On this date in 1940, Soviet writer Mikhail Koltsov was shot at Lubyanka Prison.
Maybe the premier journalist of the early Bolshevik state, Koltsov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) founded several magazines in the 1920s — including the still-extant Ogoniok.* His stylistic flair set him apart in an age oppressed by leaden, censorious prose. “If Pravda featured a readable piece in the 1930s, Koltsov was probably the author,” Donald Rayfield puts it in Stalin and His Hangmen. And the man’s charisma didn’t end with pen; he was the lover of (among others) the wife of security chief Nikolai Yezhov.
A convinced communist who had participated in the revolution, his reliability led Stalin to dispatch him to the Spanish Civil War — as a Pravda correspondent but also, of course, a Soviet agent. His role and his many fraught relationships are treated at some length in We Saw Spain Die; one officer of an international brigade wrote that Koltsov and his fellows seemed to breathe freer amid the wild danger of the front — “Here there was none of the slavish terror of the Moscow intellectual. Under the hail of Fascist bullets they forgot the bullet in the back of the neck, the secret executions of the GPU. Their talk was relaxed, uncharged with double meanings, un-Asiatic.”
But Koltsov lived ever in the shadow of Stalin’s terror, and to hear his friend, English correspondent Claud Cockburn tell it, Koltsov too knew it very well: a man for his time who could be a true believer by day and by night crack gallows humor at the creeping purges among friends. “I cannot say I was surprised” by his fall, Cockburn wrote when his onetime comrade disappeared. “And, oddly, I doubt if he was much surprised either. He had lived — and talked and joked — very dangerously, and he had absolutely no illusions so far as I know about the nature of the dangers … He would not, I thought, have been otherwise than satirically amused by some of the almost hysterically sentimental outcries which greeted his removal.” Though difficult to establish with certainty, it is thought that Stalin and Beria broadly suspected their Spanish Civil War emissaries of exposure to Trotskyite machinations, western spies, and other indulgences characteristic of men too far removed from that bullet in the back of the neck. Veterans of this conflict who retured to the USSR were a heavily purged demographic.**
Arrested as a Trotskyite at the end of 1938, he had a year to savor the terrors of interrogation and was made to denounce as western agents former friends like director Vsevolod Meyerhold — who was eventually executed on the same Feb. 1-2 night as Koltsov himself.
His brother, the cartoonist Boris Yefimov,† tried to inquire about him in March 1940 and was told that Koltsov had been interned in the gulag for ten years “without right of correspondence” … a secret police euphemism for a man who would in fact never correspond with anyone again.
* In 1923; this was a re-founding of a periodical dating to 1899, and the magazine naturally claims the earlier vintage for itself.
** Koltsov’s fall also corresponds to Moscow’s pre-World War II rapprochement with Berlin; one of the people his tortured denunciations helped bring down was the Jewish pro-western foreign minister Maxim Litvinov, for whom an anti-fascist alliance had been the policy. Litvinov was succeeded by Molotov — he of the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany.
† Their surname by birth was Fridlyand; their father was a Jewish cobbler in Kiev.
Jacob Bonfadius, a man otherwise not in the last place among the erudite, because of copulation with boys (a most vile and sordid thing), was beheaded in prison and publically burned. The French Dominique Phinot, a distinguished musician, was also killed in the same way for a very similar folly.
This throwaway remark by the Italian Renaissance man Cardano is our only clue to the fate — indeed, to the very biography — of the composer Dominique Phinot. Based on the volume’s publication in 1561, it is thought that Phinot suffered for his folly around 1557-1560. We don’t even know the place.
Whatever damnatio memoriae obscured him in death, Phinot (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a prominent and highly regarded musician in his working life, acclaimed an expert in polychoral motets. Some 90 exemplars, and dozens of other compositions, survive; the 17th century Italian musicologist Pietro Cerone credited Phinot’s innovations with opening the way for Palestrina.
He emerges for posterity through those compositions; the earliest surviving date to 1538 and his publication locales (and the powerful men to whom they were dedicated) suggest a man for whom patrons in northern Italy (and across the Alps in Lyons) eagerly competed in the 1540s and 1550s. It is known that Phinot was retained by the Duke of Urbino for a period.
