The Beautiful Corner, An Orthodox Tradition

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My latest book, Red Corner, An Alternate History of Rus, A Novel, gets its name from the Russian practice of having religious icons and/or crosses in one corner or area of a room. The Russian word for it:  Кра́сный у́гол – Krasnyj úgol can be translated in a number of ways in English: ‘Beautiful corner’, ‘red corner’ or ‘icon corner’. I chose Red Corner for the title of my novel as it sounds a more poetic than the more prosaic icon corner; beautiful corner, however, went too much the other way, reminding me of something out of a women’s fashion magazine. The red corner in the novel plays a significant part for many of the characters, particularly Grand Duke Ivan III Vasilyevich and Archibishop Filofei. In one scene, Vasily Guba along with a few conspirators planning the assassination of Muscovite turncoat Tovarkov, turn to the Red Corner in the room:

…They drew up the plan quickly: who was to be where and to do what. When they had finished, Guba told everyone to turn to the Red Corner.

Be it in the Kremlin itself or a common peasant’s izba, the Red Corner was the spiritual centre of any family home, and it was no different in Guba’s, where an icon of the Blessed Virgin with baby Jesus hung illuminated by candles. The men, after making the Sign of the Cross, bowed their heads in reverence, focusing their thoughts to the image and prayer. To their Lord, this would be enough for salvation and Divine acceptance for what they were going to do. They could all feel the presence of Mother and Child, and through them they gained inspiration, drifting deeper into the world of holy insight and spiritual bliss. Finally, the image began to talk to them as individuals, and gave them enough of God to complete the task.

They knew the mission they had chosen for themselves as being for the Good – not only for Novgorod’s, but for themselves as men of God, too.

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A photo taken in the early 20th century of Russian peasants in their ‘izba’ eating below the ‘Krasnyj Ugol’ (red corner)  

This shows how important the red corner was for Russians in the past. In my book it takes on the life of another character, used as a point of reference on more than one occasion.

The red corner was – and still is in some homes – an important tradition in many Orthodox countries like Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia, and I’m sure in other variations of Christianity around the world, too. Catholicism, it seems, doesn’t have that much of a tradition of red corners or the like, though a crucifix hanging on the living room wall or bedroom is standard in many Roman Catholic countries. One exception to the beautiful corner in a Roman Catholic’s home is my grandfather’s bedroom. Next to his bed, very O.T.T in my opinion, is a red corner ‘a la Irish style’. His collection of crucifixes and crosses made from palms and pictures of John Paul II and Padre Pio is an impressive collection, enough to make the most dedicated Catholic seem almost an unbeliever. In his late eighties now, my grandfather thinks this show of morality will get him into Heaven more quickly than anybody else. The icon corner has, in fact, grown in size since the death of my grandmother in 2007. I asked him recently was his icon corner’s exponential growth connected to his wife of 56 years departing from this world some seven years ago, at which point he answered me ‘no’. He was silent then. Whatever the reason, I suppose it gives him comfort like it does for many of the characters in my novel and for countless people around the Christian world.

Below is a photo of part of the icon corner in my grandfather’s bedroom – if you want to go to Heaven, just make yourself one of these. One-hundred percent guarantee it’ll work or your money back!

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Ivan Petrovich Kokoshkin: Russian Psycho Killer!

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Joseph Stalin. Alexander Pichushkin. Ivan the Terrible. Andrei Chikatilo. Lavrenty Beria. Darya Saltykova. These are names in Russian history synonymous with depravity and death. For causing countless acts of inhumanity and suffering on their own people. Some for their own, twisted fantasies; others for a political ideal. Two of these, Stalin and Beria, are responsible through their orders for the deaths of millions. Ivan the Terrible, due to the smaller Russian population in the 16th century, multiple thousands probably. The remaining people’s body count – though all below 100 – have the infamous reputation of killing people with their own hands.

 

 

Fancy a game of Chess? The serial killer Alexander Pichushkin.

 

So which is worse, killing millions but getting somebody else to do it for you, or ending the lives of far less yet having the ultimate responsibility for it? Who’s to know, though I’m sure most people would find it easier to give the order than to take out the order. I know I would.

