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The “Folk” Tale of Azov


Its plot combines both episodes in the story of Azov—-the capture of the fortress by the Don Cossacks in 1637 and its defence against the Turks in 1641 (see p. 448). Moreover the author had at his disposal both the “historical” and the “poetic” tales about these events. He borrowed only a few phrases from the former, however. It is clear that the documental description of the preparation for the campaign, the undermining of the fortress and the assaults on it did not interest him. He replaced this description by two motifs which had been connected with the themes of war and siege ever since the times of the Iliad.

These were, firstly, the motif of the abduction of a high-born lady. We are told that the Azov Pasha gave his daughter in marriage to the Crimean Khan and that the Cossacks hid their light boats in the rushes by the sea-shore and captured the ship that was bearing the young bride. She was spared and “they did her … no harm”, but obtained a large ransom for her and “grew rich from that wedding”. This introductory episode is of no consequence for the plot, but it would be wrong to regard it as either self-sufficient or superfluous. It fulfils the function of an exposition: the reader is warned, as it were, that the author wishes to entertain him.

The second is the motif of the “Trojan horse”. Cossacks disguised as Astrakhan merchants, with a forged letter from the voevoda of Astrakhan to the Pasha of Azov, enter the fortress with one hundred and thirty carts. Thirty are loaded with merchandise, but each of the others contains four Cossacks who capture the fortress. As we can see, the reader was not disappointed. The further he read, the more entertaining the story became.

What is the origin of these two motifs that replace the documental “historical” tale? Their direct source would appear to be the Don songs in which the capture of Azov is portrayed in a very similar way (the Cossacks hide in carts).34 It is most important that both motifs are found in one and the same song. A similar text (“On the Island of Buzan”) is included in Kirsha Danilov’s Old Russian Verses.35 Here the Cossacks led by Ermak capture Turkish ships with merchandise and a “beautiful maiden”, the Murza’s daughter, in the Caspian Sea. Then they set sail for Astrakhan where they pretend to be merchants.

In the folklore and literature of various peoples both motifs, basically autonomous, are combined so regularly that this suggests a kind of artistic law. Evidently there exists a stereotype of adventure story that is constructed from a limited number of typical situations. This stereotype appears in a similar way in the Iliad (the abduction of Helen and the gifts of the Danaans), in The Tale of Bygone Years when Prince Oleg the Seer captures Kiev after disguising himself as a merchant, in the “folk” tale of Azov, in legends about Stepan Razin (the capture of the town of Farabad and the famous “princess” whom he throws into the river at the insistence of his men), in Walter Scott, Gogol’s Taras Bulba and the historical novels of Dumas and Sienkiewicz.

The author of the “folk” tale could, of course, sense the difference between the officialese of the “historical” account of the capture of Azov and the expressive quality of his second source, the “poetic” tale of the siege. This can be seen albeit from the fact that he borrowed the imaginary dialogue between the janissaries and the Cossacks. The author knew that he was dealing with fiction and not fact, but nevertheless he made some use of it. Why? Because in the “poetic” tale the main artistic leitmotif was feeling (hence the heightened attention to style). In the “folk” tale the accent moves to adventure, exciting situations. The plot is the pivot of seventeenth-century historical narrative.

The latter retains only the external devices, the shell of mediaeval historicism.The authors draw their characters from the chronicles and chronographs, but no longer take pains to ensure that their actions correspond in the slightest to what is said about them in these sources. The source no longer constricts the writer’s imagination. Only the name remains historical. The bearer of this name becomes what is in effect an imaginary hero. His actions no longer depend either on the facts contained in the source, or on mediaeval “conventional behaviour4‘.

This can be seen most clearly in the cycle of stories about the founding of Moscow.36 The most popular of these were two works: The Tale of the Founding of Moscow written in the second quarter of the century and The Legend of the Killing of Daniel of Suzdal and of the Founding of Moscow (composed between 1652 and 1681). A comparative analysis of these works dealing with the same subject shows how literary invention was becoming established.