It is surely topical to notice that our correspondent Cardano was himself widely whispered to enjoy the same folly, too: a Venetian whose deep interest in music led him to “adopt” into his wifeless** household a number of boys with musical gifts, Cardano could hardly fail to court suspicion. “The rumor was being circulated everywhere that I was using my boys for immoral purposes,” Cardano reports autobiographically of one instance where he was threatened with exposure. Cardano appears never to have been formally charged as a sodomite, but it is remarkable — and even, he admits, “foolishness” — that his brushes with danger never caused him to reconsider the boy-keeping policy.†
As a proper Renaissance man, Cardano’s interests stretched far beyond pederasty and a good tune. He was, in the backhanded compliment of Sir Thomas Browne, “a great Enquirer of Truth, but too greedy a Receiver of it” and treatised profusely on philosophy, law, geology, astronomy, pedagogy, medicine, and mathematics. The latter two fields brought him his fame, but his musings flashed intermittent prescience across disciplines. Cardano argued for the full mental capacity of the deaf, and correctly inferred that mountains had once been underwater from the presence of seashell fossils upon them. A cryptographic technique, a puzzle, and a gear mechanism all bear the Cardano name. His mathematician’s sure grasp on probability also made him a deft gambler — and he published yet another volume on this subject as a young man.
Cardano the physician’s most famous patient was the Archbishop of St. Andrews, whom Cardano in 1553 cured of a debilitating asthma that had stricken the prelate speechless and was thought untreatable by contemporaries. Thanks to Cardano, Archbishop Hamilton became spry enough to get hanged for murder in 1571.
Yet Cardano the man had a still closer acquaintance with the executioner’s office through the person of his firstborn son … a topic for another day’s post.
* Opera Omnia, vol. 2, p. 354 (Theonoston seu de tranquilitate) Translation via Clement Miller in “Jerome Cardan on Gombert, Phinot, and Carpentras,” The Musical Quarterly, July 1972. The aforementioned Gombert was another composer who got busted for same-sex contact; he caught a term in the galleys.
** Cardano’s wife Lucia died in 1546.
† For more see Guido Giglioni, “Musicus Puer. A note on Cardano’s household and the dangers of music,” Bruniana & Campanelliana, vol. 11, no. 1 (2005).
On Christmas Day of 1553, the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Valdivia, noted as the founder of Santiago, Chile,* was executed by Mapuche Indians who had captured him in battle.
Valdivia got his start in New World bloodsport in the train of the Pizarro brothers, and cashed in with mining concessions as a reward for his able service in the Pizarros’ campaign against yet another conquistador, Diego de Almagro.
Not content to wax fat on Incan silver, Valdivia secured permission to pick up Almagro’s aborted mission: the conquest of Chile. With a force of about 150 Spaniards and many times that number of native allies, he successfully crossed the Atacama desert (bypassing Andean tribes that had proven hostile to Almagro) and attained the Mapocho river valley. There he created Santiago** on February 12, 1541, and almost immediately established the Spanish colony — distinct from Peru — whose headquarters it would be.
It didn’t take long for these interlopers to incur native resistance which would long slow the imperial development of Chile. Later in 1541, an Indian attack raze Santiago, although its Spanish defenders just managed to hold on to the rubble and begin a laborious process of vigilant rebuilding.
While the future metropolis, which lies about the north-south midpoint of the present-day state, grew stone by stone, Valdivia endeavored to carry his conquest to the south. This would soon provoke the furious resistance of the Mapuche people and become the Arauco War, which simmered for decades. (Or centuries, depending on the degree of continuity one might attribute to various rebellions.)
Having seen the Spanish throw up a chain of forts in their territory the better to control new gold mines, the Mapuche counterattacked and overran the fort at Tucapel — led by a bold young commander named Lautaro, who had only recently fled from the personal service of Valdivia himself. Grievously underestimating the vigor of his foe, Valdivia set out to pacify the rebels with a mere 40 Spanish soldiers “because at that time the Indians were but lightly esteemed.” (Marmolejo; see below) Approaching an eerily empty Fort Tucapel on Christmas Day, his token force was suddenly engulfed by thousands of ambushing Mapuche and massacred to a man.
Almost to a man.
Valdivia had the misfortune of being taken alive.
The conquistador was put to death shortly after the battle. The chronicler Jeronimo de Vivar simply said that the commander Caupolican ordered him speared to death — but others went in for more frightful descriptions of an event they surely did not witness.
Alonso de Gongora Marmolejo, who like Vivar was a contemporary to the death of the governor, claimed (Spanish link) that “the Indians kindled a fire before him, and cut off his arms from the elbow to the wrist with their blades; they took care not to permit him his death, and so devoured his roasted flash before his eyes.”
As a founding figure in Chilean history, Valdivia has enjoyed frequent literary treatment, as has his impressive mistress Ines de Suarez. (Isabel Allende’s Ines of my Soul is a recent example.) It is likely that none will ever surpass in literary importance the 16th century epic of of the conquest of Chile La Araucana. Although its author, Alonso de Ercilla, did not sail for America until several years after Valdivia’s death, he — naturally — made the late conqueror one of his principal subjects.
Today is the feast of Saint Lucy, a Diocletian martyr and one of Christendom’s best beloved saints.
