Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Need for a Hero

   Every society needs heroes. In fact, every society has them. The reason we do not often see them is because we don't bother to look. There are two kinds of heroes. There are heroes who shine in the face of great adversity and/or who perform an amazing feat in a difficult situation. There are also heroes who live among us, who do their work unceremoniously, unnoticed by many of us, but who make a difference in the lives of others. Heroes are selfless people who perform extraordinary acts. The mark of heroes is not necessarily the result of their action, but what they are willing to do for others and for their chosen cause. Even if they fail, their determination lives on for others to follow. The glory lies not in the achievement, but in the sacrifice. Heroes serve to remind us of the higher purpose of self and society.1

   One such hero was Taras Bulba, a legendary figure immortalized in the novella Taras Bulba by Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (1809-1852).  This novella tells the story of Taras and his two sons, Ostap and Andrei.  Taras is a Ukrainian Cossack living in the seventeenth century and his two sons are students at the Orthodox seminary in Kiev.  Andrei and Ostap return home from seminary and go off with their father to the Cossack camp at the Zaporozhian Sich.  Taras attempts to inspire the Cossacks to go to war against various groups.  The Cossacks finally agree to go to war against the Polish after hearing that the Polish people have been trying to convert the people of west Ukraine to Roman Catholicism and that they were attacking beliefs of the Orthodox Church.  

   Taras’ son, Andrei, is in love with the daughter of the Polish governor of Kovno.  At one point the Cossacks trap this young woman and the rest of the people inside their castle and prevent supplies from reaching the people.  One of the servants of this young woman appeals to Andrei for help and Andrei brings bread to the young woman and her family inside the castle. When Andrei sees what is happening inside the castle he abandons his fight against the Polish people and actually joins them in their fight against the Cossacks. 

   Taras makes a decision which most people would find extremely difficult to make and decides that he must kill his son, Andrei, as a result of Andrei’s disloyalty to the cause of the Cossacks.  He confronts Andrei in person and kills him with a single shot from his pistol. 

   Taras Bulba is a legendary inspirational figure who has little difficulty inspiring others to follow his lead.  He is faithful to Cossack traditions, well known among the Cossack leaders, and will engage in combat as quickly as he would send others to do so.  There are few other qualities that someone would look for in a leader. 

    At one point he is fighting along with his son, Ostap, when Taras is knocked unconscious and Ostap is taken prisoner by the Poles.  Turning to Yankel, a Jewish merchant, for help Taras explains that he must go to Warsaw in order to offer moral support for Ostap. 

    Taras is smuggled into Warsaw in a pile of bricks and with the help of other Jewish merchants and providing bribes to some guards, he is able to be present as Ostap is tortured.  Following his father’s example, Ostap does not say a word as all of his limbs are broken one at a time, but simply cries out at the end and asked, “Father, do you see this?”  Unable to control himself, Taras shouts out, “I do see this” and then quickly disappears. 

    Upon his return to Ukraine, Taras finds that all of the men he knew were now dead and a new Hetman (leader) has taken over.  This new leader wants to make peace with the Poles, but Taras protests and explains that the Poles cannot be trusted and they will not abide by any peace agreement.

   He fails to convince the new Hetman and forms his own band of soldiers who continue in their fight against the Poles.  At one point, Taras is taken prisoner, nailed to a stake, and burned alive.  Like Ostap, he does not cry out in pain, but simply declares that the glory of Russia will remain forever and a new czar will arise to continue this glory. The story ends with the Cossacks recalling the great deeds of Taras Bulba and his devotion to the spirit and cause of the Ukrainian Cossacks. 

    This same period of history was also written about in With Fire and Sword by Henryk Sienkiewicz (1846-1916).  This novel discusses these same events, but tells the story from the standpoint of the Poles instead of the Cossacks.  It is not surprising that Taras Bulba is not seen as a hero in this novel.  In fact, it has often been said that one man’s hero is another man’s terrorist. 

     The novel, Taras Bulba, originally written in 1835 was considered to be “too Ukrainian” by the Russian government and Gogol was forced to revise the novel.  A second addition was published in 1842.  Even with the revision, there is no denying that this novel is about Ukrainian life and culture.  The Ukrainian people can look to someone like Taras Bulba as a hero even in this period of history. 

     If history had been different, there would be no mention of men such as a George Washington as patriotic American heroes.  Instead, he would have been considered another in a line of anti-British terrorists.  Everyone needs a hero and the Ukrainian people certainly have one in Taras Bulba.

                                                     End Notes


1)    “The Making of a Hero” by,8599,2054335,00.html#ixzz2HkfrCHsE


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