Understanding Russia and the Ukraine – try Gogol


The blue cover had “N. Gogol” in faint gold above the title “Taras Bulba” in capitalised large white type. Opening to a random page, it smelt like an old book should – part musty – indescribable, but you know the scent. Despite my pet hate of having no publication date the promise of “Printed in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” was too intriguing to just cast aside this volume as I browsed through the book fair boxes. This was the holiday period – it was 144 pages, hardback, perfect length for a realistic completion (unlike the others piled up with ATM chits and Mitre 10 receipts sticking out around page 40 doomed to remain undigested).

The first page had a wreath enclosing “Classics of Russian Literature”. Next the title page, simple lithographs of sabre wielding men on horseback – delightfully the opposing page was in Russian – “Foreign Languages Publishing House Moscow”. A drawing of Mr Gogol and his signature printed underneath on the next page. He has a whispy moustache, a tiny fleck of a goatee. He could be a young Vladimir Putin if he had ever had long hair. Then: two pages “About this book”. It says:

 “Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol (1809-1852) wrote his epic Taras Bulba […] from 1833 to 1842. The Ukrainian people’s struggle for their independence, waged throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, stirred and inspired Gogol, a great patriot of his country. […] In 1569 the Ukraine was, by an act of treachery, in the city of Lublin, made part of Poland […] ruthlessly exploited the peasants, enforced their own Polish way of life, outlawing the Ukrainian language and stamping out Ukrainian culture in their effort to enslave the Ukrainian people spiritually, sever them from their Russian brothers […This was met] with fierce resistance and rebellions […]

The Cossacks of the Zaporozhian Setch – a military brotherhood made up of serfs who fled from their lords to the rich southern lands of the Russian state […] took part in campaigns for their country’s liberation, and were the terror of the Turks, Tartars, and Polish squires.

The Zaporozhian Cossack Taras Bulba is a typical representative of the freedom-loving Ukrainian people […] who dreamed of reuniting with their blood-brothers, the Russian people, who had preserved their statehood. This union Cossacks like Taras Bulba regarded as the sole means of preserving their nationhood, and therein lies the objective historical value of Gogol’s tale.”

We can see why the USSR would want to reprint this epic for ideological reasons given the underlying message of Ukrainian-Russian unity. This was fascinating. I added the book to my cache and went to pay.

I had to point out to the lady at the desk what a find this was. Here was perhaps the key to understanding the relationship between the warring countries and maybe unlocking the deeper historical basis for the crisis. The old biddy was unmoved, completely uninterested in the start of World War III, she slid it right back into the pile and tapped one of the other books of no importance and made some complementary remark banal enough not to be remembered. I concluded she must be the one behind the excruciatingly pedantic arrangement of the women’s smut box of romance novelettes. The travel and poetry section are merged, in a mess, with religion, but hey, organising pornography specifically for middle-aged females in its own box, there like an altar, is of vastly more importance, evidently.

Now before I start an analysis of Taras Bulba: in 882 Rurik’s successor, Prince Oleg, who was actually playing the role of regent… But seriously, Putin’s supposed digression into the origin story of Russia for the first part of his Kremlin interview with Tucker Carlson last week was nothing more than a reiteration of what Putin had said in his televised speech from his office at the outset of the war two years ago. The relationship between Ukraine and Russia must be understood from the start of both, not from 23 February 2022, or the seizure of Crimea, or the Maidan revolution, or the dissolution of the Soviet Union, or the Nazi occupation, or Lenin’s edict of autonomy, the Brest-Litovsk Treaty etc etc. And it must be understood before 1569 where the introduction notes begin in the present book which is set some time in the 17th or 18th century (it’s not clear precisely when, but muskets and cannon are in use). Thankfully we don’t really need to go there in this column suffice to say what Putin explained: the name Ukraine means borderland – the frontier, the frontier of Russia. The name itself is of and from Russian, it exists in relationship to Russia.

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The story itself is a heroic portrait of a second-tier nobleman warlord and his two sons whose exploits are chivalrous and bloody as they avenge the wrongs of the oppressive Poles. The storytelling is concise, lush, dramatic. The references to the landscape and the physical features of their countryside are lyrical and profound. The character of the Cossack is painted as patriarchal, emotional, reactive, nostalgic, hearty, generous, unforgiving and also cruel and barbaric – in some sequences, extremely. The governance structures of the Cossacks appear communal or tribal and consensus-style democratic – maybe out of survival necessity – while their foes, the Polish appear hierarchical and colonial by contrast.