As her Wikipedia page observes, “all the details of her life are the conventional ones associated with female martyrs of the early 4th century.” Like St. Barbara she had secretly become a Christian; like St. Cecilia, she was betrothed to a mean old pagan; like St. Catherine her sacred body defied the tortures ordered by the Governor of Syracuse, until the Romans just gave up and beheaded her. (Her husband is supposed to have denounced her when he found out that the pious Lucy, with the help of an apparition of the martyred St. Agatha, had convinced her mother to give away the daughter’s ample dowry; this embrace of lonely penury probably explains how she came to be the patron saint of writers.)
Iconography often depicts St. Lucy brandishing her own eyeballs, like a Guillermo del Toro monster: this, too, is an allusion to the torments of the Romans, and the story is either the cause or the consequence of her patronage of the blind.
Lucy’s name derives from the Latin root for “light”, and her December 13 feast formerly coincided with the winter solstice; as a result, St. Lucy’s Day became a major holiday some locales — including Italy, Scandinavia, the Philippines, and Omaha, Nebraska. The English poet John Donne meditates upon the occasion in a 1627 noctural, by which time December 13 was not technically the solstice by either Julian or Gregorian calendars.
Since she enjoys her long night’s festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year’s, and the day’s deep midnight is.
Today is the feast day of Santa Claus himself, St. Nicholas.
Nicholas was a real-life bishop in fourth century Asia Minor. He’s among the prelates to sign off on the Nicene Creed, Christianity’s official profession of orthodox doctrine hammered out at the emperor Constantine’s epochal Council of Nicaea.
Living as he did amid the triumph of his once-persecuted faith, Saint Nick was not called upon to offer God his own martyrdom. Our death penalty context comes from one of the stories in his hagiography — that on one occasion, returning to the seat of his diocese at Myra, Nicholas discovered that three innocent men had been condemned to imminent execution by a wicked magistrate. Hastening to the scene, he dramatically averted their beheading by seizing the executioner’s sword.
The great Russian artist Ilya Repin dramatically depicted the scene.
St. Nicholas Saves Three Innocents from Death, by Ilya Repin (1888).
Repin did not love this painting — he slinked out of its 1889 exhibition, allegedly dissatisfied with its ridigity and melodrama* — but it did express the liberal-minded artist’s distaste for capital punishment. The era we now know to be the late tsarist period in Russia saw violent (and sometimes indiscriminate) crackdowns on revolutionary terrorism following the 1881 assassination of Tsar Alexander II, to the great grief of her dissident intelligentsia. Philosopher Vladimir Solovyov called the death penalty “absolute murder”; with a like attitude, tsarist Russia’s “liberal politicians, academics and journalists repeatedly campaigned against this form of punishment.” (Source)
Around the time that Repin depicted St. Nicholas’s great act of clemency, Leo Tolstoy — who abhorred capital punishment — wrote of his youthful experience witnessing the guillotine in action in Paris, “at the moment the head and body separated and fell into the box I gasped, and realized not with my mind nor with my heart but with my whole being, that all the arguments in defence of capital punishment are wicked nonsense … [that] murder remains murder, and that this crime had been committed before my eyes.”**
Repin was forever being read and misread by the ideologues afoot in Russia, but this Tolstoyan horror at the scaffold he shared unambiguously. In a later era, by which time Repin was the established senior figure of the Russian art scene, the painter was exercised enough by Stolypin‘s wholesale use of capital punishment following Russia’s abortive 1905 revolution to issue a public denunciation of executions. But it was only ever by the hand of St. Nicholas that he had the experience of preventing one.
* See David Jackson, “The ‘Golgotha’ of Ilya Repin in Context”, Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, Vol. 50, No. 1 (1991).
In this period from approximately 726 to 842, the empire was rent by a conflict between iconophiles or iconodules — proponents of the use and adoration of religious imagery in Christian worship — and iconoclasts — who abhorred same as a form of sacrilegious idolatry.
This was deadly serious stuff in the way that only Byzantine sectarian conflict could be, but the controversy was not strictly about defining the Biblical injunction on graven images. As the excellent History of Byzantium podcast explains in its iconoclasm episode,* it likely manifests “an empire-wide reaction to the trauma of defeat” — battlefield defeat by the rising armies of Islam, and with it a shaken confidence in the favor of God. (Islam’s hard line against idolatry surely can’t be coincidental.)
But in posterity we are reduced to these muddy qualifiers because as the winning party in the dispute, iconodules wrote the history. That’s no moralistic stab: iconoclasts, too, burned the enemy’s tracts when they had the opportunity; had they prevailed in the end, they would have blurred out the background, motivations, and achievements of their rivals as readily as the iconodules did and leave those who followed to read between the lines of a partisan history. Indeed, Bissera Pentcheva’s recent Icons and Power: The Mother of God in Byzantium even contends that the legendary centrality of icons to Byzantine religiosity was an invention of the post-iconoclastic era, with events like the Marian icon’s saving Constantinople during the Avar siege of 626 backfilled to replace the original story about Marian relics working the divine intervention.
