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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 the Cossacks—essentially a cross between crusaders and thieves, the center of the multi-sided fight against Poles, Turks, and Crimean Tatars.

Taras Bulba himself is an aging "colonel" of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, a lifelong warrior whose two sons, Andri and Ostap, have finished their schooling at the Orthodox seminary and returned to begin their careers as mounted soldiers. Actually, the word "soldiers" conveys too much, or too little, in this context. The Cossacks, as the novel shows them, were not an organized military but a horde; not an army but an entire people of war—and old Taras will live to kill one of his sons for joining the enemy and watch the other son tortured to death. No wonder the boys' mother weeps as they leave at the end of the first chapter to join the Cossack camp.

Indeed, that scene of the mother's certainty that she will not see her sons again is a perfect encapsulation of all the peculiar compellingness of Taras Bulba. Here it is, in the new translation Peter Constantine has done for Modern Library:

As they rode out of the gate she came rushing out with the lightness of a wild goat, unimaginable at her age, held one of the horses with incomprehensible strength, and embraced her son with blind, crazed fervor. She was carried again into the house. The young Cossacks rode off sadly, holding back their tears out of respect for their father, who was perturbed himself, although he struggled not to show it. It was a gray day. The green steppes glittered brightly. Birds chattered discordantly.

What are we to do with prose like this? It lacks the logic of a novel's narrative. It is, instead a prose version of the succession of images by which an epic poem tells a story.

Even the romantic elements in Taras Bulba are somehow naïve—naïve as Gogol imagines Homer is naïve: a naïveté achieved only at the farthest end of artfulness. When Andri, in love with a beautiful Polish girl, forsakes his family to fight beside the Poles against the Cossacks, his father shouts out to him during the battle, "These are your own people"—and Gogol adds,

But Andri could no longer tell what men were in front of him, whether they were his own people or not. He could see nothing but locks of hair, long beautiful locks, and a swan-white breast and a snow-white neck, and beautiful shoulders, all made for rapturous kisses. "Men! Quick! Draw him over to the forest!" Taras shouted, and thirty of the swiftest Cossack riders set out to draw Andri into the forest.

Critics make much, and rightly, of Gogol's birth in the Ukraine and his use of backward, rural Ukrainian settings in his collections of stories known as Evenings on a Farm, which provided for Russian readers—as stories set in the South would later provide for American readers—both broad comedy and a nostalgic feeling for a world that was already passing away. Even the translated titles of those stories that made the young author's reputation—like "St. John's Eve" and "How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich"—convey what the urban Russians found comic and sweet in them.

But it's worth remembering that Gogol was already, by the time he wrote Evenings on a Farm, established at the worldly salons of St. Petersburg as the protégé of Pushkin. There exists an extraordinary letter from Gogol to his mother, demanding accounts of all the folk stories she can remember, together with all the Ukrainian details he himself never, in fact, really experienced. "That is very, very necessary for me. I expect from you in your next letter a complete description of the costume of a village deacon, from his underclothes to his boots, with the names used by the most rooted, ancient, undeveloped Little Russians."

In the heartbreakingly brief literary career that followed, it was as though Gogol set one perfect marker on each of the paths down which subsequent Russian writers would have no choice but to go. A suggestion from Pushkin produced from Gogol the comic play The Inspector General, from which Russian theater still hasn't recovered. The picaresque novel Dead Souls set the conditions all later comedy would have to obey. And then there are the short stories—so few of them, and each pregnant with what would become the history of Russian literature: "Viy," "Nevsky Prospect," "The Diary of a Madman." Dostoyevsky brought something very Russian to completion with Notes from Underground, but Gogol had pointed the way with "The Overcoat." The absurd that runs through Russian literature was simultaneously born and transcended in his story "The Nose."

Along the way, Gogol set himself to study his nation's history—even teaching it, briefly and very badly, at the university in St. Petersburg. His letters about his studies swing back and forth. At some moments, he gladly folds the history of Little Russia into the emerging history of the Greater Russian behemoth. At other moments, he sees the Muscovites and White Russians as the great betrayers of Ukrainian culture.

Though he intended to write a multivolume history, his obsessive historical research issued only in Taras Bulba. Both his distaste for White Russia and his Greater Russian nationalism are discernible in the book, which makes it difficult to place in the usual categories of historical fiction. But he wanted, from his little epic poem in prose, more than just a chance to play in the fields of history. He looked both to celebrate the platonic ideal of Russia and to escape from the modern reality that Russia was becoming. That, too, is very Russian: yet another theme from which his successors could not break free. Gogol needed to find the unmodern mind and dwell within it for himself.

Make no mistake. The Cossacks of Taras Bulba are, by any modern standard, monsters. If a battle goes well, they drink themselves into madness and skewer a few Polish babies to celebrate. It a battle goes poorly, they drink themselves into madness and drown some Jews to assuage their grief. But, like all real monsters in the age of mythology, they have a genuine innocence as well—the violent innocence of unselfconsciousness, the brutal innocence of Homer's warriors. "You did well by those Poles, didn't you?" Taras proudly asks his son Andri before he shoots him for his treason. "Good, my son, good!" he weeps, watching and unable to help as his son Ostap refuses to cry out while the Poles torture him to death.

To the world of "The Diary of a Madman," "The Overcoat," and "The Nose"—the comic and wrenching world of the modern urban Russia he saw before him, with its hyper-selfconsciousness, resentment, hypocrisy, weakening Orthodox faith, and unrootedness—Taras Bulba is Gogol's answer. The modern Christian who cannot feel the horror in that answer is not a Christian. The modern Christian who cannot feel some lure in that answer is not modern.

J. Bottum is Books & Arts editor of the Weekly Standard.

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