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The “Historical” Tale of the Capture of Azov


In 1637, one year after the completion of The Esipov Chronicle, another work about the Cossacks was written in a different borderland region of Russia, the Don. It was the first of the Azov cycle of tales, which consists of an “historical”, a “poetic” and a “folk” tales. The events described by this “historical” tale are designated in the title: A Work on the Town of Azov, and on the Coming of the Atamans and Cossacks of the Great Don Army, and on Its Capture?2

For the Don Cossacks Azov, a strong Turkish fortress at the mouth of the Don, the river which the Cossacks regarded as the “bastion” of their free lands and called respectfully “Don Ivanovich”, had always been a great obstacle. In the spring of 1637, taking advantage of a favourable balance of forces (the sultan was engaged in a war against Persia), the Cossacks laid siege to Azov and took it after two months.

The tale that describes this episode was written by a man who worked in a Cossack chancery. This left its mark both on the composition, which is that of the official military report of the capture of Azov, and on the style of the work. Here in documentary form and great detail with much enumeration we find descriptions of the preparations for the campaign, the undermining of the fortress walls, the storming of the Turkish stronghold and the fate of the captured. The author does not confine himself to purely documentary tasks, however. He says as much in the concluding lines: “And we have written this that Christian folk might remember it … and to the shame and disgrace of impious peoples of pagan stock for present and future generations.” The ideas of the “historical” tale are in harmony with those of The Esipov Chronicle: the Don Cossacks marched on Azov in order to “replant the Orthodox Christian faith” there.

Like any writer, the author of the “historical” tale was addressing not only future generations, but also his contem­poraries. And he sought to ensure that their response was favourable to the Cossacks. Every reference in the text to Tsar Michael is highly respectful. Even in the account of the undermining of the Azov fortress, the author does not forget to mention that the Cossacks got their gunpowder from Moscow:

“And they dug a second passage for four weeks and put gunpowder supplied by the Sovereign under the wall.” This detail would be unnecessary if the tale were intended for Cossack readers only; it becomes relevant if the author was addressing himself to Muscovites as well. The Cossacks took Azov without the tsar’s permission and without even informing Moscow. The author is seeking to vindicate their wilful conduct.

The Cossacks realized that they could not hold Azov without the assistance of Moscow. Therefore, throughout the four-year struggle for Azov, which was followed with great interest by the Moslem and the Christian world alike, the Don Cossacks sought to put Azov under the protection of the tsar. Fearing a large-scale war with the Ottoman Porta (peace with the Turks was a firm principle of the foreign policy of the early Romanovs), the Moscow government refrained from sending troops to help the Cossacks and officially disowned them through its ambassador in Istanbul. At the same time it sent the Cossacks arms and ammunition and did not prevent volunteers from joining the Azov garrison.

In August 1638 Azov was besieged by Crimean and Nogai Tartar cavalry, but the Cossacks sent them packing. Three years later the fortress had to repulse another attack, this time from the Turkish Sultan’s huge army equipped with powerful artillery. A large naval fleet blockaded the town from the sea. Mines were put under the walls and cannons destroyed the fortress. Everything that could burn was burnt to cinders. But a handful of Cossacks (all that remained of more than five thousand at the beginning of the siege) withstood the four-month siege, repulsing twenty-four assaults. In September 1641 the sultan’s battered army was forced to retreat. The disgrace of this defeat was a bitter blow to the Turks: the inhabitants of Istanbul were forbidden to utter the word “Azov”.

It was clear that the sultan would not give up Azov and that it was only a question of time before he launched a new campaign. Moscow, too, realised that the time had come to cease its ambiguous policy. In 1642 a National Assembly (Zemsky sobor) was convened to decide whether to defend the fortress or hand it back to the Turks. It was attended by a delegation of elected envoys from the Don Cossacks. The esaul (the assistant of the ataman who led the delegation) was Fyodor Poroshin, formerly a slave of Prince Nikita Odoyevsky who had fled from his master’s service. In all probability it was he who wrote the “poetic” tale of the siege of Azov, the finest work of the Azov cycle.