There’s a minipodcast in my In Moscow’s Shadows series now up looking at the battle of Kulikovo and exploring some of the ways and reasons why it is important today for Vladimir Putin’s efforts to create a new narrative of Russia… You can listen to it on your usual podcast app (and why not subscribe to In Moscow’s Shadows while you’re at it, if you’re at all interested in a personal take on today’s Russia?) or directly here.
The Russian history magazine Diletant has an interesting article (in Russian – but Google Translate does a reasonable job) on the journey princes had to make to Sarai to get the approval of the Golden Horde, something even Ryurikids had to do, even often after Donskoi’s victory at Kulikovo. After all, you never know… Still, there were sufficient dangers, from sickness or bandit attacks while on the road (or the river!), to falling foul of the Khan, that princes would typically write their wills before setting off. Russian chronicles tend to downplay this, and especially the wealth the princes would take with them as tribute: gemstones, fine fabrics and elaborate weapons were especially prized.
This lends itself to all kinds of scenarios, from accompanying a prince and experiencing the exotic life and intrigue of Sarai, to raiding such a mission for the tribute being brought.
The article can be found here.
Edit: Sadly, of course, Continuum didn’t happen this year for reasons pandemic. But there will be other conventions – eventually!
Although I’m on the Committee as Freeform Tsar, I still am making sure I have the time to run at least one game of Mythic Russia on the Saturday afternoon at this year’s Continuum gaming convention (7-10 August in Leicester, UK – details and sign-up here). It’ll be a nice opportunity to let the players field very powerful characters against ridiculous odds, exactly the kind of over-the-top situation at which the HeroQuest system excels. It’s a great con, not least as a very friendly and welcoming one, so if you have the time and the interest, do come!
A quick plug for this thoroughly excellent, friendly and inclusive weekend-long gaming con, now annual, with which I am involved. It runs 7-10 August at Leicester University and has a mix of RPGs, freeforms, board and miniature games, as well as a soupçon of its own distinctive silliness. It has a particular bias towards Chaosium games and settings (Glorantha, HeroQuest, RuneQuest, Call of Cthulhu) but is by no means confined to them and, yes, there will be some Mythic Russia there, that I can guarantee! Registration opened today, and tickets and accommodation can now be booked, so go along to its website here, sign up, and maybe even pitch a game or two to run!
A fascinating story from the Siberian Times, about evidence of idols being modified over time to show different ethnic characteristics. You can read the whole piece, with extra detail, images and diagrams, here.
2,400 year old Ust-Taseyevsky idol ‘underwent racial realignment early in Middle Ages’, losing his European looks.
But why this medieval plastic surgery? And the next puzzle: how come he had Caucasian features almost two millennia before the Russian conquest of Siberia?
An inscrutable face stares at us from the deep past. This idol – in fact a cluster of idols – has been gazing precisely east-southeast from a crest on a sandstone hill since several centuries before the birth of Christ, even if modern man only chanced upon him in 1975.
The main stone sculpture visible today shows a man with widely spaced almond-shaped eyes and ocher-coloured pupils.
He has a massive nose with flared nostrils, wide open mouth, a bushy moustache and a beard. And yet all is not quite as it seems, for this sculpture, the most northerly of this genre in Asia, underwent an historic version of plastic surgery perhaps 1,500 years ago to give him a less Caucasian and more Asian appearance, according to experts.
An inscrutable face stares at us from the deep past. Picture: Yuri Grevtsov
Archeologist Yuri Grevtsov said: ‘Analysis of the sculpture’s micro-relief showed that the original image went through some improvements. The first ‘edition’ was made by knocking, charring and the polishing the lines. Most likely it was all made by one person who seemed to have a very strong hand and a good taste.’
‘Finds of ancient tools, weapons and bronze mirrors in grottos surrounding the sculpture suggest this and other more weathered and fallen idols were hewn out of the sandstone as a place of worship between the second and fourth century BC.
