Excerpts from GURPS Russia
City Life in Old Russia
In the 16th century, Paris was the greatest city of western Europe, boasting a population in excess of 100,000 people. In the same century, Moscow was four times that size. Even in the 11th century Kiev boasted an estimated population as high as 80,000. Cut off from the intensive routes of Western trade and politics, the great cities and towns of Russia remained almost unknown to West Europeans, who, upon visiting the tsar's country, were often shocked by their size.
The oldest part of any Russian city was the kremlin, the heavily fortified core. While modern usage limits the word to the Moscow Kremlin, the term was a general one, and nearly every Russian city had one. The typical kremlin contained the palace or house of the city's rulers and local nobles, and often a church or cathedral. In the earliest days of the town, the kremlin was the only part of the city to have fortifications. Houses were clustered close to it, and townsmen entered it in times of crisis or invasion.
As the population of a Russian city grew, so did the city itself, expanding outward in rings, much like trees. Even when the local landscape didn't permit the traditional concentric layout (such as in Yaroslavl and Pskov, both of which were wedged between rivers), important royal and official buildings were arranged in a semicircle. As cities grew, their walls would be surrounded by buildings, and so a new wall would be built to surround those, and so on. In contrast, most cities of medieval Europe stressed limiting the size of the city wall, and extended faubourgs (walled extensions around gates) only when absolutely necessary.
The main streets radiated from the kremlin to the outside walls, with lesser streets crossing them spiderweb-fashion. Neighborhoods formed between and along streets, divided by function. Most businesses clustered by type, and there was usually a 'quarter' set aside for non-Orthodox foreigners. The largest and best-known of these "German Quarters" was in Moscow (see p. 20).
Northern Russian cities differed in one very important respect from their West European counterparts. Whereas the streets of London and Paris were characterized by two-story buildings huddled tightly together and facing narrow streets, buildings in Russian cities had small yards, separated from each other and the streets by wooden fences. And while most city homes were similar (see Fires, p. 11), they didn't always face the street; a house might occupy any position within its fence. Walking through the streets of Old Novgorod or Moscow was a considerably less claustrophobic experience than a stroll along the Ruelle des Chats in Troyes.
Of course, to the West European visitor of the time, the most noticeable difference might have been the people. Russian city-dwellers, by the standards of the West, were always a few centuries too primitive. Russian customs and manners were seen as crude and uncivilized; the Russian burgher spat where he pleased, wore a huge, crude beard and the very "non-European" caftan, and seemed to possess an unbelievable capacity for poor temper and extreme humor. Dozens of diaries and travel logs exist from visitors to Old Russia, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries, and most exude a stunned sense of fear beneath attempts at clear report.
Events and Scenes
The Russian city was a place of vigorous existence; even in the depth of winter, the icy streets were filled with crowds and huge carts and sleds carrying goods to and from the open markets. Burghers owned small, personal sleds (with capacities similar to modern shopping carts) that they dragged behind them by ropes. At any moment, a group of unclothed bathers might emerge from a steaming bathhouse to leap into the snow, or a trained dancing bear might go wild and run through the quickly emptying streets. When presenting Russia's cities in play, the GM should keep the players informed of such events; the streets shouldn't be empty or quiet until nightfall. Russian cities, like those of any nation, were the showcase for what the country had to offer, both good and bad.
It's difficult to overstress the importance of religion in Russian life, and any visit to a city could include an encounter with one of the many religious rituals, festivals or observances common in medieval Russia. Russians, as a rule, took their religion more seriously than the people of western Europe. To the Russian Orthodox, Hell was the certain destination of any who didn't live pure, almost ascetic lives. Visitors to Moscow were stunned by the grim nature of the Russian Lent, in which the only foods available were boiled peas and other dull fare, without even fish permitted. For details, see Chapter 4.
Magicians and Diviners
Even in a purely historical campaign, the sight of a diviner or other magician speaking to a crowd in the streets would not be uncommon, particularly in Kievan or Mongol-era Russia, when the Russian dvoeverie ("dual faith" – see p. 82) still took the form of an open struggle between Christian priests and pagan wizards. Diviners used both animals and spiritual "possession" acts to sway the peasants' opinions and take money from them, and in a fantasy campaign these powers could be real!
