Issue 26 (2009)

Vladimir Bortko: Taras Bul’ba (2009)

reviewed by Ian Appleby © 2009

“The appeal of Taras Bulba as an adolescent adventure story is obvious,” remarks Judith Kornblatt (1992: 58) of Nikolai Gogol’s novella Taras Bul’ba. Vladimir Bortko’s film adaptation is faithful inasmuch as it largely fails to engage on any more sophisticated level—despite a big budget, period costumes and some respected actors. In its 1842 version, the novella was instrumental in helping to create the mythical Cossack that has become a stock figure not only in the Russian imagination, but also farther afield. This mythical Cossack has evolved as later authors engaged with him, and Bortko has had to acknowledge this evolution in his cinematic treatment. In fact, Gogol aimed higher: the larger-than-life Cossacks he depicted were intended to act as a foundation myth for the Russian nation. Bortko, too, appears to have striven for a mythologizing film that upholds Russian virtues, for these Cossacks are undoubtedly Russian in the ethnic (russkii) sense of the adjective as they are set against the cowardly, decadent West.

bulbaA peculiar tension arises in the film between the myth-making plot as it unfolds and the authentic period feel of the props and mise-en-scène. The world of Taras Bul’ba is hot and grimy, the perspiration is palpable, and the flies can be heard on the soundtrack. The actors, with the possible exceptions of Andrii (Igor Petrenko) and the Polish noblewoman El’zhbeta (Magdalena Mel’tsazh), are far from the bland Hollywood ideal of beauty. Bogdan Stupka as Taras Bul’ba has the appropriate physical heft and age – one hesitates to employ the word maturity on this context, even if he is respected among the other Cossacks as an experienced elder. The other Cossacks are weather-beaten and scarred. Borodatyi (Boris Khmel’nitskii) perhaps seems a little too carefully groomed to be entirely convincing, but he is the exception. Shilo (Mikhail Boiarskii), on the other hand, looks every inch the wiry, hard-bitten fighter. This assertion of authenticity needs some qualification, however: Gogol never ascribes a particular period to his novella, while the film’s narrator talks of the difficult 16th century in which Cossackdom formed. It is a moot point how many viewers will be familiar with the finer points of Zaporozhian costume from the 1500s, yet the costumes are faithful to the imagined Cossack: Bortko pays almost perfect homage to Repin’s painting of the Zaporozhian Cossacks with a scene depicting Bul’ba seeding discontent among the rank-and-file over the Koshevoi’s peace treaty with the Sultan. In this way, Bortko remains faithful to Gogol, who himself bypassed historical sources in creating his own contribution to the Cossack myth.

repinThis attention to external “authenticity” has the effect of rendering the events of the film more jarringly incredible. Andrii’s martial prowess is proved, after some goading, when he shoots the neck off the bottle Shilo is holding. His courage is proved when, in turn, Shilo, palpably drunk, stands him against a wall to shoot an apple from his head. Andrii does not flinch, Shilo does not miss. These Cossacks are effortlessly brave and skilful warriors. Of course, a moment’s reflection reveals that a modern marksman using a pistol would require immense expertise to pull off either shot. It would be folly to expect that a sixteenth century firearm could produce anything like such accuracy. In the novella, at the battle of Dubno, the French mercenary hired by the Poles praises the tactical mastery of the Cossack troops. In the film, this individual is missing. The initial assault on Dubno shows mounted Cossacks milling around at the foot of siege ladders, which scarcely seems an effective tactic. Bortko seems so anxious to preserve the mythical image in the viewer’s mind of the Cossack as equestrian warrior that this outweighs the exigencies of the particular tactical situation and thus, ironically, undermines the military expertise Gogol was so keen to convey.  Similarly, where Gogol remarks that the Zaporozhians eschewed military training in favor of learning in battle, Bortko has Bul’ba and his sons pass a group of Cossacks practicing sword drills in the Sich. Gogol was conducting an exercise in myth-making; Bortko attempts to retain the mythologizing but place it in a tangibly realistic setting; the effect of this juxtaposition is to render the supposedly larger-than-life deeds, done in this mundane setting, unintentionally ridiculous. Some of the battle scenes, indeed, evoke nothing more than the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (dirs. Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, 1975) insisting that the loss of a limb is “just a flesh wound.”

