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Our portfolio in the Summer 2023 Military History features a number of paintings depicting real military conflicts but replete with inaccuracies. The above painting — Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, by Ilya Repin — takes that concept one step further, depicting something that never actually happened. 

As the story goes, in 1676 the all-powerful Ottoman empire, while seeking to conquer what today comprises Ukraine, suffered a humiliating loss to the Cossacks. Yet Sultan Mehmed IV had the effrontery to send the Cossacks a surrender demand laden with self-congratulatory language. In response the Cossacks, depicted by Repin as rowdy frontiersmen, sat down to write the most insulting reply they could conceive, laughing uproariously at every line. 

In truth, the oft-published letter is a historical forgery, likely of Polish origin. Though debunked, the ribald humor of the text coupled with Repin’s lively depiction has kept the legend alive, its use shifting to suit subsequent respective eras. Today Ukraine faces yet another invasion, and the Zaporozhian reply has been invoked numerous times. 

Following is an 1872 version of the reply, translated by linguist Victor Friedman. Though it is perhaps the least credible version, its vulgar language naturally ranks it among the most popular: 

Zaporozhians — to the Turkish Sultan: 

You Turkish Satan, brother and comrade of the damned devil and secretary to Lucifer himself! What the hell kind of knight are you? The devil s___s and you and your army swallow. You aren’t fit to have the sons of Christians under you; we aren’t afraid of your army, and we’ll fight you on land and sea. 

You Babylonian busboy, Macedonian mechanic, Jerusalem beerbrewer, Alexandrian goatskinner, swineherd of Upper and Lower Egypt, Armenian pig, Tatar goat, Kamenets hangman, Podolian thief, grandson of the Evil Serpent himself, and buffoon of all the world and the netherworld, fool of our God, swine’s snout, mare’s a__hole, butcher’s dog, unbaptized brow, may the devil steam your ass! 

That’s how the Cossacks answer you, you nasty glob of spit! You’re unfit to rule true Christians. We don’t know the date, because we don’t have a calendar, the moon is in the sky, and the year is in a book, and the day is the same with us as with you, so go kiss our butt! 

— Chief Hetman Zaxarcenko with all the Zaporozhian Host