Iconoclasts plastering over an icon.
The iconoclastic era opens in the late 720s; according to the (iconodule, naturally) saint and historian Nicephorous, its immediate trigger was the devastating 726 eruption of the Greek island Thera (Santorini) — and affrighted by the apparent divine wrath, “the impious emperor Leo [III] started making pronouncements about the removal of the holy and venerable icons.” He’s alleged to have taken down a particularly revered icon of Christ on Constantinople’s Chalke Gate.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to get a firm fix on what specific anti-icon policies Leo promulgated, if indeed there were any at all. (The Greek term for “pronouncements” could be understood simply as “comments” instead of “edicts”.) It is Leo’s son Constantine V, succeeding the purple in 741, who clearly brings an overt imperial turn against icons, for “He cannot be depicted. For what is depicted in one person, and he who circumscribes that person has plainly circumscribed the divine nature which is incapable of being circumscribed.” Constantine convened an ecumenical council that ruled for his anti-icon position and set about removing images from churches.
Against this campaign was ranged the bulk of the clergy — church vs. state is another possible and difficult-to-measure dimension of the whole dispute, although Constantine’s ability to win the acquiescence of hundreds of bishops must complicate this interpretation.
The great champion of and martyr for the iconodule position in this time was St. Stephen the Younger. That’s “younger” vis-a-vis the original St. Stephen, Christianity’s protomartyr.
As befits that exalted company, this monk and hermit was credited by his adherents with a supernatural power in the iconoclasm debate.
A man blind from his birth visits the saint with suppliant outcry for relief. “If you hast faith in God,” he replies, “if thou art a worshipper of His image, thou shalt behold the light and the beauty of hidden things.” Scarcely had the words gone forth, when the blind man rejoiced in beholding light. A woman brings to him her son “grievously vexed with a devil,” and a distressing scene is described. Stephen bids a disciple to apply the sign of the Cross to the whole afflicted body. The saint calls upon God with many tears. Finally he delivers the boy safe to his mother, when the image of Christ has been adored. An infirm soldier comes with entreaty for relief. The saint bids him adore the images of Christ and His Mother, and immediately he is restored. The soldier afterwards repudiates image-worship before the Emperor, who at once promotes him to the rank of centurion. Leaving the imperial presence he would mount his horse; the horse rears, throws him to the ground, and tramples him to death. Such is the life of the younger Stephen as related with awe-struck delight in Greek and Roman martyrologies. (Source)
And so forth.
The emperor is alleged by the hagiographies to have sought Stephen’s destruction for many years, being continually frustrated even to the point where Stephen’s torturers in prison seemed unable to finish him off. “Will no one rid me of this monk?” Constantine cries, anticipating Thomas a Becket by a good four centuries. His soldiers finally clubbed to death the obdurate cleric on November 28, 764. (For a critique of Stephen’s hagiography, including a death date that proves questionable (no surprise), see this pdf.)
But not for the first time, an imperial innovation in theology failed to outlast the patronage of its sovereign. After Constantine’s death, Empress Irene** restored the iconodules to favor† — and set the stage for a great flowering of Orthodox icons in the centuries to come.
* Also see Episode 75, delving into Constantine’s iconoclasm.
** The fact that the extant remnant of the Roman Empire had no emperor — merely a woman ruler — formed part of the rationale for the western church crowning Charlemagne “Holy Roman Emperor”. This slap in the face to Constantinople could occur because a papacy long deferential to Byzantium had at last broken with the East in the mid-8th century … in part, over iconoclasm.
† Emperor Leo V restored official iconoclasm in 813 for another 29-year run as imperial policy before the movement’s final defeat.
The pair we feature today were casualties of all that cloak-and-dagger, specifically the latter.
The story (Italian link) goes that the Carbonari became convinced (correctly) that one of their number, a Filippo Spada, was informing against them; thereupon, our Angelo Targhini — very much the impressionable young zealot — was tasked with stabbing the turncoat to death in an alley. The victim, known familiarly as “Spontini”, survived the attack. Montanari, a physician, was one of the first on the scene but arriving policemen perceived that the “treatment” he was applying to the victim was actually deepening his wounds, and seized him as a conspirator.
Montanari admitted nothing of the kind and was accused solely on the impressions of police plus the information of another informant. But he was in no position to impeach this information because it was a secret court of the automcratic Pope Leo XII that condemned both men for treason — solicitous of neither defense nor appeals.
In his diaries, as detailed here as ever, the headsman Mastro Titta reports receiving death threats. Security on the Piazza del Popolo, “thick with people, as I never saw her,” in Titto’s words, was extremely tight — but no public disturbance or carbonari raid disturbed proceedings. That was left only to the prisoners, who declined to receive the sacrament of confession or acknowledge themselves assassins.
