or in English were Gogol’s Taras Bulba and Sholokhov’s Tikhii Don [Quiet Don] (both, oddly, about the Cossacks). I have now remedied the first of these omissions, and I’m here to tell you about it. I will not spare the plot details, so if you are in my previous state of innocence and wish to preserve it, don’t read much farther!

What I knew about the novel was that it was a tale of adventure, that it was not in the high-literary style of Dead Souls and the “Petersburg stories,” and that Nabokov dismissed it as juvenilia (“a melodramatic account of the adventures of quite fictitious cossacks”), so I was not expecting much — I just wanted to experience this basic element of Russian culture, gobbled up by generations of students and the source of many well-known quotes (starting with the first line: “А поворотись-ка, сын! Экой ты смешной какой!” [Turn around, son! Aren't you a funny sight!]. I was actually pleased to encounter a few shards of the genuine Gogol style (my favorite being, in a list of leading Cossacks, “Дегтяренко, Сыдоренко, Пысаренко, потом другой Пысаренко, потом еще Пысаренко…” [Degtyarenko, Sydorenko, Pysarenko, then another Pysarenko, then still another Pysarenko...]). And I was rather enjoying the boy’s-own silliness of it, the grandiloquent speeches and absurd gallopings-off-for-derring-do. But eventually the smile was wiped from my face. Here is how I would sum up the plot [SPOILERS!]:

Taras Bulba, a brutal old man, welcomes his sons Ostap and Andriy back from a Kiev religious academy, picks a fight with Ostap (the elder), and announces that in a week he’ll send them off to the Sech, where they’ll forget their book learning and become real Cossacks. When his weeping wife complains that she’ll hardly have time to look at them after their long absence, he tells her to shut up: Cossacks don’t need women. Then, during a drunken supper, he changes his mind and announces they’ll go off the very next day, and he’ll go with them. Off they go. At the Sech he complains that the Cossacks are getting soft, they need to go off and kill some Turks; the hetman says they can’t do that because they’ve signed a peace treaty, so he has the hetman replaced. Then a rider arrives to say the Poles are wreaking havoc farther west in the Ukraine, so they decide to go fight Poles instead of Turks — it doesn’t matter who you’re killing as long as you’re killing lots of people. They burn and slaughter their way to the Polish fortress town of Dubno, which they besiege; this is the central episode of the book. One night when everyone else is asleep, Andriy is visited by a serving woman who tells him that her mistress, a Polish woman he had fallen for in Kiev (violating the iron rule of Cossack life: Cossacks don’t need women), is starving in the city along with her family and begs for some bread. He immediately forgets his Cossack duties, grabs a bunch of bread, and follows the woman through secret tunnels into Dubno, where he is reunited with his old love and swears to fight for her and her people and forget his family and previous allegiances. There is much fighting; when Andriy leads a regiment of Poles out of the gates of the city, the furious Taras shoots him himself (another famous line: “Я тебя породил, я тебя и убью!” [I begat you and I'll kill you!]). After that, however, things go badly for the Cossacks, and Taras is bopped on the head and passes out. When he awakes, he’s being taken back to the Sech and learns that his remaining son, the valiant Ostap, has been captured along with many other Cossacks. Eventually he bribes the Jew Yankel to smuggle him into Warsaw, where he witnesses Ostap’s torture and execution. He calls out to him from the crowd at the final moment, but manages to get away, and when he returns to the Cossacks, now completely insane with blood-lust, he leads his troops on a genocidal march, killing every Pole and Jew they find (the greedy Jews being the ancient oppressors of the Cossacks), burning women alive in churches and tossing their babies onto the fire. Eventually he is caught and burned alive by the Poles, but tied to his burning tree (crucified!) he sees many of his Cossacks escaping across the river and exults in the thought of the vengeance they will take.

Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t find that a very edifying story. The glorifying of violence for its own sake, the contempt for women, the anti-Semitism, and the bloody nationalism make for about as repellent a stew as I can imagine. For a while I thought “Surely Gogol doesn’t mean us to identify with this maniac, surely he’ll introduce some distancing irony or something,” but no, as far as I can see he’s presenting Taras as a tragic/Homeric hero. (I should mention there’s a lot of imitation of the Iliad in the Dubno sequence, with warriors sallying out accompanied by brief biographies and picturesque descriptions of how they fall in combat, the difference being that Homer does not have each dying hero shout “Long live the Russian earth and the Russian faith!”) So I ask my Russian readers: is my reading of it completely alien? Do Russians by and large take it as Gogol seems to have intended it, as a tragic/heroic portrait of martial glory in the service of Mother Russia? (The idea that Cossacks are pure representatives of Russia and the Russian soul is of course nonsense, and I presume that’s part of what Nabokov meant by “quite fictitious cossacks.”) I know that the novel has an important place in the culture and curriculum, but I don’t know any details of its reception, and now I’m curious.

