The Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV
On Art

Ukraine’s patriotic master

The painter Ilya Repin straddled both Ukrainian and Russian cultures

This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

At the end of his life, the painter Ilya Repin was living in Finland, his home of 30 years. He was just an hour by train from St Petersburg, but Russia was closed to him. Stalin was nevertheless a great admirer and in 1925 sent a delegation to persuade the artist to resume citizenship of the motherland. 

Although Repin had been a supporter of the revolution, he was appalled at the turn it had taken, and citing age and ill health, refused. He never set foot in Russia again. Indeed, at his death in 1930, aged 86, it was not Russia that was in his heart but the place of his birth, Ukraine. 

In one of his last letters, written in response to an invitation from the Ukrainian intelligentsia, he thanked his “kind, dear compatriots” and asked them “to believe in the sense of my devotion and endless regret that I can’t move to live in a sweet, happy Ukraine”. 

Indeed, when he died, he was buried by “Chuguyev’s Hill”, a mound on his Finnish property he had named after the Ukrainian town in which he was born.

Repin’s attitude towards Russia was complicated

Though he was nominally Russian for most of his life (Ukraine declared independence only in 1918) Repin was Ukrainian by inclination. He supported art schools in Kyiv and Odessa to promote a Ukrainian style in art and “begin the development of its direct folk creations which are spread so widely across this contented, beautiful and happy land”. 

He read Ukrainian poetry nightly to his children even after Alexander III banned the language in print. He hymned its women — “Only Ukrainian and Parisian girls really know how to dress tastefully” — and filled his art with Ukrainian themes. 

In one of his most celebrated works, The Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV (1880-1891, above), Repin created an image of his nation’s disdain for bullying neighbours. The huge canvas depicts Ukrainian Cossacks hooting in derision as they compose an ever-more insulting reply to the Ottoman sultan’s demand that they submit to him. 

Repin’s attitude towards Russia was complicated. His father was a Russian who had served for decades in the Tsarist armies before becoming a “military settler” — essentially a state owned peasant. He rose quickly after moving to St Petersburg to study painting, but declared proudly: “I am myself … a peasant.” 

Repin later joined a group of patriotic realists known as Peredvizhniki (The Wanderers) who painted Russian subjects — folk scenes, contemporary life, landscapes — free from the European classicism of the academies. He befriended and painted Tolstoy and the great Russian composers of the age — Mussorgsky, Glinka, Glazunov, Borodin among them.

His most notorious painting, however, was of a murderous Russian ruler. Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on 16 November 1581 (right) depicts a legendary scene in which the Tsar, in a fit of irrational rage, beat his son to death with his sceptre. It is a dramatic rendition of gore and grief in which the father, in a pose derived from the Renaissance Pietà and Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son, cradles the bleeding body of his dying heir. 

Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on 16 November 1581

Themes that fed into it included the 1881 murder of Alexander II and the execution of the assassins. Repin witnessed both. The events mingled with memories of a Spanish bullfight and his sensations listening to “a new piece by Rimsky-Korsakov, Vengeance”. 

“This year followed like a trace of blood,” he told a friend. “Our feelings were bruised by the horrors of the contemporary world, it was frightening to confront it: it will end badly!” The making of the painting was slow. “I painted in tears, I was tortured, I tormented myself,” he confessed. 

However, the canvas caused a sensation when exhibited in 1885, with mounted policemen called to keep the crowds at bay. 

Shortly afterwards Alexander III ordered its removal: making it the first painting to be censored in Russia. Its travails continued. In 1913 the picture was slashed by a deranged icon painter shouting: “Enough of death, enough of bloodshed!” In 2018 it was damaged by an assailant who claimed the painting “distorts historical facts”. 

He is not alone in the belief. Vladimir Putin has said that Ivan’s black legend was a smear “concocted by a Papal emissary” after the Tsar had “told him to get lost”. The symbolism of a Ukrainian’s painting of a murderous Russian ruler killing his own family doesn’t need pointing out. In the picture, however, Ivan is prostrate with remorse. 

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