On the Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks

Betsy Ross Flag by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

Betsy Ross Flag by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

I had planned from the very outset to compose an article hailing the relatively unique moment in human history in which the Zaporozhian Cossacks thumbed their collective nose against the Ottoman Emperor, as immortalized in the painting of one Ilya Repin, a formative moment not only in western history but more specifically the development of Ukraine, but as I did my research, fearing to commit an error of fact in my elucidation, I found that the nature of things was in fact labyrinthine. I don’t know why I should have thought otherwise; the truth is rarely simple, especially collated from the varying perspectives of the criminals and victims involved. Nevertheless, I will make an essai, but it won’t be nearly as clear cut as I’d like—perhaps as you’d like.

There are a number of values, a number of principles and statutory laws enshrined within the Bill of Rights, otherwise known as the first ten amendments of the United States Constitution. At the time, certain lawmakers thought this an unnecessary intervention upon the inherited English common law by which the thirteen colonies had been hitherto governed, what seemed sufficient enough, certainly, but other lawmakers worried about the depredations of collective apathy or illusion and thereafter the dissolution of the essential rights even as laid out in the common law. I should mention, at this point, that the common law in those legal systems which tolerate it is the collective findings of judges in legal cases which serve as persuasive rulings that influence and determine rulings in the future, until some other finding should prove more persuasive. In some ways, it’s rather like the scientific method. Anyways, where was I? So, in any case it was determined that there would be a bill of rights including laws considered to be too precious to reside merely as normal statutory law, but were required to be infinitely less malleable, because removing an amendment can be like moving heaven and earth. Read your civics books children.

A Serf Leaving his Landlord on Yuriev Day by Sergei V. Ivanov

A Serf Leaving his Landlord on Yuriev Day by Sergei V. Ivanov

Anyways, implied from several amendments is this concept called the “right to self determination.” It is as it sounds, aside from cases which might violate sensible laws, everyone has the right to lead his life as he sees fit, and he is imbued with this authority by his creator and not by the state. The state’s responsibility is to ensure that his rights are not violated, not the provision of rights. For most of history, for most peoples, the right to self determination would be a foreign concept. In many parts of the world, the majority of inhabitants were peasants that were tied to their land, compelled to produce product at the risk of starving to death. They were often prohibited from migration. They weren’t allowed to question the authority of the religions or the rulers, and if they failed in this most basic obeisance, they could be beaten, jailed, and killed—often in literally spectacular ways. Have you ever heard the term “Man was born free and is yet everywhere in chains?” There’s be a handful of situations in which any collective group consisting of more than a mere oligarchy has possessed the right to self determination before the late modern period. Classical Athens, Republican Rome, arguably various migratory groups—not much else. Loved and adored but loved and lost.

In the aftermath of the Turkic migrations, all sorts of peoples got thrown, pushed, and whirled around. Some were never heard from again, some assimilated into others, and others had magnificent wars we generally know very little about. Out of this, in an arguable time period but between 1200 AD and 1500 AD came a people—but really more a massive and loose confederation of peoples—called Cossacks, allegedly derived from a Turkic term “Kazakh” meaning “free man.” Eastern Europe in this period was dominated by a horse-born aristocracy of predominantly Slavic decent, whether the boyars in Russia or the Szlachta in Poland. Underneath them was a titanic peasant class that really had the worst of all peasants in all of Europe. These peasants were called “serfs,” and they were quite literally slaves, slaves not even to the state but the personal chattel of their aristocratic owners. The depredations inflicted upon them can never be fully chronicled. There’s not enough trees, not enough paper. In any case, large numbers of serfs would flee their undesirable predicament and some of them would seek asylum amidst the, at that time, relatively tiny Kazakh settlements who, feeling bad for the emigres, would assimilate them into their society providing they adopt Orthodox Christianity. For those that did, they enjoyed for some centuries both real and very approximated personal freedom, the right to do and go as they pleased, the right to fight and raid as they pleased. So important did they become that the crowns of both Poland-Lithuania and Moscow constantly sought their influence until, following the Khmelnytsky Uprising which, though subdued, presaged the near collapse of the Polish state in the Deluge of wars that followed, they fell under the influence of the Russian crown until they were largely reduced to the state once again of slaves, back and forth again and again vying for political rights until the rise of Communism nearly obliterated them.