‘But in the early Middle Ages a ‘less experienced sculptor’ got to work on the idol and ‘sharply delineated and narrowed the sculpture’s asymmetric eyes. The nose bridge was flattered with several strikes. The nose contour was altered to form ‘two deep diagonally converging grooves.
‘The moustache and the beard were partially ‘shaved’.’
Ust-Taseyevsky ritual site, and the idol. Pictures: Yuri Grevtsov, Anna Kravtsova
So the original European look of the idol was changed to a more Asian countenance. Why would this happen?
‘Judging by archeological finds found inside the grottos, this anthropomorphic idol was made during the Scythian time,’ Yuri Grevtsov said. ‘The first change came when the more European looking face was transformed to make it appear more Mongoloid was likely to have happened in the early Middle Ages with a shift of the population in the Angara River area,’ he said.
In other words, incoming ethnic groups preferred the idol to be more akin to their own looks.
Ust-Taseyevsky stone idol. Picture: Anna Kravtsova
Senior researcher Grevtsov said the stone idol is the only one of its kind in the taiga so far north: the closest analogues would be 500 kilometres to the south in Khakassia.
Why, though, would the original face have distinctly European features – seen by some as Slavic – when modern-day native Siberian groups have a more Asian appearance?
The answer may be that the Scythian peoples – a large group of Iranian Eurasian nomads who held sway in many Siberian regions at this time – did indeed have this more European visage.
The so-called Ust-Taseyevsky Idol (or Taseyevsky) is on the left bank of the Taseyeva River, some 4 km from its confluence with the Angara, and 10 km from the village of Pervomaisk, some 300 km north from regional capital Krasnoyarsk.
In all there are four sculptures, along with a ‘carving table’ and a spot where sacrifices of bears and elks were made. It lies 480 metres from the river bank, and 104 metres above the water level, a crest on a 300 metre hill.
Ust-Taseyevsky stone idol. Picture: Anna Kravtsova
Scheme of the site and its location marked on the world map. Pictures: Yuri Grevtsov, The Siberian Times
Explorer Maksim Fomenko who visited the site this year with a Yenisei TV film crew said: ‘A compass dances frivolously with its needle going as much as 20 degrees off course. Locals also say that the hills act like a magnet to lightning bolts during storms. I wonder if this was the same in earlier times and if people that lived here saw it as a good sign to choose the site for their rituals.’
‘There was a path leading up the hill. One of the rocks that looks like a table was used to carve carcasses of bears and elks. Judging by the bones we found, they cut off bear paws and heads, then separated jaws from the rest of the skull and performed some procedure in between the rocks.
‘Then they had a meal and burned the skulls and paws inside a different pit.’
‘I couldn’t sleep for two nights, so strong was the feeling of excitement’, archeologist Yuri Grevtsov
In fact, the idol that is so visible and striking today was not the main figure in the complex. The central character worshipped by the people of the past is in the middle of the composition, above all other stones. It has one eye, a nose and something looking like a beard.
There is disagreement about what it shows: some see the face of a man, others an animal, perhaps even a bird, most likely a raven. It is surmised that the idol that is prominent today was a ‘helper’ and probably not the recipient of ancient offerings.
Next to the helper there is a round-shaped rock which researchers refer to as the ‘helper’s wife’.
The carving table is to the left of the helper and his wife.
Behind the main sculpture there is a ‘guard’ – the biggest rock of all on the site – whose role was seen to be to overlook the ritual site.
After each of the rituals, the offerings were hidden in niches between the rocks and piled on top of the remnants of the previous offerings.
The ‘guard’ stone stood by the richest of the niches that had the most intriguing finds.
Interestingly, the hierarchy of how the idols were set on the site is similar to the ways of the Khanty and Mansi peoples, whose geographical location is some 2,000 kilometres to the north east.
