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A Chronicle That Survived the Flames

<I>Istoriya Rusov</I> as a source of inspiration for Ukrainian classics
19 July, 00:00

(Conclusion. For Part I, see The Day, No. 23)

Gogol borrowed the story of the dreadful execution of Cossack officers and the order to mount a traveling display of their heads to various Ukrainian cities from Istoriya Rusov. From this chronicle Gogol also took the story of the Ukrainian Orthodox nobles who, unable to endure harassment and property seizures, betrayed their own people and faith by issuing promises and bribes to Polish officials, and opting for the church Union and, later, Catholicism. Gogol may have also utilized information about Cossack expeditions to the Turkish shores, including the cities of Sinope and Trabzon, as well as the apocryphal story of the capture of Polish Hetman Stanislaw Lanckoronski (portrayed as Potocki by Gogol) which occurred near the town of Polonne. This story is omitted from other chronicles. Istoriya Rusov may also have provided Gogol with some minor details concerning everyday life, for example, about the Cossacks’ resolve to remain unmarried, regulations governing elections to various Cossack ranks, the registered Cossacks, the structure of Cossack regiments, the fortification of Cossack settlements, etc. The chronicle tale of Hetman Ostrianytsia’s execution may have served as the model for the description of Ostap’s execution and that of his comrades-in-arms. The conclusion of Taras Bulba, where Gogol describes the execution of the Cossack leader, is reminiscent of a historical tale from Istoriya Rusov — the execution of Ostrianytsia’s comrades, the quartermasters Kyzyma and Suchevsky, who were pierced through with iron lances and impaled while still alive. The episode of the Jew Yankel helping Ostap break out of captivity was also borrowed from Istoriya Rusov, which recounts the story of Hetman Perevyazka, who was taken under guard by the Cossacks for his pro-Polish sentiments. Perevyazka later managed to escape with the help of a shopkeeper named Leibovych, who bribed the guards with cheap tobacco.

In the second, revised, edition of Taras Bulba, the author added many new literary elements. Apparently, Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s speech to the registered Cossacks in Istoriya Rusov inspired Gogol to write a scene in which Taras Bulba addresses the Cossacks before a crucial battle near Dubno. The second edition of this work included certain poetical elements that are typical of both ancient Rus’ and Cossack chronicles: these are standard epithets used to describe a true warrior. For example, all Cossack leaders extol their fatherland and the Orthodox faith before they die, an act that symbolizes deep patriotism and self-sacrifice. This was only natural because the author of the chronicle somewhat idealized the Cossack officers, while Gogol transposed this motif into his novella in order to enhance the impression of Cossack heroism.

The influence of Istoriya Rusov on Gogol was not confined to actual borrowings. The artistic verisimilitude of historical scenes portrayed by the author of the chronicle is profound. According to Aleksandr Pushkin, these scenes combine the poetic freshness of a chronicle and a critical stance, which is indispensable to history. It is this conviction that permeates Taras Bulba, a novel of the Cossack past.


Istoriya Rusov had a more complex and indirect effect on the works of Taras Shevchenko. Shevchenko’s views on national history were largely shaped by “the Konysky chronicle,” as he called Istoriya Rusov: under its influence the poet borrowed and further developed the spirit of the freedom struggle with which the chronicle’s author was imbued.

The poet’s interest in the historic past is attested by his “captive” letters to Osyp Bodiansky, the well known publisher of historical opuses, dated January 3, 1850; November 15, 1852; and May 1, 1854, in which Shevchenko asks his friend to send him the chronicle of Samiylo Velychko and Istoriya Rusov for further study.