Comments

  1. Almost all of us read Taras in heavily abridged grade-school Хрестоматия version, cleansed of the worst blood and gore and xenophobia but not of cult of mindless violence and contempt of women. A few purist literature teachers preferred to give their charges unabridged edition; when my kids’ Russian teacher did so, I insisted that she must skip the whole book if she insists on studying it whole (I did read it with all the scenes of torture and hatred, and interpreted it as a sort of Iliad or Icelandic Sagas, where murderous mindset just comes with the territory).
    The classic quote is almost as often remixed as “Чем я тебя породил, тем я тебя и убью” BTW (What I used to beget you, that I shall use to kill you)

  2. (Oh, and to the best of my memory, Russians would not identify with Taras. His language, his allegiances, and his fight remained quintessentially foreign, despite Gogol’s half-baked attempts to Russify it all. Ukrainians, however, may have perceived Taras Bulba as their hero again despite those attempts of Gogol? The personal name Taras is very popular among Ukrainians, but perhaps due to real Taras Shevchenko rather than to finctitious Bulba?)

  3. Almost all of us read Taras in heavily abridged grade-school Хрестоматия version

    Ah, that makes sense. Thanks for that and for all your extremely helpful explanations!

  4. Shevchenko was indeed of Cossack descent.

  5. Taras Shevchenko, Taras Bulba, Russian allegiance of the Cossacks, genocide of Jews and Poles – all things are real and intertwined in real history. But they were completely disconnected from Russian grade school students. In the curriculum, the genocidal Chmielnicki Uprising of 1647-1658 (which was the historic bass for the Taras Bulba tale) was rather deemphasized. Instead, Hetman Chmielnicki was only noted for 1654 Pereyaslav Treaty which furnished Cossack loyalty to Czar Alexei the Quietest of Russia, and brought Ukraine into Russian Empire (where it was consolidated by Alexei’s son, Peter the Great, in his defeat of disloyal Ukrainians and their Swedish allies at Poltava). In the textbook Russian historiography, Chmielnicki was a hero, and to link his name with the senseless massacres of the Uprising was unthinkable. Taras Shevchenko was painted a hero too, a courageous freedom singer who stood up to the Czar and suffered in exile; but to mention that Shevchenko called Chmielnicki Uprising Ukraine’s greatest disaster, which didn’t succeed in eliminating Polish rule, but instead enslaved Eastern Ukraine to Russia – to mention what Shevchenko said of Pereyaslav was unthinkable too. None of these dots were connected.

    I learned about Chmielnicki genocide only decades later, through my studies of Ashkenazi Jewish population genetics which still bears witness to the mass murder and rape of the 1640s and 1650s.

  6. I don’t remember my school days impressions (I did not care for Gogol and read absolute minimum of his works to pass the test), but yes, it was sold as a story of national uprising or something like that. You might be interested to know that official Soviet theory about that time and place (at least as it was explained to the school kids) was that of “triple oppression”. Ukrainians were oppressed by Poland nationally, religiously, and economically. From some fragments of TB it seems that Gogol was an early adopter.

  7. what Dmitriy said.
    The value placed on Taras Bulba at school was love thy Motherland and hate her traitors. The rest was secondary and omitted. Except perhaps the macho-heroism of the Sech.
    There is a recent Russian film version of Taras Bulba with Yankel the Jew featuring porminently, and the whole story strongly slanted in nationalistic vein.
    Quotes from Bulba are indeed ubiquitous. Viktor Chernomyrdin, the most famous generator of foot-in-mouth Russian puns, was talking to a bankers’ meeting, which I was covering. He was trying to explain his approach to sorting out Russia’s banking crisis when he started, ‘We begat these bankers,..’ and paused embarassedly, realising that what follows in the quote was completely inappropriate for the occasion. There was a rustle in the audience, a chuckle, a ripple of laughter and then an uproar. ‘So it’s up to us to sort out the bankers’ problems,’ Chernomyrdin recovered.
    I can’t tell how much I struggled to put it in my report in milder terms, somehow, I think, I managed.