“All attempts to persuade them to repent came to nothing,” Titta laments. “They invariably replied only: ‘We have no account to render to anyone. Our God plumbs the fathoms of our conscience.'”
It was at the University of Tübingen many decades later that Enzlin (German Wikipedia link; most of the succeeding links in this post are to German pages) matriculated as a brilliant young lawyer.†
The new Duke of Wurttemberg from 1593, Friedrich I, elevated Enzlin to his Chancellor. This worldly and well-traveled** Friedrich sported a cutting-edge appreciation for the dawning Age of Absolutism and chafed at the shackles that his predecessor’s treaty had weighted him with. Whatever was a prince for, if not to rule?
Enzlin’s legal expertise had been of service to Friedrich since the latter’s pre-Wurttemberg position as Count of Montbeliard, and Friedrich trusted him as his Kammersekretar — a sort of personal privy councilor who could advise the prince and help to work his will upon the annoying (to Friedrich) Wurttemberg polity. He became openly referred to as cor et os principis: the heart and the mouth of the prince.
This also meant that Enzlin gained the enemies of the prince who, since Friedrich was an overweening and aggressive ruler, numered not a few. For instance, according to Ronald Asch in The World of the Favourite (much of the research in this post derives from his essay), Enzlin when he fell copped a corruption charge because
Duke Friedrich had begun to channel an increasingly large share of his revenues not through the Treasury but through his privy purse. Large sums of money from this source were devoted to the purchase of manors, villages and whole lordships from the impoverished nobility living beyond the borders of the duchy or were used to provide these noblemen with loans and mortgages in the hope that they would have to cede their property to the duke, should they fail to repay the money. Enzlin was apparently the duke’s principal agent in these rather complicated and somewhat shady financial transactions, in which Jewish moneylenders and merchants were frequently employed as brokers. Thus large sums of money went through Enzlin’s hands.
Hungry for power as well as real estate, the duke was also able to attain with Enzlin’s help a modification of that obnoxious Treaty of Turbingen in 1607: this required dissolving the Diet, manipulating the election of the next one, and all kinds of arm-twisting.
It was, Asch says, “another triumph for Enzlin, who had been responsible for the negotiations” … but the triumph was mitigated by Friedrich’s death months later.
Inheriting power was a 26-year-old named Johann Friedrich who sympathized with the traditional prerogatives of his subjects (in his time, he voluntarily gave back to the Estates some of the powers his father had wrested from them). To the policy side of his Oedipal complex, add the personal: dad kept many mistresses for himself, and kept tight purse-strings for his boy. How many times must Johann Friedrich have seen or imagined Enzlin at his father’s elbow, counseling some fresh humiliation for the whelp? How many incensed Wurttemberg grandees must have whispered the picture in his ear?
The favorite was jailed within months on the corruption charges stemming from his part in the land-aggrandizement slush fund, charges that he was forced to admit under threat of torture. The ex-consigliere and his ex-duchy struck an uneasy bargain: there’d be no official charge, no death sentence, and he would stay under lock and key, disappearing like the Man in the Iron Mask.
Perhaps rating his lawyer’s wiles too highly, Enzlin broke this understanding by having his wife and children† appeal to the imperial authorities — employing the very safeguards of the Treaty of Turbingen which he had so diligently worked to abrogate. Brazenly but accurately, Enzlin pointed out that he had not been brought to trial for any charge. And he made the politically explosive argument that jailing ministers of state for the service they rendered their masters would compromise the entire authority of princes everywhere in the Holy Roman Empire.
** Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor was written for a 1597 Knights of the Garter investiture ceremony. Because Duke Friederich (after a 1592 visit to England) had repeatedly petitioned Queen Elizabeth for this honor, he was inducted on this occasion — but without being notified in time to attend, so that the English court “would not have to put up with him”. As a result, Merry Wives had some in-jokes for its first audience about an absent German duke. Though mostly excised from the play’s subsequent public performance versions, a few traces of them remain, such as this allusion in act 4, scene 3:
Bardolph. Sir, the Germans desire to have three of your
horses: the duke himself will be to-morrow at
court, and they are going to meet him.
Host. What duke should that be comes so secretly? I hear
not of him in the court.
† Enzlin married young and had seven children. He has a stupendous progeny down to the present day but not all have been so solicitous of the powerful as he — witness Gudrun Ensslin.
The French robber Gaspard de Besse was broken on the wheel in Aix-en-Provence on this date in 1781.
From a cave in the Esterel Mountains looming over the French Riviera, Gaspard raided the ample traffic wealthy merchants sent to and from the Mediterranean and Italy. He established a Robin Hood-esque “social bandit” profile by dint of his targets and populist provocations like, “the two scourges of Provence are the mistral and the parliament!”
