It’s an over-the-top patriotic panegyric to the Cossack people and culture of the time, wildly exaggerated, but very popular ever since. Wikipedia says of it:
The main character is based on several historical personalities, and other characters are not as exaggerated or grotesque as was common in Gogol’s later fiction. The story can be understood in the context of the Romantic nationalism movement in literature, which developed around a historical ethnic culture which meets the Romantic ideal.
Initially published in 1835 as part of a collection of stories, it was much more abridged and evinced some differences in the storyline compared with the better known 1842 edition, the latter having been described by Victor Erlich as a “paragon of civic virtue and a force of patriotic edification” while the first being “distinctly Cossack jingoism”.
Given such swashbuckling romanticism, it’s no surprise that Hollywood adopted the story with enthusiasm during the age of epic films. Here’s the poster and trailer for the 1962 motion picture, which was even more over-the-top than the book.
Here’s a battle scene from the book.
But the army of the enemy was already marching out of the city, sounding drums and trumpets; and the nobles, with their arms akimbo, were riding forth too, surrounded by innumerable servants. The stout colonel gave his orders, and they began to advance briskly on the Cossack camps, pointing their matchlocks threateningly. Their eyes flashed, and they were brilliant with brass armour. As soon as the Cossacks saw that they had come within gunshot, their matchlocks thundered all together, and they continued to fire without cessation.
The detonations resounded through the distant fields and meadows, merging into one continuous roar. The whole plain was shrouded in smoke, but the Zaporozhtzi continued to fire without drawing breath—the rear ranks doing nothing but loading the guns and handing them to those in front, thus creating amazement among the enemy, who could not understand how the Cossacks fired without reloading. Amid the dense smoke which enveloped both armies, it could not be seen how first one and then another dropped: but the Lyakhs felt that the balls flew thickly, and that the affair was growing hot; and when they retreated to escape from the smoke and see how matters stood, many were missing from their ranks, but only two or three out of a hundred were killed on the Cossack side. Still the Cossacks went on firing off their matchlocks without a moment’s intermission. Even the foreign engineers were amazed at tactics heretofore unknown to them, and said then and there, in the presence of all, “These Zaporozhtzi are brave fellows. That is the way men in other lands ought to fight.” And they advised that the cannons should at once be turned on the camps. Heavily roared the iron cannons with their wide throats; the earth hummed and trembled far and wide, and the smoke lay twice as heavy over the plain. They smelt the reek of the powder among the squares and streets in the most distant as well as the nearest quarters of the city. But those who laid the cannons pointed them too high, and the shot describing too wide a curve flew over the heads of the camps, and buried themselves deep in the earth at a distance, tearing the ground, and throwing the black soil high in the air. At the sight of such lack of skill the French engineer tore his hair, and undertook to lay the cannons himself, heeding not the Cossack bullets which showered round him.
Taras saw from afar that destruction menaced the whole Nezamaikovsky and Steblikivsky kurens, and gave a ringing shout, “Get away from the waggons instantly, and mount your horses!” But the Cossacks would not have succeeded in effecting both these movements if Ostap had not dashed into the middle of the foe and wrenched the linstocks from six cannoneers. But he could not wrench them from the other four, for the Lyakhs drove him back. Meanwhile the foreign captain had taken the lunt in his own hand to fire the largest cannon, such a cannon as none of the Cossacks had ever beheld before. It looked horrible with its wide mouth, and a thousand deaths poured forth from it. And as it thundered, the three others followed, shaking in fourfold earthquake the dully responsive earth. Much woe did they cause. For more than one Cossack wailed the aged mother, beating with bony hands her feeble breast; more than one widow was left in Glukhof, Nemirof, Chernigof, and other cities. The loving woman will hasten forth every day to the bazaar, grasping at all passers-by, scanning the face of each to see if there be not among them one dearer than all; but though many an army will pass through the city, never among them will a single one of all their dearest be.
Half the Nezamaikovsky kuren was as if it had never been. As the hail suddenly beats down a field where every ear of grain shines like purest gold, so were they beaten down.
