Issue 26 (2009)

Vladimir Bortko: Taras Bul’ba (2009)

reviewed by Stephen M. Norris © 2009

bulbaAn acquaintance once asked Nikolai Gogol whether he had a Russian or a Ukrainian soul.  It took him two months to come up with a suitable answer. When he did, he responded that he didn’t know precisely what kind of soul he had, for he would “grant primacy neither to a Little Russian over a Russian, nor to a Russian over a Little Russian.” Both, Gogol concluded, “are generously endowed by God, and as if on purpose, each of them in its own way includes in itself that which the other lacks—a clear sign that they are meant to complement each other” (quoted in Bojanowska 2).

Gogol struggled with his Russo-Ukrainian identity throughout his life. Taras Bul’ba, a novella about a fictional Cossack and his two sons who fight against Polish rule in the Sixteenth Century, captures Gogol’s inner conflict. Gogol first wrote a version of the story in 1835 and infused it with Ukrainian folklore; to boot, his 1835 Cossacks are separatists and want freedom. In 1842, as Edyta Bojanowska has pointed out in her extraordinary work on Gogol’s politics, “he sacrifices his Ukrainian nationalism on the altar of the Russian one (256).” Bul’ba, his sons, and their fellow Cossacks are now Russians: they possess “Russian souls” and fight for “the Russian land.” Just before a battle with the Poles, Bul’ba inspires his Cossack brothers by reminding them that “there has never been a brotherhood such as we have here in Russia.” At the heart of this fraternity, he declares, is the Russian soul: “To love as the Russian soul can love, not with the mind or whatever, but with everything that God has given us, with everything that is inside us—no, nobody else can love like that!” Accordingly, most critics have viewed the 1842 version as the author’s most “Russian” work. 

bortkoGogol’s belief that he had two souls helps us understand the vociferous debate that has now greeted Vladimir Bortko’s 2009 film version of Taras Bul’ba. Its roots lie in the post-Soviet experience, beginning with the fact that the 1991 political divorce between Russia and Ukraine was anything but harmonious. Relations between the new nations soured even more after the 2004 Orange Revolution, which resulted in the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko being elected to the Presidency. The two divorcees have fought over their shared possessions ever since.  Gogol’s cultural heritage is one of the most important. On 1 April 2009, the bicentennial of the writer’s birth, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin declared that Gogol was “an outstanding Russian writer, whose work inseparably ties two brother nations—Russia and Ukraine.” President Yushchenko countered by declaring that Gogol’s works “could only be written by a true patriot whose heart and soul wholly belong to Ukraine.”  The next day, Bortko’s film hit theaters in both countries.

This new cinematic interpretation of Taras Bul’ba is based on Gogol’s 1842 redaction. Starring Bogdan Stupka as Bul’ba, Igor’ Petrenko as his younger son Andrei, and Vladimir Vdovichenko as the older son Ostap, Bortko gives his Cossacks a decidedly Russian soul. The tale opens with Ostap and Andrei arriving home after their studies in a Kyiv theological academy; Taras worries at once that they have lost their Cossack identity. The three then leave home and head to the Sich, the Cossack fortress in Zaporozhia. Once there, Taras schemes to have the hetman removed and another named in his place, all as an excuse to wage war against the Poles. The Cossacks set out for a Polish town, fight against its inhabitants, and then dig in for a lengthy siege. Andrei, however, finds out that a Polish princess he once loved as a student is now inside the same fortress.  He finds his way to her and agrees to fight for the Poles against his fellow Cossacks, declaring to the princess that she is “his fatherland,” not Russia. Taras is incensed when he learns of his son’s treachery; consequently, he lures him away in an ensuing battle, and kills him.  In the end, Polish reinforcements defeat the Cossacks. Taras’s comrades die heroic deaths, invoking both the Russian land and soul as they die. Bul’ba is injured but rescued; Ostap is taken prisoner. 

bulbaAfter he recovers, Taras employs a Jewish tradesman named Yankel (Sergei Dreiden) to spirit him into Warsaw. There Taras witnesses the brutal execution of Ostap: he cries out to his son that he must bear his death like a true Russian. Enraged, Taras becomes hetman and embarks upon an orgy of violent revenge against the Poles, burning village after village to the ground.  He is eventually captured and himself burned at the stake, but not before he tells both his captors and his Cossacks that his “Russian Orthodox soul” is intact.

