Friday, November 25, 2022

Taras Bulba by Nikolai Gogol

The romanticization of war taken to the extreme
Taras Bulba
, a historical novel by Russian author Nikolai Gogol, is set in the 17th century in the Ukraine. The title character is a middle-aged Cossack and veteran of many battles. His two sons, Ostap and Andrij, have finished their studies at the Kiev Academy and have returned home to their father’s house. Taras, an old-school Cossack raised in a Spartan militaristic style, can’t wait to usher his boys into their first battle, thus initiating them into true manhood. The father and two sons gear themselves up for a campaign and head to the Zaporozhian Sich, where thousands of Cossacks have gathered for a drinking binge. Eager for battle but with no one to fight, they decide to break a peace treaty and attack the Poles.

Taras Bulba was first published in 1835 and revised in 1842. The events in this novel are based on the Khmelnytsky Uprising of 1648 to 1657, the same conflict that serves as the basis for the novel With Fire and Sword by Henryk Sienkiewicz, who tells the story from the Polish side. It is interesting how Gogol depicts the Poles as aristocratic dandies, as opposed to the Cossacks, who are salt-of-the-earth he-men. Andrij Bulba falls in love with a Polish woman who essentially converts him into a Pole, setting up a classic brother-against-brother war story.

Gogol has a reputation as a satirist, and aspects of the novel lead one to wonder whether Taras Bulba was written with satire or sincerity in mind. The way Gogol celebrates the drunkenness and machismo of the Cossacks is so over-the-top it reads like caricature, similar to the kind of slurs that are aimed at the “drunken Irish,” for example. On the flip side, in Andriy, the more sensitive and chivalrous of the Bulba brothers, those qualities are amplified to a feminine extreme, to the point where he comes across as a sobbing, subservient milquetoast in the presence of his lover. Despite such exaggerations, however, after the first couple chapters it becomes clear that Gogol wrote the novel with dead seriousness. Everything about this story is ramped up to the nth degree, from the violence and gore to the military brotherhood and self-sacrifice to the bigoted hatred of Catholics and Jews.

Usually I don’t mind novels that take Romanticism to larger-than-life excesses, particularly when it comes to patriotism or nationalism. Victor Hugo’s Ninety-Three is a good example, or Sienkiewicz’s trilogy of With Fire and Sword, The Deluge, and Pan Wolodyjowski. Such books bring to life not only the historical events but the mindsets and values of the periods they portray. As a battle epic, Taras Bulba is sufficiently exciting and not badly written. Gogol’s obsession with violence and die-with-your-boots-on masculinity, however, only serves as a constant reminder that all this torture and mutilation was merely the result of ignorant people fighting pointlessly over minor variations in how they worshipped the same god. The frequent anti-Semitic portrayals of Jews throughout the novel are also quite off-putting.

Novels about the Cossacks comprise a genre of their own in Russian literature, leading one to wonder if the Ukrainian Steppe was the Russian equivalent of the mythic Wild West. It certainly reads that way from the way Gogol romanticizes the Cossacks’ military ethos. With a different costume and weapons, a hard-drinking, grizzled, two-fisted hero like Taras Bulba would be right at home in a vintage Western hunting down Indians instead of infidels. If it’s realism you want, you won’t find it here. Instead, seek out Mikhail Sholokhov’s masterful two-volume epic And Quiet Flows the Don and The Don Flows Home to the Sea, or Leo Tolstoy’s semi-autobiographical novel The Cossacks.

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