Mythic Russia

Heroic roleplaying in a mythical medieval Russia

Vladimir: one of the hubs of Rus’ Christianity — October 24, 2018

Vladimir: one of the hubs of Rus’ Christianity

fullsizeoutput_1c18Two hundred kilometres east of Moscow lies the fortified hilltop town of Vladimir. Not the biggest of cities, it nonetheless has a special place as one of the traditional capitals of the Rus’ and also a centre of Christianity. Even today, a charming if slightly quiet provincial town (though very accessible from Moscow by fast and efficient Lastochka train), the sheer density of churches is striking, as well as the amount of money being spent on their restoration (when one might suggests the infrastructure could do with more of that cash…).

The traditional view was that the city was founded at the start of the twelfth century, and named Vladimir-on-Klyazma for Vladimir Monomakh, the prince of Rostov-Suzdal. More recently, there has arisen a school of thought that it actually dates back to the late tenth century and was named after Vladimir the Great, father of Russian Christianity, but in all honestly this is probably as much as anything else driven by a desire to give the place the most illustrious lineage possible. Either way, it was clearly a vassal-town of Suzdal (and Rostov), and a defensive bastion. It is built on a hill above the Klyazma river in a region that, as the photo below shows, is flat out to the horizon, hence its value in that latter role.

IMG_2414However, in the 12thC, it became increasingly important as a political and religious hub, becoming dominant within the Vladimir-Suzdal principality under Andrei the Pious (1157–1175). He oversaw a massive white stone building programme, which saw the city’s walls strengthened and acquire the Golden Gate, as well as the Cathedral of the Dormition and a new palace at Bogolyubovo (in which, ironically, he would eventually be assassinated by some of his own boyars). Russian. Georgian and European (especially German) masons and other specialists flocked to Vladimir, bringing with them new ideas, and taking away tales of the new city’s glories. Andrei even tried to petition the Patriarch of Constantinople to found a new metropolitanate in Vladimir, distinct from that of Kiev. This was rejected, but demonstrates both Andrei’s ambitions for his city and also the interconnectedness of political and religious power.

Then came the Mongols, and Vladimir’s importance made it a key target. When it resisted, it was besieged and sacked, suffering a terrible fire that gutted many of the new buildings. While the title of the Grand Prince of Vladimir remained a much-prized honorific, it was essentially a dynastic vanity plate, symbolic rather than carrying with it specific power. Vladimir recovered as a city to a degree, especially thanks to its brief period as the seat of the metropolitans of Kiev and All the Rus’, until the See was moved to Moscow in 1325.

In the time of Mythic Russia (see p. 110), Vladimir is a respectable second-rank city, but its real significance is as an anchoring site of Orthodoxy. Here the veil between physical world and the Otherworlds is at least a mastery thinner, especially inside the great cathedrals, and the Otherworlds are absolutely shaped by Orthodox iconography. The Cathedral of St Demetrius, for all its dvoeverie ways, is one of the greatest shrines to St Dmitri in all the Rus’ lands, and many a warrior and would-be general will come to spend a night in prayer (and gift the clerics on the side, too) in the hope of winning the saint’s blessing.

Kulikovo 1380: the battle that made Russia — August 22, 2018

Kulikovo 1380: the battle that made Russia

Kulikovo_False Dmitry_sketch_01
A preliminary sketch by Darren Tan of one of the colour plates, the death of what turned out to be not Prince Dmitri but a double, in his armour

Kulikovo 1380: the battle that made Russia

Now that it’s formally been ‘outed’ in the Osprey ‘Big Reveal‘ of their 2019 titles, I’m delighted to post a little about this book. For my next Osprey publication, I’ve gone historical, with an in-depth study of this battle and its causes and consequences, in their Campaign series. It’s due out on 21 February 2019.

Researching it was a fascinating exercise in historical deconstruction, as it became clear that so much of the orthodox perspective, from details like the battle of champions at the start through to the impact on making a substantial step forward in Russia’s struggle for freedom from the Mongol Yoke were myths. Some were perpetrated by Dmitry Donskoi and his people, bigging up the battle to support Muscovy’s claims to being the dominant Rus’ city state. Others were guesses, flourishes and outright propaganda added by chroniclers in later years and centuries. There is even serious debate as to the size, location and, most extreme, outcome of the battle.

