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The “Poetic” Tale of the Siege of Azov


The “poetic” tale was aimed at winning Moscow public opinion for the Cossacks and influencing the National Assembly. Through the mouths of the

Turks it uttered truths most unpalatable for the Moscow authorities: “And to you, rebels, we declare that you will receive no help or support from the Tsardom of Moscow, not from the Tsar, nor from the Russian people.” The Cossacks in the tale agree with this warning: “We know full well ourselves without you, curs, what we are worth in the Moscow state in Russia, they have no use for us there… We are held in less respect than a stinking cur in Russia. We flee … from eternal toil, from forced slavery… Who cares a jot for us there? They are all too glad to see the end of us. And never have we received food or support from Russia.”

The exaggeration here is deliberate: Moscow did, in fact, send generous supplies of provisions and gunpowder to the Don. Evidently the author no longer believed in support from the Tsar and leading boyars. The bitter reproaches from the Cossack defenders of the fortress are intended for the National Assembly, their last hope.

The “poetic” tale was composed by a highly educated person. He used a wide range of written sources, in particular The Tale of the Battle Against Mamai, whence he borrowed devices for describing the enemy host. However, it is not paraphrases or concealed quotations that determine the artistic character of the work. There are two main principles in its poetics: the artistic reinterpretation of chancery genres and the use of folklore. The author makes use of the oral tradition of the Cossacks. From written sources he also borrowed primarily folklore motifs.

The tale begins like an extract from an official report: the Cossacks “compiled an inventory of their siege and submitted the inventory to the Ambassadorial Chancery in Moscow … to a state secretary … and the inventory ran as follows…” Then follows a long list of the forces dispatched to Azov by Sultan Ibrahim, a list of the infantry regiments, cavalry and artillery, the Crimean and Nogai Tartar nobles, the mountain and Circassian princes, the European mercenaries and even the peasants whom they have assembled “on this side of the sea … with spades and with shovels, so as to bury us, Cossacks, alive by their great numbers in the town of Azov and cover us with a great mountain of them”.

The last phrase is out of keeping with the dry, official style. This is no accident, but a literary device. For the list of forces, which appears at first glance to be cold and factual, actually contains emotional undertones. By listing more and more Turkish detachments, the author builds up an impression of terror and hopelessness. He himself seems to be in the grip of these feelings. He is horrified by what he has written, and the pen drops from his hand: “And there were countless thousands of them assembled against us, simple folk, so many that the pen cannot say.”

These are the words of a person who is perfectly aware of the favourable outcome of the siege. He is not a clerk or a chronicler. He is a writer. He is aware that contrast creates emotional tension. The more hopeless the beginning seems, the more effective and impressive the happy ending. This contrasting picture is the author’s main, but remote aim. For the time being he prepares the ground for the transition from official style to the semi-folkloric style of the military tale, the hyperbolic conventional portrayal of vast enemy hordes. It is here that he turns to The Tale of the Battle Against Mamai

The Turkish hordes “sowed the empty plains with their bodies”. Where there had once been open steppe, there rose up forests “of their multitudes”. From the size of the infantry and cavalry “the ground … around Azov quaked and shook, and out of the river … out of the Don, the water rose onto the banks from such great weights.” The firing of the cannon and muskets is compared to a storm—“like a great storm and terrible lightning coming from the clouds, from the heavens”. The sun was covered with gunpowder smoke, “and a great darkness descended”. “And a mighty fear of them seized us at the time,” the author exclaims, “we beheld the untold and terrible and awful coming of the Mohammedans with dismay and wonder!”

The shifts from an official style to a folklore style continue to be the most characteristic feature of the author’s writing. Here is the farewell of the Cossacks exhausted from their bloody skirmishes: “Farewell, shady forests and leafy groves! Farewell, open plains and quiet waters! Farewell, blue sea and fast-flowing rivers!.. Farewell, our quiet Lord Don Ivanovich, we shall no longer travel along you, our ataman, with a fearful host, shoot wild beasts in the open plain, nor catch fish in the quiet Don Ivanovich.” This is an almost perfect reproduction of the style of Don folk songs, as we know them from later manuscripts.

The author does not only alternate between the official and folkloric styles, he also combines them, filling the officialese with folklorism and thus artistically reinterpreting it. The most striking examples of this reinterpretation is the imaginary speeches which the Turks and Cossacks exchange. The words of the Turkish commander contain the real demands of the sultan. The orator both threatens and flatters the Cossacks, but folklore imagery is intertwined in the threats and flattery. “You can see for yourselves, foolish rebels,” he says, “a vast, immense … force … a soaring bird could not fly over our Turkish host, it would be seized with terror at the multitude of our hosts, and would fall from on high to the ground.” He goes on to say that if the rebels abandon the fortress, the Turks will call them “holy Russian bogatyrs” now and forever more.

The Cossacks reply in similar vein. They rebuke the sultan for excessive pride and are not inhibited in their choice of words. The sultan is a “foul swineherd”, a “stinking cur”, and a “niggardly dog”. This abuse is similar to the “literary abuse” that one finds in many seventeenth-century works, which also reinterpret the official genres artistically, in the legendary correspondence of Ivan the Terrible with the Turkish Sultan, then the Zaporozhye and Chigirin Cossacks.

The stylistic range of the tale stretches from the lyricism of the song to “literary abuse”. It is based entirely on contrasts, because its historical basis was also a contrast, the contrast between the handful of men defending Azov and the vast host of besiegers. The tale ends with the Cossacks repulsing the final assault and storming the Turkish camp. The Turks flee in terror. Whereas earlier the Cossacks shamed the sultan with words, they now shame the Turks with deeds: “Our weak hand and the free Don Cossacks have shamed (the Turks) forever before all lands, rulers and kings.”

The National Assembly was the scene of some heated disputes, but the tsar’s opinion prevailed: Azov must be handed back to the Turks. The surviving rebels left the fortress. In order to relieve the bitter impression that this “sentence” had on the Don Cossacks, the tsar presented lavish gifts to those Cossacks who had attended the Assembly. Only one exception was made: the au­thor Fyodor Poroshin, a fugitive slave and writer, was exiled to Siberia.

The “poetic” tale of Azov was fittingly appreciated by the people of the day. It circulated in many manuscripts and was constantly being reworked. On the basis of this tale and the “historical” tale of the siege of Azov, a “folk tale” about Azov was created in the second half of the seventeenth century, which belongs to a new genre in Russian literature, the genre of historical fiction.