Taras Bulba/Introduction

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The famous old Kazák, Taras Bulba, is one of the great character-creations which speak for themselves, and require no extraneous comment or "interpretation." Indeed, his overflowing vitality embraces not only his sons, but all his comrades, with their typical Little Russian nomenclature ending in ko, and the reader's interest in Kazakdom in general and the Zaporozhtzi in particular, is kindled to a very unusual degree. He immediately wishes to know: Where was—and is—the Ukraina? Where was Zaporozhe? Where—and what—was its capital. The Syech? Where did the Kazáks get their name, and what does it mean?

Complete answers to these questions can be found only in Russian authorities. Historians and specialists have interested themselves so deeply and so long in these and allied questions, that the data available are confusingly abundant. I shall not bewilder the reader by giving him a choice of numerous theories: I shall autocratically select the one which appears to me to be most rational, best founded, most satisfactory for all practical purposes, and offer it for his consideration if not his adoption.

The Ukraina, briefly stated, is—the Border Marches. Naturally it has varied, in different epochs, just as our Western Frontier (pretty nearly its exact equivalent) varied at different periods in the briefer history of the United States, and was pushed further and further away from the Eastern centre of civilisation. In the case of Russia, Moscow represented that centre.

The line was never fixed, never definite. At one period it ran not very far south of Moscow, although the region beyond a line beginning two or three hundred miles south of Moscow—Southwest Russia, with Kiev as its centre—contains, roughly stated, its variations and general location, so far as the "Ukraina" of Gogol's delightful Tales, and the exquisite poetry and music of The Ukraina are concerned.

When I was visiting the late Count L. N. Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana, the young men of the family often played on their balalaikas (among other Russian folk-songs) a dance-song which irresistibly incited one to laughter, and set one's feet to patting. When I inquired the words to this "Bárynya-Sudárynya" (Lady-Madam) I was told that they were not only fragmentary but really quite shocking.

No one, it appears, had ever cared much for the words of "Bárynya-Sudárynya," and the four or five couplets generally known of the other reprehensible tune, the famous "Kamarynskaya," had been so badly damaged by careless repetition and reproduction that even the learned had come to look upon both songs as purely scandalous, useless, unworthy of notice. But one day it was discovered that "Bárynya-Sudárynya" i a sequel to the "Kamarynskaya,"—and that the words are scandalous in part only, while the two combined chronicle an interesting epoch of that strenuous life of the Border Marches—the Ukraina—which, for many centuries, was the chronic condition of the Tzardom of Muscovy as it evolved triumphantly to the present Empire of Russia.

The heroes of both songs are strictly historical personages, and their abode was the Southern Frontier—the Ukraina of Moscow—which, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries meant the present Government of Orel (pronounced Aryól), and so continued, with the addition of an unflattering adjective, until Little Russia, the Cradle of the Empire, temporarily conquered by Poland, was reunited to Moscow. During this second period a prominent place was occupied by the District of Kamaritzkaya (also known as Kamarnitzkaya, or Kamarynskaya, from the word, komár, a mousquito or gnat. Whether the region derived its appellation from the fact that it was mousquito-ridden, or because of the stinging powers of its inhabitants, I am unable to state). During this epoch, the district in question was teeming with the germs of many important historical events, and offered a favourable field for the development of the foolhardy, dissolute scapegrace of a peasant who acquired the name of the region and became immortalised with it in the most famous of Russian folk-songs, whose air was first arranged for orchestra by Glinka, the father of modern Russian secular Music, and to whom, in great measure, it is indebted for its present world-wide fame.

The Ukraina of that day may be said to have extended to the Caucasus (Kavkaz) on the east, the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov on the south, and into present Poland and Galicia on the west—in fact, it occupied the region which the present-day "Ukrainians" (a political, semi-German-Austrian party into whose quarrels and aspirations I cannot enter) would like to see erected into a separate kingdom, alien to Russia. The Kamarynskaya District became the property of Moscow in 1508, having previously, for a long time, belonged to Lithuania; and for many years it was the most dangerous spot in the whole vast Border Marches, subject to raids and deeds of violence from both its former and its present owners, as well as from the Tatárs of the Crimea, and the Poles. The inhabitants lived a semi-savage life, and were famed for the roughness of their ways—even in that rough age. They were few in number, and the situation grew so acute after the conquest of Kazán from the Tatárs (1552), that it became an imperative necessity to populate the district, in order to protect Moscow from the Tatárs of the Crimea, who were enraged by the overthrow of their brethren on the Volga.