I’ve tried to piece it together as best I can, and produce a readable and compelling account of what was an interesting struggle, but much of the importance of Kulikovo was precisely not how it went down on the battlefield, but how was later used, if not abused, for national and dynastic mythmaking. (Hence the subtitle.)

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that as well as maps and 3D bird’s-eye-views of the battle in various stages, the book features some stunning art from Darren Tan. The sketch above only hints at the quality of the final picture.

From a Mythic Russia perspective, there are maps and descriptions of armies and weapons, tactics and personalities. I also think there would be a fascinating adventure for characters sent down to Crimea to persuade the Genoese there that the defeated Mamai was better killed than treated with.

The Shigir Idol: totem, warning, map? — April 29, 2018

The Shigir Idol: totem, warning, map?

Shigir-idolAt 5.3m tall and 11,500 years old, the Shigir Idol is at once the tallest and oldest wooden statue in the world, twice as old as the Great Pyramids.

The dating has just been confirmed by peer-review, so this is a good time to highlight this extraordinary find, which was preserved in a peat bog in the Urals until its discovery in 1894. The best general story about it comes from the (excellent) Siberian Times in 2014, which I reproduce below, before indulging in a little Mythic Russia speculation:

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The Toropets Tunnel — October 28, 2017

The Toropets Tunnel

toropets-town-russia-5The little lakeside town of Toropets in Tver region, to the west of Russia, dates back at least to the eleventh century (it is first mentioned in 1074), and by the middle of the 12th century it had its own princes, such as Mstislav the Bold (grandfather of Alexander Nevsky), subordinated to Smolensk. However, as a border region, it was subject to the back-and-forth tussles between the Rus’ and the Lithuanians, and by the time of Mythic Russia it is part of the Polish-Lithuanian territories, even though still essentially Rus’ in all respects.

Screen Shot 2017-10-28 at 11.11.54The town loops around the banks of Lake Solomennoye: over a half-hour’s walk around the waterside, although many get around by boat. In the lake is the little Red Island, and there are persistent tales of a secret tunnel from the Trinity monastery in the town to the island. Legend has it that when the Mongols came, the townfolk used the tunnel to flee to safety on the island, but that since then its location has been lost, or changed, or an angel blanked the memory from everyone’s mind, or… you get the idea.

So what’s the story?

There is a tunnel, but it was blocked off and systematically forgotten because Red Island is not a haven of safety but the home of some especially terrible evil. This may be the grave of a Scythian vampire, or the rock where one of the Satan’s feathers, ripped from his wings when he was cast from heaven, embedded itself. Now a cruel curve of feral back iron, it emanates an almost palpable miasma of anger, hatred, temptation and spite.

The tunnel was never a physical thing, but rather a magical effect invoked by the monks, taking advantage of the fact that the monastery is built on a very thin part of the veil between mortal realms and the Otherworld. Travelling to Red Island in the Otherworld is to find a realm of peace and healing, where – it is said – even the mortally wounded can be saved.

The tunnel was just a story the townsfolk invented to explain why the Mongols never troubled them. It may have been rather that they struck some shameful deal with the invaders, but more likely it was with some other power. Perhaps a Kam, that still today demands the sacrifice of every third visitor to the town, or else some magical creature that instead inhabits the body of one of the children of Toropets and uses it to perform dark rituals that may someday change the world…




‘Tales of the Old Rus’ – an amazing-looking art book of Mythic Russian imaginings — September 25, 2017

‘Tales of the Old Rus’ – an amazing-looking art book of Mythic Russian imaginings

Screen Shot 2017-09-25 at 09.16.46Sadly, it came out just after a friend of mine was visiting Prague from Moscow, so it will still be a while before I can get my hands on it, but I’m tremendously excited by first sight of a new book, Сказки старой Руси. Начало, Tales of the Old Rus: the beginning, by Roman Papsuev (you can follow the project’s Facebook page here, and Papsuev, who goes as Amok Amokov on Facebook and Instagram). It’s published by Eksmo, ISBN 978-5-04-089352-2.

