When the People of Ukraine (Allegedly) Told a World Power to F*ck Off in the Most Brilliant Way
Arguably the greatest diplomatic comeback in History, courtesy of the Zaporozhian Cossacks.
(DISCLAIMER: this article contains foul language and strong Cossack irreverence. You have been warned.)
The Russian Museum in St. Petersburg is home to a number of paintings from the greatest names in Russian arts, including Simon Ushakov, Valentin Serov and of course, Ilya Repin. A remarkable figure of the Russian Realist movement and a close friend of Leo Tolstoy, Repin became famous for his portraits and his ability to capture human expression and emotion.
The subject of Repin’s paintings showcased his incredible range. From the common and ordinary to the royal and ecclesiastical, from the visceral and real to the paranormal and fantastic — there was no limit to Repin’s creativity. His work touched the souls of millions around the world with depictions of barge haulers in the Volga, a Bolshevik soldier stealing bread from a child, and a Tsar cradling his dead son and heir moments after having killed him in a fit of anger.
One of Repin’s favorite subjects was his homeland of Ukraine, particularly his hometown, Chuguyev (Chuhuiv), then a part of the Russian Empire’s Kharkov Governorate. It was his connection to his homeland and its cultural heritage that led him to work on a single painting for over a decade. A painting that immortalized his name as a legendary artist, depicting an equally legendary event in Ukrainian history that may or may not have actually happened.
I speak, of course, of the Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks — the iconic depiction of a bunch of burly, jolly men settled in Central Ukraine, crafting the most disrespectful and egregious diplomatic parody this world has ever seen.
Here’s the historical context behind the biggest roast of a head of state in history: the year is 1676. Or 1675. Or maybe 1678 — no one knows for sure and it doesn’t really matter, honestly. What matters is that after failing to conquer a Cossack fortress, Sultan Mehmed IV — the second longest reigning sultan in Ottoman history — sent a missive to the Zaporozhian Cossacks ordering the immediate cessation of their raids in Ottoman territory, as well as their complete submission to the Ottoman Empire.
In this letter, Mehmed IV makes an exceptionally long description of his titles, rights and accomplishments — the kind of flex few other sovereign rulers could make at that time. In fact, the sultan spent more ink introducing himself than stating the actual message of his letter, which reads as follows:
Sultan Mehmed IV to the Zaporozhian Cossacks,
I the Sultan; son of Muhammad; brother of the Sun and Moon; grandson and vice-regent of God; sovereign of all kingdoms: of Macedonia, Babylonia, and Jerusalem, of Upper and Lower Egypt; emperor of emperors; ruler of all that exists; extraordinary, invincible knight; steadfast guardian of the tomb of Jesus Christ; trustee of God Himself; the hope and comfort of Muslims; confusion and great protector of Christians — I command you, the Zaporozhian Cossacks, to surrender to me voluntarily and without any kind of resistance, and do not permit yourselves to trouble me with your attacks.
— Turkish Sultan Mehmed IV (based on Victor A. Friedman’s commentary)
Mehmed “the Hunter,” as he is often called, was not messing around. He had thrown the full weight of his Ottoman suzerainty onto this letter, hoping its recipients would shake in their boots as they read it.
Nations like the Zaporozhian Host — a semi-autonomous organization led by military officers and covering most of Central and Eastern Ukraine — were mere flies in the eyes of the great Ottoman lion. These Cossacks were originally serfs of Slavic origin that fled the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and its manorial impositions. They came together as one people with the purpose of defending themselves from the brutal raiding and slave-trading practices exacted by the Crimean Khanate — the heirs of the “Golden Horde” and a Tatar vassal state to the Ottoman Empire.
In time, the Cossacks grew to the point that they would engage in raiding of their own against their Tatar nemesis. But even with the rise of fearsome Hetman such as Bohdan Khmelnitsky, the Cossacks remained muzzled by their allegiances, which around the time of this letter may have been the Russian Tsardom.
They were by no means independent, but the Zaporozhian Sich enjoyed enough autonomy to cultivate their own way of life in their own lands — and of course, to conduct their own raids into Ottoman states and provinces. Needless to say, having his domain constantly plundered by a collective of mostly lowborn Orthodox Slavs caused great grief in the mighty sultan.
Thus the sensible thing to do, in Mehmed IV’s mind, was to cow the Cossacks into submission with a lengthy description of how powerful and privileged he was, and how insignificant the Zaporozhian Host looked in comparison.
There is just one flaw in this line of thought: the Cossacks don’t give a damn.
Not only did Sultan Mehmed’s warning fall on deaf ears, but it also supplied boisterous Cossacks with immense material to craft an epic retort. They picked apart every boast made by the Ottoman sultan and turned it on its head without holding anything back.
This is the actual “Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks.” Supposedly.
Zaporozhians — to the Turkish Sultan,
You Turkish Devil!
Brother and companion of the accursed Devil, and secretary to Lucifer himself! What the hell kind of noble knight are you? The Devil shits, and you and your army eat it up. You are not fit to have the sons of Christ under you. Your army we do not fear, and by land and by sea will we do battle against you.
You Babylonian scullion, Macedonian wheelwright, brewer of Jerusalem, goat-thief of Alexandria, swineherd of Upper and Lower Egypt, Armenian pig, Podolian thief, catamite of Tartary, hangman of Kamyanets, grandson of the Serpent, and buffoon of all the world and underworld, a fool before God, a swine’s snout, mare’s ass, butcher’s cur, unbaptized brow. The Devil take you!
So do the Zaporozhians declare, you loathsome glob of spit! You are unfit to rule true Christians. The date we do not know, for no calendar have we got; the moon is in the sky, the year is in a book. The day is the same over here as with you over there — and you can kiss us you-know-where!
— Koshovyi otaman Ivan Sirko, with all of the Zaporozhian Host
Absolutely savage response. Arguably fictional as well — but totally in character with the legendary temerity of the Cossacks that Repin captured so vividly.
In his painting there is no fear nor consternation. The Zaporozhian leaders are not pensive individuals worried about the repercussions of their reply. They do not feel intimidated in the slightest by the Ottoman’s power nor by his fearsome armies and Crimean vassals.
Instead, the Cossacks are laughing. A motley assembly of battle-hardened men is huddled around a table after receiving a most serious notice from one of the world’s foremost leaders — and they are having the time of their lives ridiculing him. Their courage fueled by alcohol, brotherhood, a shared disregard for foreign authority and enmity for Muslim powers, Repin’s Zaporozhians are the epitome of defiance no matter how bad the odds are.
With all that is going on in the world right now, I find it ironic that the people harboring this wonderful piece of art have failed to learn anything from it.
The Zaporozhian Host may be no more; their Sich may be no more; their way of life may be all but forgotten. But the people inhabiting the “land beyond the rapids” remain, as inflexible and unflinching in the face of foreign presumption as ever.
Three-hundred and fifty years later, they show the world that they still have the mettle to not only stand up to their foes, but to make a mockery out of them as well — even if their foes are global superpowers threatening to use nuclear weapons.
That being said, my final thoughts are with the innocents in both sides of the ongoing conflict — the people. Civilians hunkered down underground in bunkers. Mothers desperately trying to cross the border with their children. Families torn apart by distance and death. Young soldiers deceived into fighting and dying in a war they did not want in the first place. Common folk affected by harsh economic sanctions. They are all victims of an aggression that in my opinion has no point existing in the first place.
And though these people are not currently laughing, I am sure they would like to make Ivan Sirko’s words their own and subsequently direct them at the one responsible for this bloody mess. I know I do.
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