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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

A Chronicle That Survived the Flames

<I>Istoriya Rusov</I>, a source of inspiration for Ukrainian classicists
12 July, 2005 - 00:00
COVER OF THE FIRST EDITION OF ISTORIYA RUSOV. MOSCOW, 1846. TARAS BULBA WELCOMING HIS SONS. PAINTING BY TARAS SHEVCHENKO

The history of ancient Ukrainian literature has quite a few blank spots that make researchers uneasy but which are used by writers as an inspiring source of new romantic plots and characters. But even in the old literature there were few books that can compare to Istoriya Rusov in terms of the volume of literary material mined from it by authors throughout the ages. This 18th-century work is in fact an anonymous Cossack chronicle, which has yet to yield up its secrets to researchers. Published in Moscow in 1846, it was unofficially banned by censors the following year and republished in Ukraine only in 1990. The Ukrainian diaspora rediscovered it much earlier: in 1956 Istoriya Rusov was published in a limited edition in New York. However, long before the book officially appeared in print it was circulated in numerous handwritten copies (lists), which could not be controlled or banned. Even then this book had a reputation for being too explicit in its condemnation of the authorities. Today we can only guess at how many lists there were and who owned them. Aside from its openly condemnatory nature, Istoriya Rusov stands out for its highly elaborate literary style, emotionally charged descriptions of historical events, and its attempt to show the continuity of Ukrainian history from ancient times to the late 18th century. At the same time, it is highly critical of the Russian government, which had exerted great efforts to suppress Ukrainian statehood throughout the 18th century. However, it is its legends and historical narratives, colorful Cossack chieftains, the unbelievable exploits of the Cossack army, and, most importantly, its freedom-loving spirit that have captivated readers throughout the ages.

Yevhen Hrebinka, Mykola Hohol [Nikolai Gogol], and Taras Shevchenko are among the most celebrated 19th-century writers whose works to a significant degree reflect their fascination with Istoriya Rusov.

A DARLING OF THE DEMONS

Yevhen Hrebinka used the main plotline of the chronicle in his historical novel entitled Colonel Zolotarenko of Nizhyn. We know Hrebinka more as a gifted Ukrainian fabulist, who wrote in Russian. That he explored the Cossack past and Ukraine’s history in his works is an exceptional phenomenon. In doing so, the author was probably paying tribute to Romanticism, which dominated literary trends in Ukrainian literature of the 1830s and 1840s. Romantic writers often returned to the historical past, mining it for plots and characters, and recreating in their works a new and occasionally unreal world. In our view, in his novel Yevhen Hrebinka deviated slightly from the Romantic canon by bringing the latter half of the 17th century — the period of the Russo-Polish wars known as the Ruin — much closer to the readers of his age, and demythologizing it, which did not make the novel any less romantic. The author creatively refined the historical story, embellished the scant facts provided by the chronicle, painted full-fledged characters on the basis of figures loosely portrayed in Istoriya Rusov, and constructed a clear plotline, thereby creating a substantial historical novel.

The gifted commander and hetman, Ivan Zolotarenko, is one of the most mysterious and demonic characters in Istoriya Rusov. A protОgО of Russian Tsar Aleksey Mikhailovich, Zolotarenko, whose army scored victories everywhere, while he himself seemed immune to bullets and sabers, filled his enemies with a mystical fear; they considered him a sorcerer and a kharakternyk, a wizard who ruled over the forces of the netherworld. His successful military campaigns were a thorn in the side of the Polish rulers. Their desire to destroy him was so great that they turned for help to Catholic priests, who in turn decided to enlist the aid of demonic forces. They decided to assassinate the hetman in the small town of Staryi Bykhiv, which he was expected to pass through with his army on his way to Ukraine. As their assassin they chose an ordinary burger by the name of Tomasz, a Catholic organ player, who was also a very good marksman. Yevhen Hrebinka masterfully portrayed the poor organ player whose family was entirely dependent on hunting. The Catholic clergy decided to use Tomasz’s skills and persuaded him to shoot Zolotarenko from the belfry in the town square. In return, the priests promised to give Tomasz’s son a good education at the Jesuit school.

Their fear of the Cossack hetman’s superhuman abilities was so great that they cast a special silver bullet engraved with a Latin inscription. Perhaps the Catholics believed that silver would be more effective than lead in killing the hetman, or perhaps they were guided by medieval superstitions, according to which evil forces were afraid of silver. In any case, their plan succeeded and Zolotarenko was killed.

The story’s ending is no less shocking than the base act committed by the Catholic gentry of Bykhiv. During the funeral, once the hetman’s body had been delivered to his native Korsun and funeral songs were being sung in the church, the wooden church doors, locked from the outside, suddenly caught on fire, and the church burned down with the coffin and people trapped in it. This led to many superstitious speculations and legends among Polish chroniclers: allegedly, Zolotarenko was engulfed by hellfire, which he had devotedly served throughout his life. The novelist offers a more prosaic explanation: the fire was caused by arson. While the church was burning, a dark figure that closely resembled a Catholic monk was spotted on a nearby hill. This tragic event did in fact take place during Zolotarenko’s funeral. This incident was mentioned by another Cossack chronicler, Samovydets, who claims to have witnessed it. Thus, Yevhen Hrebinka’s novel dispels a myth that was about to come to life as a result of extraordinary but not supernatural events.

TRAGEDY OF AN OLD COLONEL

Mykola Hohol paid tribute to the literary merits of Istoriya Rusov by creating arguably the best literary work about the Cossack past in Russian and Ukrainian literature, Taras Bulba. This novel originally appeared in two markedly different editions in 1835 and 1842. The first edition of Gogol’s Taras Bulba was heavily influenced by two books: Istoriya Rusov and Beauplan’s Opys Ukrayiny [Description of Ukraine]. The second edition was more influenced by Count Mishetsky’s History of the Zaporozhian Cossacks and folkloric sources, proof that Gogol’s interests had shifted into the realm of the oral folk tradition. Gogol’s tremendous interest in the past was reflected in his unrealized plans to become a history teacher.

However, it was Istoriya Rusov that provided Gogol with useful material for his numerous historical digressions in the first edition of Taras Bulba. Here we read a story about Cossacks who had escaped to the Zaporozhian Sich. It is based on a story in Istoriya Rusov about the Polish reign of terror in 1597, which began with the introduction of the Union of Brest, when Catholic priests roamed in search of Orthodox Christians, traveling throughout Ukraine in carts pulled by people to impose the union by force. They leased out Orthodox churches to Jews, who then charged Orthodox believers for attending divine services. This is the source of the account about the way Jewish leaseholders used church utensils and garments.

By Yaroslav MYSHANYCH, doctoral candidate in philology

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