Taras Bul’ba the movie thus conveys the Russian nationalism of Gogol’s 1842 version without any of its nuances. Taras’s violence is portrayed onscreen as both righteous and necessary. His belief in the Russian soul and the Orthodox faith is emphasized again and again: Bortko may have edited Gogol’s story in order to meet the running time of two hours, but he certainly did not cut any of its more inflammatory speeches.

In contemporary Ukraine, the 1842 version of the story is the most frequently published. However, many Ukrainian translations change references to the “Russian soul” or “Russian lands” to “Ukrainian.”  Bortko’s film does not. Moreover, it opens with the aforementioned speech of Bul’ba to his Cossack brothers, an address that comes toward the end of the novella. Bortko, a Ukrainian-Russian director known for his previous TV adaptations of famous literature (The Idiot, 2003; and The Master and Margarita, 2005), here edits the speech such that it reflects present-day squabbles, not sixteenth-century conflicts. Played by the Ukrainian actor Bogdan Stupka, Bul’ba speaks of the “Russian soul,” then states: “I know our land is in strife. Many care only for how much grain or how many horses they have. They adopt foreign customs from the infidels. They are ashamed of their language. Brother turns away from brother. A man sells his own kin like cattle at a market.” From the outset, the film chastises Little Russian “brothers” who have traded their Russian souls for Western ones. 

bulbaThe Ukrainian reaction to this film was both substantial and mostly critical. The bilingual, centrist weekly Zerkalo nedeli / Dzerkalo tyzhnia declared that “Gogol had been deceived,” because this version of Taras Bul’ba fails to capture the multiple layers of the original and the author, particularly the Ukrainian side of Gogol’s soul (Vergelis, “Gogol’ poputal”). In an interview for the same paper, commentator Oleg Vergelis quoted Gogol’s “two souls” letter and queried Bortko about his. The director defended himself on the same grounds as Gogol, declaring that he was a People’s Artist of the Ukraine and that he “loves his land, Ukraine” (Vergelis “‘Bul’ba’ na kostre”). Vergelis, however, then asked why the director chose to film the so-called “pro-Moscow” version of the story over the “Ukrainian” one. Bortko asserted there are “no substantial differences” between the two and subsequently argued that “all the current fuss” over the movie was more about “current ideological inadequacies” than anything associated with Gogol’s literary work. 

Interestingly enough, the pro-Russian weekly 2000 dismissed not only the film, but also the furor surrounding it. Aleksandr Rutkovskii labeled Taras Bul’ba “Gogollywood,” a Hollywood-like confection that appealed neither to the Russian nor the Ukrainian soul. Gogol’s story was that of “a great Russian writer,” but had now been filmed by two “deserters.” The first of these two traitors was the “ex-Ukrainian Bortko, who is now both a great Russian patriot and member of the communist party.” The second was the equally “great Ukrainian film actor, Bogdan Stupka,” who had abandoned his homeland. Because of its countless “Hollywood stereotypes,” Rutkovskii claimed that the film’s attempts to harness Gogol to present-day politics were not only “profane, but even  outrageous” (Rutkovskii “”Gogollivud”).

Vasilii Vovkun, Ukraine’s Minister of Culture, became involved in the outcry, holding that the film was “made to order.” Speaking in Odessa, Vovkun stated that Taras Bul’ba “slightly resembles a Soviet kind of feature.” As to the issue of who exactly might commission such a work, Vovkun was at first coy: “We actually do know who ordered it—and why it’s directed against both Ukraine and Poland.” He soon clarified a little: “This movie is the product of an information war, conducted by Russia” (“Ministr kul’tury Ukrainy …”).

