Monday, May 5, 2014

Great Moments in Ukrainian Diplomacy: The Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks

Ukraine!   Ancient land of peace and harmony, how fondly we remember you!  There are whole chunks of the American population who are descended from people who ran screaming from that part of the world.

Political Scientists the world over are gleefully sharpening their knives about events in recent, what we might call, Ukraine. Experienced yet stupid American and European diplomats are reeling in astonishment at what is apparently their first introduction to the history of the region. Could it be that even today not everyone in that part of the world loves each other?

Of course, where there is war, there is diplomacy, or the lack thereof. Diplomacy is sometimes defined as that activity between nations or other groups which attempts to negotiate and resolve conflict. It has its own specialized language (which of course varies by time period) and conventions whose intent is to, among other things, see to it that nations are not accidentally misunderstood. Obviously the potential of misunderstanding is rife when we have very different cultures, languages and factions attempting to work with each other or kill each other or both.

I have recently come across a beautiful example of diplomacy which is worthy on its own merits but has extra value since it also took place in what we are today calling Ukraine.  I am going to present the following anecdote as if it were a colorful incident of history, when in fact if I were being more serious I would really want to dig in and find out just how likely it is that the following diplomatic exchange actually happened.  Never let the facts get in the way of a good story, I always say. 

In 1676, the Turkish Sultan Zehmed IV sent a letter to the Zaporozhian Cossacks stating who he was and that they should surrender to him at once.

The demand from the Sultan was:

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.

The reply from the Zaporozhian Cossacks (one of the many Cossack entities) was thought lost to history, but a copy of the letter was found two centuries later. I am going to freely interpret several different proposed translations of this letter but as I do so please keep in mind that by definition the best invective involves the pungent use of idiom and is very difficult to translate and still keep the same color. When for example I tell you to “kiss my ass”, I rarely mean that I literally want you to kiss my ass, although I might depending on the details, but usually the request is meant figuratively.

Detail from Repin's painting about the writing of this letter.  We should all enjoy our work as much as this Cossack

Supposedly, the reply of the Cossacks was:

From the Zaporozhian Cossacks to the Turkish Sultan! 
O Sultan, you Turkish devil, brother and assistant to Lucifer himself, what kind of knight are you who can not slay a hedgehog with your naked ass? You shit and your army eats. You will not, you son of a bitch, make subjects of the sons of Christians. We have no fear of your army, by land and by sea we will battle with you. Go fuck your mother. 
You are a Babylonian kitchen slave, a Macedonian wheelwright, a brewer of alcoholic beverages from Jerusalem, a goat fucker of Alexandria, a swineherd of Greater and Lesser Egypt, a pig of Armenia, a thief of Podolia, a young boy who receives anal sex from Tartary, a hangman of the Kamyanets, a fool of this world and the world to come, an idiot before God, a grandson of the Serpent, and a curve in our penis. A pig's snout, a mare's ass, a dog of the slaughterhouse, an unchristened brow, you should go screw your mother. 
So the Zaporozhians declare, you lowlife.

You won't even be herding pigs for the Christians.

We do not know the date and we do not own a calendar, but the moon is in the sky and the year is with the Lord, and the day is the same over here as it is over there. 
You may kiss our ass. 
Koshovyi Otaman Ivan Sirko and the Zaporozhian Host.

Yes, I suppose that this letter could be misunderstood.



1. This is a scan of Repin's Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks which was completed in 1891 and hangs in the State Russian Museum in St. Petersberg.   Its Wikipedia page is here.  First Secretary Joseph Stalin is said to have had a reproduction of this painting hanging in his office in the Kremlin.

2. The origins of the Cossacks are much more complicated and vague than I had realized, Their Wikipedia page is

3. There is a mangled paper online about some of the issues of the translations of various versions of the reply.  See


  1. Hey,

    One of Tom's friends here, found your blog randomly somehow. I've been enjoying reading it. Keep up the good writing. It's fascinating.

    1. Dear Anonymous .... you are truly anonymous. It turns out that I have several Tom friends, many of them distinguished in one field or another. We have Tom Brigham in NYC and Tom Duff in San Francisco and so forth. Anyway thank you for the complement, I really appreciate it. The blog has strong points and weak points and is due for a good reorganization as we move boldly into new topics. Whoever you are, thanks again. MW