Their idols were made of wood but the order they were arranged was similar – the main idol was in the middle, a helper and his wife were to the left, a guard was to the right.
From a Mythic Russia gaming perspective, this raises an intriguing question: would changing the physical forms of icons and idols change the spirit or deity they represent? Clearly it’s not as simple as just chiselling off a beard or changing the shape of the eyes, but perhaps if done as part of a ritual, or if the item in question was brought into the Otherworld, there could be some kind of feedback. I
t raises the prospect of an Orthodox expedition heading into Siberia to Christianise the idols in the hope that this would affect their spirits and thus lead the Sibiryaks into the light.
Or Teutonic Knight infiltrators trying to get at especially important Orthodox icons, either to try and purge them of their corrupt and schismatic ways, or else to excise them of Christian symbolism, to push these so-called Christians back into their pagan ways and make them fair game for a fully-fledged crusade…
What do you do when the mad are right, when the dishonourable are the saviours, and when your choice is between your own morality and the survival of the world?
What do you do, when brutality and terror are all that keeps the Devil at bay?
Ivan Grozny, Ivan the Dread, Ivan the Terrible. The first Grand Prince of Muscovy to be called Tsar, emperor, is going mad.
He rebuilt Moscow after the Great Fire of 1547. He codified the laws and established the bureaus that for the first time began to bring order to the realm. He opened up trade with England, far to the west, and broke the last Tatar khanates to the south, taking Kazan and dissolving the last of their great slave markets.
He is commanding and charismatic, mercurial and magnetic, brilliant and bombastic, a composer and litterateur, a general and a lawmaker. And he is going mad.
The Livonian Wars were going badly, and Ivan worried about betrayal. In 1560, his beloved wife Anastasia Romanovna died, and Ivan suspected poison. His trusted adviser Prince Andrei Kurbsky, defected to the Lithuanians, and Ivan saw conspiracy.
On 3 December 1564, he left Moscow for his estates at Aleksandrova Sloboda, and denounced the sinful, corrupt, treacherous and undeserving nobility and clergy of the country. Trapped between their own divisions and fear of the Moscow mob, the boyars begged him to return. He agreed – but only on his own terms.
He assumed absolute power of life and death over all. He formed a state within a state, the oprichnina (the ‘separation’), to the north of the country. The Boyar Council rules the rest of the country, the zemshchina (‘land’), but only subject to the will and whim of the tsar.
Within the oprichnina, Ivan broods over slights and plots, real and imagined. He has gathered his own army of oprichniki from the loyal and the opportunistic alike. With a dog’s head on their saddle (as they are the tsar’s hounds) and a broom (to sweep away his foes), they are at once army, retinue, secret police and sacred brotherhood.
They rule as lords at home, untouchable raiders in the zemshchina. At the slightest provocation – or none at all – Ivan sends them forth with fire and sword. Peasants are being driven from their homes as boyars are murdered and their lands seized on the pretexts that they are plotters or cultists. Suzdal has been sacked because Ivan called it a hotbed of ritual sacrifice. Priests are sewn into sacks and thrown to hungry dogs, accused of being Satanists and schismatics.
And the tsar is growing ever more mad. Some days, he is himself, others he gibbers and howls his way through the corridors of Aleksandrova Sloboda, plucks imaginary darts from his flesh, snarls replies to questions no one else can hear. Meanwhile, his oprichniki grow rich, and the zemshchina drowns in blood and fear.
And yet maybe he is not mad, or not simply mad. The Lord has decreed that the tsar and the Rus’ and the lands of the Rus’ are one. What if his madness is but a symptom of a deeper, darker, creeping malaise, and not all those wild accusations are so wild after all?
