"Zaporozhian Cossacks of Ukraine Writing a Letter in Reply to the Sultan of Turkey"
Ilya Repin (1844-1930)

This famous painting by Russian artist Ilya Repin depicts the Zaporozhian Cossacks of Ukraine (circa mid-1600s) writing an insulting letter to Sultan Mohammed IV of the Turkish Empire in response to his letter suggesting that they surrender to him, a self-described "unconquerable knight." As one can see, the Cossacks are having a ripping good time, each contributing his favorite epithet, mocking the "unconquerable" sultan's boasts.

At the time, Ukraine was a disputed borderland between Catholic Poland, Muslim Turkey, and Orthodox Russia (the very name "Ukraine" means "edge" or "border"). The Cossacks were Ukrainian cavalrymen hired by Poland to protect the Turkish border. The most famous Cossack settlement was the Zaporogian "Syech" near present-day Zaporozh'e on the Dniepr River. In 1675, certain defeats forced Poland to sign a treaty surrendering areas including Zaporozh'e to the Turks. The Cossacks would have nothing to do with it, and perhaps this letter was written during this period by the defiant hangers-on.

Repin began the painting in the late 1870s, finishing it in 1891. The Tsar himself immediately purchased it for 35,000 rubles, the largest amount ever paid for a Russian painting up to that time. However, Repin was a Jew, and a lot of his contemporary painters and art patrons were not very happy that he was one of the leading painters in Russia. A Ukrainian friend of TheScreamOnline tells us that the father of a friend had known a very old man who had posed for the scribe in the painting. Repin originally had begun the painting as a study in laughter, and he approached the man to pose, who was at first suspicious. He then agreed to accept Repin's money for merely sitting for a few hours. Other friends of his then agreed to pose as well. Easy money, indeed!

Repin also saw a general who had a fabulous bald head, and he asked if he would pose. The general rebuffed him and told him to go away. Repin found a friend of the general and asked if the officer had any particular likes. He was told that the man collected old coins. The artist went to a shop that had antique coins, bought a few, then went to the general's apartment. Upon opening the door, the general saw Repin and asked him why he insisted on bothering him. Repin apologized for any inconvenience he may have made and offered the coins in friendship. The general was amazed at the bounty and bent over to inspect them. While he was in this position, Repin hastily took out some paper and proceeded to sketch the man's head.

We have provided a translation of the sultan's letter and three versions of the Cossack letter: the original Ukrainian, a somewhat cleaned-up English translation, and a filthy English version which our Ukrainian friend says is spot-on. The vulgar language brings to mind W.C. Fields' talent for peppering his diatribes with rich zoological allusion, although he was clean by Cossack standards. If obscenities bother you, then stop after the first translation. Enjoy!

The Sultan's letter

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

Original Ukrainian

English version 1

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 ass, 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!

English version 2

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 his naked ass? 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, Armenian pig, 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 ass, slaughterhouse cur, unchristened brow, screw your own mother!

So the Zaporozhians declare, you lowlife. You won't even be herding Christian pigs. 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 ass!

Koshovyi Otaman Ivan Sirko, with the whole Zaporozhian Host