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Taras Bulba ()

    Main Entry: 1ep·ic
    Pronunciation: 'e-pik
    Function: adjective
    Etymology: Latin epicus, from Greek epikos, from epos word, speech, poem -- more at VOICE
    Date: 1589
    1 : of, relating to, or having the characteristics of an epic
    2 a : extending beyond the usual or ordinary especially in size or scope <his genius was epic --
    Times Literary Supplement> b : HEROIC

Usually when you think of an epic, you think of a 600 page doorstop tracing thirty or forty years in the lives of myriad characters.  But Taras Bulba is epic in scope, not size.  Gogol loved The Ukraine and was fiercely nationalist; his mission was to become "the Thucydides of Little Russia."  In that spirit, he spent nine years writing this slender but impassioned political polemic, one of the most thrilling and moving great novels ever written.

In 1569, dominion over The Ukraine passed to Poland.  The Polish overlords promptly tried stamping out Ukrainian culture by savagely exploiting the peasantry, outlawing the Ukrainian language and imposing Catholicism and Papal supremacy on the Orthodox population.  In response, Ukrainians flocked to join the military brotherhood known as the Cossacks of the Zaporozhian Setch.  The Cossacks, essentially a wild cross between mercenary crusaders and highwaymen,  became the focus of resistance to the Poles, the Turks and the Crimean Tatars.

The novel tells the story of the aging warrior Taras Bulba who, with his sons Ostap and Andrei, sallies forth to join the the Setch:

    Taras was one of the band of old-fashioned leaders; he was born for warlike emotions, and was
    distinguished for his uprightness of character. At that epoch the influence of Poland had already
    begun to make itself felt upon the Russian nobility. Many had adopted Polish customs, and began to
    display luxury in splendid staffs of servants, hawks, huntsmen, dinners, and palaces. This was not
    to Taras's taste.  He liked the simple life of the Cossacks, and quarrelled with those of  his
    comrades who were inclined to the Warsaw party, calling them serfs of the Polish nobles. Ever on
    the alert, he regarded himself as the legal protector of the orthodox faith. He entered despotically
    into any village where there was a general complaint of oppression by the revenue farmers and of
    the addition of fresh taxes on necessaries. He and his Cossacks executed justice, and made it a rule
    that in three cases it was absolutely necessary to resort to the sword. Namely, when the
    commissioners did not respect the superior officers and stood before them covered; when any
    one made light of the faith and did not observe the customs of his ancestors; and, finally, when the
    enemy were Mussulmans or Turks, against whom he considered it permissible, in every case, to
    draw the sword for the glory of Christianity.

By the time the story ends, both Bulba's sons will lie dead, one having betrayed the cause for the love of a Polish girl and the other tortured to death before his eyes by the enemy, Taras Bulba will sacrifice himself to save his men and the fight for independence will lie in tatters.

Gogol's impossibly romantic adventure was as much a jingoistic propaganda piece for his own time as an elegy for a way of life that had passed.  But it works on both levels and is surely one of the most exciting masterpieces in world literature.  It is simply outrageous that this great novel is not currently in print in English (the link above is to a used book site where copies are available.)  But whether you read it online or find an old copy, I urge you to seek it out and read it.  you won't be disappointed.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

Russian Literature
Book-related and General Links:
    -Welcome to the World of Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol
    -LINKS: Literature - Nineteenth Century Nikolai Gogal (1809-1852)(
    -INTRO: Taras Bulba and Other Tales By Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (Everyman's Library, John Cournos)
    -ETEXT: Taras Bulba and Other Tales
    -ANNOTATED ETEXT: Taras Bulba, et al. by Nikolai Gogol (with annotations from the Encyclopedia of the Self)
    -STUDY GUIDE: LESSON 6 The Rise of Prose: Nikolai Gogol
    -ESSAY: Parallel Lives: Gogol"s Biography and Mass Readership in Late Imperial Russia (Stephen Moeller-Sally)
    -REVIEW: of DEAD SOULS By Nikolai Gogol. Translated by Bernard Guilbert Guerney. Revised and edited by Susanne Fusso (Ken Kalfus, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW:  of  The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (John Bayley, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW:  Helen Muchnic: Was Gogol Gay?, NY Review of Books
        The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol by Simon Karlinsky
    -The Cossack Page

If you liked this book, try:

Sienkiewicz, Henryk
    -Quo Vadis?
    -The Teutonic Knights
    -The Little Trilogy
    -With Fire & Sword
    -The Deluge
    -Fire in the Steppe