[Header Image (c) Internet Library of Ukraine]
While England has given the world the archetypal image of the noble robber in the form of Robin Hood, one of the things that I have been doing recently is to look at other Robin Hood figures from across the world. Oleksa Dovbush (1700-1745) is one such Robin Hood type of figure who flourished in eighteenth-century Ukraine.
A large part of what is now Ukraine during the eighteenth century was a part of the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Commonwealth was a power to be reckoned with during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but by the period that Dovbush flourished the State was beset by a weak economy. It was also, relatively speaking, a little backward: while states such as the Kingdom of Great Britain had embraced mercantile capitalism and had not been feudal for a long time, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth still was.[i]
It is in such primitive societies (I use the word ‘primitive’ here in Eric Hobsbawm’s sense to describe a state that has not developed beyond the feudal stage of society), that banditry flourishes. If one looks at the history of Eastern and South-Eastern Europe during the early modern period, it will readily be recognised that there were a great many bandits. Haiduks, Robin Hood type outlaws who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, flourished in the Balkans. Like England’s famous medieval outlaw, the haiduk’s deeds were told in the form of ballads that circulated among the peasantry.[ii] The most famous Eastern European bandit, Janosik (1688-1713), who was more of a Rob Roy than a Robin Hood, flourished in Eastern Europe around the same time as Dovbush.[iii]
As with most historical bandits and other marginal figures, little is known of his early life. He was born in 1700 in Pechenizhyn to a very poor family (the family’s property amounted to owning just several sheep, and they had to rent their humble dwelling, known as a komorah, from a local lord). We do not know what drove Dovbush to become an outlaw, or a part of the opryshky, as the records do not tell us. Although the corresponding term to opryshky in English is ‘outlaw’, it signified much more than simply ‘thief’ or ‘robber’: these men were perceived as freedom fighters who challenged the existence of the Polish feudal state. In concert with his brother, Ivan, Dovbush and his men raided Polish noblemen and their retinues along on the narrow ridge off Mount Chornohora.[iv] His weapon of choice was an axe. Like Robin Hood, in all of their exploits he and his men stole from the rich to give to the poor.
As is often the case in feudal societies, the Lords held all the power. While there were undoubtedly a great many good lords, there were, unfortunately, many who abused their powers. Eric Hobsbawm points out one instance where Dovbush and his men attacked the house of a local Polish nobleman named Konstantin Zlotnicky:
He held his hands in the fire and let them burn, poured glowing coals on his skin and refused any ransom. “I have not come for your ransom but for your soul, for you have tortured the people long enough”.[v]
The monks who recorded this episode noted that this particular nobleman was notorious for his cruelty. As a result of his fight against the Polish nobles, the state sent the army into the region that he was known to flourish in. Yet they could not catch him. There are a number of accounts as to how he was finally caught: some sources say that a woman betrayed him, others say that his brother, Ivan, betrayed him. More likely it is that it was a bounty hunter hired by the nobles who tracked him down and killed him. Apparently, when the bounty hunter found him a fierce fight ensued. This was to be his last fight – Dovbush was killed and his body was cut up into twelve pieces and hung in several places so as to warn off any peasants who might be tempted to follow in his footsteps.[vi]
His memory lives on in Ukraine in much the same way that Robin Hood is still known to people in the Western World today. He has become a folk hero. Ballads about him are still sung by the poorer classes, and the Dovbush rocks in the Carpathian mountains, where he and his gang were said to live, are visited by many tourists each year.
[i] The history of the region has recently been covered in excellent detail by Paul R. Magocsi, A History of Ukraine: The Land and Its Peoples 2nd Edn. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010).
[ii] Bodgan Vlad Vatavu, ‘The World of the Haiduks: Bandit Subcultures in the 19th-Century Romania and their Ballads’ Revista de Etnografie Si Folclor / Journal of Ethnography and Folklore Nos. 1-2 (2016), pp.139-164.
[iii] There is little scholarly literature in English for Janosik, so it is best to either read Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits (London: Penguin, 1969) or visit the following website: The Polish Robin Hood [Internet <http://www.krykiet.com/janosik_robin_hood.htm> Accessed 19 February 2017].
[iv] Larisa Failkova, ‘Oleksa Dovbush: An Alternative Biography of the Ukrainian Hero Based on Jewish Sources’ Fabula 52: 1-2 (2011), pp.92-108
[v] Eric Hobsbawm, Bandits rev. ed. (London: Abacus, 2000), p.50.
[vi] Failkova, ‘Oleksa Dovbush’, p.95.