bulbaOne of Kornblatt’s theses is that the Cossack myth has evolved over time from its original creation in works by Pushkin and Gogol. Isaak Babel’ created a much more ambivalent image in his cycle Red Cavalry (Konarmiia, 1920s), while Mikhail Sholokhov’s Cossacks are themselves aware of and often act in response to, their image of the mythical Cossack. Perhaps this explains why Bortko felt it necessary to make Andrii’s relationship with El’zhbeta considerably more explicit than Gogol’s chaste description: it is not just a question of negotiating audience expectations around the depiction of relationships in modern cinema, but of meeting expectations around Cossacks. Yet the notion of adolescent fantasy that pervades Taras Bul’ba finds an unlikely echo in the scene in which Andrii scales a tree to spy on the girl undressing in her bedroom—a trope familiar to the Western viewer from countless American frat-house movies. Another resonance is the silent-movie era, given the monochrome footage of the flashback sequence and the lighting which emphasizes Andrii’s wide eyes. Certainly, the absence of speech and the exaggerated facial expressions heighten this impression. Andrii remains almost mute as he advances into El’zhbeta’s room, and submits to her mocking placements of jewelry, which he discards before advancing further and initiating a notably unsubtle embrace, to which the girl at first submits. The cinematic Andrii, it would seem, has taken on the sexual potency of the later incarnations of the mythic Cossack: his presence alone is enough to overcome any sense of propriety and turn the girl’s head.

bulbaYet these later incarnations would hardly have departed so meekly, if at all, when El’zhbeta, recovering, orders him to leave. Gogol’s Andrii begins to lose his Cossack status when he privileges Romantic love over the fellowship of his comrades. For Bortko’s Andrii, this happens when he privileges Romantic love over sex. The sequence cannot be entirely discounted on the basis that it is nothing more than titillation; the Cossack myth has evolved since 1842 to include sexual predation as a bond between Cossacks—Grigorii Melekhov, for example, is in many ways himself something of an outsider, as shown inter alia by his attempt to stop his fellow Cossacks gang-raping a servant girl. Viewed through this more modern prism, Andrii must explicitly fail to negotiate a sexual encounter in order for the flaws in his Cossack nature to be revealed. The nadir of his fall from Cossack grace is revealed when he must buy El’zhbeta’s favors by smuggling bread into the besieged city. Andrii goes on to reject his comrades, his father and his fatherland (otchizna), declaring the girl to be his fatherland. The semantic strain put on these words reflects the internal process of being finally ripped free from the reference points anchoring his identity. In the novella, the narrator announces at this point that “A Cossack perished;” in the film, the sequence culminates in a literal bodice-ripping scene—this lack of sophistication in the way the sequence is shot underlines the sense of adolescent fantasy permeating Bul’ba’s milieu—intercut with shots of battered Cossack prisoners being driven into the city by Polish reinforcements. A similar implication is there, if not as irreversible.

bulbaThus far, the depiction of the relationship between Andrii and El’zhbeta, while mediated in terms of the expectations that surround both Cossacks and relationships in the modern viewer’s mind, can be traced back to the source text. Bortko, however, introduces a significant departure with El’zhbeta’s death in childbirth. Through the Voevod’s discussions with the nun overseeing the birth, we learn El’zhbeta has been in labor for three days before she expires. The distasteful implication is that she is being punished for leading Andrii to his metaphorical and literal demise. Their son—and, of course, it must be a son, given that to be a Cossack one must be male—survives, and although the Voevod draws his sword, he cannot bring himself to kill the infant. Bortko apparently thus prefigures Bul’ba’s final speech, prophesying the advent of a Russian Tsar who will defeat all Russia’s enemies. Since this nameless boy has already avenged the death of his father and survived an encounter with the Polish enemy, he might be understood as the embodiment of Bul’ba’s prophecy.

This reading of El’zhbeta’s death is supported by the general depiction of women in the film. Although, as we shall see, some of the more contentious utterances in the novella are not heard in the film, Bul’ba does tell his returning sons to pay no attention to their mother (Ada Rogovtseva): “She’s just a woman (ona baba), she knows nothing.” In fact, he continues, the saber is their mother. Their birth mother bids them not to forget her as they ride out from Bul’ba’s farmstead for the Sich. It is Andrii, not Ostap (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), who looks back for her. As the three ride, a flashback sequence shows Andrii’s birth in the back of a hay wagon. Instead of offering him to the mother’s breast to suckle – indeed, importantly, the mother herself is never actually seen – Bulba takes the infant down to the river and baptizes him before embracing both his sons. Whether conscious or not, this sequence echoes research suggesting that cultures which value martial prowess deliberately interrupt the child’s bond with its mother as early as possible (Odent, 1999). Andrii, then, is symbolically born from the river and steppe, rather than from a flesh-and-blood mother. Bortko thus alludes to Gogol’s implication that the Cossacks were an eternal nation, new individuals apparently spontaneously generated out of the steppe (Kornblatt, 1992: 66).

