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.
Moscow’s (great) VDNKh exhibition park now has a massive patriotic history centre, Russia – My History. When I went today only the section on the Ryurikid dynasty was open, but as that’s the core Mythic Russia era, no problem there. It’s a massive exercise in 60% history, 20% nationalism, 20% kewl modern special FX treatments, and as such a great deal more approachable that places such as the Park Pobedy (‘Victory Park’) WW2-and-more memorial.
A lot of money has been spent on this, and it shows. The building is massive and the section I saw fills less than half the total. Furthermore, it is impressive and very well done. There are great display panels on the major rulers, pictures and video of everything from foods of the time to soldiers, maps, the works. Only in Russian, alas; this is clearly something aimed at the domestic audience.
It is also unashamedly propagandistic. Not just in the usual “aren’t we wonderful” style of so many national museums, but with a definite slant towards the themes underlying Vladimir Putin’s legitimating myth, such as a great stress on the ‘atomisation’ of Russia leaving it vulnerable to the Mongols (as if it had ever been united before) to the virtue of strong, centralising national leaders who stood up for national interests. There’s even one banner where Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov extols Alexander Nevsky for “laying the bases of Russia’s multi-vector foreign policy”!
But you don’t have to pay attention to that subtext. It’s a pretty stunning place to wander, with a rather trippy closing auditorium where you can flop onto a beanbag and watch stars, doves, and Christ in the heavens projected onto the dome above, to the sound of an Orthodox chorus…
I’m a sucker for a nicely-done diorama, and the (otherwise rather sparse) Moscow Ancient and Medieval exhibition at the Museum of the History of Moscow on Zubovskii bulvar has several, charting the progress of the city, as it became more expansive but also denser.
The first (above) gives a sense of Moscow at the time of Mythic Russia, with the Kremlin fortress complex to the left, and the Kitai-Gorod (‘Chinatown,’ but nothing to do with China) to the right. As is clear, the city is as much as anything else a concentric constellation of little compounds and houses with their own small holdings.
The museum also has models of cities later, into the 17th century and beyond, as it acquired more and large stone cathedrals, as the Kremlin became increasingly developed, and as scattered farmhouses become replaced by streets.
Overall, it’s not a great museum, but well worth two hundred rubles and an hour’s browse. Very little of the explanatory information is in English, but between what little is there and the dates, even so you can puzzle things out. There are also some excellent maps of the city’s expansion; again, here is the one closest to the Moscow of Mythic Russian times.
The Sunday Telegraph ran a nice piece on Russian re-enactment of the battle of Kulikovo, with some very pretty pictures and also an interesting note to the extent which it was the Russians’ discovery of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in the 1990s that really kickstarted the movement. Worth a read.
Not so much a mythic as a messy Russia: ‘Aluminium Wars’ and a 1990s mini-setting for the new Malandros game
Hillfolk by the estimable Robin Laws — who also created the HeroQuest game engine behind Mythic Russia — is a system using the DramaSystem engine, which puts even more stress (in every sense) on interpersonal conflicts and relationships. It won both the Diana Jones Award for Gaming Excellence and the Indie Game Awards’ Indie Game of the Year in 2014 and not surprisingly, has since been ported to different settings. One of the most recent and, I think, most exciting is Malandros, tapping the considerable (trust me) but underexploited potential of late 19thC Rio streetlife. It is currently in the middle of a KickStarter funding/pre-order campaign and let me strongly encourage you to head over to its page, watch the video and read the text, as odds are that you might not have realised what an exciting and dynamic setting that represents. Then back the project, not least because one of the stretch goals, if it raises an eminently-reasonable £1000, is a mini-setting which I’ll write, Aluminium Wars (yes, that’s Aluminum Wars for the Americans among you…), taking the system into the freewheeling Russia of the 1990s ‘Wild East’ days in an impoverished industrial Siberian city being ripped apart by criminal-political wars over the local industry. Here’s the short blurb:
£1000: Aluminium Wars, an alternate setting PDF by Mark Galeotti
In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed, and everything was up for grabs. In the industrial city of Krasnoyarsk, while the big beasts of the new gangster-businessman world fight it out for control of the local aluminium industry, corrupt cops, ambitious politicians, hustlers, thugs, and even a few idealists struggle to thrive and survive in a new Russia without rules, rhyme or reason.
Now, wouldn’t you want to see that?
Last weekend saw the pomp and circumstance of the thousandth anniversary of the death of Prince Vladimir the Great — St Vladimir — who brought Christianity to the Rus’ and who, as prince of Kiev, is also an interesting bone of contention between modern Ukraine and Russia. On my “serious” (relatively) blog In Moscow’s Shadows, I note that:
However, reading his eulogy to Prince (and Saint) Vladimir I (ironically, of Kiev), who forcibly baptised his population and thus brought Orthodox Christianity to the Rus’, delivered yesterday (28 July 2015) on the thousand-year anniversary of his death, I wondered if Putin had a new role model:
“By stopping fratricidal wars, crushing external enemies, Prince Vladimir laid down the foundation for creating a single Russian nation and paved the way for the construction of a strong, centralized Russian state.”