If you said to your average Russian, or a Russian ashamed of their country’s violent past, they could say Stalin and Beria were Georgians. They would simply pass on the blame: The Georgians would reply to you, however, that the Gori-born Stalin was not a Georgian but an Ossetian, somewhat different. The Ossetians – ashamed of the fact – would reply to you that he was descended from sheep! Joking aside, there’s no excuse for any of it, though I have to say these people seem to fascinate the minds of many of us in popular culture. Why have so many countless books been written about them? Films been shot? Plays staged? I know why: It’s our fascination with them. They bring something to the table that none of us can really understand. It’s little wonder Hannibal Lecter is one of literature and Hollywood’s most iconic figures. But let’s forget fava beans and a nice glass of Chianti… There’s a new man in town, Ivan Kokoshkin!

Ivan Petrovich Kokoshkin is a minor character in my new book, Red Corner, An Alternate History of Rus, A Novel, which you can purchase here in the US and here in the UK. In the story Kokoshkin is one of Grand Prince Ivan Vasilyevich’s henchman. Kokoshkin has only one chapter in the limelight, where he executes General Malenkov for retreating from battle against the Grand Duke’s orders, but it’s my favourite part of the novel. In it we see how much fun he gets out of torturing the unfortuante soldier with a device he calls the Portioncutter. The contraption – all of his own design – is somewhat like an early guillotine with blades that cut off parts of the body. At the beginning of the chapter, the Grand Duke asks Kokoshkin what it does:

“…So, this torture, what is it?” the Grand Duke asked, turning to Kokoshkin.

Kokoshkin smiled hideously. He was a small man with a crooked back, not quite a hunchback but bordering on one nonetheless. His black, beady eyes expressed no humanity, and when he looked at you, you knew it was the Devil in a shapka.

It’s my best yet, Your Majesty,” he responded enthusiastically.

Kokoshkin took the Grand Duke to another chamber next to where Malenkov was hanging. It was lighter there, as candles were flickering all around. In the centre lay the ‘device’. The contraption, a work of art in itself, took up nearly the whole chamber.

What is it?” the Grand Duke asked.

I call it the Portioncutter, Your Majesty.”

What does it do?”

It cuts people up to perfection in a vertical fashion – from the fingers all the way in.”

The Grand Duke studied the machine for a few minutes, moving around it purposefully, touching every part: the thin blades hanging down from the top, the wooden structure and the rope bindings.

Does it work?”

Of course, Your Majesty.”

How do you know – did you try it out on someone already?”

Yes, Your Majesty,” Kokoshkin began, almost squealing now like a wild animal, “on a few little children – last week it was… Oh, yes, does it work… I was surprised myself… It was like, well, ha ha ha, I can’t describe the artistry to you… Can we start, Your Majesty, can we start!?…

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Above Malyuta Skuratov sneaking up to kill yet another innocent victim.

Ivan Kokoshkin is based on another man of Russian history, Malyuta Skuratov, henchman to Ivan IV, otherwise known as Ivan the Terrible. Although one can never know, the great Russian historian Nikolai Karamzin (1766-1826) wrote of him in his 12-volume History of the Russian State that compared to Skuratov, Ivan the Terrible was like Mickey Mouse (no, he didn’t say that really, but I’m sure he would have if Disney had been around then). Skuratov was leader of the Oprichnina, Ivan the Terrible’s secret police. By all accounts he was responsible for the deaths of thousands of people, particularly in Novgorod in 1571, exactly a century after the events in my book in that city. If you’re interested in this character and the events surrounding his life, you should watch the Russian film Tsar here directed by Pavel Lungin. The movie’s set between 1566 and 1569 during the Oprichnina and Livonian War, and it makes for terrific viewing.

