ukrainian cossack stories

Hanoi Ink continues the theme of English-language books for children and young people from the USSR, found in second-hand book shops in Vietnam.

Following my previous entry on Soviet-era Russian children’s books published in English by Progress Publishers, Moscow in the 1970s and 1980s, in another old book shop on Đường Láng street, Hanoi on the weekend I came across another Soviet-era book for “Young Readers and Adults” published in English in 1985 by Dnipro Publishers in Kiev, Ukraine. The book is The Cossack Holota: Stories Based on Ancient Ukrainian Ballads by Maria Prihara, translated from Ukrainian by Mary Skrypnyk with illustrations by Heorhiy Yakutovich. There are eight separate stories over 114 pages.

The Cossack Holota (book cover)

I am quite curious about where the book fit within the politics of culture and nationalism within Ukraine and the wider USSR. As indicated in the title, the stories tap into Ukrainian history and the heroism of the Christian Eastern Orthodox Cossacks in their fight against the slave-raiding Tatar hordes, the Turks and other “Mussulman” enemies. The Cossacks here are typically cast in terms of bravery, loyalty to brother Cossacks, skill on horseback and in fighting, cunning, and unconcern for their tattered clothing as long as horse and arms are in good order.

Heorhiy Yakutovich’s woodcut illustrations are somewhat similar to those of Anatoly Belyukin for Tales of the Amber Sea, however are more complex and less heavy, using finer lines. This difference seems appropriate as—despite the reference to “ancient Ukrainian ballads” in the title—the Cossack period from which these ballads derive was the 16th and 17th centuries. There is more information about the origins and characteristics of these epic ballads, known as dumahere and here. This collection seem to mostly contain stories from the older cycle of dumas, focusing on the struggle with the Tatars and the Turks. Dumas from the period of the Polish-Cossack struggle are much less represented.

Illustration by Heorhiy Yakutovich

There are some heavy tales in the collection. A warning and stern reminder of the ties of loyalty between Cossack brothers, and particularly between blood-brothers, is given in the story “How three brothers fled from Azov”, in which three Cossack brothers escape from the city of Azov, where they were captives of the Turkish viceroy, Suleiman-pasha. With only two horses between them, the youngest brother is abandoned by the others despite his cries for them to help him. Traveling on foot without food or water, he falls victim to the eagles and grey wolves of the steppe. Reaching home, the middle brother cannot live with this terrible secret and confesses to their parents, who denounce and reject their remaining sons as fratricides.

I have not been able to find out too much information about the author or publishing house online. It seems that Maria Prihara’s original stories were first published in Ukrainian with the same illustrator by Veselka Publishers in Kiev in 1966. The translator Mary Skrypnyk seems to have been a regular Ukrainian-to-English translator for Dnipro Publishers during the 1980s.

~ by hanoi ink on May 16, 2011.

One Response to “ukrainian cossack stories”

  1. When can we expect to read your Duong Lang bookshops round-up, Hanoi Ink? Coincidentally, Hanh grew up on Duong Lang, and so did her father and paternal grandmother, and several hundred other relatives on that side of the family. Maybe some of them know something interesting about the history of that strip of bookshops. I shall inquire.

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