  8. In TB, “Russian” (русский) means “of Rus’ ” and applies to Ukraine no less, and perhaps more than to Russia. There’s a school of Ukrainian thought that sees Ukraine rather than Muscovite Russia as the natural successor to Kievan Rus’. The title of Grushevsky/Hruschevskyi’s opus magnum is A History of Ukraine-Rus’.

    I cannot say I liked or disliked TB at school. I don’t recall having any attitude towards it all – it was required reading and that was it. Bulba probably came across as an exotic character, a steppe bogatyr’ out of an ancient folk tale, but hardly relevant to modern Russia and, honestly, not quite human.

  9. Dmitriy gives a good picture of how Khmelnitsky’s role is portrayed in Soviet/Russian historiography. Few realise that it was a civil war within Getmanshina, the core region of what is now Ukraine straddling both banks of the Dnieper. And even fewer know that Levoberezhnaya Ukraina (left-bank Ukraine) that joined Russia then was only a small part of what is now called the Left-Bank (Eastern) Ukraine. The Don region to the South wasn’t part of it and to the East there was a separate and largely independent region called Sloboda Ukraine, named after sloboda, a type of settlement with certain privileges – freedoms. Sloboda/svoboda means freedom.

  10. “Ashkenazi Jewish population genetics . . . still bears witness to the mass murder and rape of the 1640s and 1650s.”

    Dmitry, could you elaborate on this just a little for those of us who might be bearing witness?

    But thanks for the synopsis, LH. I haven’t read T.B., and now that I know the gist, it’s off my reading list.

  11. The Don region to the South wasn’t part of it and to the East there was a separate and largely independent region called Sloboda Ukraine

    The more easterly Cossack lands never had a problem with Poland in the first place, and this no interest in Muscovy protection against Poland. But just as importantly, their lands weren’t of the original Rus’. In contrast, the Hetmanate lands which swore feaulty to the Czar at Pereyaslav in 1654 were the core Rus’ territories, which added a perfect ideological veneer of Reunification to the Pereyaslav Treaty.

    Not that the Poles and the Cossacks haven’t tried reunifying Rus’ on their own terms just a generation or two earlier, in the Time of Troubles, which also saw the first of a series of Cossack uprising leaders, Ivan Bolotnikov, marching to Moscow. Soon after Pereyaslav, another Don Cossack, Stepan Razin, repeated the feat.

    Of course Czar Alexei “almost” reunified the whole of Ukraine and Belorussia when Poland smoldered in ruins of what they call “The Deluge” of the 1650s, but Russia also went to fight for control over the Baltics and spread itself too thin to hold what it gained.

    Ashkenazi Jewish population genetics
    Age, approximate origin, and extent of genetic diversity in a population group is easy to measure with today’s technology. Today’s Ashkenazim have fairly low genetic diversity, the population descends from just approximately 400 XIth-XIIth century mostly Mediterranean-Levantine founders. A substantial part of the past diversity has been lost in the population collapse of the XVIIth c.

    There is also a substantial Eastern European / Slavic genetic admixture, and modern genomic methods allow one to put a date on the admixture event by measuring the extent of fraying of the edges of the blocks of genetic identity. But the best of my knowledge it hasn’t been systematically done with the Ashkenazi Jewish genetic data. But specifically in my field of cancer genetics, the ages and origins of the 3 Ashkenazi Jewish founder cancer mutations have been studied quite throughly. One of the three dates back to Babylon Exile and is shared among multiple branches of the Jewish people, and their descendants in Latin America and South Asia as well. But for the Chmielnicki Uprising tale, another of the three is important. It originated in the Baltic area and spread across Central and Eastern Europe, making it the most important genetic source of breast cancer in the Slavic peoples today. But it entered Jewish bloodstream only in 1600s, in a form specific for Poland-Wolhynia. It is considered a contemporary evidence of the Chmielnicki rapes.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    Modern genetics is astonishing. I had no idea one could get into that level of detail.

  13. I too am amazed. A Wiki article on the medical genetics of Jews says “the LRRK2 mutation (causing Parkinson’s disease) on the main haplotype, shared by Ashkenazi Jews, North-Africans and Europeans, initially arose in the Near East at least 4000 years ago. There are many interesting links on that page.