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Papsuev, a self-taught Russian artist, has produced some amazing pictures of Russian traditional mythological and folklore tales and characters, imagined for the modern age with the style and sensibilities of game art. The result looks stunning, as the few screenshots here demonstrate. I’m very much looking forward to getting hold of this book, not least as an awesome collection of evocative pictures to inspire Mythic Russia games and gamers. (And the implication of the title is that more will follow…)

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Updated, now that I have it. It doesn’t disappoint, in some ways being what Mythic Russia would be, married to the aesthetics of Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000. Here are a few more shots, inexpertly taken direct from the book:

How Old is Moscow? Maybe 100+ years than we thought — August 21, 2017

How Old is Moscow? Maybe 100+ years than we thought

The Founding of Moscow, by Apollinari Vasnetsov

Moscow is being rebuilt and redeveloped, from the tearing up of pavements (to, cynics say, essentially relay them with the same stones, netting fat profits for well-connected construction firms…) to replacing often-crumbling Khrushchev-era housing blocks. The city’s archaeologists have been unexpected beneficiaries of this public building jamboree, as excavations have unearthed all kinds of finds, some of which appear to suggest the city actually dates back further than originally believed. (There’s a very good article on this, in English, on the Moscow Mayor’s Office website.)

Old Moscow: the wooden walls, by Apollinari Vasnetsov

The usual date of Moscow’s founding is given as 1147, when the Hypatian Codex mentions it as the fortified village where Prince Yuri Dolgorukiy met Northern-Novgorod prince Svyatoslav. According to the Tver Chronicle, it was actually in 1156 when Grand Prince Yuri Volodimerich laid down the foundations of a fort between the mouths of the Neglinnaya and Yauza Rivers, around which formed the township of Moscow.

According to Leonid Kondrashev, Moscow’s chief archaeologist, new evidence suggests that the city was actually founded a hundred years earlier, during Kievan Prince Izyaslav’s campaigns against the Galindian tribes, or even earlier.

Kondrashev has suggested that scholars will be reluctant to agree on an earlier date because 1147 has already become entrenched within the city’s historical narrative, but one could also suggest that this may be part of the current fad for historical revisionism and a desire to make the city’s pedigree all the more glorious. After all, in today’s Russia, history is very political

Not-at-all Mythic Russia: the Moscow Mayhem playset for Fiasco — August 13, 2017

Not-at-all Mythic Russia: the Moscow Mayhem playset for Fiasco

Red Square Graphic

Forgive this brief break in transmission, but I’m just using this site also to host a piece of very different Russia-related roleplaying, the Moscow Mayhem playset for FIASCO, the ingenious storytelling game of “ordinary people with powerful ambition and poor impulse control.” It provides the basic setting, motivations and other playset elements for play in today’s Moscow:

2017, and Moscow, the Third Rome, has got its second wind. After the misery and chaos of the 1990s, it is now a capital of paradoxes: swanky, high-end luxury stores, a clear, shiny metro, but also crumbling Soviet-era housing estates and miserable, grimy suburbs. The in-your-face gangsterism has receded, not least as corrupt officials in their imported suits call the shots, but in some ways that just opens up new opportunities for the desperate, the stupid, the opportunistic, and the over-optimistic. You know, people like you…

You can download the playset here: FIASCO-Moscow


Some Suitably Epic Art of Mythic Russia — August 11, 2017

Some Suitably Epic Art of Mythic Russia

The bogatyrs battled the fearsome three-headed dragon Zmei Gorynich on the Kalinin Bridge (© Igor Ozhiganov)

I can claim no credit, but Russia Beyond The Headlines recently ran a piece on the art of Igor Ozhiganov, a Russian designer who essentially does these amazing pictures drawn from pagan slavic folklore and mythology as a hobby. The article has many more wonderful pictures, and you can see many more on his VKontakte page, including this badass Perun:

Perun the Thunderer (© Igor Ozhiganov)

I especially like the moody, muted tones and the appropriately strong Viking-Nordic resonances of his art. His Chernobog (the black god) very much to me feels like an Odin whose breaking bad…

Chernobog (© Igor Ozhiganov)