One of the Best Comebacks in History

The Time a small band of Cossacks stood up to the Ottoman Empire

Ilja Jefimowitsch Repin — Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks — Yorck

In 1676, the Ottoman Empire was one of the most powerful empires in the world. However, they were beginning to reach the zenith of their power as the seventeenth century neared an end. One area they attempted to expand into was Ukraine.

The Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed IV, led an invasion force to subdue the area's people. What Mehmed did not count on was a fierce force of cossack fighters standing in his way. The cossacks achieved a surprising victory, and the Sultan still did not wish to admit his defeat. He offered the Cossacks a chance to surrender and instructed them to pay tribute.

Their reply was a vulgar and hilarious letter that, in no uncertain terms, declined the Sultan's demand.

Who Were the Zaporozhian Cossacks?

The cossacks were bands of semi-nomad people that populated the steppe lands of Eurasia, including Russia and Ukraine. The Cossacks were known as fierce warriors and often extorted tribute from their enemies.

As the region began to unite into various nations, the Cossacks worked out a deal with the leaders of these countries. In exchange for military service, they were allowed a level of self-governance. The Cossack hosts, as their groups were referred to, lasted until Stalin dissolved the Cossack military units after World War II. The Cossacks still exist as an ethnic group today.

One group of these Cossacks was the Zaporozhian Cossacks. Their name translates to "beyond the rapids" and the Dnieper River. The host rose to prominence in the fifteenth century and was an active military and political force in the region into the eighteenth century. They often harassed or aligned themselves with the Tsardom of Russia, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Khanate of Crimea. The host disbanded in 1775.

So when Mehmed sent his request to the Cossack host's leader, Ivan Sirko, he faced one of the region's most potent forces.

The Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks

According to legend, Mehmed sent the following letter to the Cossacks.

"As the sultan; son of Muhammad; brother of the sun and moon; grandson and viceroy of God; ruler of the kingdoms of Macedonia, Babylon, Jerusalem, Upper and Lower Egypt; emperor of emperors; sovereign of sovereigns; extraordinary knight, never defeated; steadfast guardian of the tomb of Jesus Christ; trustee chosen by God Himself; the hope and comfort of Muslims; confounder and great defender of Christians — I command you, the Zaporogian Cossacks, to submit to me voluntarily and without any resistance, and to desist from troubling me with your attacks."

The Cossacks, not ones to take threats lightly, came up with this reply.

"Zaporozhian Cossacks to the Turkish Sultan!
O Sultan, Turkish devil and damned devil's kith and kin, secretary to Lucifer himself. What the devil kind of knight are thou, that canst not slay a hedgehog with your naked arse? The devil shits, and your army eats. Thou shalt not, thou son of a whore, make subjects of Christian sons. We have no fear of your army; by land and by sea we will battle with thee. Fuck thy mother.
Thou Babylonian scullion, Macedonian wheelwright, brewer of Jerusalem, goat-fucker of Alexandria, swineherd of Greater and Lesser Egypt, pig of Armenia, Podolian thief, catamite of Tartary, hangman of Kamyanets, and fool of all the world and underworld, an idiot before God, grandson of the Serpent, and the crick in our dick. Pig's snout, mare's arse, slaughterhouse cur, unchristened brow. Screw thine 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 arse!"

To say the Cossacks knew how to spin an insult is an understatement. Undoubtedly, the Sultan was taken aback by this reply.

The event was immortalized by nineteenth-century Ukrainian-born Russian artist Ilya Repin. The image depicts the Cossacks crowded around a writer, smiling and laughing as they dictate the clever letter.

However, there are some that question the letter's authenticity. While the event did indeed happen, the actual letter did not survive. Then in 1870, a copy of the letter surfaced. However, it had been translated from Polish, which historically did not make sense.

This letter may have been a reply penned for the Polish king at the time when he had similar issues with the Ottomans. It may have been no more than a funny joke to read at a dinner party. Some historians now believe that the letter is a forgery at worst or a parody at best.

Yet, the spirit of the letter has been a beloved aspect of Ukrainian culture, even today. During the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia, the Ukrainian military and political leaders have shared images recreating the famous painting.

Even if the letter that inspired Repin's famous painting isn't accurate, the message behind it had become part of the identity of the Ukrainian people. They will not stand down to bullies.

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