Cossacks in the story are identified as Ukrainian, and that they are also Russians and have the same traits (maybe even exactly) as Russians. Does this make sense? The impression is clear enough to me – perhaps akin to Northern and Southern English, or Northern and Southern Germans etc. The idea that Ukraine and Russia would or could go to war with one another seems preposterous after reading this work, unthinkable. What possible differences would they have? – they are the same people with the same religion at least if not language, culture and proclivities (including an unrelenting and explicit mistrust and hatred of the Jews which is thick through the tale – even if they are almost the saviours at the end!).

The independence of Ukraine is maintained as the goal of the hero and his people, however this is in alignment with a co-existence with and assistance from Russia. Russia is the bulwark and backstop and protector and parent in a mutually exclusive relationship rather than being an equal or merely an ally. The religion especially seems to be seamless between the two. The recurrent enemies also are the same: the Turks, the Poles, the Tartars, the Jews.

Looking at the description of the feelings and sympathies and bonds there can be no doubt they are one and the same with the Russians. Is it any wonder that Zelenskyy when he was an entertainer before he was President of Ukraine appeared on the kitschy Russian New Years TV extravaganza as a beloved a Russian as anyone else on that stage? No doubt Russians would have appeared on Ukrainian TV too without any to do. And are the struggles not the same – the Western nations at their heels, at their throats? Any attempt to split the two apart would seem absolutely incompatible with the security of the other. Having read the book the more I examine the scenario as it presently exists in a state of war the more a split seems manifest and tragic folly. It seems to me incompatible with history.

The ability to sacrifice and withstand great hardship is a theme which emerges early and plays out horrifically at the dénouement. On the final page, Taras Bulba, captured by the Polish and undergoing ferocious torture which will lead to his inevitable death, burnt at the stake, makes a prophesy to “you infernal Poles”:

“‘The day will come when you shall learn what the Orthodox Russian is! Already do peoples far and near forebode it: there shall rise a ruler from Russian soil, and there shall be no power on earth that shall not yield to him!’  The flames rose […] what power can be found on earth that can overpower Russian power!”

Gogol invokes Russia, not Ukraine, in this exhortation from the great Ukrainian hero. Tell me Putin has not read this text; tell me his bookmark does not rest on this last page.


  1. You could also try talking to Ukrainian and Russian people. I recommend talking to those of different generations to get a really good idea.

    The days of Ukrainians viewing Russians as some type of brothers are gone, and slip further away with every missile and drone fired.

    • Yes, yes, we’re well aware that many Ukrainian expats, veterans of the Galician Division like Yaroslav Hunka, don’t like Russia.

      • Yes because every person living in Ukraine today (and unlike you I know people living there), is a member of a WW2 Batallion

        And Ukraine upsets you, Finland must make your head explode.

    • What do peace talks look like? Say Ukraine said “Ok, keep the ‘liberated’ areas”, what do you think Putin’s demands would be? I can make a guess:

      1. Removal of the government to be replaced with one of his choosing
      2. Neutering of any defensive capabilities in Ukraine
      3. No economic deals without approval of the Kremlin

      • Vlad The Adventurer – Great points…the peace agreement could divide Ukraine in two – pro NATO (Western) part, and Russian speaking part…very sad for the people of Ukraine…similar to the Korean solution

        • There is truth in the fact that the border areas are a mixture of people. I know someone who has just left one of the liberated areas with effectively the clothes they were wearing. I think this is what will happen.

          The key will be what Ukraine does for it’s own defence going forward. I don’t think they’ll trust the word of the Kremlin.

        • Please don’t bother replying telling me to “keep out of the guessing game” and then post bullshit propaganda links with such quotes as:

          “However, the Neo-Nazi junta decided to discontinue its compliance with the treaty as soon as Russia kept its own initial end of the bargain”

          • You wanted to know what the peace talks looked like, well the above linked article opens the door to a lot of the processes involved along with drilling down on some of the details involved in the peace deal itself. Yet despite this, you still want to cling to your wild guesswork – fine by me.