How the Cossacks hastened thither! How they all started up! How raged Kukubenko, the hetman, when he saw that the best half of his kuren was no more! He fought his way with his remaining Nezamaikovtzi to the very midst of the fray, cut down in his wrath, like a cabbage, the first man he met, hurled many a rider from his steed, piercing both horse and man with his lance; and making his way to the gunners, captured some of the cannons. Here he found the hetman of the Oumansky kuren, and Stepan Guska, hard at work, having already seized the largest cannon. He left those Cossacks there, and plunged with his own into another mass of the foe, making a lane through it. Where the Nezamaikovtzi passed there was a street; where they turned about there was a square as where streets meet. The foemen’s ranks were visibly thinning, and the Lyakhs falling in sheaves. Beside the waggons stood Vovtuzenko, and in front Tcherevitchenko, and by the more distant ones Degtyarenko; and behind them the kuren hetman, Vertikhvist. Degtyarenko had pierced two Lyakhs with his spear, and now attacked a third, a stout antagonist. Agile and strong was the Lyakh, with glittering arms, and accompanied by fifty followers. He fell fiercely upon Degtyarenko, struck him to the earth, and, flourishing his sword above him, cried, “There is not one of you Cossack dogs who has dared to oppose me.”
“Here is one,” said Mosiy Schilo, and stepped forward. He was a muscular Cossack, who had often commanded at sea, and undergone many vicissitudes. The Turks had once seized him and his men at Trebizond, and borne them captives to the galleys, where they bound them hand and foot with iron chains, gave them no food for a week at a time, and made them drink sea-water. The poor prisoners endured and suffered all, but would not renounce their orthodox faith. Their hetman, Mosiy Schilo, could not bear it: he trampled the Holy Scriptures under foot, wound the vile turban about his sinful head, and became the favourite of a pasha, steward of a ship, and ruler over all the galley slaves. The poor slaves sorrowed greatly thereat, for they knew that if he had renounced his faith he would be a tyrant, and his hand would be the more heavy and severe upon them. So it turned out. Mosiy Schilo had them put in new chains, three to an oar. The cruel fetters cut to the very bone; and he beat them upon the back. But when the Turks, rejoicing at having obtained such a servant, began to carouse, and, forgetful of their law, got all drunk, he distributed all the sixty-four keys among the prisoners, in order that they might free themselves, fling their chains and manacles into the sea, and, seizing their swords, in turn kill the Turks. Then the Cossacks collected great booty, and returned with glory to their country; and the guitar-players celebrated Mosiy Schilo’s exploits for a long time. They would have elected him Koschevoi, but he was a very eccentric Cossack. At one time he would perform some feat which the most sagacious would never have dreamed of. At another, folly simply took possession of him, and he drank and squandered everything away, was in debt to every one in the Setch, and, in addition to that, stole like a street thief. He carried off a whole Cossack equipment from a strange kuren by night and pawned it to the tavern-keeper. For this dishonourable act they bound him to a post in the bazaar, and laid a club beside him, in order that every one who passed should, according to the measure of his strength, deal him a blow. But there was not one Zaporozhetz out of them all to be found who would raise the club against him, remembering his former services. Such was the Cossack, Mosiy Schilo.
“Here is one who will kill you, dog!” he said, springing upon the Lyakh. How they hacked away! their shoulder-plates and breast-plates bent under their blows. The hostile Lyakh cut through Schilo’s shirt of mail, reaching the body itself with his blade. The Cossack’s shirt was dyed purple: but Schilo heeded it not. He brandished his brawny hand, heavy indeed was that mighty fist, and brought the pommel of his sword down unexpectedly upon his foeman’s head. The brazen helmet flew into pieces and the Lyakh staggered and fell; but Schilo went on hacking and cutting gashes in the body of the stunned man. Kill not utterly thine enemy, Cossack: look back rather! The Cossack did not turn, and one of the dead man’s servants plunged a knife into his neck. Schilo turned and tried to seize him, but he disappeared amid the smoke of the powder. On all sides rose the roar of matchlocks. Schilo knew that his wound was mortal. He fell with his hand upon his wound, and said, turning to his comrades, “Farewell, brother gentles, my comrades! may the holy Russian land stand forever, and may it be eternally honoured!” And as he closed his failing eyes, the Cossack soul fled from his grim body. Then Zadorozhniy came forward with his men, Vertikhvist issued from the ranks, and Balaban stepped forth.
