Society May 2003

Euphorias of Hatred

The grim lessons of a novel by Gogol

The ancient Greeks, it has been said, were too reasonable to ignore the intoxicating power of the unreasonable. They worshiped Dionysus, the god of excess and ecstasy, and they admired tragedy—an art form that shows that human feelings are far too intense and varied to be contained by the narrow strictures of rational selfinterest. Explosions of passion—romantic and destructive, cruel and self-sacrificing, among nations as among individuals—not only are to be expected but are central to the human spirit. Tragedy, as the classicist Edith Hamilton once observed, is the beauty of intolerable truths.

The signal error of the American elite after the end of the Cold War was its trust in rationalism, which, it was assumed, would eventually propel the world's societies toward systems based on individual rights and united by American-style capitalism and technology. Recent explanations for terrorism have themselves been excessively rational. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the United States many commentators and academics asserted that terrorism stemmed from poverty. Then, looking more closely, they said it stemmed from rising expectations and the perception of inequalities. True enough: economic development often leads to upheaval and insurrection, as migration to cities and the rise of the middle class unleash all manner of ambitions and yearnings. But even if poverty and perceived inequality were to vanish, and the rough places in the road of development were smoothed, depravity and outrage would continue. The more advanced a civilization, the more cerebral and subtly conformist it is likely to be—and, consequently, the more extreme the pent-up frustration and the more spectacular the violence it fuels.

If realism is to be truly realistic, it must acknowledge human beings' romantic and heroic impulses, in all their healthy and perverse forms. Few writers do this as economically as Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol did in Taras Bulba. This short novel is a story of the Dnieper Cossacks. It takes place in a hazy past, sometime from the fifteenth to the early seventeenth century, when the Ukrainians struggled for independence from Poland even as a threat persisted from the Turks. It is a work that the critic John Cournos called "the finest epic in Russian history" and likened to the Odyssey. The novel has a Kiplingesque gusto, too, that makes it a pleasure to read, but central to its theme is an unredemptive, darkly evil violence that is far beyond anything Kipling ever touched on. We need more works like Taras Bulba, to better understand the emotional wellsprings of the threat we face today in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Gogol gave his best years to the story; he finished the initial version in 1835 and the final version a decade later. According to David Magarshack, one of Gogol's translators, Taras Bulba, with its romantic evocation of galloping Cossacks, created the myth of the "Russian soul." But Gogol was no dreamy idealist: in Taras Bulba he wrote of a "savage age when man's whole life seemed to be steeped in violence and blood and his heart was so hardened that he felt no pity."

Gogol was a Russian nationalist, but to him the real, primordial Russia was in Ukraine (a word meaning "borderland"), whose unremitting and unimpeded steppe—lacking natural boundaries and graced with few navi-gable rivers—had made its colliding peoples warlike. Although Gogol used the words "Russian," "Ukrainian," and "Cossack" to denote specific identities, he also recognized that these identities greatly overlapped (as identities in the region still do). His account anticipates the conflicts, the confusions, and the nuances of our own era. It remains unclear, for instance, whether Ukraine will survive as an independent country or will at some point be drawn into a resurgent Russian empire.

In Gogol's account, the absence of natural boundaries leaves the Ukrainian steppe open to invaders from all sides. It also makes political frontiers even more artificial than usual. Compare Central Asia today: a quarrelsome tableland of calcified regimes and nationalities inside false borders. Ethnic Tajiks dominate the great cities of Uzbekistan. Ethnic Uzbeks make up a quarter of the population of Tajikistan. The great divisions in Taras Bulba are those of civilizations: the Eastern Orthodox Dnieper Cossacks are pitted against the Catholic Poles and the Muslim Turks and Tatars. This is a world so coarse, and so unreceptive to enlightenment, that freedom means only the freedom to express oneself through a stultifying yet energizing group identity—a sad commonplace in many parts of the world today, where dictatorships are crumbling but democracy is weak or nonexistent. In such places a fury burns that is beyond the cultivated bourgeois imagination. Gogol communicated this fury brilliantly.

Taras Bulba, a Dnieper Cossack, is an old regular-army colonel. He is a man, in Gogol's words, "created for the alarms of war ... distinguished by the coarse directness of his character." Taras abuses his wife, who he fears will soften the character of his two sons. His worst nightmare is that his sons will never experience violence; he doesn't care if they die young and horribly, so long as they prove themselves capable of cruelty against an enemy.

Presented by

Robert D. Kaplan is the author of Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific. He is the chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, and a national correspondent for The Atlantic. 

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