To this end, here I give both the official write-up of the saintly cult of St Vladimir from Mythic Russia and also a distinctly tongue-in-cheek rendition of a different St Vladimir altogether…
Vladimir was the prince of Kiev who converted to Christianity in 988 – and his city with him. He is thus considered the first evangelist of Russia, but is essentially a saint-hero rather than a purely religious Power. (Cynics say that his conversion was a political move, and this is why he has no secret, but they will no doubt burn in hell for their impiety.) In Kiev and elsewhere he is also regarded as a patron of all good and great Christian rulers.
Abilities: Commanding Presence, Devotee of St Vladimir or Initiate of St Vladimir, Life of St Vladimir, Order People About.
Virtues: Authoritative, Evangelical, Think New Thoughts.
Affinity: Prince of God (Baptismal Blessing, Bright as the Sun, Strike Down Rebel, Summon the Godly, Topple Pagan Idols)
Rites & Representations: St Vladimir is always shown in conventional terms, as a crowned prince in his robes, with crucifix in one hand, the other empty or holding a sword. His feast day is 4 February, still a great festival in Kiev. [Vlad-DEE-mir]
Worshippers: Princes, warriors, evangelists and proud subjects of Kiev.
Disadvantages: St Vladimir cannot be worshipped through dvoeverie as well as pagan Powers. Furthermore, pagans who do not practice dvoeverie often despise St Vladimir – and by extension his worshippers – for turning against the old ways.
A Time of Troubles demands a hero, and St Vladimir was one such: warrior, lover, spymaster and tsar. Born from humble stock in Leningrad, he learned the ways of the street and then of the Cheka and finally of power, mastering them all with coolly effortless efficiency.
Abilities: Cold Hands Warm Heart, Cultivate Right Friends, Devotee of St Vladimir of the Kremlin or Initiate of St Vladimir of the Kremlin, Judo Master, Life of St Vladimir of the Kremlin, Obscene Slang.
Virtues: Action Man, Coolly Self-Confident, Ruthless.
Affinity: Sovereign Democracy (Demonize Foreigner, Recount Ballots, Rewrite Rules, See Spies All Around)
Secret: Paramount Image (When publicly engaging in some ridiculously over-the-top test of physical manhood such as wrestling bears or kicking holes in stone walls, the acolyte gets the Community Support bonus from all onlookers, regardless of whether they are actively assisting him)
Rites & Representations: There is but a single true icon to St Vladimir of the Kremlin, which weeps myrrh and crude oil. Nonetheless, in less holy imagery he is depicted in a range of manly and martial activities. His holy day is the Self-Annunciation, held on 4 March.
Worshippers: He is revered by functionaries, spies, thief-takers, swordsmiths and, of course, all good, loyal citizens of the modern Rus’.
Disadvantages: No worshipper of St Vladimir of Moscow can follow any other saint or deity; it is unthinkable.
NIGHT WITCHES, by Jason Morningstar
Bully Pulpit Games, 2014
In 1941, as the Soviet Union reeled under the hammer blow of blitzkrieg, with most of its air force destroyed on the ground on the first day of Operation Barbarossa, it looked for pilots wherever it could. Nothing could get in the way of the war effort—even the endemic sexism of a regime that preached equality but in practice was everything but. The third of three, the 588th Night Bomber Regiments, was the only one that was all-woman. Hardly coincidentally, it got the oldest planes, Po-2 biplanes, and the toughest missions.
And despite terrible losses, a crushing cycle of night-after-night missions and the patronizing contempt of many of the senior commanders, it proved an astonishingly successful, 23 of the so-called “night witches” being made Heroes of the Soviet Union.
Night Witches the game, derived from the Apocalypse World system, pits a team of players against not just the challenges of night-time bombing raids in obsolete aircraft but the ingrained sexism of the Soviet military command and the privations, rivalries, intimacies and intolerances of a high-stress life close to the front line. This is just a pre-play, first-glance reaction to the book, but it certainly looks like a wonderful, evocative and psychologically-intriguing game. Play alternates between night and day phases: night for the war, day for the human stuff around and in spite of it that actually represents a much more interesting part of the game. What’s more fearsome” a German ack-ack shell, an NKVD secret police interrogation, or falling for one of your fellow pilots, knowing all the risks involved and the probably heartache? Do you go with the flow or buck the system? Are you a victim of the Stalinist state, or its willing and enthusiastic collaborator?
This is a lapidary project, carefully cut, finely polished (just take a look at the carefully detailed character sheets and mission outlines freely available on the Bully Pulpit site, as well as the extensive preview). It’s intended to do something very specific, that’s less about war and more about people caught up in the grinding iron gears of war. It looks powerful, it looks clever, but just as much as that, it actually looks moving. An impressive achievement for something that also looks fun and playable.