Legend holds that he was unfailingly courteous in his raids and never killed those he preyed upon.
No surprise, he did not enjoy a like deference once one of his gang betrayed him. Hopefully amid the limb-shattering blows of the executioner he could console himself with the prospect of posterity’s renown.
(Thanks to friend of the blog Sonechka for research, translation, and background information touching this post. -ed.)
October 14 (October 1 O.S.) is a liturgical feast celebrating the protective intercession of the Virgin Mary, a date of particular significance in Russia and Ukraine. Indeed, Red Square’s St. Basil’s Cathedral is actually the Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos [i.e., Mary] on the Moat, just one of many Orthodox churches so named.
Also known as Pokrov — a quaint Slavic term for covering, denoting safeguarding — the holiday celebrates an incident from 10th century Byzantium when a saint beheld Mary descend through the dome of the church, then spread her garment protectively over the entire congregation.
It is of special significance in Ukraine where the ecclesiastical celebration pulls double duty as the Day of the Ukrainian Cossacks. And it is in honor of Pokrov that we dedicate this post.
17th century icon of the Madonna’s broad cloak protecting Ukrainians.
On an unspecified date in 1638, a Cossack named Ostryanin was broken on the wheel in Warsaw … maybe.
The Ostryanin Uprising of 1638 was one of the ongoing cycle of Cossack disturbances in the southern reaches of the Polish-Lithuanian Empire — modern-day Ukraine. Like many of these, it was a short-lived affair considered on its own, but the pattern of disaffected Cossacks struggling against the Polish crown for some combination of recognition, largesse, and autonomy was an ongoing pattern in the 17th century — and by the 1650s it would begin tearing apart the formerly mighty Polish-Lithuanian realm and transferring Ukrainian territory from Polish to Russian domination.
Tradition held that after the rising was stamped out in the summer of 1638, Stepan Ostryanin himself was treacherously seized and taken to Warsaw for execution. A late 18th century chronicle* of a distinctly patriotic bent called Istoriya Russov embroiders upon that death by breaking-wheel with racist gusto:
in accord with their treachery, insidious and duplicitous, having learned through their Jew spies that hetman Ostryanin’s would travel unguarded … the Lyakhs [term for “Poles”; it’s derogatory in present-day Russian but may have been less so at the time -ed.] surrounded him in Kanev monastery with a host of men. They, having tied the hetman and his men, altogether thirty seven people, … prepared an execution for them in Warsaw unprecedented in its cruelty, which posterity will scarcely believe to be true, because it would not occur to even the most barbarous and ferocious Japanese (!) and the reality of which would terrify the very beasts and monsters.
On the other hand, a Cossack named Yakiv Ostryanin was to be found on Russian soil in the subsequent years, until he was murdered in 1641. Some historians think that he was the very same namesake Cossack rebel escaped from Polish vengeance, and the story about him being broken on the wheel in Poland is pure sentimental folklore; alternatively, Stepan and Yakiv might have just been two different Cossacks named Ostryanin who met two different fates.
Quite a difference for our supposed Stepan Ostryanin, but a minor mystery from this distance in time. Nevertheless, our man, whoever he was, had a posthumous contribution yet to make to the letters of his Slavic brethren.
Polish historian Szymon Okolski rode along with the Polish commander Mikolaj Potocki in Potocki’s successful campaign of the spring-summer 1638 to suppress this rebellion. Okolski’s field diaries of the campaign are a key historical source on the Cossacks and are thought to have been used extensively by the Cossack-descended writer Nikolai Gogol in composing his short story Taras Bulba.
A product of Gogol’s youth, Taras Bulba has a rough romanticism — and a romanticism for the Cossack (read: national Ukrainian) cause specifically that nonplussed Russian authorities at the time. (And probably now, too.)
Taras Bulba‘s title character is a mature Cossack patriot who with his two sons joins the Cossack risings against Poland. Its location in time is indeterminate, not unlike the unending cycle of risings themselves. Taras Bulba is a nearly eternal character, almost a fixture of nature, because his war seemed eternal too.
Ostap had been seized and bound before his very eyes, and that he was now in the hands of the Lyakhs. Grief overpowered him. He pulled off and tore in pieces the bandages from his wounds, and threw them far from him; he tried to say something, but only articulated some incoherent words. Fever and delirium seized upon him afresh, and he uttered wild and incoherent speeches. Meanwhile his faithful comrade stood beside him, scolding and showering harsh, reproachful words upon him without stint. Finally, he seized him by the arms and legs, wrapped him up like a child, arranged all his bandages, rolled him in an ox-hide, bound him with bast, and, fastening him with ropes to his saddle, rode with him again at full speed along the road.
