Mythic Russia

Heroic roleplaying in a mythical medieval Russia

Terrible Times: Mythic Russia in the bloody age of Ivan the Dread — July 25, 2019

Terrible Times: Mythic Russia in the bloody age of Ivan the Dread


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.

001-hip0325415They 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?

Ivan_the_Terrible_interrogationThis 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.

Abalak. Basically, the Mythic Russia theme park… — July 24, 2019

Abalak. Basically, the Mythic Russia theme park…

IMG_8386The 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.


There’s also a neat little video embedded in this tweet, and a lot more information and photos here.

I really need to get there!


Medieval Russian Music (and more) — July 21, 2019

Medieval Russian Music (and more)

Boyan by Viktor Vasnetsov. Boyan was a bard mentioned in the Rus’ epic The Lay of Igor’s Campaign as part of the court of Yaroslav the Wise.

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)

Russian Church Choir Music

Cossack Song

Tatar Music

Black Horse – Mongolian Traditional Classical Music Art (complete with some throat singing)

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth & Traditional War Song

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)

Byzantine Secular Classical Music




Kulikovo 1380 – out! — July 3, 2019

Kulikovo 1380 – out!

Kulikovo coverActually, it’s been out for months, but it belatedly occurred to me that, having trailed it, I never actually announced when Kulikovo 1380 – the battle that made Russia (Osprey) hit the shops. It’s selling well for such a niche topic and I’m very happy with how it came out, given how sparse and contradictory so much of the information is, and I think it would also be a useful source of background and texture for games of Mythic Russia.