Moscow decided that strong towns must be founded, at any cost; and, at last, Tzar Ivan the Terrible (Grózny is the Russian word which is always, by custom, translated, "terrible"; but, in connection with Ivan IV, it really signified, as always when applied to Tzars, "daring, august, imperious, one who inspires his enemies with terror and holds his people in obedience"), who accomplished such incalculable work for the unification of Russia, set about the task. All the colonists who could be collected, by hook or by crook, were despatched thither, without regard to their moral character, fighting qualities alone being taken into consideration. Young men were chosen, the more reckless and enterprising the better. In fact, the Ukraina of that age played the part taken by Siberia at a later day, and received all criminals and undesirable persons banished to protect the rights of others, to save the peace, and to settle the Border Marches: the "bad men" were given a chance to rehabilitate themselves in a prison whose roof was the sky, whose walls were the horizon. With modifications, the description of conditions applies, with much accuracy to our own Western frontier, save that residence there was not compulsory. The local authorities were strictly forbidden to tamper with these wild colonists.

Then, when Tzar Boris Godunov, after usurping the throne, instituted serfdom (about 1592)—almost, under prevailing conditions, justifiable as a measure of state—every peasant who rebelled against being bound to the glebe fled to the Kamarynskaya. The Great Famine of 1601–3 sent more recruits. The district was conveniently near home for the immigrants, and fell into the category of "Crown Lands," so that serfdom was not established there. Naturally, also, no one was particularly anxious to own the sort of people who belonged there. In this throng, which comprised all sorts and conditions of men, the criminal element predominated. The scum came to the surface in the form of robber-bands, before whom the few peaceful inhabitants of the Ukraina—and even of Moscow itself—quaked with fear. It was a clear case of sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind! In the end Moscow sent armed expeditions against these bandits—to little effect, so well had she weeded out her black sheep into this rich border pasture—although many men were caught and hanged, as a certain Bandit Ballad narrates.

The smouldering fires broke out into a disastrous conflagration when the first False Dmitry —the Pretender—laid claim to the throne. These dare-devils pricked up their ears: their nostrils scented a fine feast, exactly to their taste:—and when the False Dmitry, the renegade monk, Grigory Otrepiev, made his appearance among them, they acknowledged him as their Tzar, in the face of positive proof that the lad Dmitry was dead and buried; and they settled the domestic question by throwing their forces against Moscow in his favour. In like manner, after Otreplev's death, they supported another pretender, "The Bandit of Tushino," as he is called. No one derived any advantage from this—except the False Dmitry. Truth to tell, the course of these desperadoes was not so mad as it appears on first sight. If they had pronounced against this Pretender, the Poles, who were pushing his claims and prowling about the Ukraina, would have annihilated them. Moscow was too far away, and powerless to protect them. So, with keen instinct for politics and for self-preservation, the lowest classes, brigands, fugitive serfs and peasants—the "thews and sinews" of the Ukraina—flocked to the standard of the Bandit of Tushino, robbing and murdering all who opposed or did not join them,— which meant, chiefly, the landed gentry and the citizens of the towns. The women, in particular, the Bárynya and báryshnya—wives and daughters of the gentry—were compelled to marry these scoundrels. All these things, naturally, inspired such terror in the landed gentry of the Ukraina that they deserted their estates and fled to Moscow.

It Is this last phase of the story which "Bárynya-Sudárynya" depicts—the situation of the "Lady-Madam-Lady" (to give it another version)—in the refrain of the songs. Thus, evidently, it sets forth one side of the story, while the "Kamarynskaya" depicts the other, or the morals and manners of that particular Ukraina as a whole, the actors in both songs being identical. Probably the author of these ballads, with their free, untrammelled form and ancient "Kamarynskaya nakedness"—was, like their hero, a composite—the entire population of the Kamarynskaya Ukraina.