“I’ll get you there, even if it be not alive! I will not abandon your body for the Lyakhs to make merry over you, and cut your body in twain and fling it into the water. Let the eagle tear out your eyes if it must be so; but let it be our eagle of the steppe and not a Polish eagle, not one which has flown hither from Polish soil. I will bring you, though it be a corpse, to the Ukraine!”
Thus spoke his faithful companion. He rode without drawing rein, day and night, and brought Taras still insensible into the Zaporozhian Setch itself. There he undertook to cure him, with unswerving care, by the aid of herbs and liniments. He sought out a skilled Jewess, who made Taras drink various potions for a whole month, and at length he improved. Whether it was owing to the medicine or to his iron constitution gaining the upper hand, at all events, in six weeks he was on his feet. His wounds had closed, and only the scars of the sabre-cuts showed how deeply injured the old Cossack had been. But he was markedly sad and morose. Three deep wrinkles engraved themselves upon his brow and never more departed thence. Then he looked around him. All was new in the Setch; all his old companions were dead. Not one was left of those who had stood up for the right, for faith and brotherhood. And those who had gone forth with the Koschevoi in pursuit of the Tatars, they also had long since disappeared. All had perished. One had lost his head in battle; another had died for lack of food, amid the salt marshes of the Crimea; another had fallen in captivity and been unable to survive the disgrace. Their former Koschevoi was no longer living, nor any of his old companions, and the grass was growing over those once alert with power. He felt as one who had given a feast, a great noisy feast. All the dishes had been smashed in pieces; not a drop of wine was left anywhere; the guests and servants had all stolen valuable cups and platters; and he, like the master of the house, stood sadly thinking that it would have been no feast. In vain did they try to cheer Taras and to divert his mind; in vain did the long-bearded, grey-haired guitar-players come by twos and threes to glorify his Cossack deeds. He gazed grimly and indifferently at everything, with inappeasable grief printed on his stolid face; and said softly, as he drooped his head, “My son, my Ostap!”
The square on which the execution was to take place was not hard to find: for the people were thronging thither from all quarters. In that savage age such a thing constituted one of the most noteworthy spectacles, not only for the common people, but among the higher classes. A number of the most pious old men, a throng of young girls, and the most cowardly women, who dreamed the whole night afterwards of their bloody corpses, and shrieked as loudly in their sleep as a drunken hussar, missed, nevertheless, no opportunity of gratifying their curiosity. “Ah, what tortures!” many of them would cry, hysterically, covering their eyes and turning away; but they stood their ground for a good while, all the same. Many a one, with gaping mouth and outstretched hands, would have liked to jump upon other folk’s heads, to get a better view. Above the crowd towered a bulky butcher, admiring the whole process with the air of a connoisseur, and exchanging brief remarks with a gunsmith, whom he addressed as “Gossip,” because he got drunk in the same alehouse with him on holidays. Some entered into warm discussions, others even laid wagers. But the majority were of the species who, all the world over, look on at the world and at everything that goes on in it and merely scratch their noses. In the front ranks, close to the bearded civic-guards, stood a young noble, in warlike array, who had certainly put his whole wardrobe on his back, leaving only his torn shirt and old shoes at his quarters. Two chains, one above the other, hung around his neck. He stood beside his mistress, Usisya, and glanced about incessantly to see that no one soiled her silk gown. He explained everything to her so perfectly that no one could have added a word. “All these people whom you see, my dear Usisya,” he said, “have come to see the criminals executed; and that man, my love, yonder, holding the axe and other instruments in his hands, is the executioner, who will despatch them. When he begins to break them on the wheel, and torture them in other ways, the criminals will still be alive; but when he cuts off their heads, then, my love, they will die at once. Before that, they will cry and move; but as soon as their heads are cut off, it will be impossible for them to cry, or to eat or drink, because, my dear, they will no longer have any head.” Usisya listened to all this with terror and curiosity.
The upper stories of the houses were filled with people. From the windows in the roof peered strange faces with beards and something resembling caps. Upon the balconies, beneath shady awnings, sat the aristocracy. The hands of smiling young ladies, brilliant as white sugar, rested on the railings. Portly nobles looked on with dignity. Servants in rich garb, with flowing sleeves, handed round various refreshments. Sometimes a black-eyed young rogue would take her cake or fruit and fling it among the crowd with her own noble little hand. The crowd of hungry gentles held up their caps to receive it; and some tall noble, whose head rose amid the throng, with his faded red jacket and discoloured gold braid, and who was the first to catch it with the aid of his long arms, would kiss his booty, press it to his heart, and finally put it in his mouth. The hawk, suspended beneath the balcony in a golden cage, was also a spectator; with beak inclined to one side, and with one foot raised, he, too, watched the people attentively. But suddenly a murmur ran through the crowd, and a rumour spread, “They are coming! they are coming! the Cossacks!”
