Ivan Susanin tortured by The Moscow Times

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April 15, 2005 by AK

Oksana Yablokova writes:

The legend of Ivan Susanin, the peasant who gave his life to save the first Romanov tsar, may stand or fall on the analysis of a skull found near the ancient Volga River city of Kostroma, where archeologists are claiming to have unearthed the local hero’s remains in a 17th-century graveyard.

They hope to prove the skull is Susanin’s and that he really did die a martyr’s death to protect Mikhail Romanov from Polish invaders.

Anyone familiar with what is called the first Russian opera, A Life for the Czar aka Ivan Susanin, should know this tale. It has been examined for several Russian historians; Sergei M. Soloviev, the author of the first comprehensive Russian history, suggested that Susanin fell into the hands of a gang of so-called thieving Cossacks who wanted to know the whereabouts of the newly elected Czar, the young Mikhail Romanov. He was to be on his way from Kostroma to Moscow with his mother. Susanin kept silent, and the Cossacks tortured him to death. Soloviev did not find evidence that Poles ever reached as far as Kostroma.

Over the centuries, Susanin’s story has been invoked as an example of the heroism of ordinary Russians and their devotion to the country’s ruler.

After six years of a civil war aggravated by foreign invasion — Sweden took Novgorod and Polish troops, although not the regular army of King Sigismund Vasa, captured the Kremlin — after an impostor, an illegitimate czar and a council of seven boyars who recognized the Polish prince Wladyslaw as Moscow’s sovereign, had succeeded each other as Moscow supreme rulers, Russia’s militias finally succeeded in recapturing Moscow, and Russian estates, in electing a new Czar. Allegiance to Mikhail meant allegiance to the cause of national unity, for Russian people had become “thoroughly small-spirited” (izmalodushnichalis’), as Mikhail’s mother had written in a letter turning down the first offer to her son to ascend to the throne. (Eventually, she consented.) The czar in this story symbolizes not despotism but national consolidation.

Mikhail Glinka’s opera based on the Susanin legend, “A Life for the Tsar,” was presented to Tsar Nicholas I in the 19th century, as the country’s Slavophile elite united around the slogan, “Autocracy, Orthodoxy, National Roots.” A century later, during the Soviet era, the opera was renamed “Ivan Susanin,” while the tsar was written out and replaced with a patriotic state official.

I’m not sure but I vaguely remember that Ivan Susanin was on Glinka’s shortlist of titles. Nicholas’ changing “death” to “life” was a stroke of genius, reluctant as I am to admit it. When Sergei Gorodetsky (a former Acmeist, like Akhmatova and Mandelstam) edited the libretto in the 1930s, he replaced “Glory for ever, Russian Czar!” with “Glory for ever, Russian people!” — generally speaking, a well-justified replacement.

So far, mostly trifling notes. Now comes the hard part. What does the “Slavophile elite” mean? Slavophilism emerged as an intellectual movement in a very narrow circle of Moscow noblemen in the 1830s. They were not part of the ruling elite, and the famous motto, “Autocracy, Orthodoxy, Narodnost’,” was not their invention. It was Count Uvarov, once a correspondent of Goethe, a prominent classicist and the man who instroduced a system of classical schools for Russia’s nobility — it was the irreligious, gay Uvarov who coined the catchy triad.

Now the true pearl of the article:

The Susanin legend, as well as forming the basis for Glinka’s opera, was also associated with the Romanov national anthem, “God Save the Tsar,” which was sung in the opera’s final scene at its royal premiere at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater. […] The anthem survived until the Bolshevik Revolution and briefly resurfaced, without any words, in the post-Soviet era.

The author manages to conflate three different pieces of music into one. One is the old Russian anthem, God Save the Czar. Another is the ending chorus of Glinka’s (and Russia’s) first opera, Glory for Ever, Russian Czar, as mentioned above. The third is The Patriotic Song, which Glinka wrote for a national anthem competition (either he did not submit it or it was rejected); it was used, wordless, as Russia’s anthem in Yeltsin’s years.

No closing comment required.


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