Taras Bulba

Here’s an excerpt from Taras Bulba by Nikolai Gogol. The photo shows Yul Brynner as Taras.

“Taras Bulba was terribly stubborn. The cruel fifteenth century gave birth to such characters in that seminomadic corner of Europe. Russia, abandoned by her princes, had been devastated, burned to the ground by the irresistable raids of the Mongolian predators.

“A man who lost his shelter became daring; he became used to facing fire, restless neighbors, and unending perils, and forgot the meaning of fear.

“It was in that era, when the peaceful Slav was fired with a warlike flame, that the Cossacks made their appearance. They were like an explosion in which the free, exuberant Russian character found an outlet. Soon valleys, river crossings, sheltered spots, teemed with Cossacks. No one knew how many of them there were, and when the Sultan asked they answered in good faith:

“‘Who can tell? We are scattered over the entire steppe and wherever there’s a hillock, there’s a Cossack.’

“It was the ordeals they had gone through that had torn this strange manifestation of Russian vigor out of the breast of the Russian people. The erstwhile towns and princely domains with their feuding and trading had disappeared and their place had been taken by warlike settlements linked by the common danger and by hatred of the heathen predators.

“The unbreakable resistance of this people saved Europe from the merciless hordes from the East.

“There were few things a Cossack could not do. He knew the arts of blacksmithing and gunsmithing, how to distill vodka, build a wagon, prepare powder, and, above all, he knew how to drink and carouse as only a Russian can.

“Moreover, besides the registered Cossacks, those who were paid to appear fully equipped in time of emergency, it was possible to recruit a whole army of volunteers. All that was needed was for Cossack chiefs to appear at various market places and village squares, mount a cart and call out:

“‘Hey you beer brewers! Enough! You’ve lain around on your stoves too long, feeding the flies with your bacon! What about seeking a little glory! Hey, you plowmen, shepherds, skirt-lovers! Stop muddying your yellow boots and wasting your vigor on women! Time to act like Cossacks!’

“And these words were like sparks on dried wood. The plowman broke his plow, the brewers threw away their casks and destroyed their barrels, the merchants let their stores go to ruin, broke pots and pans and everything else in their houses, mounted horses and were off. In a word, the Russian soul found its outlet in the Cossack and his powerful physique.”