Naturally, any large public display by a wizard would be the source of conflict. Pagan practices were illegal, and those laws were enforced within the city walls. At the very least, priests would arrive to denounce the pagan, and a duel for the burghers' attentions would result, with invective flying. The winner of these conflicts was almost invariably the priest, who would soon have the backing of city soldiers. The pagan would most likely be tortured or put to death, depending on the political climate.
Year round, Russian cities featured huge open markets, with merchants hawking wares from all corners of Russia, and points west and south. A lucky buyer might find German crossbows or wine from Crete among the baskets of vegetables, jugs of mead, casks of honey and other local goods.
The markets were traditionally laid out in long rows of stalls and tables, sometimes up to 10 deep in a single section of the city. All dealers of a similar product stood next to each other; surviving plans from the 15th and 16th centuries show sections for everything from breads, to old clothes, to weaponry. This had the effect of producing competitive shouts between merchants, and Russians could detect a fair deal by listening long enough.
In winter, the markets were dominated by food and alcohol, and the influx from foreign lands dwindled to nothing; December was a poor time to buy a steel helmet, but a fine time to stock up on clay pots of vodka!
Tortures and Executions
Russians were infamous for their stoic attitudes toward torture, and there was never a week in a Russian city when at least one or two men weren't publicly knouted (flogged) or burned for crimes against the local prince or the tsar. Commonly, large groups of men were tortured or killed together.
Methods varied (see Harsh Punishment, p. 71), depending on the tastes of local authorities and the crime in question, but painless deaths were seen as merciful to the point of unfairness. The public delighted in the screams of the tormented, and many Russian nobles were fond of displaying criminals for several days after their deaths, to provide examples to commoners and their children.
Regular fires were a fact of life in Russian cities; it would have been unthinkable for a Russian burgher to live out his life without experiencing two or more major fires, and without losing his home at least once. All Russian houses, both in cities and in smaller towns, were built on simple plans to permit reconstruction within a day. In a sense, they were "disposable," at least compared to those of the rest of Europe at the time.
Cities experienced major conflagrations (that reduced nearly all of the town to smoking ruins), every 10 to 20 years. Smaller fires occurred five or six times a week, burning down neighborhoods or individual houses.
Naturally, there were men to capitalize on this. Outside of the gates of Moscow (and probably other cities), was a small quarter of wood merchants and carpenters who made comfortable livings selling the pre-cut logs needed to quickly rebuild lost houses.
Minstrels, jugglers, puppeteers and other entertainers were very common sights; it was almost impossible for a city to be without at least one troupe on a given day, and even small towns and villages got their share of visitations.
A Russian puppeteer was a self-contained stage. He wore a long, layered caftan, baggy and larger than a woman's dress. When the show was to begin, he raised the "dress" over his head, leaving only his feet visible – the show was presented over the performer's head. Russian clowns and minstrels were known as skomorokhs, and evolved slowly from pagan mystics to entertainers; during the early growth of Christianity in rural Kievan Russia, the skomorokhs were both (see Chapter 4). By the 1400s, skomorokhs had developed the popular trained bear act.
Most entertainers worked on their own, but some banded together as troupes. A typical troupe might consist of a drummer, a man to play the gusli (a lap-harp), and either a juggler, a puppeteer or a bear-tamer. Rare troupes included all of the above, with multiple musicians. Genetic dwarves were commonly found in such troupes, usually as musicians or jugglers.
The Muscovite Era (1505-1682)
When medieval Russia is mentioned, it is the Muscovite Era which usually comes to mind. With the seeds planted in Kiev, and allowed to grow under the rulership of the Tatars, a real nation, truly Russian in thought and practice, arrived after the reign of Ivan the Great. This period saw the growth of the Russian Church, attempts (and failures) at cultural ties to the West, and a cast of notable heroes and villains.
Vasili III, Ivan the Great's son, continued gathering the last of the resistant towns of the west (and fighting repeated skirmishes with Poland) and developing diplomatic ties with the leaders of distant lands, including the sultan of Turkey, Suleiman the Magnificent, and Babar (a descendant of Tamerlane), founder of the Mogul Empire in India.
Under his rule, many foreigners came to permanently dwell in Russia and the "German Quarter" appeared in Moscow (the Russian word for "German" meant simply "one who cannot talk," and was used to refer to all Westerners who weren't "Latins," such as English "Germans"). But Vasili's role in history was overshadowed by the reign of his son, the madman Ivan IV.
