Grigory Skovoroda –
the Cossack who was in love with Tokay
In September 1734, Grigory Savvich Skovoroda entered the Kievo-Mogiliansky Academy where with breaks he continued his studies for ten years. “The range of academic subjects which were taught in Kiev seemed insufficient to him. He longed to see new lands…“, writes Skovoroda’s most loyal student, Mikhail Ivanovich Kovalensky, in his biography “The life of Grigory Skovoroda” (1794).
In 1745 Skovoroda, on account of his fine singing voice, and in particular thanks to the two years spent in St. Petersburg at the court of the Tsars, as a member of the Cossack choir, was offered the post of cantor at the Greek-Russian Orthodox Chapel in Tokay, by General-Major Fedor Stepanovich Vishnevsky. And so in August 1745, along with the Commissar and his 34-strong military escort, Skovoroda set off from Kiev to Tokay, where ever since 1733, on instructions from Tsarina Anna 1st, the Imperial Delegation of Hungarian Wines had operated under the name of the “Wine Commission”. The delegation, under the leadership of its Commissar, was responsible for the selection and import of Tokay wines for 65 years. Each year some 50 to 75 thousand litres of both new and aged wines were transported to the tables of the Tsars. At that time the approximately 35 Russians and 200 Greeks made up the Orthodox community and learned each other’s language. Later, in 1790, with Russian help, the timber chapel was replaced by the Greek-Orthodox Church still standing today, which bears a memorial plaque dedicated to Skovoroda.
Skovoroda left behind several references for the descendants to his time spent as a young cantor in the Russian chapel in Tokay. In his work A conversation for two characters on how easy it is to be blessed he writes the following: “In my beloved Ungaria they grind with oxen. And what prohibits Luke to be an ox? Let no-one imagine that this strange comment refers to carnal oxen: ‘Do not obstruct the mouth of the grinding ox.’” Here Skovoroda is referring to the disenfranchised situation of the Hungarian people, as well as the bitter fate of the Little-Russians, since both nations were living under oppression. “Yes, even now in some lands the Lord is called Isten (the Hungarian for God)”, he notes in his essay The entrance door to Christian morality. In his animal fable The cow and the boar he mentions “the Polish and Hungarian hills” in other words the Carpathian mountains. Similarly in his fable The pike and the crayfish he looks back with nostalgia to “the swift flowing Danube”. The Tokay aszu wine was already familiar to the philosopher from his time as a chorister at the court of the Tsars. His approach to its consumption was one of wise circumspection: he considered it to be a philosophical concoction which provides a gracious reminder of warm, sunny spring and of friends from whom he was parted by the snow covered steppe. “Here there are many different wines, here there is sweet nectar…” he writes of Tokay in his poem Fabula de Tantalo. In his fable The wind and the philosopher he complains about the wind because “... it knocks over the last glass of wine on the table...”. Tokayan motives occupy a very important place in many of Skovoroda’s writings: in them he uses accurately such Hungarian words as kád (vat), kakas (cockerel), must (grape-juice), ruha (clothing) etc.
Although we possess relatively little information about the period when Skovoroda lived in Hungary, we can assume that he would have visited Sárospatak with its famous Reformed College, since the reputation of its outstanding teachers reached as far as St. Petersburg and Kiev. Perhaps he set out for our homeland with this in mind, because he would have been curious about the teaching methods applied, the famous school library and especially the teaching of philosophy. Presumably Skovoroda met several of those teachers who were then employed in Sárospatak and who are still known to us today. They may have included such outstanding individuals as, for example, Curator Báji Sámuel Patay, Professors János Csécsi Jr., Mihály Szatmári Paksi 2nd, Dávid Sárkány and István F.Bányai. In 1775 Skovoroda wrote his favourite treatise The conversation called the alphabet or the primer of the world which is reminiscent of Janus Amos Comenius’s pictorial dictionary Orbis Sensualium Pictus (The visible world in pictures) who had taught there some 100 years earlier between 1650 and 1654. The teachings of the Reformation influenced the philosopher’s later life and his thinking, which was considered exemplary by many. Among those who were influenced by him we can mention the Ukrainian poets Ivan Kotliarevsky and Taras Shevchenko, and the Russian novelists Leo Tolstoy and Mikhail Bulgakov.
On his departure from Hungary he took back with him valuable intellectual reserves which sustained him through the remainder of his life. In the course of his meetings there “he managed to win the recognition and sympathy of scholars and so he gained new understanding and knowledge which he could never have obtained in his fatherland” writes Kovalensky. Besides this he also perfected his knowledge of Latin, Greek, German and Hebrew which served him well in his later teaching and last, but not least, he gained a good command of the Hungarian language as well.
One final question arises: what other famous foreigners have set foot in the foothills of Tokay or passed through its towns and villages? One thing is certain: the unforgettable experiences they had here were preserved in their memories for as long as they lived.