EP 011: An Epic Defeat

What happens in medieval Russia, when sudden darkness plunges you into one of your first (and only) military defeats? Someone immortalizes it in verse, forever. And then we talk about it some more.

Today we’re going back to an unknown author, in an unknown time, and a mostly unknown place to explore the murky roots of the Tale of Igor’s Campaign.

Now if you had a high school history education that in any way resembled mine, you might have noticed something very odd about our textbooks.  They might not have said outright that Russia invented itself about two weeks before the Revolution, moved Planetary House three days after the end of the cold war, and just came back to get Donald Trump into trouble, but they heavily implied it. They certainly did nothing to expand upon the many centuries of fascinating Russian history that extends just as far back as it does anywhere else. Never mind trying to correct the idea that many of us had in the 90’s of a decrepit, reincarnated Rasputin with a way for small talking bats.

So that’s what we’re here for. And just as an aside, we will be circling back to Rasputin. I watched Disney’s Anastasia until my parents actually threw it away and then lied about it, creating a lifetime of difficulty trusting adults, so it really can’t be any other way. Also I’m a big fan of bells, especially the tolling kind – if you know those words, go ahead and drop them on Instagram! There might be a prize. It won’t be a bat.

Anyway, the words we’re focusing on today are, we think, much older than Rasputin, even the original, non-animated version. The Tale of Igor’s Campaign is an anonymous epic poem, originally written in the Old East Slavic language. This is the language that eventually gave rise to the Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian languages, amongst other languages that I also can’t speak.

Unfortunately, we don’t know who the author was, or even exactly when it was written. But wait, you say, don’t we have all these fancy new ways of testing paper and matching it to one specific kind of tree that only grows between March and June on one particular street in one particular town?

Yes, and no. Dating can’t always get that specific… and also, we don’t have the original anymore. In fact that story of the original document is probably worthy of an epic poem itself, but sadly this podcast isn’t in the business of writing epics, only minis. The original copy of the poem was found by Count Alexei Musin-Pushkin, when he bought a collection of old documents of a local monastery in the late 1700’s. (Sidebar everyone – remember that for several hundred years, monasteries were one of the few places that had large collections of books, and monks were among the very few people who had the time and leisure (and, probably patience) to copy old texts out by hand to preserve them.)

So Count Musin-Pushkin gets his hands on a stack of documents that he thinks dates back to around the 16th Century. He’s a bit of a nerd – he’d probably have been really into Game of Thrones and the Wheel of Time – so naturally, he’s very excited by his haul. Imagine those very odd “summer skincare haul” vlogs you see on YouTube, and then multiply the excitement by a factor of seven.

So if really blows his socks of when he discovers the manuscript for a poem that has the script and style – not to mention the smell – of something much older. He realizes that he is far too overexcited to translate it correctly himself, so he hires a few other scholars, and they proceed to translate it incorrectly together. They publish it anyway, just going to show that the media cared just as little for accuracy then as it does now. Their second attempt is a bit better, so they tie a nice big bow on it and send it off to Catherine the Great. I’ll just say here – because I’m not going to waste an entire episode on this – she definitely had time to read it, because the rumours about the horse are completely unfounded. And thank goodness they did send it off to her, because a few years later Count Musin-Pushkin’s entire collection went up in smoke in the Great Moscow fire of 1812, and the original was lost forever. All the translations you see today tend to be a mash-up of the 1st edition published in 1800, and the version colloquially referred to as ‘the Catherine copy.’ Nabakov, the wonderful Russian-American novelist, translated it into English in 1960, but of course, all these later versions contain the discrepancies of the original translation.

The poem tells the story of a failed raid of Ivor Svyatoslavich, which is unlucky for him, because apparently he was quite remarkably successful in all of his other military pursuits. But the mysterious poet, for reasons known only to him (or her) self, chose to immortalize this defeat. Maybe he was secretly on the other side.

Anyway, the poem tells of how, in April 1185, Prince Igor, of Novgorod-Seversky sets out to attack an old enemy – the nomadic Polovetsians. If you’re thinking that that date seems a little too specific to be likely – you’re right. Or you would, but fortunately for us, the Prince saw the well recorded solar eclipse of May the 1st.  This is a little less fortunate for him though, because everyone else saw it too. Solar eclipses are quite hard to miss, unless you’re indoors or napping, two things medieval armies famously did very little of.

Prince Igor’s army, and the three other princes who had joined him, were convinced that it was a bad omen, and were very keen to heed it. Prince Igor, however, managed to convince them to go on. When scouts returned with the news that it would be impossible to pull off a sneak attack, the campaigners were left with two options: attack at once, or turn back. Ivor convinced everyone that turning back would be a disgrace ‘worth than death’ so they made their attack, and they won. Igor suggested they take the spoils and return home immediately. Svyatoslav was worried that his horses were tired. Normally that’s a sentiment I would totally get behind, but even I, who have need known to carry a fully grown to beagle to his bed, have to admit that in this case, it was probably a mistake. The Polovstians called for aide in the night, and Prince Ivor and co woke up completely surrounded. Only fifteen men managed to escape, and Igor and his son were captured. But Igor has no intention of staying a captive, and he plots his escape. I say plots – he waits until dusk, and then apparently just opens the tent flap and walks out. This bit of the poem is quite lovely, so here’s a bit of it:

The glow of the sunset had faded.

Igor sleeps.

Igor keeps his vigil.

Igor’s thoughts cross the prairie,

from the great river Don

to the small river Donets.

Beyond the river, Ovlur whistles,

having caught a horse.

He warns the prince.

Prince Igor will not remain a prisoner.

The earth rumbled,

the grass rustled,

and the Kuman tents began to stir.

In the guards’ defense, Igor does wait until they start playing a game, thereby distracting them, and – I think we can all agree – simultaneously cursing board games to be the destroyer of all friendships for the rest of time.

He manages to make it back home, and then raises ransom money for the other captive princes. He also makes his walls a little higher, which seems sensible.

So apart from proving that a) you should always make back ups and b) you should never go to work when the sun’s down, why is this important? Well, for one thing, it’s pretty. And pretty language is cool. Ancient pretty language is even more cool, but don’t use it as a pickup line unless you really know what you’re doing.

More importantly, the Tale of Igor’s campaign – or, the Lay of the Host of Igor, in some translations, gives us a very rare insight into pre Christian Slavic culture and language, Russian paganism, and the socio-political landscape of the time. It also influenced a number of later Russian writers, and became on opera – Prince Igor – that is still considered one of the great classics of Russian theatre. And there’s still an ongoing debate about the original – was it written in 1185, or shortly afterwards, or did it start as a song, or an oral poem, and continue like that, maybe changing with each retelling and each new storyteller, until it was eventually written down in the late 14th or early 15th Century, in the manuscript found by the Count? This is probably one of those that we’ll never really know, but people will continue arguing about it for another few centuries. If that worries you – don’t let it. Historians and writers love a good debate.

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