While some earlier writers fully or partially used the chronicle as a source of almost ready-made images or plots, the poet of genius filled his works with the romantic sentiments of Istoriya Rusov, while completely reconsidering the historical facts. The age of the Polish-Cossack wars and the Ruin, Ukraine’s annexation by Muscovy, provoked uneasy thoughts in the poet about the fate of his motherland. The decisive role of historical figures in shaping the destiny of their people is the keynote of many of his works. In particular, the poet lays the main blame for Ukraine’s enslavement by Russia on Bohdan Khmelnytsky, hurling bitter (well-deserved?) reproaches at the famous Cossack hetman: the poem “In the Village of Subotiv” reads like an indictment of the Ukraine-Muscovy friendship. As for the tsars and their henchmen, the poet considered them the fiercest enemies of Ukraine. It is not easy to read Shevchenko without knowing history. In all probability, the poet was familiar with the body of Cossack chronicles that include Istoriya Rusov and the chronicles of Samovydets, Samiylo Velychko, and Hryhoriy Hrabianka, the colonel of Hadiach. Shevchenko scholars believe that the poet studied the Cossack chronicles well before his exile, borrowing manuscripts from Kostomarov and Bodiansky. Still, it was Istoriya Rusov that served as his main source of information about Ukraine’s past.

The plots and characters of Istoriya Rusov formed the basis of such works as “Taras’s Night,” in which Shevchenko recounted real-life events: the uprising headed by the hetman of the non-registered Cossacks, Taras Fedorovych (Triasylo), and the brilliant victory over the nobiliary army of Hetman Koniecpolski in 1630 near Pereyaslav. The Cossacks attacked the Polish camp, where a banquet was taking place, and seized all the weapons and supplies. The poet also speaks about the oppression and harm inflicted on the Orthodox by the Uniates, such as the leasing of churches to Jews and the execution of Nalyvaiko and Pavliuk. According to Istoriya Rusov, the Polish defeat on that day came to be known as “Taras’s Night.”

The protagonist of Shevchenko’s poem “Ivan Pidkova” was also a historical figure. In Istoriya Rusov Ivan (Pavlo) Pidkova, a descendant of Wallachian hereditary lords, was a talented Cossack general who fought against Turkey.

The romantic poem “Irzhavets” recounts the events that occurred after the Swedish rout at the Battle of Poltava, when Peter I’s troops destroyed the Old Sich on Khortytsia Island in retaliation for Hetman Ivan Mazepa’s “treason.” The Cossacks were forced to look for a different place and build a new Sich on the Oleshko Sands, a territory controlled by the Crimean khan. The only thing that the fleeing Cossacks managed to take away from the Old Sich was an icon of the Virgin Mary, which began exuding myrrh in the foreign land and continued to do so after its return to the Hetmanate. After the death of Peter I, the icon was installed in a brick church in the village of Irzhavets, in the Chernihiv region.

The poem “A Black Cloud Is Hanging” is about the Ruin, period of internecine struggle among the hetmans, and multiple leaders. The dismal rule of the ineffectual hetman, Ivan Samoilovych, his animosity toward Petro Doroshenko, and his friendship with the Russians brought nothing good to Ukraine at a time when the Tatars and Poles were making their cruelest forays into Ukraine.

Taras Shevchenko also offers the reader his own artistic reinterpretation of Ukrainian history in the works that he wrote in the so- called “three-year period:” the romantic poem-mystery “The Great Cellar,” and the poetic comedy “The Dream” (“To Each His Own”). These are extremely multiplaned works. Everyone can read them in their own way. They may be read the way the author wished, stressing the word “mystery” or “comedy” i.e., interpreting the text almost as a fantastic opus with fabulous characters and incredible events that in fact never occurred but were invented by the author. But the reader can also view them as the author’s interpretation of historical events and thus gain a better understanding of Shevchenko’s attitude to the causes and effects of what happened in Ukraine after Russia annexed it in 1654.

Istoriya Rusov served as a powerful literary and historical source for men of letters during the first half of the 19th century. Naturally, it would be rather difficult to trace all the influences it exerted on literature. Yet, the very fact that it was read by such literary geniuses as Yevhen Hrebinka, Nikolai Gogol, and Taras Shevchenko, who made use of its images and plots, demonstrates its tremendous artistic value. Istoriya Rusov merits a place next to the most eminent Ukrainian chronicles as the last work in the tradition of Cossack chronicle writing and a precursor of romantic literature, which reached its acme in the 1830s-1850s.

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