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.
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.