The tradition did not die out. The gentry did not all flee before the representatives of perfect freedom—and did not escape contamination. To that sad fact a decidedly racy historical incident bears witness. I cannot forbear citing it, to complete the picture, although this leaf from the chronicles of a noble family refers to a later date.—About ten miles from Konotop, in the Government of Kursk, is a spot noted in history, called Kosáchya Slobodá (slobodá meaning a large village on the high road with the adjective of kazák added), because there, in 1672, took place the election of Ivan Samoilovich to the office of Hetman of Little Russia. Our concern, however, is not with the Hetman, but with the exploits of a lady who lived near the village—whose alternative name, by the way, was Kosáchya Dubróva, or The Kazáks' Oak-forest. This strip of the Ukraina of Moscow, adjoining the Hétmanshschina (the Hetman's Domain), was, for a long time, the arena of insubordination and high-handed deeds which the landed proprietors permitted themselves to indulge in, taking advantage of their remoteness from the long arm of justice and the possibility of effecting a speedy escape, in case of need, to the Hétmanshschina. The names of noble families which still exist are mentioned in the complaints to the Crown of their victims. Among the noble families was that of Durov. Tradition has preserved the memory of Marfa Durov (or Durova) as a famous brigand. Few men can have rivalled—or even equalled—her. She flourished in the reign of the Empress Anna Ivannovna (1730–1740). The family was influential; Marfa was wealthy and extraordinarily cantankerous. On being left a widow, she recruited her lovers from her own peasants and neighbouring residents; and she occupied her abundant leisure with highway robbery. Recruiting her band from her peasants, she made raids upon her neighbours. Mounted cross-saddle, man-fashion, with a gun slung across her shoulder, a pistol in her pocket, and a sword girt at her side, she galloped at the head of her horde, and behind followed with carts, to transport the booty, more peasants. She ordered them not to sow or reap, telling them it was not worth while to sweat and bake in the hot sun: they could obtain all they needed gratis, provided by the labours of other people. Marfa was in the habit of making her raids in July and August, chiefly, and her slaves, at her bidding, carried home ricks of freshly-reaped grain, stacks of hay, and droves of horned cattle, sheep and pigs—whatever they encountered, in short. She went shares with them when the plunder reached her estate. The shepherds dared offer no resistance. Sometimes, by way of variety, Marfa would make a raid on a settlement, or the manor of a land-owner—and if resistance was difficult, the victims submitted. Then Marfa would order them to give her minions food and drink and would content herself with tribute. She frequently broke into the chests and store-houses of the nobility, and selected for her own use whatever she required; after which she compelled the sufferers to take a solemn oath (and confirm it by kissing a holy picture), that they would not proceed against her for robbery. If they refused, she threatened to call again and ruin them completely, or "let loose the red cock"— that is to say, set fire to their buildings. A good many were wise enough to keep their oath, and them Marfa, as a rule, troubled no further. But those who violated their oath and complained of her suffered for it. The authorities were greedy for bribes, and Marfa Durov was lavish when occasion demanded. All the rural police of the county gave her a free hand, as they did to other insubordinate persons of noble rank, because they grew rich thereby. When complaints were lodged against Marfa, they were generally reported "not proved," because of the impossibility of discovering that the robbery had been perpetrated by none other than Marfa in person. She, like several others in the county, paid regular graft to the police. So the petitioner gained nothing by his complaint, and Marfa felt secure in meting out to him the punishment which she had promised.

Sometimes these noble bandits disagreed among themselves, and civil war broke out. Once such a nobly-born robber attacked Marfa's home with some of his horde, and a bloody combat ensued, which ended in the defeat of Marfa, and the reduction of her buildings and her whole village to ashes. She and her sons (who were still minors) made their escape by hiding in a swamp. But Marfa assembled her horde again (several of her capable assistants had been slain in that fray), and, before proceeding to rebuild her village, she raided her rival's estate, burned his manor to ashes, and slew him with her own hand, her men following her example with his men who had accompanied him in his call upon her.

But Marfa made handsome amends, according to her lights—she had his name and the names of all the people who were slain in this affair, inscribed in a Book of Remembrance, with the commentary, "slain." This was, also, the practice of Ivan the Terrible in regard to his victims; and in keeping with it was the ardent piety of both Tzar Ivan and Marfa. The souls of their murdered victims are prayed for to the present day, and will be, forever.

