Zaporozh'e Cossacks writing a letter to the Sultan
last minor update on 000809
English text copyright © 1986, 1998 by Hugo S. Cunningham
Individual, noncommercial reproduction is authorized, provided this notice is retained.
Exception: Translation of Cossack letter is copyright © 1961 by MUN Enterprises.
Painting (1880) by
Il'ya Efimovich Repin
5 May 1844 - 29 Sep 1930
This is one of the best known and loved paintings in Russia and Ukraine. It shows the Cossacks of Zaporozh'e composing as insulting a reply as possible to a Turkish demand for surrender (1675).
Most people can identify with these Cossacks by imagining at least one address they would like to send such a letter to.
In the 17th Century, Ukraine was a constantly disputed borderland between Catholic Poland and Muslim Turkey (both more powerful in those days), and Orthodox Russia (just starting to emerge as a great power). Indeed the very name "Ukraine" means "border."
The Cossacks were Ukrainian cavalrymen originally chartered by Poland to establish autonomous military communities on the Turkish border. The most famous Cossack settlement was the Zaporogian "Syech'" near present-day Zaporozh'e on the Dnepr River. At various times, different Cossack bands shifted allegiance back and forth between Poland and Russia. As Poland intended, however, they usually opposed Muslim Turkey on religious grounds.
In 1675, Poland was forced by military reverses to sign a treaty surrendering areas including Zaporozh'e to the Turks. The Cossacks themselves had plenty of fight left, however ...
The following is translated from D. I. Evarnitsky, "History of the Zaporogian Cossacks (Vol 2)," St. Petersburg, 1895; pp. 517-518:
Original text in Russian
These [Cossack attacks] so inflamed the hatred of the Muslims toward the Zaporogian Cossacks and the entire Christian population of Ukraine that the Turks decided to attack the Zaporogian Syech and raze it to the ground. There is a popular tradition that, before sending his troops to the Zaporogian Syech, Turkish Sultan Muhammad IV sent to the Zaporogians a letter demanding they submit voluntarily to him, an unconquerable knight. To the Sultan's letter, the Cossacks responded with free choice of words in a letter of their own. It denied the Sultan all honor, cruelly mocking the boasts of an "unconquerable knight." Many who treasure South Russian lore preserve copies of this letter of the Turkish Sultan and of the quaint reply of the Zaporogians. The letter may be fictitious, but it is entirely consistent with the spirit of the Zaporogian Cossacks.
Sultan Mahmud IV to the Zaporogian Cossacks:
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 Zaporogian Cossacks, to submit to me voluntarily and without any resistance, and to desist from troubling me with your attacks.
--Turkish Sultan Mahmud IV
The following translation appeared in M.B. Kuropas, "The Saga of the Ukraine," MUN Enterprises, © 1961:
The Kozaks of the Dnieper to the Sultan of Turkey:
Thou Turkish Satan, brother and companion to the accursed Devil, and companion to Lucifer himself, Greetings!
What the hell kind of noble knight art thou? The Devil voids, and thy army devours. Never wilt thou be fit to have the sons of Christ under thee: thy army we fear not, and by land and on sea we will do battle against thee.
Thou scullion of Babylon, thou wheelwright of Macedonia, thou beer-brewer of Jerusalem, thou goat-flayer of Alexandria, thou swineherd of Egypt, both the Greater and the Lesser, thou sow of Armenia, thou goat of Tartary, thou hangman of Kamenetz, thou evildoer of Podoliansk, thou grandson of the Devil himself, thou great silly oaf of all the world and of the netherworld and, before our God, a blockhead, a swine's snout, a mare's ___, a butcher's cur, an unbaptized brow, May the Devil take thee! That is what the Kozaks have to say to thee, thou basest-born of runts! Unfit art thou to lord it over true Christians!
The date we write not for no calendar have we got; the moon is in the sky, the year is in a book, and the day is the same with us here as with thee over there, and thou canst kiss us thou knowest where!
Hokkaido University's "Slavic Research Center" maintains
an extensive Internet catalog of Russian art at
Go to the Cyber-USSR, "a realm where no kulak goes un-liquidated, no five-year-plan goes un-overfulfilled, and no Great Leader and Teacher goes un-venerated."
Return to HSC index page.