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.

A little weirdness: icons, anime-style — February 21, 2019

A little weirdness: icons, anime-style

By Polina Vortus

There’s currently a bit of a furore surrounding an account on VKontakte, essentially the Russian FaceBook, devoted to pictures of icons, drawn in the style of manga. It’s here, in Russian but it’s really for the art, some of which is a little crude, but some of which is of great skill. Not quite sure what to do with it, but I thought it was worth flagging up!

(H/t to the Moscow Times, where I heard about this account.)

Russia in Medieval Trade Routes — February 19, 2019

Russia in Medieval Trade Routes

Screenshot 2019-02-19 at 12.50.53

Thanks to reddit user martinjanmansson, we now have access – here – to a great and usefully detailed map of medieval trade routes that is very useful for Mythic Russia. It is looking at the 112th-12thC, so a little early for the standard timeline – hence the distinct absence of Moscow as a hub – but it gives a nice sense of the flow, and also how the Rus’ were connected to markets east, west and south, and along these routes travel not just trade goods, but people, ideas…and opportunities for adventure! (The screenshot above is just of part of the overall map.)

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.