The Zaporozhian Cossack Letter

In the later part of the 17th century, the ruling Sultan of the Ottoman Empire sent an edict to the Ukrainian Cossacks on his northern border, demanding that they stop launching raids into his territory. In response, the Zaporozhians sent back what may be the most wonderfully insulting diplomatic message in history.

a sultans letter painting 1880 Ilya Repin

“The Cossacks Write a Letter to the Sultan”, by Ilya Repin

By 1640, the Ottoman Empire, centered in Istanbul (then known as Constantinople), was one of the most powerful forces in Europe. When the ruling Sultan Ibrahim was removed from office in a palace coup in 1648, his six-year-old son Mehmet IV was placed on the throne, and a court official named Koprulu Mehmet Pasha ruled as Regent and then took his role as Vizier when Mehmet IV reached adulthood. The young Sultan had a particular affinity for hunting, and soon became known as Avci, “The Hunter”. He became the second-longest-serving of all the Sultans, and during his reign the Ottoman Empire expanded to the greatest extent it would ever reach in Europe. Although the Europeans formed an alliance to oppose the Turks (called the Holy League), Mehmet’s forces succeeded in conquering the island of Crete and its surrounding seas, as well as parts of Transylvania, Russia, Ukraine, Hungary, and Poland.

After the war in Poland officially ended in 1675, however, a sort of guerrilla war continued. From the Dnieper River valley, a group of Cossack tribesman called the Zaporozhians, allied with Russia, made continuous cross-border raids into Ottoman territory. Although the Zaporozhians were technically under the rule of Poland, in reality they were fiercely independent, elected their own leaders, and did as they pleased. And one of the things they did often was plunder Ottoman border villages.

At the same time, Tatar tribesmen in Crimea, who were nominally under the rule of the local Khan (who was in turn a vassal of the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul), launched their own hit-and-run attacks into Zaporozhian territory. The whole situation became uncontrolled, with raids and retaliations following one after the other. According to later legend, sometime around 1675 Mehmet IV decided he had to do something.

After ordering his underling Khan in the Crimea to put a stop to the Tatar raids, the story goes, Mehmet turned to the Zaporozhian Cossacks and sent a message by courier to their leader, Ivan Sirko, demanding that he and his men submit to Ottoman authority. Loosely translated, the letter is said to have read:

“I, the Sultan, son of Mohammed, brother of the Sun and the Moon, grandson and viceroy of God, ruler of all the kingdoms of Macedonia, Babylonia, and Jerusalem, of Upper and Lower Egypt: king of kings; ruler of all that exists; extraordinary warrior never defeated; steadfast guardian of the tomb of Jesus Christ; trustee chosen by God himself; hope and comfort of Muslims, confounder and great protector of Christians–I command you, the Zaporozhian Cossacks, to submit to me voluntarily and without resistance, and to stop troubling me with your attacks.”

The Cossacks were, in addition to being some of the best soldiers in the world at the time, not people who reacted well to threats. And so, the story goes, Ivan Sirko and his men decided to sit down together and write a reply, which, according to legend, went something like this:

“Oh, Sultan, you Turkish Satan, brother and friend to the damn Devil and secretary to Lucifer himself. What the hell kind of warrior are you?–you can’t kill a hedgehog with your naked ass. The Devil shits, and you and your army eats it. You son of a bitch, you are not worthy to have Christian sons under you. We are not afraid of your army and we will fight you on land and on sea. So fuck your mother.

“You Babylonian servant, Macedonian carpenter, Jerusalem beer-brewer, goat-fucker of Alexandria, swineherd of Upper and Lower Egypt, pig of Armenia, goat of Tatar, hangman of Kamyenets, Podolian thief, and buffoon of all the world and underworld, an idiot before God, grandson of the Evil Serpent himself, pig’s nose, horse’s ass, slaughterhouse dog, unbaptized brow. May the devil burn your ass. This is how the Zaporozhians answer you, you glob of spit. You are unworthy to even herd pigs for Christians.

“Now we’ll end this letter. We don’t know the date and we don’t have a calendar: our month is found in the sky, our year with the Lord, and our day here is the same as it is over there. So kiss our ass.”

Unfortunately, Mehmet IV’s reaction to this missive is unrecorded. But if he thought about teaching the Cossacks a lesson in manners, he never got the chance. In 1687 a mutiny broke out within the Ottoman Army, and court officials working with the palace guard deposed Mehmet and put him under house arrest, placing his brother Suleyman II on the throne. Mehmet died in confinement in 1693.

So, how true is the “Zaporozhian Letter” tale? Well…the earliest written version of the story didn’t appear until 1872, as the Ukraine was attempting to win independence from Russia and Ukrainian nationalism became a popular subject. At least three versions of the purported letters were published, which is not a good sign for their authenticity. Some scholars have concluded that the linguistic style in the “Sultan’s letter” doesn’t match other 17th century writings. And although the Ottoman Empire was a pretty efficient bureaucracy and kept fairly complete archives, no version of the “Cossack letter” has ever been found in it. On the other hand, some Slavic authorities have concluded that the style in the Cossack letter matches that of 17th century Ukrainian.

One possibility is that the written stories are later versions of what was originally a spoken response given by one of the Cossacks to some emmissary of the Sultan. Another possibility is that the whole story is a made-up bit of Ukrainian nationalist propaganda that was created in the 19th century.

Whether genuine or not, the story of the letters inspired a Ukrainian artist named Ilya Repin, who, in 1880, painted “The Cossacks Write a Letter to the Sultan”. It depicts the Zaporozhians gathered around a table, laughing uproariously as each of them comes up with an even more juicy insult to add.

 

 

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3 thoughts on “The Zaporozhian Cossack Letter”

  1. It’s one of those stories that, if it isn’t true, damn well should be… 🙂

    I’m a fan of Repin’s work. I didn’t know he was Ukrainian; always just sort of assumed he was Russian.

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