Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Around the World in Another 80 Gays : Part 29) A Games of Russian Thrones

Previously on “Another 80 Gays” : Record-breaking swimmer 57) Michael Mealiffe (b.1940) is married to Oscar-winning lyricist 58) Dean Pitchford (b.1951) whose Olympic song “Welcome” was augmented by the airship featured in the same James Bond film as the Château de Chantilly, home of 59) Prince Louis II, Duke of Condé (1621-1686), who unsuccessfully campaigned for a royal throne, unlike the successful 60) Dmitri I, Tsar of Russia (d.1606).

In “Game of Gay Thrones” I included 60) Dmitri I as a claimant to a throne. What distinguished him from the others was that he succeeded. Most thrones have had succession battles in their history, and Russia was no exception.

After Tsar Fyodor I died in 1598 the crown was given to his brother-in-law Boris Godunov. Boris’s reign started out okay but in a couple of years a massive famine and uncharacteristic, year-round, night-time temperatures of below zero led to the deaths of two millions Russians. As economic and public strife increased people started to blame Boris and some started rumours that Tsar Fyodor’s brother was ready to emerge from hiding to take over.

The problem with that was that Fyodor’s brother, Dmitri, had been murdered in 1591. In his lifetime Dmitri was declared heir to the throne, but the theory is that Boris Godunov wanted to be tsar and had Dmitri assassinated. As we’ll see later, it’s not the first time this has happened.

Another theory which gained popularity was that Dmitri escaped assassination and went into hiding. Those rumours bothered Tsar Boris, not because they might be true, but because it gave something for the Russian nobles who opposed him to rally behind. That’s when the first of imposter Dmitri arrived on the scene.

No-one is really sure who 60) Dmitri I really was. He may have been a minor noble or a peasant. He came to the attention of Tsar Boris after suspicions arose that he might be the long-lost, long-dead Dmitri after he seemed to be better educated than he should be. Before Boris could capture and interrogate him Dmitri escaped to the powerful neighbouring Poland-Lithuania Commonwealth (the one whose throne would later attract the attention of 59) Prince Louis, Duke of Condé). There Dmitri received support for his challenge to the throne of Tsar Boris.

In 1605 Dmitri, with support from the Poles, succeeded in overthrowing the unpopular Tsar Boris. Yet despite being accepted as the long-lost heir Dmitri had his opponents. He was seen as a westerniser, with policies which favoured closer ties to Poland-Lithuania and the Pope. The traditional ruling nobles, the boyars, objected and also accused him of sodomy because of his very close relationships with two young men.

There may be some basis of truth in Dmitri’s homosexuality. There was a different social attitude towards it in those days, or indeed than there was in Catholic Europe. The circumstances of Dmitri’s death strongly indicate his close relationship with Petr Basmanov. As mentioned in “Game of Gay Thrones” Dmitri and Petr were together in their bedchamber when they were attacked and later murdered. Dmitri was quickly declared an imposter, the first of three False Dmitris, as they are now called.

Succession to the Russian throne has resulted in violence before. The laws of succession were not as simple as they are today in the UK. The Russian heir was chosen from any number of candidates by a gathering of the boyars. Very often the only way for a prospective heir to ensure his succession was to kill of all the others, even if they were his brothers. This is what happened to 61) St. Boris (c.990-1015).

St. Boris was a son of St. Vladimir I, Grand Prince of Kiev (the title of the Russian ruler in medieval times). Boris was one of the twelve sons of Vladimir, and one other son in particular thought his right to succeed was greater than his brothers – Sviatopolk.

Even before St. Vladimir had died Sviatopolk was plotting to eliminate his father and his brothers one by one. His main rival was Boris, Vladimir’s favourite son and commander the army. He was also extremely popular with the populace, which Sviatopolk wasn’t.

On Vladimir’s death Sviatopolk proclaimed himself the new Grand Prince. Even though Boris expressed no desire to oppose him, Sviatopolk decided to make sure he didn’t by having him and his partner assassinated. Just to make sure he was safe on his throne Sviatolpolk then assassinated two other brothers.

St. Boris’s partner was 62) George the Hungarian (d.1015). He was a servant and the bond between him and his master was so close that Boris gave him a fabulously valuable gold necklace as a gift. When Sviatopolk sent his assassins they were camped with the army returning from battle. The assassins burst into their tent and killed them in the manner I described in “To Russia With Love”.

Not satisfied with completing their task the assassins turned their attention back to George the Hungarian and the gold necklace. They couldn’t unfasten it from his neck, so they sliced his head off and flung it as far as they could.

The assassination of St. Boris and George the Hungarian as depicted
in a series of 14th century icons in the Church of St. Boris and St. Gleb, Kolomna, Russia.
St. Boris, along with his assassinated brother St. Gleb, were canonised as the first saints of the Russian Orthodox Church, even before their father St. Vladimir who founded it. As with most medieval saints and legendary heroes many myths and legends grew up around them after their death. A common legend attached to many (St. George, St. Michael, St. Margaret, King Arthur, etc.) was a battle against evil in the form of a dragon.

An old Ukrainian legend tells of a dragon who terrorised the land demanding human sacrifices. The Grand Prince asked St. Boris and St. Gleb to rid him of this menace. In the legend the brothers are blacksmiths, and together they caught the dragon’s tongue with some red hot pincers and tamed it.

Dragon-slayers and tamers like Boris and Gleb appear a lot in eastern and northern European myths, more so than in Mediterranean Europe which tends to go for more serpent-like monsters like the hydra. That’s why Tolkien and programmes like “Game of Thrones” are set in northern lands.

These mythical dragon-slayers have been the source of many works of art, literature and music through the centuries, and perhaps most strikingly in the operas of Richard Wagner. His “Siegfried” relates the dragon-slaying adventure of the eponymous hero. Wagner loved the legends of old Germany so much that he named his son after this particular dragon-slayer – 63) Siegfried Wagner (1869-1930).

Next time : A medieval Eurovision Song Contest leads to death by fire.

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