            • No it’s just that I think that article is propaganda crap, as indicated by its use of the terms neo-Nazi junta which makes it hard to believe anything it says. It also claims that Russia willing withdrew from Kyiv

              Sure they did and as a sign of their good intentions they discarded a bunch of equipment on the way

            • Yes, we can see that you like to speak for Putin, guess his motives despite the guy speaking/outlining the very same events that you’re covering.

              Who would have thought, that guesses would trump the actual words coming out of the mouth of the person being guessed over.

              Tragic really, especially for the Ukrainian people, because guess work is common place, if not what drives a lot of Western officialdom and pundits alike, when it comes to Putin/Russia.

              • Right, so you listened to him, you read his articles that he put out a couple of years ago and yet you still think he sees Ukraine as a sovereign nation?

                It’s not guess work, it’s what he has said.

                And save your sympathy for the Ukrainian people. I doubt you’ve ever spoken to someone that lives there.

              • Continually speaking for Putin while never providing the veritable evidence that supports your claims is simply someone speaking out of his behind. You are hot air my friend, and you will always be so until you can back up the wild claims/guesses you love to make.

                Meanwhile, we have proof, above, right out of the horses mouth, of what was being negotiated (and as you can see, your guesswork is nowhere to be seen), not to mention, a decent overview of, as you called it, what the peace talks looked like.

                Still, if you chose to ignore all of this, simply because the analysts own take on some of the events he covers here, didn’t gel with you, well then, no wonder you resort to empty claims and guesswork.

                Still, since it is clear that you do not wish to listen to the Russian side, then it is high time that you ponied up with the evidence that supports your claims/guesswork…your side of this conflict.

                Bring it, my friend, prove yourself right, otherwise…

                As for my sympathies, this, like most conflicts exists because of political failure. Ordinary people suffer/die as a result. It does not take being or knowing a specific nationality to know political failure and to understand the pain and suffering this brings.


                • So firstly thank you for the (reasonably) civil response. I suspect you are correct in that you and I will never agree on this topic buts that’s OK we live in a free country where every 3 years we get to vote a different shade of idiot in.

                  I dispute the charge of making uneducated guesses. I form my opinions on my own sources. They may just be different then yours.

                  I asked you if you watched Putin’s interview. I’m going to ignore all the things that Tucker didn’t bother asking, and just talk about what Putin said. After the interview I saw Western MSM news articles that said things like “Putin reveals true thoughts on Ukraine” (I paraphrase) and I thought what nonsense.

                  This is from 2021.

                  “Article by Vladimir Putin ”On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians“”


                  It is something Vladimir Putin wrote and he has never changed what he has said. He has always been up front on his views. People just didn’t bother listening to him (something that Hillary Clinton was guilty of a long time ago when he genuinely tried to reach out to the West and she and others mocked him)

                  And he isn’t alone in his views. I have said here on a number of occasions that I have Russian and Ukrainian friends both here and in their own countries. Now of course I can’t prove that but hey – it’s the internet I could just be another incarnation of Grok).

                  I have also suggested here many times that if people are interested in seeing a different side to this conflict talk to people of different ages from those countries. Vladimir Putin is no different in his beliefs than a large number of Russians of his age.

                  So yes despite what you say I do listen to the Russian side. I don’t tend to follow the MSM except to browse through it. Maybe Al Jazeera is the closest that I come to it.

                  And I will challenge you back that many here will only listen to the Russian side, often it seems due to an intense dislike of “The West” usually personified in the USA.

                  Many Russians – particularly of an older generation believe that Ukraine is part of Russia. It is just not in their understanding that their slavic neighbour may be interested in wanting to go their own way. And I get it. It’s the same as I have some very different views on Maori from my parents. I can’t send you a link to that, you’ll need to talk to people yourself.

                  You can say that’s just guess work. I say from reading his words that it is not

                  There are also Ukrainians in their 20s that have only ever known their country as a sovereign nation. They just don’t understand what has happened but they do live with the air raid sirens going off.

                  I will also give you this. Ukraine had some massive problems. The Crimea which was pretty much ignored except as a holiday resort. Ukraine was a financial basket case which didn’t help the cause.

                  The border regions where you have some that say they’re Russian, some that they’re Ukrainian and some that don’t give a shit they just want to eat, drink and be merry. Some of Zalenskyy’s comments are just stupid with regards to the problems there.