Zoe Paleologos, The Woman Who Changed Russia

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Above: The Despot Thomas of Morea, Zoe Paleologos’ father

Zoe (Sophia) Paleologos (though there are countless variations of the surname) was Ivan III’s wife, and she is one of the main characters of my new book, Red Corner, An Alternate History of Rus, A Novel. Her birthday has always been contentious: some say she was born in 1440, others a decade later, and even some as late as 1455. Whatever her age (I put her for argument’s sake in her mid-twenties in 1470 in my novel), she goes down in history as one of the most dynamic and charismatic female leaders ever. Although in no way more powerful and influential as say, Elizabeth I of England or Catherine the Great of Russia, she had a massive impact on Russia in the middle ages and greatly influenced her husband on governmental and diplomatic issues.  Princess Sophia’s marriage to the Grand Duke of Muscovy took place in 1472, one year after the alternate historical events in my book. By all accounts the marriage was a happy one, which produced eleven siblings (poor woman!).

Below an image of Emperor Constantine IX, Princess Zoe’s uncle, the last Byzantine Emperor, killed by the Turks at the Siege of Constantinople in 1453

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Princess Zoe in my story, however, is very different to the person of history. Far from Rome in this cold and inhospitable land, where she had been under the watchful eye of Cardinal Bessarion, she comes to Muscovy against her own will with a few servants and Brother Sergei of Pskov, who is there to instruct her in the Russian language and her new-old religion (she had been an Orthodox Christian during her time in Morea, Byzantium, before converting to Catholicism in Rome).

If I go on any more, I know I’ll spoil it for all those who are going to read the book – but let one thing be known: Princess Zoe’s time is in no way pleasurable. We see her drift in and out of doubt about why she is there and what part she is to play as a partner and confidant to the Grand Duke. We also see into her mind about her thoughts of love and affection in marriage. Her ideals on this subject are pure. The Grand Duke’s, meanwhile, a purely dynastic in consideration, which wholly disappoint her. What will come of the relationship? Will they make it up the aisle or not?

If you’re interested in purchasing a copy of Red Corner, An Alternate History of Rus, A Novel for 99c/77p, just refer to my previous two posts for links to Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, the Apple IBookstore, Barnes & Noble, Kobo plus a few more platforms.

The image below shows Ivan Vasilyevich III looking at a portrait of his future wife, Zoe Paleologos. It was common in the medieval times for kings, princes and other personages of blue-blooded provenance to look at portraits of their future spouses-to-be as an insurance policy of sorts. Zoe, by all accounts, was an overweight and somewhat unattractive woman – I wonder if the Grand Duke really believed  the woman he was looking at in the picture was the same in real life? Talk about being cheated! 

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Red Corner, An Alternate History of Rus, A Novel – Release!

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The Book cover by artist Helen Wakeman

As I wrote about in my last post (below), my new book Red Corner, An Alternate History of Rus, A Novel is now available in stores for the release price of only 99c! At my own discretion I will then raise the price to $4.99c, which is the normal price.

If you want to find out a bit more about it, you can read my last post – or here’s the blurb:

Against the all-conquering Grand Duchy of Muscovy, can the city-state of Novgorod save itself from total annihilation and bring the land of the Rus towards the West? 

Medieval Russia, 1470: With Muscovy gaining hegemony in the Russian lands, Novgorod is fearful. Having miraculously defeated it in battle, Marta Boretskaya, mayor of Novgorod, needs allies from abroad to help her against Grand Prince Ivan III’s wrath and vengeance. She seeks help from Poland-Lithuania. A Lithuanian aristocrat, Prince Olelkovich, offers his hand in marriage to her – with a union between the two countries, Novgorod could hold the tide of the Muscovite barbarians from the east. At the same time, Ivan III is vying for the hand of , Zoe (Sophia) Paleologos, nephew of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine, in order to strengthen his claim that his land is the new Rome and fight against the Ottoman onslaught in Europe. Red Corner, An Alternate History of Rus, A Novel is a story of murder, intrigue, love, loyalty, and greed set in a time when Russia had yet to be born and was only just beginning to find its national identity.

 

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Martha the Mayoress at the Destruction of the Novgorod Veche by Klavdy Vasiliyevich Lebedev, featuring Marfa Boretskaya, one of the main characters of ‘Red Corner, An Alternate History of Rus, A Novel’, my new book.

In the next few weeks I’ll be writing posts with little description snippets of the real characters who are in the book without giving spoilers. These will be Ivan III, the Grand Duke of Muscovy, Zachariah the Jew, Zoe (Sophia) Paleologos; I’ll also be describing two completely fictional characters, too: Oleg Menshikov and a minor character, Ivan Kokoshkin.

