What is it:
This is ‘Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire’, also known as ‘Cossacks of Saporog Are Drafting a Manifesto’ painted by Ilya Repin between 1880 and 1891.
Why is it Awesome?
Well, to start, look at it! This painting is roughly two meters high and three and a half meters wide. Repin conceived of the painting as a study in laughter and a salute to the free spirit and independence of the Cossacks. It took him more than a decade to finish, and when it was done Tsar Alexander II paid the staggering sum of 35,000 rubles for it. It currently hangs in the State Russian Museum of St. Petersburg.
Do you wonder what they’re laughing about? Would it interest you to know they’re trying to write the dirtiest piece of diplomatic correspondence in the the history of the world?
Legend has it that in 1676, the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmed IV, wrote a letter to the Cossacks of the Zaporozhian Host who lived in the lands around the lower Dnieper River in Ukraine. His army had failed to defeat them on the battlefield, so he sent off a missive demanding they submit to his rule anyway, as his victory was inevitable and there was no real need for further bloodshed given this obvious fact.
Here is his letter, according to wikipedia:
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 Zaporozhian Cossacks, to submit to me voluntarily and without any resistance, and to desist from troubling me with your attacks.
There is some debate about whether the Cossacks actually wrote back, as that was not their custom, but it makes a very good story that they did, and that is the subject of the painting. It is my understanding that most of these insults rhyme in the original, so it must have taken a little while to compose. The painting illustrates the Cossacks’ brainstorming session, as each tries to come up with a wittier vulgarity to include in their missive to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Here’s what –legend claims– they eventually came up with:
Zaporozhian Cossacks to the Turkish Sultan!
Thou art a turkish imp, the damned devil’s brother and friend, and a secretary to Lucifer himself. What the devil kind of knight art thou that cannot slay a hedgehog with your naked arse? The devil shits, and your army eats. Thou, a son of a bitch, wilt not ever make subjects of Christian sons; we have no fear of your army, by land and by sea we will battle with thee, f— thy mother.
Thou art the Babylonian scullion, Macedonian wheelwright, brewer of Jerusalem, goat-f—er of Alexandria, swineherd of Greater and Lesser Egypt, Armenian pig, Podolian villain, catamite of Tartary, hangman of Kamyanets, and fool of all the world and underworld, a fool before our God, a 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. Thou wilt not even be herding Christian pigs. Now we shall conclude, for we don’t know the date and don’t have a calendar; the moon’s in the sky, the year in the book, the day’s the same over here as it is over there; for this kiss our arse!
Signed Koshovyi Otaman Ivan Sirko, with the whole Zaporozhian Host
Isn’t a painting about laughter so much richer given its context? Repin wrote of the Cossacks, “All that Gogol wrote about them is true! A holy people! No one in the world held so deeply freedom, equality, and fraternity.”
I’ve quite enjoyed making my way through Repin’s works. He did a lot of stunning paintings that I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t familiar with until I came across this painting. Another one that is definitely worth you time is ‘Ivan the Terrible and his son Ivan on Friday, November 16, 1581.’ He finished painting it in 1885 (although I’ve also seen the dates as 1870 through 1873). It now hangs in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.
The painting depicts the horrified Ivan the Terrible embracing his dying son and heir, also named Ivan, whom he has just struck with his pointed staff of office. The younger Ivan was furious with the Tsar, who had earlier beat his wife for wearing ‘immodest clothing.’ The beating resulted in her having a miscarriage. Ivan the Terrible flew into a rage at this, and he lashed out at his son without thinking of what he was doing. Repin captures the moment after Ivan realizes what he has done. Look at his eyes. Look at his pallour as he holds his dying son and heir, who sprawls out, Christ-Like, across the carpet. What an amazing painting, by an amazing artist.