Sexual Fables

This article accompanies the fable
From Russia with Love

Boris Godunov

Like any other country, Russia relives its past myths and they can be bloody, which is why Russia's artists have frequently attacked the culture of violence by showing its ugliness.


In the above painting, Ivan the Terrible embraces his dying son. What isn't shown is that Ivan has just fatally wounded his son in a fit of rage and is now grief-stricken. Ilya Efimovich Repin's masterpiece is titled Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16th, 1581. It was controversial in 1885 for the way it portrayed the monarchy. Ivan's dynasty died out.

Russia's slide into chaos was averted for a time by Boris Godunov, the so-called "first Tsar." It is said that on his coronation in 1598 he said he would "shed no blood" for five years. But historians argue he had his enemies strangled and drowned instead. He died of natural causes in 1605 as the Time of the Troubles intensified. Some see an analogy here to the break-up of the Soviet Union under Gorbachov and Yeltsin. Is Putin today's Boris Godunov?

In Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov (1872 version) and Pushkin's original novel, Godunov is a force for order but he also stands accused of ordering the murder of Ivan's other son, Dimitri. By the end of the opera, Godunov is dead and, as darkness descends, all we have left is a holy fool (a yuródivïy or crazy man)... There are echoes here too of Rasputin; that yuródivïy also was assassinated.

So the question is this: is Putin is a modern-day Boris Godunov? Is he a killer or a peacemaker? Is he preventing Russia's slide into chaos or is he another Stalin? Is he vulnerable to the siloviki (Kremlin bureaucrats) as Godunov was vulnerable to the boyars (nobility), or do the oprichniki (assassins) do his bidding? Agnostics are waiting this one out.


The painting above of Mussorgsky was by Ilya Repin in 1881, literally days before Mussorgsky's death...

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