On the other side of the ideological fence, the Ukrainian Communist Party awarded Bortko the Order of Lenin for the film. In their official citation, the Party called Taras Bul’ba “a profoundly artistic achievement in the realm of cinema.  The film embodies ideals of friendship between the Russian and Ukrainian peoples (“Vladimir Bortko nagradili Leninskoi premiei”).”

bulbaReaction in Russia itself, as opposed to the pro-Moscow publications such as 2000, was mixed. Pavel Basinskii, writing in Rossiiskaia gazeta, called Taras Bul’ba “a powerful motion picture.” Although it has some “obvious deficiencies,” Basinskii concluded that the acting was outstanding, and the adaptation to the screen excellent (Basinskii “Kto kogo porodil”). Larisa Maliukova from Novaia gazeta disagreed. In her view, Gogol’s prose is too complex to allow any easy adaptation. As a result, Bortko’s Bul’ba “doesn’t really show Gogol’s Dnieper Cossacks.” These “cinematic Cossacks are more like bogatyrs, not us,” she writes. Ultimately, the new Taras Bul’ba is dismissed as “a costumed piece of propaganda” (Maliukova “ A povorotis’-ka, Gogol’”).

The film’s central actor, Bogdan Stupka, had voiced his hope that the film would be sufficiently “patriotic” to unite both Russian and Ukrainian souls.  Looking for previous and positive examples to draw upon  he noted that Jerzy Hoffman’s Polish blockbuster With Fire and Sword (1999) “had virtually produced a national idol,” a cinematic spectacle to bring “all of Poland” together. (Stupka had played Bogdan Khmelnitskii in that same feature.) Admitting that similar success seemed “doubtful in Russia or Ukraine,” he nonetheless wished for unity (quoted in Naralenkova and Al’perina). Just as Gogol struggled to delineate the differences between his Ukrainian and Russian souls, so, too, did Bortko and Stupka. In the bicentennial year of Gogol’s birth, however, most critics and viewers no longer believe that such duality is possible.

The author wishes to thank Vitaly Chernetsky for helpful suggestions on Ukrainian reactions to the film.

Stephen M. Norris
Miami University (OH)

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Works Cited

Basinskii, Pavel. “Kto kogo porodil. Na ekrany strany vyshel ‘Taras Bul’ba’ Vladimira Bortko.” Rossiiskaia gazeta 3 April 2009. 

Bojanowska, Edyta. Nikolai Gogol: Between Ukrainian and Russian Nationalism.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Maliukova, Larisa. “A povorotis’-ka, Gogol’.” Novaia gazeta 1 April 2009. 

“Ministr kul’tury Ukrainy nazval fil’m Taras Bul’ba ‘zakaznym’.” Korrespondent 8 May 2009. 

Naralenkova, Oksana and Susanna Al’perina. “A povorotis’-ka ty, Taras …” Rossiiskaia gazeta 19 March 2009.

Rutkovskii, Aleksandr. “Gogolivud.” 2000 10-16 April 2009. 

Vergelis “‘Bul’ba’ na kostre. Rezhisser Vladimir Bortko darit Ukraine ideologicheskoe oruzhie.” Zerkalo nedeli 24-31 August 2007.  

Vergelis, Oleg. “Gogol’ poputal. Taras Bul’ba—ideal’nyi fil’m dlia prezidenta.”  Zerkalo nedeli 5-12 April 2009. 

Taras Bulba, Russia, 2009.
Color, 128 minutes
Director: Vladimir Bortko
Screenplay: Vladimir Bortko, from the story by Nikolai Gogol
Cinematography: Dmitrii Mass
Music: Igor’ Korneliuk
Cast: Bogdan Stupka, Vladimir Vdovichenkov, Igor’ Petrenko, Magdalena Mielcarz, Ada Rogovtseva, Boris Khmel’nitskii, Iurii Beliaev, Petr Zaichenko, Mikhail Boiarskii, Liubomiras Lautsiavichius, Sergei Dreiden, Vladimir Il’in.
Executive Producers: Aleksandr Potemkin, Ruben Dishdishian, Anton Zlatopol’skii, Sergei Shumakov, Sergei Danielian, Aram Movsesian, Iurii Moroz
Production: Central Partnership, Telekanal Rossiia

Vladimir Bortko: Taras Bul’ba (2009)

reviewed by Stephen M. Norris © 2009

Updated: 30 Sep 09