                  Huge amounts of corruption in the government (although perhaps not that uncommon in many of these countries)

                  A Russian friend here put it to me like this: “Ukraine needs to get their shit sorted out, and in another 20 years they would have” (slight paraphrasing again – he doesn’t say shit)

                  So I admit to all of these faults in Ukraine.

                  I just don’t go for the “neo-nazi junta” nonsense because that’s just a Trumpism and I think hides the very complicated situation there.

                  What I don’t understand. What I can’t is with everything happening in Russia – and if you open your eyes and see what is happening there with opposition members, journalists – is how anyone can defend Vladimir Putin as is he is some victim. He isn’t. He is a very smart man who is very proud of his heritage in my opinion he just wants Ukraine back.

                  But as I say. We don’t have to agree on the causes. I will say that I really want people on both sides to stop dying.

                  Sorry for being so long and a little disjointed, but at least I used paragraphs.

                  • The problem may have been communism. Perhaps the Ukrainians see communism as a too regimented, and ultimately unsuccessful, system imposed on them from without, and blame Russia for it.
                    One can only speculate how things might have developed had the Kerensky government remained in power.

                    Communism seems to have created a division between East and West.

                    • I think there is truth in that. For many people life under communism probably felt better, and maybe for younger generations it is something that just have no experience of

                • This is good, I like length, it often leads to greater understanding, in my book. And a link, that perhaps helps explain where you come. A link to a Putin article that’s a long bloody read, I have to say. Quick aside, no I haven’t watched Tucker’s interview. He, typically, is not my cup of tea, but yes, I do have to watch it because so many people refer to it.

                  To the link, the Putin article. I have to admit, I am failing to see the big problem here. In short, as I see it, he talks of a shared history between Russia and Ukraine, a kinship basically. He then talks about sovereignty, of Ukraine and other peoples, with respect being the only response I see that he gives to this. Finally, he talks about the problems of today and how they are, in no small part, stirred by outside (Western) interests. Problems or mistakes, some, perhaps many, that Russia had a hand in, in days gone by, and of which have been seized upon, and fermented further, by outside interests. These problems, especially the outside-influenced problems, are negatively effecting Russians and Russia itself, hence why we have what we have today.

                  Still, it all comes across to me as regret, for a once close relationship now lost, but because of its former closeness, still repairable. So yeah, I am not getting what you are getting out of this, but perhaps you can drill down further on this next time.

                  One more thing, the neo-nazi issue. Reckon this link gives us a decent overview of this issue.

                  “Neo-Nazis and the Far Right Are On the March in Ukraine”, 2019, The Nation – https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/neo-nazis-far-right-ukraine/

  2. You only have to listen to Putin on that ridiculous interview with that arse Carlson. He has mystical dreams of another Russian Empire, similar to Netanyahu’s “River to the sea”.

    • It has always been Putin’s aim. He’s written about this mythical history before. His motive has never been a mystery, and that’s why I say talk to Russians. Many of them his age (most that I know) consider Ukraine doesn’t exist as a country, it’s just part of Russia.

  3. Putin makes a provocative parallel with Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian, who ruled from 527 – 565 AD. Justinian tried to reunite the empire by reconquering the western provinces that had been overrun by Germanic “barbarians”. He succeeded in recovering Italy, and parts of Gaul and Iberia. But at immense cost. Long-term result: an overextended and exhausted empire was barely able to resist the Lombards, Slavs, Bulgars, Persians and Arabs that invaded shortly afterwards. Within a hundred years, the Roman Empire was reduced to a rump state comprising Anatolia and a few enclaves in the Balkans.

  4. Gogol wrote more, much more, do keep “discovering” . “Nose” , “Overcoat” “Dead souls” etc…
    Just leave “Viy” as last to read.