A colorful if nevertheless labyrinthine legacy, they served as excellent light cavalry and occasionally good infantry.

An Officer of the Zaporozhian Cossacks

An Officer of the Zaporozhian Cossacks

But what I wanted to discuss, before I get to the matter at hand, are the massacres. The Cossacks were semi-nomadic pastoralists, meaning they lived from predominantly what could be derived from their animals. It also means they raided their neighbors frequently for supplies. While this was declasse in itself, during the Khmelnytsky Uprising against the Polish crown, the Zaporozhian Cossacks raided with utter disregard, ravaging huge tracks of the crown’s holdings, committing unbelievable atrocities against the locals, in many locales reduced to a mere ten percent of what they had been in population. Atrocities were committed against Catholics and atrocities were committed against Jews, with such stories of people hacked to pieces and even cannibalism. When the tables were turned, and the Cossacks were in their own home field, the Catholics in the crown forces didn’t hesitate to use commensurate violence against Cossack and Ukrainian villages in reply. This rather permanently denoted western from eastern Slavs, and the scars remain to this day.

It’s the interplay of where the right to self determination meets human nature. A sensible state will restrain such impulses, for even honest men will lose themselves to criminality if led by criminals, and it’s an unfortunate stain upon what I have to say.

The Cossacks symbolized freedom in a time when there was little left of her, treated even romantically by their successors and adorers. And in this they had a great moment, a true moment, in which so much truth had never been spoken to so much power, the whole reason for the first amendment.

While under the influence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Cossacks were variously encouraged and discouraged from raiding, especially as regards maritime raiding, for it was common they would take to their boats and viciously manhandle the Ottoman holdings across the Black Sea, which were generally poorly defended, if at all, and wildly profitable. It is in one such instance when a Cossack raiding force handily defeated the bodyguard and the Ottoman Sultan and sent him reeling from one of his many palaces, in flight for his life, that he had the strange gall to reciprocate a message, here faithfully repeated.

Sultan Mehmed IV to the Zaporozhian 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 Mehmed IV

But possessing no great consideration for the pomp and outrageous circumstance of kings, knowing themselves already to possess the field and possess much of his wealth besides, their response was one for the history books, if history books could be found to repeat their repeated obscenity and wild abuse.

Zaporozhian Cossacks to the Turkish Sultan!

O sultan, Turkish devil and damned devil’s kith and kin, secretary to Lucifer himself. What the devil kind of knight are you, that can’t slay a hedgehog with your naked arse? The devil excretes, and your army eats. You will not, you son of a bitch, make subjects of Christian sons; we’ve no fear of your army, by land and by sea we will battle with thee, fuck your mother.

You Babylonian scullion, Macedonian wheelwright, brewer of Jerusalem, goat-fucker of Alexandria, swineherd of Greater and Lesser Egypt, pig of Armenia, Podolian thief, catamite of Tartary, hangman of Kamyanets, and fool of all the world and underworld, an idiot before God, grandson of the Serpent, and the crick in our dick. Pig’s snout, mare’s arse, slaughterhouse cur, unchristened brow, screw your own mother!

So the Zaporozhians declare, you lowlife. You won’t even be herding pigs for the Christians. Now we’ll conclude, for we don’t know the date and don’t own a calendar; the moon’s in the sky, the year with the Lord, the day’s the same over here as it is over there; for this kiss our arse!

– koshovyi otaman Ivan Sirko, with the whole Zaporozhian Host.


They had some amusement mocking his style whilst simultaneously riddling his worthless corpulence with low arrows. But whatever is your opinion of obscenity, the man that would have placed the whole world in chains deserved it—and far worse. Never has such truth been spoken to power without consequences, owing to their martial superiority, and I would have said that it never would again, owing to their primary importance of freedom of speech in modern nations, but I would be wrong. With the rise of speech codes in Europe and the continued encroachments upon the rights of man by nevertheless elected officials, it’s never been more important. If you aren’t doing everything in your power to humiliate those in authority and demand explanations from their followers, you’re blindly wandering into despotism. The Turkish president today has criminal charges filed against a German reporter in Germany. You’re not allowed to offend people in Britain. Hate speech is being used as a mantra to restrict transgressive speech, which is the most important kind of speech.

Anyways, here she is in all her glory.

Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks by Ilya Repin

Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks by Ilya Repin