They were bare-headed, with their long locks floating in the air. Their beards had grown, and their once handsome garments were worn out, and hung about them in tatters. They walked neither timidly nor surlily, but with a certain pride, neither looking at nor bowing to the people. At the head of all came Ostap.
What were old Taras’s feelings when thus he beheld his Ostap? What filled his heart then? He gazed at him from amid the crowd, and lost not a single movement of his. They reached the place of execution. Ostap stopped. He was to be the first to drink the bitter cup. He glanced at his comrades, raised his hand, and said in a loud voice: “God grant that none of the heretics who stand here may hear, the unclean dogs, how Christians suffer! Let none of us utter a single word.” After this he ascended the scaffold.
“Well done, son! well done!” said Bulba, softly, and bent his grey head.
The executioner tore off his old rags; they fastened his hands and feet in stocks prepared expressly, and—We will not pain the reader with a picture of the hellish tortures which would make his hair rise upright on his head. They were the outcome of that coarse, wild age, when men still led a life of warfare which hardened their souls until no sense of humanity was left in them. In vain did some, not many, in that age make a stand against such terrible measures. In vain did the king and many nobles, enlightened in mind and spirit, demonstrate that such severity of punishment could but fan the flame of vengeance in the Cossack nation. But the power of the king, and the opinion of the wise, was as nothing before the savage will of the magnates of the kingdom, who, by their thoughtlessness and unconquerable lack of all far-sighted policy, their childish self-love and miserable pride, converted the Diet into the mockery of a government. Ostap endured the torture like a giant. Not a cry, not a groan, was heard. Even when they began to break the bones in his hands and feet, when, amid the death-like stillness of the crowd, the horrible cracking was audible to the most distant spectators; when even his tormentors turned aside their eyes, nothing like a groan escaped his lips, nor did his face quiver. Taras stood in the crowd with bowed head; and, raising his eyes proudly at that moment, he said, approvingly, “Well done, boy! well done!”
But when they took him to the last deadly tortures, it seemed as though his strength were failing. He cast his eyes around.
O God! all strangers, all unknown faces! If only some of his relatives had been present at his death! He would not have cared to hear the sobs and anguish of his poor, weak mother, nor the unreasoning cries of a wife, tearing her hair and beating her white breast; but he would have liked to see a strong man who might refresh him with a word of wisdom, and cheer his end. And his strength failed him, and he cried in the weakness of his soul, “Father! where are you? do you hear?”
“I hear!” rang through the universal silence, and those thousands of people shuddered in concert. A detachment of cavalry hastened to search through the throng of people. Yankel turned pale as death, and when the horsemen had got within a short distance of him, turned round in terror to look for Taras; but Taras was no longer beside him; every trace of him was lost.
Despite his cunning escape on this occasion, Taras Bulba himself is also in the end put to death: the story ends with him going to the stake as his soul summons the brethren he can still see in the distance to resume the fight, again and again.
[A] band of Lyakhs suddenly rushed up, and seized him by the shoulders. He struggled with all might; but he could not scatter on the earth, as he had been wont to do, the heydukes who had seized him. “Oh, old age, old age!” he exclaimed: and the stout old Cossack wept. But his age was not to blame: nearly thirty men were clinging to his arms and legs.
“The raven is caught!” yelled the Lyakhs. “We must think how we can show him the most honour, the dog!” They decided, with the permission of the hetman, to burn him alive in the sight of all. There stood hard by a leafless tree, the summit of which had been struck by lightning. They fastened him with iron chains and nails driven through his hands high up on the trunk of the tree, so that he might be seen from all sides; and began at once to place fagots at its foot. But Taras did not look at the wood, nor did he think of the fire with which they were preparing to roast him: he gazed anxiously in the direction whence his Cossacks were firing. From his high point of observation he could see everything as in the palm of his hand.
“Farewell, comrades!” he shouted to them from above; “remember me, and come hither again next spring and make merry in the same fashion! What! cursed Lyakhs, have ye caught me? Think ye there is anything in the world that a Cossack fears? Wait; the time will come when ye shall learn what the orthodox Russian faith is! Already the people scent it far and near. A czar shall arise from Russian soil, and there shall not be a power in the world which shall not submit to him!” But fire had already risen from the fagots; it lapped his feet, and the flame spread to the tree…. But can any fire, flames, or power be found on earth which are capable of overpowering Russian strength?
Broad is the river Dniester, and in it are many deep pools, dense reed-beds, clear shallows and little bays; its watery mirror gleams, filled with the melodious plaint of the swan, the proud wild goose glides swiftly over it; and snipe, red-throated ruffs, and other birds are to be found among the reeds and along the banks. The Cossacks rowed swiftly on in the narrow double-ruddered boats—rowed stoutly, carefully shunning the sand bars, and cleaving the ranks of the birds, which took wing—rowed, and talked of their hetman.