So here are the links to my ebooks.

The links:

Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Red-Corner-Alternate-History-Novel-ebook/dp/B00LJ2HGHI/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1404895912&sr=8-1&keywords=red+corner+james

Amazon.co.uk: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Red-Corner-Alternate-History-Novel-ebook/dp/B00LJ2HGHI/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1404896303&sr=8-1&keywords=red+corner+rus

Apple iBookstore: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/id896462285

Kobo: http://store.kobobooks.com/Search/Query?fcmedia=Book&query=9781501419423

Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/red-corner-james-dargan/1119916454?ean=9781501419423&itm=1&usri=9781501419423

Scribd: http://pl.scribd.com/book/232787547/Red-Corner

Page Foundry: http://www.inktera.com/store/title/98c0ef2e-3a83-4a14-8d86-ca8cf76d6ba4

Happy reading!

Novgorod the Great!

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An icon painted in Novgorod in the 1300s of Saint George and the Dragon.

 

I’m just about ready to release my alternate history novel, Red Corner, An Alternate History of Rus, A Novel, which I have been working on sporadically for the last ten years or so. The story’s set in the city-state of Novgorod, Russia, in the early 1470s. Now, when I say Russia, this is not exactly true – Russia only came into existence in 1547, when Ivan Vasilyevich (The Terrible), was crowned Tsar of all the Russias, becoming Tsar Ivan IV, or Grozny (The Terrible). Before this time, the land was in fact made up of many city-states and principalities, the Republic of Novgorod and Muscovy being two of the most powerful.

My interest in Russia, particularly medieval Rus, circa 1000-1500, has its roots in my childhood. The definitive reasons for it are still a mystery to me, though this passion was solidified when I moved to Poland from the USA in 1998. As a neighbour to Ukraine and Russia, its geographical proximity stoked my interest even more. Polish history is intricately connected to that of Russia (A section of Poland was part of Russia for nearly 150 years, ending only in 1918), even though many Poles despise this. After reading countless books on the subject of medieval eastern Europe – especially the works of British historian Norman Davies – I set out in my own mind to recreate those times in a story. I didn’t fancy writing about something that had already happened and I knew alternate history was a genre that had always piqued my interest. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Tower and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union are two books in the genre that I really enjoyed. Now, in no way do I believe my own story will outshine those in literary merit, but if readers think it’s at least half as good as them, I’ll be happy.

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The novel is about Novgorod’s war with Muscovy. In 1471 Muscovy defeated Novogord at the battle of Shelon River, ending the republic’s independence. For centuries before Novogord had been an independent, democratic (if that word can be used) state full of free-thinkers. It was known for its trade and commercial connections with the West, and in particular the Hanseatic League in northern Germany. The Grand Duchy of Muscovy, in contrast, had a barbarian Asiatic mindset. Two-hundred years of Tatar rule had done nothing for it in the way of democracy.

In my version of Russian events, Novgorod defeats Ivan III’s Muscovy and brings about a turn in the history books. Professor Norman Davies once said – and I am quoting him loosely here from his Europe, A History: ‘What if Russia had been led by Novgorod instead of Muscovy, what now would Russia be like? I don’t need to guess what he’s getting at: all Russia’s woes, violent history and suffering are down to Muscovy. Maybe this is not wholly true, though I believe had Novgorod gained hegemony in medieval Rus, the country today would be far less totalitarian in outlook and be more akin to countries like Poland or Hungary, and with no room for a man like Vladimir Putin.

Love, intrigue and war course through the book, so too are the characters: from thieves to battle-hardened warriors, kings, grand dukes, mayoresses, tinkers, philosophers, religious quacks, lotharios, and psychopaths. If you like historical fiction, and fancy learning something about the Russia of more than 600 hundred years ago, maybe you should give Red Corner, An Alternate History, A Novel a go.

I am releasing the book in the next two weeks at an introductory price of 99c/77p till I raise it to its normal price of $4.99 and the UK equivalent.

It will be available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Scrib, and the Apple iBookstore as well as other ebook stores in ebook format, and later as a paperback.

Map below shows Rus at the time Red Corner is set.

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