  14. J. W. Brewer says:

    The perhaps-now-obscure Nobel prize winner Sienkiewicz wrote a historical novel (title often Englished as “With Fire and Sword”) about the same conflict from the Polish-Lithuanian side. I have had it recommended to me but have never read it. It might make an interesting comparison (especially in terms of whether its 19th-century-nationalism aspects seem equally unsavory to the modern reader or are more moderate). As to MOCKBA’s point about genetics, without in any way minimizing the horrible and abusive conduct of any given faction in Eastern Europe’s quite brutal history, surely it is not the case that 100% of all genetic mixing between the Ashkenazic and goyische populations of 17th century Eastern Europe was the result of rape, and to what extent a greater degree of such mixing at one point in time versus another resulted from a higher incidence of rape versus a higher incidence of consensual intergroup sexual interaction (which itself may be underdocumented in the historical record due to various taboos in both relevant communities) seems like something the genes themselves can’t tell us, and quite a challenging question to answer with any precision from the other evidence available to us.

    I would not claim to be any sort of an expert on the history of the 17th century Ukraine, but it seems to me that the propositions: A) the proto-Ukrainians were treated unjustly by their Polish overlords; B) the proto-Ukrainians’ military forces did numerous horrible things to innocent civilians incident to their attempt to overthrow that overlordship (jus ad bellum does not guarantee jus in bello, and vice versa); and C) the proto-Ukrainians were in hindsight naive to think that voluntary submission to Muscovite overlordship was going to be any better for them in the long run than Polish overlordship had previously been, can all be simultaneously true as a matter of logic and are quite possibly all true as a matter of history.

  15. Sienkiewicz’s book is heavy on romance in a very un-Bulba way, but, just like Gogol’s, capitalizes on non-Christian allies of the bad guys (in this case, Tatars, allies of the Cossacks). The Cossack’s Sech itself is full of Turkic commanders and henchmen.

    Historic-anthropological applications of genetics may leave enough room for minor but reasonable doubt to loose in a criminal court jury. No arguing with that. Dates themselves have nontrivial margins of error, genetics being a kind of statistics, an exercise in quantifying predictable but random things such as mutations and recombination events. In fact modern scientific statistics – which aims at proving hypotheses in the world of chance – has been created by Sir Fisher specifically for the needs of genetics (the pre-Fisher statistics was largely actuarial, concerned only with insurance rates).The attribution of a root Ashkenazi mutation haplogroup to Poland is also valid only in a statistical sense, because the ethnic groups in the study haven’t been study in so large numbers as to prove that the “Polish” pattern of variation isn’t found, perhaps rarely, in other countries. We end up knowing not the court-of-law kind of absolute truth, but the most likely scenario. Far more likely than the others, though.

  16. Dmitry, thank you for a very lucid explanation of a complex topic. My paternal grandparents were from Odessa, but my grandfather, at least, may have had roots in the town of Vinnitsa, in western Ukraine. At least that’s what my great-uncle told me in the 1960s. So maybe my remote ancestors went through the Chmielnicki uprising. Fortunately, my paternal grandparents and almost all of their families (including my great-grandfather and mother) came to the US in the 1880s and 1890s, so our family escaped the tragic events that subsequently transpired in that region.

  17. The film of Taras Bulba came out when I was fourteen. In short order I found two books by that title on the racks. One was Gogol’s, and the other was a screenplay adaptation. I rolled my eyes at the latter, but having read the above, I now understand why someone might have wanted to present to the interested public a more Hollywoodized version of the story.

  18. J.W. Brewer says:

    Inter-ethnic violence in that part of the world of course did not cease with the 17th century, but I am intrigued to learn from wikipedia that one major Ukrainian-nationalist military leader of the WW2 era was commonly known as Taras Bulba-Borovets (although his proper name was merely Taras Borovets). However, it is claimed that compared to some of his colleagues he was something of a moderate and supposedly (contrary to the ethos of his namesake?) did not approve of the massacres of ethnic-Polish civilians carried out by other Ukrainian-nationalist elements circa 1943. (And of course in roughly the same timeframe some Polish nationalists supported various sorts of bad behavior toward ethnic Ukrainians while others didn’t.) Were the Slavic-speaking gentile elements of the contending forces in the conflict of the 1640′s so genetically distinct from each other that one can be confident that a given mutation is highly likely have crossed over into the Ashkenazic population from the Hetmanate side rather than the Rzeczpospolita side (or as a third possibility to have crossed over via multiple events involving multiple sources, some from one side and some from the other)?