  5. The war between Ukraine and Russia does have something of the character of a civil war. Rather like the wars between the British and Irish, they pit against each other people who in the broader sense share a common language, culture and religion (notwithstanding the Protestant/Catholic divide and the renaissance of the Gaelic language in Ireland). The Irish nationalists however did not make the mistake of Ukraine. Within the Irish republic they did not discriminate against Anglo-Irish, the Protestant faith, or the English language. Neither did the Irish nation as a whole fall into the trap of making a military alliance with Germany.
    The Ukrainian nationalists would have been wise to follow the Irish example. The outcome would have been a relationship between Russia and Ukraine not too different to the current relationship between Britain and the Republic of Ireland. That may indeed be the ultimate outcome of the current Ukraine conflict, but it will be superimposed upon the devastation and bitterness caused by a totally unnecessary war.
    Closer to home, it might seem inconceivable that Australia and Aotearoa could ever go to war against each other. Yet Australia and Britain are the only nations which have ever sent an invasion force against our people. The invasion of 1862 decisively shaped the present colonialist regime, and it is not impossible that Australia could feel impelled to invade again if the colonialist regime it entrenched 160 years ago should ever be in danger of destruction. The propagandists of Anzac insist that Australians are our eternal blood-brothers, kith and kin, but the truth is another war between us would not be “incompatible with history”.

  6. It’s not important to understand Putin’s Russia, only to stop it. Nor is it important to understand the IDF, only to stop them.

    • How? NZDF attrition rate is trash. NZDF can’t even staff half of its platforms. What are you going to talk people to death? You have no idea. The U.S. military the strongest in the world is under huge assault hundreds of U.S. personal are dying every year and you have no idea. War is war. You just have no idea what to do.

      • Why would you imagine the NZDF have anything to do with anything? They’re probably only one step ahead of the wretched vatniks.

        NZ can do a couple of things pretty easily however – seize and sell the Russian Embassy. They’re history, we won’t be needing it. Proceeds to Ukraine.

        Seize and sell the zionist embassy, proceeds to Palestine. There’s no need to treat wankers like grown-ups.

    • Thanks for the link 5+cents+worth ….. that was one hell of a movie ,,, it’s a shame Jacinda Ardern did not get to watch it before saying “Slava Ukraine” in our parliament…..

      And there’s nothing clean about ‘Ethnic Cleansing’.

  7. Kiev and Novgorod were the medieval capitals of the Slavic Rus people long before the people and their culture gravitated further north eventually centred on Moscow and St Petersburg. During the later middle ages and Renaissance period Cossack tribes were enlisted by Ivan lV (the Terrible) to push the boundaries across the Urals and into the great steppes, displacing the Tatars and the Golden Horde. They were also to utilised to push Turks out from the south including modern Ukraine, and to resist the Poles, Swedes and Lithuanians. The semi nomadic Cossacks are ethnically separate from the Rus with unclear, perhaps mixed, origins but consensus is that they originated in the Ukraine area.
    Add to the mix the Cumans people and other. The area has long been an ethnic melting pot, subject to conquest and reconquest for 1500 years at least.
    But Putin is correct the eponym Rus people have strong historical claim to brotherhood ethnic and territorial with the people of modern Ukraine dating back to the ninth century.

    To me it appears that most of the disinformation or omissions regarding these relationships lies with US controlled/influenced media sources.

    • That’s just where you are wrong! Novgorod was conquered by Muscovy who were in thrall to the Mongols. The state of Russia is the successor of the bloodthirsty and corrupt Mongols. Kyiv is the successor of Novgorod which had an early version of democracy. Muscovy/Russia never had democracy – just a succession of evil and lesser evil tyrants save for (briefly) Alexander II, Gorbachev and Yeltsin.
      There is much more to Gogol than what you say. He was born in Poltava, Ukraine and wrote a lot more than Taras Bulba. Perhaps you should also read Pushkin’s ‘Poltava’ about the hetman Mazeppa and his Cossacks to get a fuller picture.

  8. With regard to Gogol, the name is rendered Hohol in Russian and is used as a general nickname (of affection or not!) for a Ukrainian.

  9. Vlad The Adventurer February 13, 2024 at 7:07 pm
    “..I’m going to ignore all the things that Tucker didn’t bother asking, and just talk about what Putin said. After the interview I saw Western MSM news articles that said things like “Putin reveals true thoughts on Ukraine” (I paraphrase) and I thought what nonsense. ..”
    Here’s some things that weren’t said in the interview –

    Vlad, given the comments you have written above, I’m surprised you are not pro Russia. Perhaps that moment is waiting for the realisation about the actual impact the neo-nazis, banderites, fucknuckles, whatever, have had in the conflict.


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