Tale of a Russian Hero

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Today is the last of my short posts regarding the characters in my newly released book, Red Corner, An Alternate History of Rus, A Novel. So far I have covered Ivan III Vasilyevich, Marfa Boretskaya, Princess Zoe (Sophia) Paleologos, and Ivan Kokoshkin. The last person on my list is Oleg Menshikov, right-hand man and best friend of Dmitry Boretsky, leader of the Novgorodian army and eldest child of Marfa Boretskaya, Novgorod’s mayoress. His name – Oleg Menshikov – is after one of my favourite Russian actors, also called Oleg Menshikov, star of such films as the Russian classic Burnt by the Sun and the all-star European movie The Barber of Siberia. My Oleg Menshikov is a man full of love and honour for his country, as well as loyalty in abundance for those close to him. In the book we can observe how he thinks and acts less selfishly than the greedy Novgorodian leadership and boyars, who only ever think about their own gain. In some ways he seems anachronistic for the times, a man more suitable living in the Romantic eighteenth century, a Russian warrior Byron or Keats, focused on the goodness in man in a time when human life was of little importance.

In one scene from the novel, just before the battle of Andrushevo, Menshikov turns to an old soldier:

Menshikov dismounted and walked over to one of his soldiers. The man, in his fifties and small, looked the antithesis of Menshikov’s rugged masculinity. He had in his hands a pitch-fork. His face, dirty but intense and concentrated, looked like it had seen blood and carnage before.

What’s your name soldier?” Menshikov asked him, putting his hand on the man’s shoulder.

Pavel Grigoryovich Kuznetsov, General.”

And the outcome, Pavel Grigoryovich, will we win a great victory?”

The man looked at his general with respect, almost bordering on worship – but it wasn’t quite that, only almost – that was reserved for God, who was their God. Although Menshikov – not a god but its nearest equivalent on earth for them – deserved the reverence. At Shelon, thousands had lost their lives – wasted lives, in Menshikov’s opinion. He was a wonder with a sword, but hated using it. He had gained his reputation through words and the respect other people had for him. All his soldiers sensed this and knew it.

We will beat them, General… You’re our commander so I can only see us winning.”

It is in scenes like this that show Menshikov’s humanity and emotional intelligence. His only wish is for his country to survive the Muscovy onslaught and that he has a long and happy life with his wife and children – will this happen? You’ll have to read the book to find out. But let me say this, of all the characters in the novel, Menshikov is by far my favourite.

The book’s now available in all Amazon stores, as well as in Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and a few more for only 99c/77p! If alternate history with a medieval bent is your thing, and Russian history interests you, then I feel this is a perfect read for you.

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.

Ivan III, Gatherer of the Russian Lands

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One of the main protagonists of my new historical fiction book, Red Corner, An Alternate History of Rus, A Novel, is Ivan III Vasilyevich (RussianИван III Васильевич) (1440, Moscow – 1505, Moscow), also known as Ivan the Great, Grand Prince of Muscovy and Grand Prince of all Rus (Великий князь всея Руси). In history he is known as “gatherer of the Russian lands”, as he extended Muscovy’s influence and power base by more than three times what it had been during his lifetime. Among other things he put pay to the Golden Hordes 250-odd years of dominance in Rus.

Ivan Vasiilyevich’s war with the Republic of Novgorod – starting in 1470 – is the main focus of my novel. The city-state was uncomfortable with Muscovy’s growing power. Novgorod – in retaliation – had schemed with Lithuania, hoping to find protection from the Polish king,  Casimir IV, King of Poland and Grand Prince of Lithuania. Ivan fought against Novgorod in 1471, and after twice defeating the armies of the republic—at the Battle of Shelon River and on the North Dvina, both in the summer of the same year—the Novgorodians sued for peace. The outcome was a loss of Novgorod’s political autonomy and eventual annexation by Muscovy.

The dream of a democratic Russia was over. And the rest is history, so they say.

In my novel, however, history stops there – Ivan Vasilyevich is actually defeated by Dmitry Boretsky of Novgorod, the Mayoress Marta Boretskaya’s oldest son, at the Battle of Shelon River, which turns the tide in the land of the Rus. The novel follows on from these events, and in particular showing the mindset of Ivan Vasilyevich within this hypothetical crisis and all that it entailed.

As already mentioned, time and events have given Ivan III a place in the historical pantheon of great Russian leaders, yet in Red Corner, this man’s path goes in a very different direction.

 

Ivan III on the “Millennium of Russia” monument in Veliky Novgorod

The historical figure of Ivan Vasilyevich and everything he did after 1471 is superseded by alternate events which begin to play on his mind, embroiling him and his psyche into areas he finds hard to deal with. With the weight of defeat on his shoulders, he falls ever deeper into madness and depression. What comes of it? If you wish to find out the conclusion, you’ll need to read the book. Details of the links are in my previous post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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