Who Said History Is Boring?

Ilya Yefimovich Repin: Zaporozhian Cossacks Write a Letter to the Turkish Sultan

Advisory: Despite this blog’s ordinarily being family-friendly, this post is not appropriate for readers under the age of 18 (no nudity, just language).

The painting above is one of the strongest possible refutations of the notion that the study of history is dull and boring. More specifically, it’s a great example of the memorable incidents1 in Russia’s history whose retelling by Profs. Firuz Kazemzadeh and Ivo Lederer2 in my Introductory Russian History class at Yale helped entice me into my interdisciplinary undergraduate major — Russian Area Studies.

So let me tell you a little about this painting. It was created by the great 19th-century artist Ilya Repin, who took it upon himself to depict an incident that actually took place in 1676 in Ukraine, where the Cossacks had been fighting the Turks. The Ottoman sultan, Mehmed IV, had demanded the Cossacks’ surrender. A rowdy bunch better known for brutality than diplomacy, the Cossacks sent back the most insulting response they could dream up. Repin’s painting depicts the Cossacks as they concocted their scorching reply.

The Cossacks’ letter is said to have been Stalin’s favorite piece of “literature,” some of whose choicest bits he committed to memory. That ought to tell us something!

Here then, is what the Cossacks told the sultan:

Zaporozhian Cossacks to the Turkish Sultan! 

You Turkish satan, brother and comrade of the damned devil and secretary to Lucifer himself. What the devil kind of knight are you, that you can’t slay a hedgehog with your bare ass? The devil shits and you and your army eat. You shall not, you son of a bitch, make subjects of Christian men; we have no fear of your army, by land and by sea we will battle you. Fuck your mother.3

You Babylonian busboy, Macedonian mechanic, brewer of Jerusalem, goat-fucker of Alexandria, swineherd of Greater and Lesser Egypt, pig of Armenia, Podolian thief, catamite [look it up!] of Tartary, hangman of Kamyanets, and fool of all the world and underworld, idiot before God, grandson of the Serpent, and the crick in our dick. Pig’s snout, mare’s ass, slaughterhouse cur, unbaptized brow, screw your own mother!

So the Zaporozhians declare, you lowlife. You won’t even be herding pigs for the Christians. Now we’ll conclude, for we don’t know the date and don’t own a calendar; the moon’s in the sky, the year with the Lord, the day’s the same over here as it is over there; for this, kiss our ass!

Koshovyi Otaman Ivan Sirko, with the entire Zaporozhian Host.

So, who said history is dull and boring?4


  1. Some of the other memorable incidents in Russia’s history took place during the Time of Troubles, 1598–1613, about which I’ll write one of these days.
  2. In another class (History of Eastern Europe), Prof. Lederer gave an eyewitness account of the U.S. liberation of Rome on June 5, 1944, almost exactly 75 years ago. Prof. Kazemzadeh, along with Prof. Richard Pipes, of Harvard, was one of my two all-time favorite profs.
  3. This crude command is a central pillar of swearing in Russian. I have heard it uttered quite casually, even in mixed company, as though (in my experience) it has no more power to raise an eyebrow than exclamations like shit and damn do in English. In fact, the word mat (мат), a near-twin of мать (mother, differing only in the pronunciation of the T — palatalized or not), is one of the most common Russian translations of the word profanity. However, this command (Ёб твою мать! — Yob tvoyu mat!) is absent from some (but not all) of the Russian/Ukrainian versions of the letter I’ve located and, therefore, from some of the English translations too. I’ve included it for the sake of “color.”
  4. One final footnote: I have a slight personal relationship with this striking painting. I first saw it — the original — in the State Russian Museum in Leningrad during my first sojourn in Russia in the summer of 1967. Over a quarter century later and halfway around the globe in Hawaii, when for several months in 1993 I was unemployed, I spent my evenings in a part-time job taking photos of people dining at some of Waikiki’s most popular restaurants. You know the drill — the photographer shows up at your table, offers to take pictures of your party, then returns some 45 minutes later and sells high-priced prints of the photos. It was a way to earn a living while I was looking for a “real” job (which, when I found it, was to work as the governor’s speechwriter). The restaurant I most enjoyed (thanks, in part, to Audy Kimura’s wonderful music) was Hy’s Steakhouse, on one of whose wood-paneled walls hung a large reproduction of the painting (visible in portions of the video embedded in this link). It was quite a shock to me when, the first evening I was assigned to Hy’s, I spotted this familiar painting in, as it seemed to me, the unlikeliest of locations, Waikiki.
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