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.