  19. Hetmanate vs. Rzeczpospolita side – the classic study of David Goldgar didn’t have analytic power to dissect this question, because they looked only at a subset of the most variable genetic location in the vicinity of the mutation, and only at the contemporary human beings. If one looks at all genetic variation across the area, even where it is less common, and if one accounts for historic changes in the genomes of Ukrainians and Poles by adding archaeological DNA samples, then it may be resolved.

    multiple sources – the extant mutations are all derive from one molecular source, out of multiple variations found today in the regional Slavic populations. But one molecular source doesn’t mean one person – it just implies that if there many people involved, than they all must have been fairly close genetic kin to each other. Otherwise the estimated date of admixture would drift further into the past, towards the time of the common ancestor of all these people.

  20. I always took it as a common theme in classic Russian literature – “God save us from seeing a Russian revolt, senseless and merciless” as Pushkin put it referring to another Cossack revolt in far away Urals, thousands of miles from the Ukraine.

    19th century Russians were quite honest in that way lacking political correctness of either Marxist or liberal variety and described Russian history as it really happened, without feeling any need to embellish it.

  21. i thought i recall the phrase about redkaya ptitsa doletit do serediny dnepra very popular in the russian folklore was from taras bulba, but it’s from vechera na xutore bliz dikan’ki, the excerpt’s learnt by heart by schoolchildren like a poem iirc, and also the most impression what it has left during our lit-re classes was about the ukranian national as if like self-identity and their struggle for independence, so we read it with our that, outmost respect and empathy, bc it felt very close to own i guess, and i remember ondrii the traitor who sold his people for love of the beautiful polish lady could elicit from us only reproach and taras’s ya tebya porodil ya tebya i ubyu was like something natural and legitimate, so perhaps it was the shorter and censored version of the book, without all those bad things like misogyny and antisemitism which i failed to notice at that time and about which people talk in this thread, so i always respected it as one of the masterpieces of Gogol, should read it uncensored i guess if i will read it again at all, so no time for nothing much even just to read something, to change my mind

  22. to ^our own

  23. 1) Taras Bulba is not history, and it’s full of embellishment.

    2) Pushkin said “God save us”; Gogol describes all the brutality with relish and apparent approval. Find me one thing in the entire story that even suggests otherwise. It’s like Come and See told from the point of view of the Nazis.

  24. it felt more like _ come and see_ through the eyes of the protagonist boy, so the pain of the oppressed is like always more empathy and sympathy inducing if it’s all forgiving and non-resistant and peaceful, not if it’s calling for retaliation and violent resistance
    the final scene of taras dying burnt on the stake as like some so many other religious heretics also made it something close to the legend of this ulenshpiegel, iirc
    well, that’s only my reading, how the native ukranians think about it is interesting to know, i think they feel the opposite perhaps now, what’s with euromaidan, two hundred years together with russia makes their force now more like that, centrifugal, away from the russian influence i guess

  25. thiel, the autocorrect works i guess

  26. I don’t think any distancing is noticeable in Gogol’s or anyone else’s reception of Taras; he is a Russian (Ukrainian, Cossack, whatever) Matteo Falcone, with the subtle difference that Falcone is an obvious monster, while Taras is presented as a hero. Always hated the book.

  27. Prince Mirsky, while I’m at it (he discusses TB and Viy on the same page):

    Taras Bulba [...] is a historical romance of Cossack Ukraine. Though suggested by, it is very unlike, the romances of Scott. [Thank heavens.] It is supremely free from considerations of historical exactitude [amen!] but nevertheless full of the spirit of the old Cossack warriors and echoes of their poetry. It is almost as full, in the battle scenes, of reminiscences of the Iliad. Its place in Russian literature is unique — it has had no imitators or followers (except, perhaps, Babel in his stories of the Red Army. It is heroic, frankly and openly heroic, but it is also broadly humorous and realistic [an adjective which in DSM always means 'true to life', never 'sordid']. It is perhaps the only Russian imaginative work that has that many-sided exuberance which might claim the epithet Shaksperian [sic; regularly so spelled by DSM].

    All I can say is, it’s fortunate for anglophones that Shakespeare never wrote anything like what Hat describes above.

    But as for Matteo Falcone being a monster, in Merimee at least his status is far more ambiguous, or perhaps “beyond good and evil”, a sort of modern version of the Spartan mothers (“return with your shield or on it”) some of whom, Plutarch says, did exactly the same thing as Falcone. I don’t know the opera, and he may be more unambiguously monstrous there (as Iago is more unambiguously and clearly villainous in Otello compared to the original).

  28. Mirsky seems completely unable to view Gogol dispassionately, any more than I can so view the (often objectively crummy) sf I loved at thirteen.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Languagehat is up to Odoevskii’s Russian Nights (Русские ночи, 1844). I think it gets a better review than “Taras Bul’ba.” […]

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