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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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.

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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