2: Oil painting, Ilya Repin’s “Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire,” 1878-1891.
In the story collection Red Cavalry, Babel’s narrator Lyutov (like the author) finds himself in the army in the role of a reporter and propagandist whose function is to explain the Bolsheviks’ Marxist ideology to the illiterate soldiers in his unit. Historically, these soldiers were mercenaries—rebels hired as soldiers—related to the famous Zaporozhian Cossacks, Ukrainian warriors who lived south of the Dnieper River in what is now central Ukraine beginning around the fourteenth century. Periodically throughout history, the Cossacks would rise up against the dominant Polish overlords. The most famous Cossack uprising took place under Bohdan Khmelnytsky in 1648-1649. During this uprising, the Cossacks claimed new territory and rights, but killed thousands of Jews, who were seen as connected to the Polish lords. In “My First Goose,” Babel highlights the contrast between Lyutov and the others in his regiment by referring to the others as “Cossacks.” The troubled history of Cossacks and Jews in the Ukrainian territories adds comedy and danger to Babel’s story about Lyutov and his comrades.
Russian realist painter, Ilya Repin, offers a classic image of Zaporozhian Cossacks, depicting their rejection of the Ottomans’ early seventeenth century suggestion that the Cossacks unite with the Ottoman Empire.
Suggested Activity: To provide further background on Cossack history, present the image of Repin's oil painting to students, and ask them to describe the Cossacks as Repin portrayed them in the late nineteenth century. Call their attention to the expressions on the Cossacks’ faces. Explain the pride Cossacks historically took in rebellion. Call their attention to the flask at the waist of the topless Cossack seated at the table. The star of David decorating the flask suggests that this item may have been looted from East European Jews. Ask the students to form pairs and discuss which of the Cossacks reminds them the most of Savitsky, Commander of the Sixth Division in “My First Goose.” Ask them each to imagine that they have been assigned to ride around with Repin’s Cossacks and write about them. What would they do to try to make friends with this group?
Source: Ilya Repin, “Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire,” 1878-1891, Oil on canvas, 203 cm x 358 cm, State Russian Museum, Saint Petersburg, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zaporozhian_Cossacks#/media/File:Ilja_Jefimowitsch_Repin_-_Reply_of_the_Zaporozhian_Cossacks_-_Yorck.jpg.