Vasili III died in 1533, leaving his 3-year-old son, Ivan IV, as heir. Russia was in the hands of Ivan's mother, Helen, during his minority, and she ran it with the assistance of several men, including a young lover, Prince Telepnev-Obolensky. Helen died when Ivan was only 12, leaving Russia in the hands of the boyars.
Ivan's childhood was not a happy one. Before Ivan III, the only obligations of the landowners were their taxes; each boyar was essentially the king of his own small domain. With the new order of Russia, the nobles were reduced to servants of the state, required to supply soldiers and other assistance to the tsar.
The boyars resented young Ivan for the reforms of his father and grandfather, and after bowing and scraping to him in public, would be cruel to him in private, mocking his dead father and giving him barely enough to eat. They kept him separated from his friends and favorite servants, and made much sport of frightening him.
Responding to the cruel treatment of the boyars, Ivan began to delight in cruelty. He loved to throw small animals from the Kremlin towers, and to ride through the streets of Moscow lashing the faces of his subjects. If he saw a person whom he thought was ugly, the person would be ordered decapitated.
After a year, Ivan struck out at the boyars when he had Andrew Shuisky, the most powerful boyar in Moscow, thrown to the Kremlin's dogs and killed. From that day, Ivan was acknowledged as the true ruler of Russia. At age 17, Ivan officially became tsar, and carefully chose, from a large list of suitable candidates, the beautiful Anastasia Romanov, a respected boyar's daughter, as his wife.
The Early Reign of Ivan the Terrible
In general, the first 10 years of Ivan's rule were positive. Young Ivan seemed dedicated to the good of Russia, and was no more psychotic than many of his predecessors. Which is not to say there were no frightening episodes, such as when Ivan personally tortured Pskovian dignitaries by pouring boiling wine over them and searing their flesh with heated pans, all for the "crime" of complaining about their city's governor.
But while the nobles despised Ivan's works, the public loved them, as the horrors that Ivan concocted were largely aimed at the wealthy and self-righteous boyars. For example, he formed a small "chosen council" of advisors, comprised of a few boyars, the Church metropolitan and Alexis Adashev, a low-level court official. This last angered the boyars, since Adashev was not of noble birth and Ivan had effectively sidestepped the duma, the collective nobility, by forming his council.
But the most important act Ivan performed in this arena was the establishment and strengthening of the "service gentry." First, Ivan made it impossible to be a landowner without service to the state, and then he began granting frontier lands and certain privileges to trusted servants of Russia in exchange for defined responsibilities, bypassing the concept of noble birth altogether.
In 1549, Ivan called to order the first zemsky sobor ("council of the land"), an assembly of landsmen comparable to the English Parliament. Its power was minimal (its primary function being the approval of Ivan's proposed reforms), but Ivan also used the sobor as a forum for grievances, and listened with genuine concern.
Ivan also achieved much on the military front, expanding Russia's borders by crushing the khanates of Khazan and Astrakhan, leaving only the Crimean Tatars in Russia's part of Asia. These victories won him considerable favor in Russia, and it was probably here that he first earned the nickname Ivan Grozny, or "the Terrible," meant in the sense of "awe-inspiring."
Ivan also began a series of improvements to the Russian military, forming the streltsy, the Muscovite "Musketeers," and focusing on engineering and artillery development. To do this, Ivan had dozens of engineers and mathematicians brought to Russia, along with artists, architects and other thinking persons, to stimulate the intellectual growth of his state.
Things Go Badly
At age 23, Ivan fell ill during the Livonian War. Believing himself to be dying, he summoned the boyars and his closest advisors, and demanded that they swear loyalty to his young son, Dmitri. Even his closest associates refused, fearing another child on the throne, and preferring Ivan's cousin, Vladimir of Staritsa, as a potential heir. By the time Ivan recovered, his long-standing dislike of the boyars had grown into genuine hatred.
Seven years later, his wife died. Anastasia had been an intelligent and gentle force in Ivan's life, and the loss crushed him. The sudden nature of her passing made the paranoid Ivan suspect treachery amongst his council, and two, Sylvester (a priest) and Adashev, were accused and subjected to a "trial" in which they were not even allowed to appear. Sylvester was exiled to a distant monastery and Adashev was thrown into prison, dying shortly thereafter. Ivan proceeded to have their relatives and friends murdered without the dubious formality of a trial, and two Russian princes were slain for objecting to the practice.