Marfa was noted for her external devoutness, for she observed all the fasts appointed by the Church (and they are onerously numerous in the Orthodox Russian Church!), never missed a church service on Sundays and Holy Days, and was very zealous in the matter of money donations and of gifts to the Church. When she was about to set out on a piratical expedition, she was accustomed to go first to the priest at Kosáchya Dubróva, and order him to hold a Prayer-Service, and entreat God to grant success to her undertaking. "Hearken, bátko!" she would say to the priest, "if we are successful, we'll bring you a present, because that will mean that you have obtained success for us from God by your prayers. But if we are not successful, then you must excuse me, but we'll warm your hide for you!" So when the priest heard that Marfa Durov had been unsuccessful he apprehended disaster for himself; and she would ride up and administer a sound horsewhipping, because he had not understood how to pray luck for her from God!—Probably she made him hold a Te Deum service in case of success. Assuredly, the unhappy priest of Kosáchya Dubróva had on his hands one of the most complicated cases of conscience and faith upon record!

When Marfa's sons grew up they participated in their mother's crimes—and she instigated them to forms of crime which she could not perpetrate herself. Things went on in this fashion—the priest, unless already reduced to a moral jelly by previous experiences, must have been quite shocked by his power with God—for six or seven years. Then one of the sons proposed something which bettered his mother's teaching—a crime against which Marfa herself revolted; and he also fell out with his brothers. So far, the authorities had never been able to catch Marfa and her gang in the very act of crime, as would be necessary if they were to deal with her effectively. Now, this son secretly gave information in proper quarters as to the time when Marfa and his brothers, with their minions, were intending to "go a-hunting" (as Marfa was wont, pleasantly, to express it), and she was captured, tried, condemned and exiled to Siberia. This third son, who had refrained from taking part in her final "hunt," after betraying her and his brothers, remained the sole heir of the ancestral estate. But he did not reign over it long. His mother, at her departure into exile, had cursed him. Burdened with this curse, he fell into melancholy, and committed suicide. Evidently he, like the priest of Kosáchya Dubróva, was afflicted with a complicated case of conscience.

In the famous Epic Songs of Russia, composed, probably, in the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries, the greatest of the Bogatýri (Heroes), Ilya of Murom, is always referred to as "the old Kazák." But in ancient times, as any peasant of the far-away localities in the North where these Epics still are sung, will explain, heroic deeds were performed indifferently by men and women, the men being called "bogatýri" and the women "polyánitzi." So perhaps Marfa Durov ranks— by courtesy, at least—as a Polyánitza. At any rate, she was more or less distantly related to Taras Bulba!

The Kazakdom of Little Russia—which is, in general, the region dealt with in Gogol's story—bore the same general character as that of Great Russia which acknowledged the authority of the Kingdom of Moscow. The Epic Songs, and "The Old Kazák, Ilya of Murom," originated there. Kazák and fugitive serf came to be, practically, synonymous terms.

The term "kazák" is ancient,—and the most rational of the explanations of it is, that of old, among the Turks, it was applied to a mounted warrior, lightly armed,—and somehow inferior as a soldier. In the Polovetzk Dictionary of the year 1303 the word is written "kozak." Among the Tatárs, with whom the Ukraina was compelled to live in such close contact, on such close terms of enmity, from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century, "kozak" has the meaning of a fine man, an independent military adventurer—again of low grade (the Turks and Tatárs belong to the same Ural-Altaic stock, along with the Hungarians and the Finns),—with shades of meaning indicating a vagabond, a partisan, a homeless roamer, a nomad. Altogether, it seems to describe the kazák of the early periods very thoroughly. With the status of the kazák as an agriculturist, with a fixed home, a soldier of the Russian Army, and with the divisions into kazáks of the Don, the Ural, the Terek, the Kuban and so forth, and the conditions of his service, it is not necessary here to deal.

