Sunday, March 24, 2019

Prince Rogvolod: the Donald Trump of pagan Russia

Rogvolod with daughter Rogneda
Every modern political figure has its historical "twin". As a historical novelist, I love drawing parallels between present day political figures and their doppelgangers of the past. Today's guest of honor is Prince Rogvolod of Polotsk (circa 920-978), who bears some similarities to Donald Trump. 

Rogvolod (aka Rögnvaldr), a son of a noble Swedish couple, was the first documented ruler of Polotsk (modern day Belarus), a city situated on both banks of the Dvina river. Not much known about his childhood,  other than he was born around 920. Several chronicles suggest that he seized the land and had a fairly firm grip on it. 
Images of Krivich people reconstructed from the skulls

Before his arrival, the city was in it embryonic form, consisting of scattered settlements. His arrival made quite an impression on the indigenous Krivich population. (The etymology of the tribal name is up for debate. Some historians claim that it stems from the word "crooked/twisted", hinting to some birth defect, while others suggest that it stems from the word "blood".) Most of the Krivich people were artisans: blacksmiths, iron workers. Women had the same rights as men and were expected to excel in the same trades. They possessed all the skills necessary for building a city, and now they had a leader to mobilize them. Rogvolod invested heavily into urban development. He recognized the opportunities for trade and industry that the riverfront location offered. Thanks to Rogvolod, Polotsk was placed on the map as an actual center for trade. 
A coin depicting Rogvolod and Rogneda

Just like Donald Trump, Rogvolod was obsessed with building towers and walls. He had an elaborate system of labyrinths in his city. He used high quality wood for the key edifices. The name of his wife is unknown, but she did not play the key figure in his family life. The centerpiece of his nuclear family was his beautiful and arrogant daughter Rogneda. He also had two young sons, but their names and ages were not recorded. Understandably, Rogvolod was not the world's humblest man. His daughter inherited his personality traits. Rogneda knew that her purpose in life was to help her father form an advantageous alliance. She also had considerable latitude when it came to choosing her spouse. Rogvolod loved his daughter and wanted her to be happy, so he gave her a lot of say when it came to reviewing various candidates. 
Rogvolod consulting Rogneda

Rogneda was particularly keen on one candidate: Prince Yaropolk of Kiev. Apparently, he was up to her standard. Alas, that union was not to materialize, as Yaropolk fell victim to a court intrigue and was assassinated. His younger illegitimate half-brother Vladimir, born to a servant girl from the Drevlian tribe, decided to try his luck. Rogneda rejected him on the grounds of him being illegitimate. "I shall not marry a bastard born to a servant girl!" Vladimir was infuriated by the rejection, but not nearly as infuriated as his maternal uncle, General Dobrynius, the older brother of the said servant girl. Dobrynius urged Vladimir to make Rogneda pay for her arrogance. In 980 Vladimir assembled an army consisting of Slavs, Varangians and even a few Asiatic tribes and stormed the city of Polotsk. After taking the city, he raped Rogneda in front of her whole family and then murdered her parents and younger brothers. The city was destroyed, and Rogneda was forced to marry Vladimir. There is a record of her lamenting, "I am deeply saddened. My father is dead, and his city overtaken by the invaders.  All because of me, because of my pride." She blamed herself for the tragedy that befell her family. 
Krivich people in tribal apparel

At the very top of the post is a very eloquent depiction of Rogvolod and his daughter by a contemporary illustrator. An average viewer will be appalled by the fact that Rogneda is portrayed as much smaller in size and sitting at her father's feet, like a little dog. Well, we have to look deeper, beyond modern day stereotypes. Ancient Slavs and Scandinavians did not regard feet as dirty. Feet represented freedom, mobility and accomplishment. Rulers wore ornate boots to draw attention to their feet. Very often, it was the most ornate and costly part of their apparel. There is also a memorial coin depicting Rogvolod in his armor with his hand on his daughter's shoulder. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Malusha: the runt who gave birth to a prince

Greetings, commies and SJWs!

For your enlightenment, a bit of women's history that explores, predictably, the issues of gender, ethnicity, faith and social status. Today's heroine is Malusha, the mother of Vladimir the Great aka Vladimir the Baptizer - the Russian prince responsible for Russia's massive conversion from paganism to Christianity. 

Let's take a moment to examine the historical canvas. The 10th century was an exciting time to be a Slav, regardless of what faith your adhered to. Princess Olga (d. 969) is considered Russia's first openly Christian monarch. At that time, the new monotheistic religion was garnering some interest among the Slavs and was regarded as somewhat of a hipster fad. Most Christian influences came from the Byzantium, but there were some Catholic diplomats and missionaries trickling in from the West. As Olga's name suggests (a version of Helga), she was of Scandinavian extraction. Her husband Igor was also Scandinavian and a pagan, as were their children. Olga did not force her beliefs upon her family, because she believed that conversion had to be gradual and voluntary. Her sons did make fun of her for endorsing such strange notions as monogamy and chastity - concepts that were unfathomable to healthy male Russian noblemen. 

When Igor was killed by his subjects in 945, Olga took over Kiev. The people behind Igor's death were Drevlians, a tribe whose name translates as "forest dwellers", a community of hunters and trappers. Princess Olga had a long-standing vendetta against them for having murdered her husband. Pushing aside her Christian concepts of forgiveness, she exacted revenge against their communities. Among the enslaved captives were Malusha "the runt"and her older brother Dobrynius, orphaned children of a Drevlian prince. Instead of executing them, Olga took them into her court. Thanks to his powerful physique and fortitude, Dobrynius went on to become a soldier and gained certain prominence, autonomy and authority. 

Malusha was trained as Olga's personal assistant. Her job was to take care of Olga's furs and jewels. The girl was very small, dainty and beautiful, and the middle-aged princess developed motherly feelings for her. It is rumored that Olga was grooming Malusha for conversion to Christianity. Those plans went out the window when Olga's own son Svyatoslav had a fling with Malusha. When Olga found out that her servant was pregnant by her own son, she became enraged and exiled Malusha into the countryside. It was there that Vladimir was born. Despite his illegitimate origin, Vladimir went on to become one of Russia's most influential rulers. Nobody really expected him to rise to power when he was a young child. 

Malusha's fate remains a mystery. It is certain that she did not take part in her son's upbringing. Vladimir was taken away as a toddler and placed under the supervision of his maternal uncle. Dobrynius, whose name ironically means "gentle soul" was a rather violent fellow in real life. As a former slave, he had a bit of a chip on his shoulder and became outraged whenever someone brought up his past. His goal was to purge all softness and sensitivity from his nephew's heart. In fact, Vladimir's youth is marked by debauchery and cruelty. Before converting to Christianity, he was a notorious pillager and womanizer, who did not always ask for consent. His tumultuous past did not prevent the Orthodox church from proclaiming him a saint after he initiated massive conversion to Christianity in 989. 

And what became of his mother? Some sources suggest that Malusha did convert to Christianity and became a nun. There are several speculative depictions of her in literature, film and art. Some artists depict her as a casualty of a political conflict and a sexual scandal, while others depict her as more self-contained and empowered. A modern illustration depicts her as a heartbroken woman whose child is torn away from her. There is, however, a flattering statue of her with her son in the city of Korosten. She does not look like a frail slave girl but as a proud Slavic goddess. Indeed, she is a runt who gave birth to a prince.