Letters and Conditions
In 1564, Ivan loaded a train of sledges with treasure and the few remaining retainers he trusted, and left Moscow without saying a word. Ivan spent a month in the small town of Alexandrov, 60 miles northeast of Moscow, not communicating with the rest of Russia; how his time there was spent is still unknown. Russians began to panic; even an insane ruler seemed better than wars of succession, and the boyars waited nervously for news of Ivan's actions.
A month after he left, two letters arrived addressed to the metropolitan of Moscow. In the first, Ivan denounced and insulted the boyars and the clergy. In the second (to be read aloud to the masses), Ivan assured the people of Russia that they were not at fault for any trouble, and reassured them of his affection and concern for them.
The Russian people (boyars included) begged Ivan to return, and in early 1565 he did, after they had agreed to two conditions: he wanted a division in the state, the oprichnina, that he could manage as he saw fit, and he wanted complete endorsement and approval of any punishment he might mete out to "enemies of the state."
The Russian Inquisition
The oprichnina was to be a Russia within Russia, a "separate estate" made up of those whom Ivan Grozny favored, and no others – the oprichniks. Predictably, they were very rarely boyars; Ivan chose them from among Cossacks, craftsmen, Lithuanians, Germans and his own pomestia (service gentry), in a sense pitting the classes against one another. All English merchants were granted the status of oprichnik, while only certain trusted Russian merchants were so honored.
The oprichnina consisted of some 20 towns in Russia, along with the land surrounding them, and other fragments such as select churches. Certain streets and sections of Moscow were oprichnina while others were not; a new palace was built in "oprichnina Moscow." The remainder of Russia (estimated at less than half the total land) was left in the control of the boyar duma and the old system.
Within the oprichnina, Ivan formed a kind of secret police, the "black riders." Dressed in black, riding black horses adorned with brooms and the heads of dogs (to symbolize sweeping away traitors and snapping at the heels of the opposition), the riders destroyed those whom Ivan considered his enemies. There were approximately 1,000 black riders initially, but this grew to 6,000 at the height of the terror.
The horsemen rode through Russia, "purifying" any town, churchyard or estate that the tsar declared an enemy. Even Novgorod was devastated out of Ivan's fear that the city might harbor traitors. The black riders roasted hundreds of Novgorodians in the city square, and amused themselves by drowning others beneath the ice of the river. Ivan's paranoia killed countless people, possibly millions; "God knows their names," the tsar remarked, uninterested in an accurate account.
An equally frightening aspect of the eight-year nightmare was the quiet resignation with which most boyars submitted to Ivan's actions. Concerned only with their own landholdings, they died individually and without a fight.
The End of the Oprichnina
It is debatable what Ivan intended by his reign of terror, but one result was the (temporary) extermination of the hereditary aristocracy. In addition, by the time the oprichnina was abolished in 1573, the black riders had depopulated many areas to the point that the land could not be worked, and poverty and plague were rampant. Moscow was in a horrible state as the Crimean Tatars had taken advantage of the situation and attacked in 1571, taking over 100,000 prisoners (killing twice that number) and, with the exception of the fortified Kremlin, burning Moscow. To Russians, the end of the oprichnina must have seemed like waking from a nightmare only to find out that it was not only real, but far from over.
In the final years of his reign, some advances were made (such as the establishment of limited trade contacts with the West, and the conquest of the Khanate of Siber, or "Siberia"), but Ivan's insanity continued. In the last days of his life, he no longer cared about any aspect of his rule and became obsessed with his personal health. He tossed Christianity aside, and turned to the counsel of witches and magicians. Since Anastasia, Ivan had had six more wives, none of whom he loved, and when he died in 1584, he left no clear heir, having killed his one promising son in a fit of rage. His two remaining sons, Feodor, a mentally deficient weakling, and Dmitri, an infant by his seventh wife, were all Russia had left of Ivan's bloodline.
Smutno Vremya: the Time of Troubles (1598-1612)
At the time of Ivan Grozny's death, Russia was about to explode into the most turbulent period of its history. The heated conflict between the remnants of the princely boyars and the new service gentry was reaching a boiling point, at a time when a service gentryman was moving toward the throne. Poland, seeing the weaknesses within Russia, awaited an opportunity to strike. And nature itself would soon turn against Russia in the form of a famine that would bring death to millions. Russia's political and cultural immaturity would multiply these events into the Smutno Vremya, or Time of Troubles, a terrible trial lasting 15 years.