This is the basic premise for a very dark setting for Mythic Russia that, if I am honest, I may never have the plan to flesh out, but which has a perverse appeal. We think of Ivan’s later years as degenerating into paranoia and murderous insanity, but what if Russia was indeed being corrupted and infiltrated by the Kam, mighty agents of Satan, possessing families, encouraging bloody sacrifices, despoiling holy sites and every night whispering words of treachery and ambition into a dozen dozen sleeping ears. As Russia is corrupted, so too Ivan himself is being driven insane, but he retains just enough lucidity to forge a weapon against the Kam: the oprichniki. They may often be bloody-handed opportunists, but they are all he has.
So the players would first have to realise what is actually going on, and then decide what is, if not the best option, perhaps the least-worst. Is there another way to fight back the Kam than with fire and sword, the oprichnik way? Can decency be restored through indecent methods? Or is this simply a great opportunity to accumulate power and wealth, like so many of the opruchniki. Dark times.
The Russians are really serious about their medieval (and other) re-enactment, and the Abalak Holiday Village near Tobolsk in Tyumen region was recently host to the 11th Abalak Field Festival of Historical Re-Enactment, I was reading about the place and increasingly felt it was all but in name the Mythic Russia theme park:
The holiday village is located near Tobolsk and is a reconstruction of an ostrog – a small wooden fort of those times when Yermak and Cossacks conquered Siberia. It was on Abalak Lake 435 years ago, when Yermak defeated the ten thousandth army of the Mametkul Tatar Khan, thereby finally conquering Siberia. This and other stories you can learn by visiting the Abalak tourist village.
Here the fairy tale meets with the reality. Travelers will visit the voivode chambers, fortress, mansions, tavern, smithy, bathhouse, children’s playground, and much more. You will be able to compete in swords and visit the Potions master class from Baba Yaga – a folklore character.
Here they propose to spend the night in the Voevodsky Chambers – ancient Russian blockhouse. The furnishing there is the most traditional: everywhere there are wooden furniture, patchwork rugs, beaded paintings, a cuckoo clock. All around is warm, cozy and comfortable. And what kind of treats! Dumas père himself and Gogol could envy: pelmeni with pike and bacon, salted fish, crispy mushrooms, vareniki with cranberries, rabbit in sour cream, roasted on the grid black grouses and pheasant, ribs of a lamb or young piglet baked on a spit.
Passing by you can look into the hut on the chicken legs and learn the magic from Baba Yaga, see the performances that are arranged on the stage, located on the massive tail of the Chudo-Yudo (Monster-Marvel) Fish-Whale.
In summer, under the walls of a wooden fortress, the international festival of historical reenactment Abalakskoe Polje is held. Year by year, the knights and Vikings meet each other, more than 15,000 people from all over Russia and foreign countries come to see the battle every year. In winter, the Ded Moroz’s residency in the terem with carved windows opens its doors. In 2008, the Abalak tourist village was recognized as the best tourist project in Russia.
Near the wooden fortress, there is a sacred place – the Abalak Monastery. Legend has it that after the defeat of Abalak by Yermak’s squad, Saint Nicholas appeared in front of one of the Cossacks and announced that the place was destined to become the home of God. The miraculous icon of the Mother of God of the Sign (Znamenie) is hosted there. For many years, Abalak is a place of Orthodox pilgrimage.
I really need to get there!
Maybe you have a musician character? Maybe you just want some suitable music to run in the background of a game of Mythic Russia? Maybe you’re just curious? If so, here are some suitable soundtracks:
Ancient Russian Folk Music (more than 40 minutes long, so a good one for general background)
Epic Slavic Folk Dark Music (definitely a little New Age epic)
Russian Folk Music That Will Make You Thrill! Part I (hey, I didn’t come up with the title. Still, evocative vocals)
Black Horse – Mongolian Traditional Classical Music Art (complete with some throat singing)
The Teutonic Camp (Peregrinus expectavi) (From Alexander Nevsky) (2004 Remastered) (OK, not historical, but I confess I can’t detach my notion of the Teutonic Knights from Prokofiev’s masterful score: here’s the original)