Culture

The irreverent letter that the Cossacks wrote to the Ottoman sultan in 1676

The Cossacks were a social and military group that settled in southern Russia and present-day Ukraine around the 10th century. They had a Turkic origin and had arrived with the hordes of Mongol invasions in the area, settling there permanently. Famous for their skill in combat and military strategy, little by little they integrated and mixed with other ethnic groups of Slavic origin.

By the 17th century they were split into Russian Cossacks (which spread to the East) and Ukrainian Cossacks. These last ones formed in 1649 the state of the Cossacks of Zaporizhia (for the region of the same name in the center-south of the current country), and the nationalist tradition considers them the founders of the modern Ukrainian nation.

From their stronghold in the fortified camp of the Sich of Zaporozhia (or Zaporijia) they became a fearsome military and political force, resisting and threatening the nations around them alike: Poland-Lithuania, Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Finally, in the 18th century, the Russian Empire took it upon themselves to finish them off once and for all.

But before that, in 1676, the Zaporizhia Cossacks had defeated the troops of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed IV in battle. However, he kept insisting that they submit to his authority, and he sent them an ultimatum:

Sultan Mehmed IV to the Zaporizhia Cossacks:
As sultan, son of Mohammed; brother of the sun and the 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 gentleman, never defeated; staunch guardian of the tomb of Jesus Christ; trustee chosen by God himself; hope and consolation of Muslims; co-founder and defender of Christianity – I order you, the Zaporozhian Cossacks, to submit to me voluntarily and without any resistance, and to desist from continuing to bother me with your attacks.

The Cossacks, under the command of the hetman Iván Sirko, responded to the sultan with a letter that has gone down in the history of diplomacy (and eschatology) with honors:

The Zaporozhian Cossacks to the Ottoman Sultan: Oh Sultan, Turkish devil, cursed brother of the devil and secretary of Lucifer himself. What kind of gentleman are you that you can’t kill a hedgehog with your bare ass? The devil shits and your army eats. You will not make, son of a bitch, subjects of children of Christians; we do not fear your army, by land and by sea we will fight with you, fo##a your mother.
Babylonian scorpion, Macedonian wheelwright, Jerusalem brewer, Alexandrian goat herder, Upper and Lower Egyptian swineherd, Armenian pig, Podolian thief, Tartary catamite, executioner of Kamyanets (modern Ukrainian city), and fool of all the world and the underworld, idiot before God, grandson of the serpent and cramp in our penises. Pig’s snout, mare’s ass, slaughterhouse curse, unbaptized forehead, fuck your own mother.
So declare the Zaporozhians, wretch. You will not even herd pigs for Christians. Now we’re done, because we don’t know the date and we don’t have a calendar; the moon is in the sky, it’s the year of the Lord, the day is the same here as there, so kiss our asses. Signed: Koshovyi Otamán Iván Sirkó and the entire Zaporoga host.

Unfortunately the original letter has never been found, so this whole episode was long considered a legend. But in 1870 an ethnographer named Novitsky found a copy in the city of Dnipro dated in the 18th century.

Reproduction of the letter in Ukrainian / photo infoukes.com

It is written in Russian, explicitly indicating that it is a translation from Polish (it is possible that Polish here I want to say ukrainiansince then there was no denomination for this language).

Some researchers believe that it would really be a parody of a response to the letters that the King of Poland received from the Sultan in the same sense, therefore created by the Polish elite for fun. But others, like the Ukrainian Pavel Tarkovsky, maintain that it is authentic and was written by the Cossacks. Until a copy is found in the Turkish archives, we will never know the truth.

We will have to settle for the painting painted in 1891 by the Russian artist Iliá Repin and titled precisely Zaporozhian Cossacks writing a letter to the Sultanwhere it shows the funny composition scene of the missive.

The painting was purchased by Tsar Alexander III for 35,000 rubles, the largest sum ever paid for a Russian painting, and is now on display at the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.


Sources

The Cossack Letter / Friedman, Victor A. (1978), The Zaporozhian Letter to the Turkish Sultan: Historical Commentary and Linguistic Analysis / Early Ukraine: A Military and Social History to the Mid–19th Century (Alexander Basilevsky) / Wikipedia.


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