Upon Ivan's death his eldest son, the feeble-minded Feodor, became tsar. Unfit to rule, Tsar Feodor submitted completely to his advisors, chiefly his brother-in-law, Boris Godunov, a service gentryman of Tatar stock. Godunov, an illiterate but brilliant leader, used his position to bring about an age of comparative peace between Russia and foreign empires. He continued Ivan's anti-boyar policies, but without the meaningless bloodshed and confusion.
Some blood that might have been spilled in Godunov's rise was that of young Dmitri, Ivan's other surviving son, who was found with his throat slit. The townspeople rioted against his guardians, accused by his mother of stabbing Dmitri. Godunov sponsored an investigation, led by Prince Vasili Shuisky and Metropolitan Gelasy, which determined that the boy had been playing with a knife, and had stabbed himself during a fit of epilepsy (see Dmitri's Death, p. 63).
Many Russians, especially the Romanovs, the boyar family of Ivan IV's first wife, attacked Godunov, spreading rumors that he had had the young prince assassinated to further his own ends. When Tsar Feodor died in 1598, there was no legitimate heir to his throne. His wife, Tsarina Irina, did not wish to rule, becoming a nun, and Boris Godunov was named tsar, thus ending a bloodline that originated with Rurik at the very beginnings of the state.
From the beginning, Boris Godunov's reign was another time of terror for the Russian people. Ironically, unlike the terror propagated by Ivan Grozny, this tsar was not at fault. Godunov's rule was as skilful as ever. He maintained good foreign relations, and formed sound trade agreements with England and others. He attempted to bring enlightenment to Russia by founding a university at Moscow, but the Church, fearing the contamination of other cultures, stopped the plan.
In 1601, the period of relative calm that began with the death of Ivan the Terrible ended. Beginning in 1591, western Europe was struck by a decade-long famine dubbed "the great dearth." As conditions began to improve in the West, Russia was struck. In 1602 and again in 1603, the crops failed and millions died. Godunov tried desperately to help; the government tried to feed the poor free of charge and to keep supply lines open to distant towns, but there was simply not enough food, and 100,000 people died in Moscow alone. Many who survived turned to scavenging, eating grass, bark and even other people. Huge bands left their villages and wandered as marauding packs of killers and thieves, and the fearful fled for the frontier, leaving too few people to man the fields even when the weather finally turned favorable.
Many believed that God was punishing Russia for its sins, and many eyes turned to Boris Godunov. The boyars, eager to have the "ignoble" Godunov removed from power, portrayed him as a criminal, usurper and murderer. More importantly, a rumor spread that Dmitri, the young son of Ivan IV, had not been killed after all, and that Godunov had killed an impostor while the real prince had escaped, soon to return. Russians suddenly had faith in a reprieve, the "messiah" Dmitri, rising Christ-like to return to his throne.
Answering the cry of the Russian people, their "savior" returned. Known to history only as False Dmitri, a young man claiming to be the son of Ivan Grozny appeared in Russia, ready to take the throne that was "rightfully" his. Many believe that he was a man named Grigory Otrepiev, a former member of the service gentry who had become a monk. It seems likely that False Dmitri truly believed himself to be the heir. It is a possibility that he was informed of his "heritage" and built up to power by Muscovite boyars who needed a "true heir" if they were to have any real hope of toppling Godunov.
After a short time in Moscow in 1601, where he was pursued by the law for his claims, False Dmitri fled to Poland to plan his return. In Poland, the pretender became Catholic and promised the Jesuits to Catholicize Russia upon seizing power, in exchange for their aid in his one-man invasion. In 1604, False Dmitri headed eastward to Kiev, joined along the way by bands of Don and Zaporozhian Cossacks, eager to topple Godunov's position. Pushed back once by the defending armies of the tsar, he eventually arrived at Moscow with a force of 1,500 Cossacks, adventurers, Polish mercenaries and others eager to march into the city.