Bortko’s innovation of El’zhbeta’s pregnancy allows less than nine months between the battle of Dubno and Bul’ba’s second punitive expedition. Despite all his old comrades having died, he is able to rally a sizeable new force to his standard simply by riding out through the steppe—new squadrons wheel in as he goes. Even though this army is eventually cut down and Bul’ba himself captured, his final speech is intercut by footage of yet more Cossacks riding out. In fact, it would seem that the only role the boys’ mother has to play is to act as causus belli against the Poles when her body is brought to the Sich (a live woman, of course, Gogol tells us, could not be tolerated within its bounds). Mat’-Rossiia zovet!

bulbaFor all the historical Zaporozhian Cossacks settled in what is modern Ukraine, and for all the Cossack plays an important role in the Ukrainian nationalist narrative, for Bortko, Taras Bul’ba and his comrades are clearly Russian. The film opens with a precursor of Bul’ba’s speech before the battle of Dubno, in which he avers there is no comrade like a Russian comrade. This asynchronous pre-title sequence surely reveals the intent of the film to boost Russian patriotic sentiment. The Putin administration began deploying an articulation of Russian identity that mobilizes notions of both gosudarstvennost’ (a strong state that ensures order) and derzhavnost’  (Russia as a great power) alongside patriotism (Tolz, 2004: 170). The border protection and internal policing roles that have historically been allotted to the Cossacks, alongside their reputation for military prowess, make them ideal symbols within such a narrative, and the modern-day Cossack movements seem likely to owe their success in part to these connotations. But both the Cossack nationalist movements and the official nationalism tend to talk of being Russian in terms of rossiiskii rather than russkii, that is, they eschew the ethnic adjective in favor of an identity based on territorial affiliation. In Taras Bul’ba, both novella and film, it is distinctly the ethnic adjective which is used. Yoon [2005: 432] has observed that even the root rossi- is only really encountered in Gogol’s text as part of the term Malorossiia, a word which implicitly takes Ukraine to be part of Russia rather than a nation in its own right.

Recent discussions (Norris 2008) have identified a trend of directors and producers taking a template “validated” by Western cinema and applying it to distinctly Russian material to produce films of a definite nationalist bent. Taras Bul’ba can clearly be placed in this category, with the set-piece battles owing something to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, while the nationalist resistance and particularly the execution of Ostap echo Braveheart (dir. Mel Gibson, 1995). Ostap’s stoicism under torture may in fact even draw inspiration from the graphic scenes in The Passion of the Christ (dir. Mel Gibson, 2004). What is striking is the sense of official nationalism emanating from the film – it was entirely funded by the Russian Ministry of Culture, and counted on the participation of fixtures in the entertainment establishment: Bortko has a long career as director, including the recent high profile treatment of The Master and Margerita. Stupka, Khmel’nitskii and Boiarskii are respected stage and screen actors. It is noteworthy, then, that such a film should give such prominence to the ethnic Russian adjective when this had earlier been eschewed in official rhetoric.

The treatment of other nationalities is equally striking, especially where the film departs from the text. It is difficult to read Gogol’s 1842 version of Taras Bul’ba as anything other than a paean to Russian jingoism. Whether this is a result of pressure applied to Gogol’ from his patrons and the censor, or whether it was a genuine reflection of his own changing convictions is an interesting diversion (Yoon 2005), but risks distracting us from the text he actually wrote, which seems riven with anti-Semitism and xenophobia. To produce a cinematic version in 2009 with such obvious official support could be inflammatory. What is striking, however, is how much Bul’ba’s xenophobic  rhetoric is toned down. Although he retains his vocal support for Orthodoxy, his anti-Islamic outbursts have practically vanished, and the raid on the Ottoman Empire, with the desecrations listed by Gogol’, is glossed over completely in the film. Similarly, Cossack expressions of casual anti-Semitism are curtailed, with the pogrom in the Sich being ignited by reports that the Poles have sold Orthodox churches to Jewish owners. In this version, the Jews become scapegoats for Polish misdeeds. It cannot be denied that the first appearance of Yankel’ portrays him as fawning and servile, evoking some very unpleasant stereotypes. Similarly, he is consistently portrayed as motivated solely by money, which actually inspires him to some acts of great courage, such as accompanying the Cossacks to war and gaining entry to Dubno during the siege. Yet although still uncomfortable viewing, some excesses in the original text, attributed to Bul’ba himself, have been lost. When seeking Yankel’’s help to reach Warsaw, while Bul’ba still admits that he wasn’t made for trickery, he refrains from the rest of his original utterance which that asserts that, in contrast to his Cossack simplicity, Jews are made for trickery. Similarly, when they arrive in Warsaw, and Bulba sees Yankel’ in discussions with his co-conspirators, the film offers this shot in silence, without the original’s mistrust of Jews and his “consoling” thought that not even the devil could understand their language.

