Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks

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Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks
Russian: Запорожцы пишут письмо турецкому султану,
Ukrainian: Запорожці пишуть листа турецькому султанові
Cossacks of Saporog Are Drafting a Manifesto
ArtistIlya Repin
MediumOil on canvas
Dimensions203 cm × 358 cm (80 in × 141 in)
LocationState Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg

Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks is a painting by Ukrainian-born Russian artist Ilya Repin.[1] It is also known as Cossacks of Saporog Are Drafting a Manifesto and in Russian, (Russian: Запорожцы пишут письмо турецкому султану, romanizedZaporozhtsy pishut pis'mo turetskomu sultanu, lit.'Cossacks write a letter to the Turkish sultan').

Repin began the 2.03 m (6 foot 8 inch) by 3.58 m (11 foot 9 inch) canvas in 1880 and finished in 1891. He recorded the years of work along the lower edge of the canvas. Alexander III bought the painting for 35,000 rubles. Since then, the canvas has been exhibited in the State Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg with another version by Repin in the Kharkiv Art Museum in Kharkiv, Ukraine.[2]



Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks depicts a supposedly historical tableau, set in 1676, and based on the legend of Cossacks sending an insulting reply to an ultimatum from the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmed IV.[citation needed]

According to the story, the Zaporozhian Cossacks (from "beyond the rapids", Ukrainian: za porohamy), inhabiting the lands around the lower Dnieper River in Ukraine, had defeated Ottoman Empire forces in battle. However, despite his army having suffered this loss to them, Mehmed demanded that the Cossacks submit to Ottoman rule. The Cossacks, led by Ivan Sirko, replied in a characteristic manner; they wrote a letter, replete with insults and profanities. The painting exhibits the Cossacks' pleasure at striving to come up with ever more base vulgarities.[3]

In the 19th century, the historical Zaporozhian Cossacks were sometimes the subject of picturesque tales demonstrating admiration of their primitive vitality and contemptuous disregard for authority (in marked contrast to the more civilized subjects of the authoritarian Russian state).[4] Whether the incident portrayed actually happened or is just another of these tales is not known, but no concrete or reliable evidence exists that it did happen,[4] although the question remains disputed.[5]

U.S.-based Slavic and Eastern European historian Daniel C. Waugh (1978) observed: "The correspondence of the sultan with the Chyhyryn Cossacks had undergone a textual transformation sometime in the eighteenth century whereby the Chyhyryntsy became the Zaporozhians and the controlled satire of the reply was debased into vulgarity. In this vulgar version, the Cossack correspondence spread quite widely in the nineteenth century. (...) The best-known reflection of the nineteenth-century popularity of the Cossack correspondence is the famous painting by II'ia Repin showing the uproarious Zaporozhians penning their reply."[6]

According to Ukrainian historian Volodymyr Pylypenko (2019), the letter is 'perhaps the most famous forgery in Ukrainian history, a fake with a long and vibrant history (...). The text has undergone numerous translations and rewritings.'[7] A French and a German translation became the best-known versions, as these made the text accessible to a large European readership.[7] Pylypenko pointed out that the letter bears many stylistic similarities to other fake documents and forgeries that appeared in the 17th century, including the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Tsardom of Russia (Muscovy), which purported to be genuine correspondence between various Eastern European Christian monarchs and the Ottoman sultan, but were in fact works of political-religious propaganda.[7]

Repin's interpretation[edit]

Nikolai Gogol's 1842 romantic-historical novella Taras Bulba describes the incident in passing. Repin associated with Savva Mamontov and his artistic circle and probably heard the story there; at any rate, Repin made his first sketches for the painting in Mamontov's home.[4]

Second Version of the Painting
Second Version of the Painting

While working on the original version, Repin in 1889 began work on a second version. This work remained unfinished. The artist tried to make the second version of The Cossacks more "historically authentic". In 1932 it was transferred by the Tretyakov Gallery to the M. F. Sumtsov Kharkiv Historical Museum. In 1935, it was moved to the Kharkiv Art Museum [ru; fr; de], where it is now stored. This canvas is slightly smaller than the original version.

The historian Dmytro Yavornytsky assisted Repin in portraying the scene authentically.[5]

In the novel Compartment No. 6 by the Finnish author Rosa Liksom, she describes a train trip across Russia during the last days of the Soviet Union. In a town where the train stopped, she writes: "On the main wall of the dining room was a fair reproduction of Ilya Repin's painting 'Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed.' At the place on the painting where the angry letter is being written someone had used a ball-point pen to scrawl the words: To Stalin."[8] She must have been describing the second version of the painting.

During the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine in March 2022, when the Kharkiv region came under heavy artillery and air fire, the museum staff rushed to remove their artworks from the museum to a safer place. The second version of The Cossacks was amongst the artworks relocated for safety.[2]


The "Cossacks” who posed for the painting were friends of Repin and academics from Saint Petersburg University, and included men of Ukrainian, Russian, Cossack, Jewish and Polish ancestry.[9][10]