There was little hope of the gambit succeeding, even though the belief in "Dmitri's" legitimacy had taken root in the countryside; the tsar's army was simply too large. However, in April 1605, Tsar Boris suddenly sickened and died. His military commander joined the ranks of False Dmitri's supporters, Godunov's wife and his son, the short-lived Tsar Feodor II, were deposed and murdered, and False Dmitri entered Moscow amid cheers.
The new regime entered into business. Prince Vasili Shuisky, the investigator who had declared the real Dmitri's death a suicide, reversed his claim and backed the new ruler. The real Dmitri's mother was brought into Moscow for a reunion in which she publicly declared False Dmitri to be her son, and Ignatius, a priest who had supported the pretender from the outset, replaced Job as patriarch of the Russian Church.
False Dmitri's Reign
Tsar "Dmitri" had immediate problems. Shuisky and others began spreading rumors that he was an impostor, after supporting him as the real lost prince. "Dmitri" shocked Muscovites with his foreign mannerisms, his refusal to attend Orthodox Church services and his habit of wandering the streets dressed as a Pole. The Poles who accompanied him were also a cause of stress; Russians and Poles did not get along, and the city was filled with bitter tension. When Tsar "Dmitri" announced that he was to marry a Polish aristocrat, Marina Mniszech, many were furious, even more so after the wedding brought more Poles into Moscow.
Vasili Shuisky proceeded to play his hand well. Less than three weeks after the wedding, he assembled a force of soldiers near Moscow, announcing that it was to "save the tsar from the Poles." After getting closer, he boldly announced that the False Dmitri was, in fact, a false Dmitri. The force overwhelmed the palace guard at the Kremlin.
False Dmitri would have escaped if not for his "mother." While the soldiers attacked from the outside, she convinced the streltsy that her "son" was an impostor. The streltsy, who had intended to help the tsar escape, grabbed him and handed him over to the attackers. After death, his body was displayed publicly in Red Square, and then cremated. The ashes were loaded into a cannon, and fired in the direction of Poland. Later that year, the original Dmitri was canonized, providing a solution to the Dmitri problem; Dmitri had to be recognized as dead in order to become a saint – anyone who later claimed to be Dmitri would be a heretic in the eyes of the Church.
Within 14 months, Russia knew four tsars: Boris Godunov, Feodor Godunov, False Dmitri and finally Vasili Shuisky.
Shuisky's reign was perhaps the most complicated period of early Russian history. Rebellion and civil war were its hallmarks; literally dozens of rebel leaders gathered armies of peasants and nobles alike, attempting to take Moscow, to no avail. The rebel armies suffered inevitable quarrels and schisms, and the tsar remained the master of a sea of bickering factions. Many rebels fought not only against Tsar Vasili, who was viewed (possibly validly) as a backstabbing usurper, but against the entire social structure of ownership and nobility. Throughout the period, minor uprisings of slaves and peasants against their lords were also commonplace.
Several new pretenders also appeared. The southern cities brought forth a False Peter claiming to be the (entirely imaginary) son of Feodor I. A second False Dmitri appeared, claiming to be both the original Dmitri and the Dmitri who had defeated the Godunovs despite his lack of resemblance to either. False Dmitri II (known to historians as the Felon of Tushino) set up a government mimicking the one in Moscow, to which much of Russia swore its allegiance. For a while, Tsar Vasili and this "Tsar Dmitri" ran Russia together, each taking taxes, settling criminal matters, etc.
Shuisky, growing desperate, formed an alliance with Sweden, which sent its army into Russia and shattered the Felon's troops, ending his 13-month siege of the St. Sergius monastery. The years that immediately followed saw Tsar Vasili deposed, the death of the escaped Felon (who later was killed in a quarrel over personal financial accounts), and several foreign claims to the throne, including one from Poland and two from Sweden. Poland occupied and controlled Moscow, and Russia, already in chaos, was disintegrating.
The bickering of the noble class had torn Russia into fragments, and it was left to the common people and their love of Mother Russia to gather the pieces together.
The leaders of the greatly respected Holy Trinity-St. Sergius monastery issued desperate pleas for action to the furthest corners of Russia. The pleas stressed that Russia, the inheritor of the glory of Byzantium and last bastion of "true" Christianity, must not be allowed to fall into the hands of heretics from the West. Kuzma Ninin, a poor butcher of Nizhny-Novgorod (present-day Gorky), heeded the call and started a people's crusade to return order to Russia.
