Mythic Russia

Heroic roleplaying in a mythical medieval Russia

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
Mythic Crimea — August 23, 2016

Mythic Crimea

Medieval CrimeaIt 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.

The Valley of the Ghosts

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.

Brawling through Mythic Russia — July 4, 2016

Brawling through Mythic Russia

Screen Shot 2016-07-04 at 18.07.48There’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.

Medieval Russia given the Nationalism + Special FX treatment — April 6, 2016

Medieval Russia given the Nationalism + Special FX treatment

The Dmitri Donskoi panel


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…

Ivan the Terrible
Old Moscow in Miniature — February 6, 2016

Old Moscow in Miniature

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.

IMG_6672The 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.

IMG_6671Overall, 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.

Russian Re-Enactors Refight Kulikovo and Invoke Tolkien — December 29, 2015