Mythic Russia

Heroic roleplaying in a mythical medieval Russia

The Stone Labyrinths of Bolshoi Zayatsky — June 24, 2017

The Stone Labyrinths of Bolshoi Zayatsky

BolshoiZNorth, beyond the lands of Novgorod, and amidst the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea’s Onega Bay, lies the island of Bolshoi Zayatsky. No more than a square mile in size, overlooked by the ruins of a long-shattered tower, the west of the island is covered with 35 overgrown but unmistakeable mazes made thousands of years ago, for unknown purposes, by unknown hands. Some are rough-hewn in stone, some limned by earthen walls, others marked out with rockpiles. Each is different.

Labyrinths-Bolshoi-Zayatsky-Island7What purpose did they have? Do they offer mystical paths to different places, alternative histories, Otherworldly nexi? Are they the fingerprints of giants long since passed? Or are they prisons, within whose loops and whorls are bound vicious spirits, maybe even the Kam, ready to be unleashed by unthinking hands or ruthless minds?

Some suggest these were fishing traps, to catch the plentiful White Sea cod and salmon, yet most are too far inland. Maybe they are traps instead sifting the spirit winds, blowing relentlessly across the north? And if so, where is the catch — and who is the harvester?

The island is meant to be uninhabited, yet when there is snow, or dust, or mud, whose footprints can be seen in labyrinths, left when the setting sun’s last rays paint the stones?


The Vasnetsovs’ Visions of Russia — May 2, 2017

The Vasnetsovs’ Visions of Russia

1920px-1898_Vasnetsov_Bogatyrs_anagoriaViktor Vasnetsov and his brother Apollinarii were 19thC artists whose work helps bring to life historical Russia, and folkloric and mythic Russia, too. Viktor, for example, is well-known for his iconic picture of the Three Bogatyrs, above, while I especially like Apollinarii’s more technical depiction of the marketplace in Novgorod, below.

1920px-Novgorod_torgIn any case, their work is a great inspiration of and for Mythic Russia, so here are some places to see more: (A very comprehensive gallery of VV’s art) (a short essay about VV and his art) (a sampler of AV’s historical images) (an essay about AV)



Birchbark Homework — January 28, 2017

Birchbark Homework

birch_bark_document_210A sheet of birchbark, the beresta, was the usual medium for letters, records, and documents at the time of Mythic Russia, often salvaged from broken baskets and the like. A fascinating example was the trove of 17 beresty archeologists found from the 13thC Novgorodian boy Onfim. Along with pictures, including one of himself as a monster (with the words “I am a beast” and “Greetings from Onfim to Danila”), are five with text. These are apparently homework, writing out the alphabet and familiar psalms. Nonetheless, kids will be kids: in some of the beresty, he starts out working, but then starts to doodle, too…

The Magnificent Seven (Bogatyrs) — January 2, 2017

The Magnificent Seven (Bogatyrs)

churilo-plenkovich-illustration-for-the-book-russian-epic-heroes-jpglargeThe bogatyrs are the folk superheroes of the Rus’ and I cover several in Mythic Russia, but not all. In this blog post Nicholas Kotar (who apparently writes fantasy inspired by Russian fairy tales, but I haven’t read his work — can anyone out there enlighten me?) runs through the main seven, including the splendidly-foppish Churilo Plenkovich (the illustration here is a picture of him by Andrei Ryabushkin), the Crimean ladies’ man, whose skin “pale as snow” so pleases him that he has a boy follow him with a parasol to keep off the sun…

Vladimir the Villain — December 26, 2016

Vladimir the Villain

vtv1Especially with all the back-and-forth allegations of Russian interference in the US elections and as the dust and smoke still rise from Aleppo, Vladimir Putin continues his irresistible rise to global supervillain status. While my mind wandered on a recent flight, I found myself considering all the ways different game genres could paint Vladimir the Villain.

vtv4A cheap and cheerful videogame-type setting would presumably cast Putin as an end-level boss figure, a bare-chested and amped-up judo-fighting brick, Kalashnikov in one hand, rhythmic gymnast in the other, maybe even riding a bear while we’re at it. Nothing subtle, but then who would want it to be?

vtv5Within the Bondian/espionage milieu, there are, I think three obvious ways to go. He could be the aloof grandmaster along the lines of Alexei Kronsteen, the strategist in From Russia With Love (and one of my favourite cerebral baddies). Even though there is actually no evidence Putin plays chess, who cares? He would be a brooding figure behind the scenes, always with three contingency plans up his sleeve, although maybe in the final analysis his plots would not be able to resist all-American moxie, British stiff-upper-lip or whatever other counter-cliché the players can deploy.

vtv3Alternatively, he can be both mind and hand, the iron-fisted warlord who is engineering the nefarious scheme the heroes must foil but also a formidable personal antagonist for the suitably cataclysmic closing scene, like Colonel Tan-Sun Moon/Gustav Graves (in Die Another Day). After all, Moscow doesn’t lack for settings fit for such a fight—indeed, now it is reviving Soviet-era railway-mounted ICBM launchers, that also ticks a perennial Bond theme, of train as location as well as locomotion.