“What now, gentles?” said Taras, calling to the hetmans by name: “there is yet powder in the powder-flasks? The Cossack force is not weakened? the Cossacks do not yield?”
“There is yet powder in the flasks, father; the Cossack force is not weakened yet: the Cossacks yield not!”
And the Cossacks pressed vigorously on: the foemen’s ranks were disordered. The short colonel beat the assembly, and ordered eight painted standards to be displayed to collect his men, who were scattered over all the plain. All the Lyakhs hastened to the standards. But they had not yet succeeded in ranging themselves in order, when the hetman Kukubenko attacked their centre again with his Nezamaikovtzi and fell straight upon the stout colonel. The colonel could not resist the attack, and, wheeling his horse about, set out at a gallop; but Kukubenko pursued him for a considerable distance cross the plain and prevented him from joining his regiment.
Perceiving this from the kuren on the flank, Stepan Guska set out after him, lasso in hand, bending his head to his horse’s neck. Taking advantage of an opportunity, he cast his lasso about his neck at the first attempt. The colonel turned purple in the face, grasped the cord with both hands, and tried to break it; but with a powerful thrust Stepan drove his lance through his body, and there he remained pinned to the earth. But Guska did not escape his fate. The Cossacks had but time to look round when they beheld Stepan Guska elevated on four spears. All the poor fellow succeeded in saying was, “May all our enemies perish, and may the Russian land rejoice forever!” and then he yielded up his soul.
The Cossacks glanced around, and there was Metelitza on one side, entertaining the Lyakhs by dealing blows on the head to one and another; on the other side, the hetman Nevelitchkiy was attacking with his men; and Zakrutibuga was repulsing and slaying the enemy by the waggons. The third Pisarenko had repulsed a whole squadron from the more distant waggons; and they were still fighting and killing amongst the other waggons, and even upon them.
“How now, gentles?” cried Taras, stepping forward before them all: “is there still powder in your flasks? Is the Cossack force still strong? do the Cossacks yield?”
“There is still powder in the flasks, father; the Cossack force is still strong: the Cossacks yield not!”
But Bovdug had already fallen from the waggons; a bullet had struck him just below the heart. The old man collected all his strength, and said, “I sorrow not to part from the world. God grant every man such an end! May the Russian land be forever glorious!” And Bovdug’s spirit flew above, to tell the old men who had gone on long before that men still knew how to fight on Russian soil, and better still, that they knew how to die for it and the holy faith.
Balaban, hetman of a kuren, soon after fell to the ground also from a waggon. Three mortal wounds had he received from a lance, a bullet, and a sword. He had been one of the very best of Cossacks, and had accomplished a great deal as a commander on naval expeditions; but more glorious than all the rest was his raid on the shores of Anatolia. They collected many sequins, much valuable Turkish plunder, caftans, and adornments of every description. But misfortune awaited them on their way back. They came across the Turkish fleet, and were fired on by the ships. Half the boats were crushed and overturned, drowning more than one; but the bundles of reeds bound to the sides, Cossack fashion, saved the boats from completely sinking. Balaban rowed off at full speed, and steered straight in the face of the sun, thus rendering himself invisible to the Turkish ships. All the following night they spent in baling out the water with pails and their caps, and in repairing the damaged places. They made sails out of their Cossack trousers, and, sailing off, escaped from the fastest Turkish vessels. And not only did they arrive unharmed at the Setch, but they brought a gold-embroidered vesture for the archimandrite at the Mezhigorsky Monastery in Kief, and an ikon frame of pure silver for the church in honour of the Intercession of the Virgin Mary, which is in Zaporozhe. The guitar-players celebrated the daring of Balaban and his Cossacks for a long time afterwards. Now he bowed his head, feeling the pains which precede death, and said quietly, “I am permitted, brother gentles, to die a fine death. Seven have I hewn in pieces, nine have I pierced with my lance, many have I trampled upon with my horse’s hoofs; and I no longer remember how many my bullets have slain. May our Russian land flourish forever!” and his spirit fled.
Over-the-top indeed, and buckling every swash in sight: but a classic book in the Romantic tradition, that’s earned its place in our literary history.