The one appellation which is lost in the present divisions is precisely the historic one of the Zaporozhtzi. Zaporozhe, the domain of the kazáks of our story, is somewhat difficult to delimit (without entering into too much detail) on the present map of Russia. A large slice—practically all of the present Government of Tauris (not counting the Crimea), starting from the lagoon of Ochakov at the southwest point, bounded on the south by the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, and, in a curving line, northeast, east, south again, by the Dnyeper, the Konskaya and the Berda rivers—was the territory of the Nogai Tatárs. Zaporozhe lay to the west, north and east of this Tatár territory. Beginning with Ochakov, at the western point of the Dnyeper lagoon, Zaporozhe was enclosed on the west by the river Bug and the Siniukha, curving northeast just above Novomirgorod and to a point just above Kremenchug on the Dnyeper; southeast along the Dnyeper, to the mouth of the Orel; northeast, following the Orel but some distance to the north of it, and with a long point northeast to about Borki (northeast of Poltava); thence southeast, to a point about at Bakhmat on the Northern Don; then slightly southwest to Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, where it again joins the Territory of the Nogai Tatárs. The Territory of the Kazáks of the Don was its eastern neighbour; but there was no real differentiation between the Don Kazáks and those of Zaporozhe. It was not uncommon for men of either camp to go to the other and dwell there, unquestioned, perfectly welcome, like members of the organisation, at pleasure, returning home when affairs or inclination called.

The actual origin of the Kazáks of Zaporozhe and its date, cannot be determined. In all probability, their pioneers were the men who, loving a free life, followed the calling of fishermen on the lower Dnyeper, and hunted wild animals on the surrounding steppe of the region, known as Nízovya—the lowlands—near the Black Sea. In course of time they organised, to repel the raids of the Turks, Tatárs and Poles. In short, they were the result of the eternal conflict between the settled, agricultural life, and the nomadic free-booter life of the plains.

The Falls or Rapids from which the actors in Gogol's story derived their name, Zaporozhtzi—the Kazáks of "Beyond the Rapids"—begin about ten miles below Yekaterinoslav (Katherine's Glory), on the Dnyeper, the worst of them, about half a mile in length, bearing the suggestive title of "Nenasýtetz," the Insatiable. In the tract below the Insatiable was situated the famous capital of Zaporozhe, the Syech—or, in the soft, Little Russian variant of Russia, the Sicha. Syech or Sicha means, simply, a cutting or clearing in the forest. Obviously, that was precisely the origin of the name. As there existed, at different times, at least eight Syechs (possibly ten), it is not surprising that the location of the capital should appear to the reader decidedly indefinite.

About one hundred and sixty-five miles below Yekaterinoslav, opposite Alexandrovsk, in the Dnyeper, lies the Island of Khortitza, where stood the first Syech. Originally—so the ancient Greek chronicles state—this beautiful island held a monastery inhabited by many monks. The Russians, it is said, had regarded it as a sacred place, and (before the introduction of Christianity) sacrificed there to their deities birds, and even the highly-prized dogs of the sort now known as Borzói, or Russian Wolf-hounds. Here, in the beginning of 1550, Dmitry Vishnevetzky built a fortress, and assembled kazakdom around him. Vishnevetzky was a fairly wealthy magnate, owner of several villages in southern Volhynia. Instead of following the example of the men of his day and modestly increasing and rounding out his "fortune," he devoted himself to the fashionable sport of the period on the Border Marches—fighting the Tatárs. He entered the public arena in 1540, but, not content with defensive fighting, such as was carried on by the Border Chieftains, and magnates, he made up his mind to realise, in concrete form, the idea evidently cherished by many people of that epoch, but, so far, not put into execution, and built a castle on the islands of the Dnyeper, as a bulwark against the Tatárs. This idea of Vishnevetzky to found a permanent, strongly-fortified position on an island of the Dnyeper, did not fail to exercise an influence on the existing tendency to connect the winter camps of the hunters and fishermen into a chain of small fortresses defended by stockades, which, in turn, connected with a central kosh, or camp, whose ruler was the Koshevói—the chief of the camp—on the Lowlands. But Vishnevetzky's experiment with Khortitza Castle proved that no reliance could be placed on strong walls and cannon as defences against the Turks and the Tatárs, who would find means for overcoming them. In January, 1557, the Khan of the Crimea attacked Khortitza Castle, in vain: but it was evident that some inaccessible location must be chosen; so the Sicha began to lead a nomadic life, like its inhabitants. The original kurén, which came, in the end, to signify a large barrack (and the troop which occupied it), was a small wooden shack, mounted on wheels, which enabled it to gallop after its owner, when the Sicha began its wanderings among the labyrinth of islands, shallows and bays, where the estuary of the Dnyeper ebbed and flowed. Such a Sicha could not, obviously, be made a centre all at once, and its origin, in the usual sense, must be ascribed to the ten years or so following Vishnevetzky's experiment and failure. It moved on down the Dyneper in agile bounds—and then returned, apparently, twice, to locations close to some previously occupied and abandoned.

