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History - The Cossack Letter
The Famous Cossack Letter
The Famous Cossack Letter

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The Cossack Letter

The Famous Cossack Letter immortalized in the painting "Zaporozhian Cossacks of Ukraine Writing a Letter in Reply to the Sultan of Turkey" by Ilya Repin is a historical puzzle. We know that an insulting letter was actually written in the 1660s in answer to a letter from Sultan Mohammed IV of the Turkish Empire. However the question is was it actually composed as a historical document or was it only created as a piece of literature? Historians have taken both sides of this question.

There are variations of the letter but the main thrust of the letter is a parody of the Sultan's titles in a manner which shows cunning knowledge of what would be most insulting to such a mighty ruler. The letter was probably originally composed in the 1660s, and Ivan Sirko (ca. 1605-August 11, 1680), a famous and fierce Ukrainian Cossack warrior, is given as the signer of the letter. Apparently, this is a letter in reply to the Sultan's demand to the Cossacks of Ukraine to voluntarily accept Turkish rule.

The Ukrainian Cossacks did not make empty boasts when they wrote of battles on land and sea. The courageous Zaporozhians fought on several occasions to the gates of mighty Constantinople itself. These events were reported throughout Europe and even distant England and Holland took an interest in them. For example, the Gazette of Antwerp on December 10, 1621 reported. "New messages from Germany how 50,000 Kozaks (Cossacks).... have crossed the Danube to plunder and burn up to Constantinople." (British Museum No. pp. 3444.af (326).

Ripley's New Believe it or Not pocket book no. 992 has distinguished the Ukrainian letter by calling it "The Most Defiant Letter." However, it confuses Ukrainian and Russian history. There are 17th century copies of the letter which were circulated widely probably as humorous literature. It may be found in many sources, for example in the Annals of Kiev (Kyivska Starina Vol. II, p. 371, 382, 1891, the histories of Prof. D. Yavorytsky (Evarnitsky) and in his pamphlet published in St. Petersburg in 1902.

English language versions may be found in The Cossacks, by W.P. Cresson and in the Portable Russian Reader, edited by G.B. Guerney (New York 1947) which is based on the Russian historian M. Pokrovsky. I also published it in MYH Beams (Ukrainian National Youth Federation in Toronto, vol. IV No.1, January 1958, p. 8).

The Cossack Letter is famous today mainly because of the great painting by Repin which captured some of the rough spirit of independence and brotherhood of the Zaporozhian Cossacks of Ukraine. Repin did extensive research for his painting with the aid of historian Dmytro Yavorytsky so the painting reflects a careful reconstruction of a possible scene in the seventeenth century. The painting and the letter both reflect part of the heritage of the Ukrainian nation.