Mythic Russia

Heroic roleplaying in a mythical medieval 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.)

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.

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:

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)
The Dragon of Lake Brosno — August 1, 2017

The Dragon of Lake Brosno

lake-brosnoSeveral Russian lakes have alleged denizens, slavic kin of the Loch Ness Monster, but most are far to the east. West of Moscow, though, in the lands of Tver, is Lake Brosno, the deepest lake in the province, and one which bubbles gently. Alchemists might claim that this is simply mephitic gas released by decaying detritus on the lakebed, but we know better. The dragon is a classic sea monster in reputed shape, a long-necked dinosaurian, with flukes and a powerful tail.

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Is it a patriot, or just territorial? The legends say that when Batu Khan was leading a Mongol army towards Novgorod in the 13th century and his horsemen led their horses to the lake to drink, it savagely attacked, devouring men and mounts alike, sending the Mongols fleeing. But then further back, when Varangians sought to cache plunder from one of their 10th century raiding expeditions into the Rus’ lands on a small island in the lake, the dragon simply swallowed the island whole…



The Stone Labyrinths of Bolshoi Zayatsky — June 24, 2017

The Stone Labyrinths of Bolshoi Zayatsky

BolshoiZNorth, beyond the lands of Novgorod, and amidst the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea’s Onega Bay, lies the island of Bolshoi Zayatsky. No more than a square mile in size, overlooked by the ruins of a long-shattered tower, the west of the island is covered with 35 overgrown but unmistakeable mazes made thousands of years ago, for unknown purposes, by unknown hands. Some are rough-hewn in stone, some limned by earthen walls, others marked out with rockpiles. Each is different.

Labyrinths-Bolshoi-Zayatsky-Island7What purpose did they have? Do they offer mystical paths to different places, alternative histories, Otherworldly nexi? Are they the fingerprints of giants long since passed? Or are they prisons, within whose loops and whorls are bound vicious spirits, maybe even the Kam, ready to be unleashed by unthinking hands or ruthless minds?

Some suggest these were fishing traps, to catch the plentiful White Sea cod and salmon, yet most are too far inland. Maybe they are traps instead sifting the spirit winds, blowing relentlessly across the north? And if so, where is the catch — and who is the harvester?

The island is meant to be uninhabited, yet when there is snow, or dust, or mud, whose footprints can be seen in labyrinths, left when the setting sun’s last rays paint the stones?


The Vasnetsovs’ Visions of Russia — May 2, 2017

The Vasnetsovs’ Visions of Russia

1920px-1898_Vasnetsov_Bogatyrs_anagoriaViktor Vasnetsov and his brother Apollinarii were 19thC artists whose work helps bring to life historical Russia, and folkloric and mythic Russia, too. Viktor, for example, is well-known for his iconic picture of the Three Bogatyrs, above, while I especially like Apollinarii’s more technical depiction of the marketplace in Novgorod, below.

1920px-Novgorod_torgIn any case, their work is a great inspiration of and for Mythic Russia, so here are some places to see more: (A very comprehensive gallery of VV’s art) (a short essay about VV and his art) (a sampler of AV’s historical images) (an essay about AV)