Finally, we could emphasise the kleptocracy angle and present Putin as the megalomaniac uber-capitalist out to make himself the richest man in the world. Goldfinger’s plan to irradiate the reserves in Fort Knox are nothing to what the president of Russia can do, or perhaps this is less of a dramatic plan and more a complex, octopoidal extension of financial empires across the globe. This could be a Gumshoe-meets-forensic accounting exercise of following the money all the way to the Kremlin…

Let’s step even further from reality. Maybe that’s not botox keeping Vlad unnaturally smooth and shiny, but he’s actually a Vampire. Just as well, in that notorious case where he scooped up a small boy on Red Square and kissed his tummy, he managed to restrain his initial, blood-sucking impulse. It also helps explain his propensity for wearing dark glasses…

vtv7Of course, it could be that he’s not just a vampire, but the vampire, at least in Russian mythic terms: Koshchei Besmertny, Koshchei the Undying. As an evil immortal, Putin/Koshchei has appeared throughout history – hence this meme of ‘past Putins’ – but has at last attained the position of power he needs for…what? Perhaps the reason for his annexation of Crimea was to send covert teams to plunder the deep cave-tombs of the Scythians for his long-stolen heart, which is hidden inside a needle, inside an egg, inside a duck, inside a hare, locked in an iron chest? Robbie Williams’ recent lyrics (in ‘Party like a Russian’) that one “put a bank inside a car inside a plane inside a boat” sounds like a nice comment on modern Russian business, but is in fact a call to arms to fellow occult investigators to get on it, before Koshchei’s people find what they are looking for…

vtv9But perhaps this is too dark? Putin could instead be the Mythic Archetype of the Rus’, a modern-day equivalent of the bogatyrs, ancient heroes like Ilya Muromets, a modern fantasy or, better yet, superhero-genre character able to leap tall Kremlins at a single bound, and smash through the Urals with his Great Patriotic Judo Kick. For a more spiritual take, make him the avatar of St Vladimir, who brought Christianity to the Rus’ and had the pagan idols toppled in Kyiv. Enough of his supporters, after all, present him as the holy defender of the Rus’, their values (whatever that really means) and the Russian Orthodox faith. (Including a depressing number of ‘useful idiots’ in the West, for that matter.)

vtv2Of course perhaps we are making exactly the same mistake as many Kremlinologists, making it all about Putin. For all the myth-making around him, he could actually be the Pawn of a Dark Conspiracy. Those annual trips to the Orthodox monastery at Mount Athos may instead be to conclave with his masters, whether corrupt cultists, or a US military-industrial complex desperate for a geopolitical enemy to justify their procurement budgets. Or remember when he dropped out of sight for a couple of weeks in 2015? That was actually when he was abducted by the aliens and replaced with a robot version, or one of their own wearing a mimic smartsuit. Or infested with chthonic mind-parasites as part of a master plan to immanentise the eschaton and bring Great Cthulhu from the depths? Perhaps it is even the case that poor, mocked, despised Dmitri Medvedev is actually the sinister mastermind in the shadows, for whom Putin is just a convenient front man?

All told, that nice Mr Putin gives us so many options!


The Spirit Caravans of the Altai — November 5, 2016

The Spirit Caravans of the Altai

05Far to the east, in the lands of the Sibiryaks, along the ways to the Mongol homelands, the mountain passes of the Altai are marked with all manner of stelae and petroglyphs, especially showing caravans of men and animals making their way along the trails. Or maybe they are the shadows of spirit caravans making their way through the spirit realms? And if so, should this picture of some strange creature attacking them from the skies be considered a timely warning?


Photo-essay with more wonderfully-evocative pictures along the Altai trails in Russia Beyond The Headlines here.


More Shamanic Shenanigans — October 25, 2016

More Shamanic Shenanigans

statueTwo stories worth flagging up. The first is an interesting but straightforward piece on modern shamanism in Russia in the Moscow Times (“You’ve all become too civilised. You need to buy a yurt and move back to nature.”). The second, which is more intriguing, concerns a 2,400-year-old idol (pictured) in Ust-Taseyevsky that, around the year 500, was modified to give it less Caucasian, more Asiatic features. The story, in the Siberian Times, has lots of nice, atmospheric details, from the iron-rich hills that “act like a magnet to lightning bolts during storms” to the remains showing how bears and elks were sacrificed there. What was behind this? A struggle between rival shamanic practices from east and west? Or was a stone man from the West captured and revised to enforce his obedience, then left sleeping until a time of need?

And while mentioning the Siberian Times (which comes up with all kinds of gems like this), let me also note the ten metre-diameter smooth stone spheres unearthed in Krasnoyarsk. The official claim is that there are just unusual products of natural processes, not dragon eggs or other mysterious artifacts, but I think we know better…

Shamans of Siberia: a photo-essay — September 18, 2016