bulbaEven more than Gogol’, then, Bortko concentrates on the Poles as the enemy. The danger to Russia, in this telling, comes not from the South nor the East, but from the West. The Polish dialogue is dubbed, which serves to emphasize differences between Poland and Russia, despite a shared Slav heritage. The ethnic sons of Russia ride out willingly to face down the enemy, and die exulting that they have been allowed to die for the glory of Russia (russkaia slava), may it flourish for centuries. In Gogol’s text, at least seven or eight individual Cossacks manage to utter similar sentiments before finally expiring; Bortko restricts himself to a mere three or four, although this too seems excessive. The film’s subtitle is “From love to hate.” Andrii’s betrayal of core Russian values—one version being what both Gogol’ and Bortko have their Cossacks represent—in favor of a Western code is sufficient to turn Bul’ba’s paternal pride into murderous hate. Andrii’s birth scene not only sustains the Cossack myth, it also allows Bortko to place genuine weight behind Bul’ba’s words: “I brought you into this world, and now I will kill you.” The tense, although ultimately comradely scene at the Sich when Shilo shoots the apple from Andrii’s head is brought into vivid contrast as Bul’ba draws a bead on his own son, who stands and waits stoically for the bullet.

There are, then, in this state-financed film, heavy traces of anti-Western sentiment. Russian values are represented by the Cossacks and take a masculine tinge of duty, bravery, and strength. In contrast, the West is depicted through the Poles, especially El’zhbeta, as feminine, decadent and weak. For a decade following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reduction of “Russia” to what Geoffrey Hosking (1998: 5) memorably termed “the bleeding hulk of empire,” Russian identity reeled from a sense of diminishment. During this time, would-be Russian patriots in fact sought alternative outlets, and some, indeed, turned to the various Cossack movements, until the gradual mobilization by Vladimir Putin of a Russian identity based around gosudarstvennost’ and derzhavnost’ drew them back to supporting the centre. This new Russian identity is still young and uncertain. Bortko’s film provides it with an adolescent nationalist fantasy. 

Ian Appleby
University of Manchester

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Works Cited

Hosking, Geoffrey, Russian Nationalism, Past and Present, (London: MacMillan, 1998)

Kornblatt, Judith Deutsch, The Cossack Hero in Russian Literature, (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992)

Norris, Stephen M., “Packaging the Past: Cinema and Nationhood in the Putin Era,” KinoKultura 21 (2008)

Odent, Michel, The Scientification of Love, (London: Free Association Books, 1999)

Tolz, Vera, "The Search for National Identity in Yeltsin’s and Putin’s Russia," in Jonathan Frankel and Stefani Hoffman (eds.), The Fall of Communism in Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 160-178.

Yoon, Saera, “Transformation of a Ukrainian Cossack into a Russian Warrior: Gogol’s 1842 Taras Bulba” Slavic and East European Journal 49.3 (2005), pp. 430-444.


Taras Bul’ba Russia 2009
Color, 128 min.
Director: Vladimir Bortko
Script: Vladimir Bortko, based on Nikolai Gogol
Music: Igor’ Korneliuk
Cast: Bogdan Stupka, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Mikhail Boiarskii, Vladimir Il’in, Boris Khmel’nitskii, Igor’ Petrenko, Magdalena Mel’tsazh, Ada Rogovtseva
Producers: Ruben Dishdishian, Anton Zlatopol’skii
Production companies: Central Partnership, Telekanal Rossiia

Vladimir Bortko: Taras Bul’ba (2009)

reviewed by Ian Appleby © 2009

Updated: 01 Oct 09