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Taras Bulba (Modern Library)
Taras Bulba (Modern Library)
Nikolai Gogol
Modern Library, 2003
176 pp., $17.95

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J. Bottum

The Cossacks' Iliad

Gogol and the making of Russian literature

Take the wild history of the Cossacks in the Ukraine. Add the birth of nationalism and the drawing in of the principalities around Moscow to form a modern country. Include Eastern Orthodoxy's long struggle against the Catholic Poles and the Ottoman Muslims. Don't forget a love story in which a son betrays his father and his people for the sake of a beautiful daughter of the enemy. Mix in a big dollop of anti-Semitism and alternating moments of unselfconscious joy in the midst of battle and unselfconscious moroseness at night around the campfire. Finally, douse the whole thing in huge buckets of vodka, and the result can have only one name. Russia.

It's a curious thing, but perhaps the greatest historical novel ever written came from a literature that hardly existed at the moment of the book's composition. In the early 19th century, Russia had only the thinnest gloss of modern European civilization, and, apart from the efforts of Pushkin, the Russian language had hardly produced a book worth reading. And then came Nikolai Gogol, who, before his death in 1852 at the age of 43, suggested, in the barest handful of works, every path down which Russian literature would subsequently head. An "epic poem," he called Taras Bulba when he transformed an 1835 short story into a novel in 1842, though the book is entirely in prose and runs fewer than 150 pages. As it happens, Gogol was right. Taras Bulba is an epic, and it's structured like a poem. Tolstoy could not have written War and Peace without the epic feeling Gogol gave Russian literature—any more than Solzhenitsyn could have written A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich without the imagistic logic of poetry, rather than the narrative logic of fiction, with which Gogol endowed his nation's prose.

Taras Bulba is set in the 16th century, after the retreat of the Lithuanians had left the Ukraine under the intermittent rule of Poland. As the Poles struggled to absorb "Little Russia," the Ukrainians formed the military culture of ...

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