The pathetic picture of the old Kazák gazing out across the Black Sea and mourning for his Ostap would suggest that the Syech to which Bulba returned after the defeat might have been Number Seven—the one situated at Aleshki, twelve miles from Kherson, on the salty lagoon of the Dnyeper—one of the famous "limans" in the neighbourhood of the Black Sea, whose bottom-slime constitutes a famous remedy for scrofula, gout, rheumatism, nervous and cutaneous diseases. This Syech, which lasted for twenty-five years (their existence was, as a rule, rather brief), was the only one within easy riding distance of the Black Sea. But the statement that the Syech was then situated at Khortitza contradicts such a theory. That statement also proves that the "Union" alluded to was the political arrangement described in my Footnote. Another "Union" equally famous and productive of battle deserves mention under existing circumstances, although later in date by at least thirty years (presumably) than the death of Taras.

That "Union," originated by a couple of Bishops in southwest Russia, who had good cause to apprehend expulsion at the hands of the authorities of the Orthodox Greco-Russian Church, began in 1596, and consisted of a so-called union with the Roman Church. These bishops acknowledged the headship of the Pope of Rome, and stipulated not only that they were to retain their places, but that their "Uniate" Church was to retain its own language—Old Church Slavonic—and its own customs. They promised, in return (in the customary over-confident, grandiloquent style), the adhesion of the whole Russian Church to this unauthorised, secret compact. They were never able to keep the bargain, and a suggestion of the intense hatred and opposition to that hybrid church, and of the increased bitterness towards the Roman Church, is conveyed in this story.

In the course of the centuries which have followed this hybrid church has been imposed, by misrepresentation and by force, on many inhabitants of Galicia, and Orthodox Slavs along the western borderland; and the compact regarding the retention of their customs has been violated by the imposition of the newest Roman dogmas,—the infallibility of the Pope, the Immaculate Conception, and others. That "Uniate" Church is more commonly known as "the Greek Catholic Church," meaning "the Roman Church of the Greek Rite," in contradistinction to the ancient, original Christian church, the Orthodox Greco-Russian Catholic Apostolic Church of the East. Thousands of immigrants to the United States from Galicia belong to this church—and many thousands of them, including their priests, who did belong to it in the old country, have abandoned it here and returned to the church of their fathers, the Russian Orthodox Church, chiefly in consequence of the attempts which have been made here to deprive them of the last remnants of their ancient customs, including their married priesthood, and the Chrismation (Confirmation) of infants at their Baptism. The question of this "Uniate" Church is playing a very large role in the present great European War, which is known in Russia (partly because of this point which worried old Taras) as "The War of Liberation."

Of Gogol and his work in general, and of Taras Bulba in particular, it is not necessary to speak at length. It is less indispensable now than it was when, many years ago, I published translations of Dead Souls; some of the Tales from a Farm-house near Dikanko and its sequel Mirgorod; and of Taras Bulba, which forms part of the last-named volume. (The present version of Taras Bulba has been so completely revised that it is practically new.)

It will suffice to say that Nikolai V. Gogol was born in the hamlet of Sorochintzi, situated on the borders of Poltava and Mirgorod counties, in the Government of Poltava, on March 12 (some say March 19), Old Style, 1809, and died on February 21 (Old Style), 1852. The first of his Tales from a Farm-house was published In 1830. Mirgorod, the fresh series, came out in book form in 1835. Taras Bulba and most of the tales in that volume, as in the first, were of the same general romantic or fantastic character. The rest were of the naturalistic type which earned for him,—in conjunction with the rest—the position of Founder of the modern Realistic School.

Isabel F. Hapgood.

August 9, 1915.
New York,