A 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 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…
Especially 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.
A 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?
Within 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.
Alternatively, 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…
Of 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…
But 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.)
Of 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!
Far 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.
Two 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…
There’s a nice photo-essay on Siberia’s surviving shamans on the RFE/RL website here, well worth a look for some fascinating and evocative shots, including this shaman from Tuva.
It may be the focus of geopolitical contestation today, but the Crimean peninsula is also surprisingly replete with legends and unusual sites that seem simply to be crying out for the Mythic Russia treatment. The mountain of Ayu-Dag, Bear Mountain in Tatar, was actually, so the story goes, a giant bear. Sent by some forgotten god to destroy the settlements of the humans living there, who refused to pay the sanguinary deity homage, it instead was entranced by the beauty of the Crimea. Its master angrily turned it to stone when it came to drink of the Black Sea. But what if it still dreams? Or maybe even might be hibernating through its curse, and be ready to awaken? The nearby Byzantine-dominated port town of Partenit may or may not be blissfully unaware of its neighbour.
The hills and interior of the Crimea are riddled with ancient cave tombs, many dating back to the ancient Scythians. The Tatars sealed many, claiming that they were demonic forces. Were the Skif, the Scythians, ruled over by a dynasty of vampires? Servants of the Kam? Or simply the victims of prejudice? There are a number of concentrations of these tombs, predating the Tatars, such as at Eski-Kermen, close to the Tatar capital of Bakhchisarai, a ruined fortified hilltop town built over large and unexplained underground chambers. The nearby mountain of Tepe-Kermen is riddled with more than 10,000 caves in neat, serried rows. Could the rumours of an entire necropolis hidden somewhere be true?
Then there are the kurgans or burial mounds of eastern Crimea, including some 200 simply around the town of Kerch, dominated by the 20m tall Royal Kurgan, probably the resting place of 4thC BC Leukon of Bosporus. The tomb has long been looted, but where does it connect to in the Otherworlds?
The Valley of the Ghosts in the southern Demerdzhi mountain (Blacksmith in Tatar) is encrusted with stone formations which some might discount as simple products of the wind and the rain., albeit which look like people at some times and angles, animals others Until, that is, the regular, thick fogs of spring and autumn, when have seem to move and change their shape, rock and mist together creating strange, terrible and prophetic shapes.
There’s much more. The human sacrifices of the ancient Taurid people. Chersonesus, the site of Prince Vladimir’s original conversion to Christianity. But that can wait.
There’s an interesting article in Russia Beyond The Headlines on traditions of bare-knuckled fighting in Russia through the ages. Here are some snippets:
…The first reference to fist-fighting is found in one of the earliest pieces of ancient Russian literature, the Primary Chronicle, dated to the year 1048.
…Two centuries later, Metropolitan Kirill … introduced harsh punishments against the practice, declaring that participants of bare-knuckle boxing matches would be excommunicated and that those killed whilst playing the brutal sport would be refused a church burial. This last measure essentially equated fighters with those who had committed suicide.
…Organised brawls took place all around ancient Russia on a regular basis, generally at the same time as large festivals and in open places. The week of Maslenitsa, a time of carnival celebrations before the Lenten fast, would see people fight with particular zeal. The clashes attracted crowds of spectators, merchants did a roaring trade in mead and beer, and fireworks were sometimes put on for the occasion.
…Both single combat and mass fights were practised. Hand-to-hand, or “one-on-one” fights were similar to modern-day boxing matches. Combatants had to remain on their feet at all times, and fighting on the ground was forbidden. The first to fall down or to admit defeat was declared the loser. In most instances, he would remain alive.
…Large-scale contests also took place. Residents of neighboring streets or villages, inhabitants of opposite sides of a river or even members of different professions were set against one another. There were two main types of these fights: so-called “chain” fights, and “wall-on-wall” fights.
The first variety was reminiscent of modern “tag team” wrestling matches: Everyone would eventually fight everyone else, and once a combatant had defeated one opponent he would face off against the next. “Wall-to-wall” fights, meanwhile, involved two opposing groups lining up in rows to face one another, allowing tired participants to drop back and regroup whilst the fight continued.
…it was forbidden to strike an opponent who had admitted defeat or who was lying or sitting down, as it was to hit an opponent who was bleeding uncontrollably. Only fists were to be used, although shoulder shoves were permitted, and fighters could use both hands at the same time. The targets of choice were generally the ribs, the head and the solar plexus.
Combatants were also instructed to wear thick hats and protective gloves to soften the force of the blows that they gave and received. Unfortunately, this rule generally caused more harm than good – fighters would hide rocks or strips of metal in their gloves.
Yet, however rough the fighting got, the opposing sides would always conclude proceedings by sharing a feast, as old tradition dictated.
…Fist-fights even served on many occasions as a means of resolving legal disputes. This somewhat unorthodox form of duelling allowed plaintiffs and defendants to settle their differences directly with one another. Or, indeed, they could hire more skilled belligerents to do the fighting for them.