  • "Taras Bulba", the leader of the Cossacks, was modelled by Alexander Ivanovich Rubets, professor at Petersburg University,
  • "The writer" was modelled by the historian and archeologist Dmytro Yavornytsky or Dmitry Evarnitsky, the author of a major work on the history of Zapporzhian Cossacks
  • "The Smiling Soldier", in the role of Otaman Ivan Sirko, was modeled by General Mikhail Ivanovich Dragomirov of the Russian army.
  • The "Smiling soldier with a red cap" was modelled by Ivan Tsionglinsky, a teacher of drawing in Petersburg and an active participant in the World of Art movement. He was of Polish ancestry.
  • The "Cossack with a yellow hat", almost hidden by Taras Bulba, was modelled by Fyodor Stravinsky, an opera singer with the Mariinsky Theatre, of Polish descent, and the father of the composer Igor Stravinsky.
  • The "Tall smiling man",who portrays Andria, the younger son of Taras Bulba, is the son of the Russian aristocrat Varvara Uexküll von Gyllenband, and the great-nephew of the composer Mikhail Glinka.
  • The "Serious Cossack" was modelled by the art patron Vassily Tarnovsky, an important supporter of Ukrainian culture.
  • The "Top of a bald head" belongs to Georgi Alekseyev, who was Grand Chamberlain of the court of the Russian Emperor, in charge of court finances. He was invited to pose for the role, but refused, as he felt it was undignified. Instead, Repin sketched the back of his head while Alekseyev was engaged in looking at an exhibit of prints. When he saw the painting, Alekseyev recognized his head, and was not pleased, but by then the painting was in the imperial collection.[9][10]


The image has become a well-known reference in Russian culture, parodied or emulated by other work such as political cartoons, including Members of Duma drafting a reply to Stolypin[11] and Soviet leaders write the letter of defiance to George Curzon,[12] seen below. It is also referenced in other works, such as both the 2009 Russian film Taras Bulba, which depicts the scene itself, and the American film of the same name (which includes the painting in its opening credits); both are adaptations of a historical novella by that name, though the novella does not include the scene.

Members of the 1907 Duma drafting a reply to Stolypin
A 1923 Russian cartoon parody of the painting, "Bolsheviks writing a Reply to Englishman Curzon"

Beyond Russia, the painting is frequently used as a symbol or metonymy for Cossacks in general. The "Cossacks" expansion to the video game Europa Universalis IV adapted the text of the reply for its trailer and included artwork based on the original painting,[13] the game Cossacks: European Wars has the central detail of the picture in its logo, and the game Cossacks 3 has the painting as the background of the main menu.

The text has inspired several adaptations; most notable is probably the French versification by Guillaume Apollinaire, included as "Réponse des Cosaques Zaporogues au Sultan de Constantinople" as part of his poem "La Chanson du mal-aimé", in his 1913 collection Alcools. This version was set to music by Dmitri Shostakovich in his Symphony No. 14, amongst other poets, and by French singer-songwriter Léo Ferré, in a full oratorio on La Chanson du mal-aimé in 1953.

Not all treatment of the painting has been positive. Particularly, art critic Clement Greenberg's influential 1939 essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch selected Repin's painting as an example of "kitsch".[14]


  1. ^ "Ilya Yefimovich Repin | Biography, Art, & Facts". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 31 December 2020.
  2. ^ a b Solomon, Tessa (11 May 2022). "A Continually Updated List of Ukraine's Most Significant Cultural Sites Damaged Amid Russia's Invasion". Retrieved 8 June 2022.
  3. ^ Ilya Repin- Peindre, Claude Pommereau (editor), Beaux Arts Editions, Paris, October 2021, p. 15 (in French)
  4. ^ a b c Walther K. Lang (Spring 2002). "The Legendary Cossacks: Anarchy and Nationalism in the Conceptions of Ilya Repin and Nikolai Gogol". Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide. Retrieved 10 March 2021.
  5. ^ a b "InfoUkes: Ukrainian History -- The Cossack Letter: "The Most Defiant Letter!"". Retrieved 16 March 2020.
  6. ^ Waugh, Daniel. C. (1978). The Great Turkes Defiance: On the History of the Apocryphal Correspondence of Ottoman Sultan in its Muscovite and Russian Variants. Columbus, Ohio. p. 169. ISBN 9780089357561.
  7. ^ a b c Pylypenko, Volodymyr (2019). "Provoking a War: Polish Fake Documents in Warsaw's 17th century Eastern Policy" (PDF). Propaganda in the World and Local Conflicts. Academic Publishing House Researcher. 6 (1): 6. doi:10.13187/pwlc.2019.1.3. S2CID 241220914. Archived from the original (PDF) on 14 November 2019. Retrieved 20 April 2022.
  8. ^ Liksom, Rosa (2016). Hytti nro 6 [Compartment No. 6]. Translated by Rogers, Lola. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press. p. 73.
  9. ^ a b История создания картины «Запорожцы пишут письмо турецкому султану»
  10. ^ a b "Запорожцы пишут письмо турецкому султану —".
  11. ^ Special:FilePath/Members of Duma are drafting a reply to Stolypin.jpeg
  12. ^ Special:FilePath/Soviet leaders write the letter of defiance to George Curzon.jpg
  13. ^ "Europa Universalis IV - The Cossacks". Paradox Interactive. 15 October 2015. Archived from the original on 22 December 2021.
  14. ^ Greenberg, Clement (1939). "Avant-Garde and Kitsch". Partisan Review. Retrieved 15 November 2015.

Book references[edit]

  • Dmytro I. Yavornytsky (1895) History of the Zaporogian Cossacks, Vol. 2, pp. 517–518. St. Petersburg. Available in both modern Ukrainian and Russian language editions.
  • Myron B. Kuropas (1961) The Saga of Ukraine: An Outline History. MUN Enterprises
  • Саєнко В.М. (2004) "Лист до турецького султана" та деякі міфологічні відповідності // Нові дослідження пам’яток козацької доби в Україні. – Вип.13. – К. – С. 418–420.
  • Prymak, Thomas M., "Message to Mehmed: Repin Creates his Zaporozhian Cossacks," in his Ukraine, the Middle East, and the West (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2021), pp. 173–200.
  • Jack Carr, (2019) True Believer, Atria/Emily Bestler Books, chapter 67.

External links[edit]