Led by a princely warrior, Dmitri Pozharsky, the army marched across Russia, gathering force as it went. Each town it passed through added to its ranks, and all levels of the shattered social structure were represented, creating a "national assembly" in the form of a mobile military force. In September of 1612, Ninin, Pozharsky and their army arrived at the gates of Moscow, taking the city after long and bitter fighting.
Their first action upon taking back the Moscow Kremlin was to convene a zemsky sobor ("council of the land") to elect a new tsar. From over half a dozen candidates, the assembly chose Michael Romanov, a cousin of Ivan Grozny, beginning a Russian dynasty that would last until the formation of the Soviet Union. Russians thanked God for the salvation of their country.
The First Romanovs (1612-1682)
The next three tsars, Michael, Alexis and Feodor Romanov, were unremarkable and weak rulers. However, they provided a period of stability during which Russia was allowed to heal once more into a whole country.
Strict social stratification returned in greater force than ever, and short-term attempts to form the zemsky sobor into an almost parliamentary democratic body failed utterly. Both the sobor and the boyar duma became effectively defunct, and years after the bloodshed by the savage oprichnina, Ivan the Terrible's dream of absolute autocracy had finally come to pass.
Aside from a Cossack rebellion in 1670 (see Stenka Razin, p. 67), and a series of lesser revolts in Ukraine, which was, after many years, becoming part of Russia again, the early Romanov years served only as a prologue to the last great era of Old Russia: the time of Peter the Great.
While many of the most common figures in Russian folklore are best described as monsters, some of the most monstrous are best described as characters.
Baba Yaga the Bony-Legged
Baba Yaga was probably the most familiar and powerful image of Russian folklore. She was associated directly with both the forest and the Otherworld, and seemed to have direct control over the powers of life, death and animals.
Physically, Baba Yaga was a huge old woman, too heavy even to walk. She filled her small hut almost entirely, and was often found lying on the stove with her gigantic, disfigured nose jammed into the ceiling or stirring the coals of her fire. She sometimes worked a spinning wheel, wove, or herded her flock of geese simply by staring at them. Her teeth and fingernails were made of iron, and she sharpened both in anticipation of her dinner. The sight of Baba Yaga invariably caused fear and revulsion (Fright Check at -6).
Her powers were many; she knew much of the Otherworld, and, if properly convinced, would help heroes find it, and things within it. She was prophetic but extremely cryptic, ensuring that only the clever benefited from her advice. She made poisons and potions, and had access to the healing waters of life and the deadly waters of death. She spoke to and controlled beasts of the forest, and turned her hapless victims to birds, frogs or even stone. She also had the power to create skull-lanterns. If a Russian hid in her house, she could tell by the smell; "I smell a Russian bone!" was her cry. She moved about by flying on a large stone pestle, steering with the mortar and using her broom to sweep away any sign that she might have left in her wake.
Baba Yaga was a cunning shapeshifter who could turn herself into a serpent, a frog, a pig or even a dismembered goat hung on hooks on her hut's walls; when the victim entered her house, the parts of the goat flew off the racks and reformed into the witch.
If forced into combat, Baba Yaga fought with her broom, her mortar and pestle, a fireplace poker, a crooked scythe or her sharp teeth and talons. In any case, she fought from atop her pestle when in her normal form. Baba Yaga was immortal (she was, in fact, a pagan goddess, forced into her monster role by the arrival of Christianity); if she was killed, she was active in the forest again in a few weeks.Baba Yaga's Hut
The Hungry Witch lived in a small, windowless and doorless izba, made of logs. It stood on two giant chicken legs, and spun rapidly in a yard that contained her geese and horses, and which was surrounded by 11 skull-lanterns on poles with a 12th pole standing empty.
In addition to the fact that the hut may have been alive, Baba Yaga could command it to seal a person inside. Presumably, it could walk out of the yard, but it never did so in Russian tales.
Attempting to force a way into Baba Yaga's hut was a dangerous prospect; it spun at speeds faster than any Russian could possibly run, and (with no visible openings) would sling anyone who managed to grab it into the forest at dangerous speed. To get the hut to stop spinning, the proper spell (a Folk Magic incantation) had to be used; usually something like, "Hut, hut! Still you should be, with your back to the forest and your door to me!" In some stories, the hut wasn't spinning at all, and its legs (if they were even visible) were bent to lower the hut invitingly to the ground.
Baba Yaga's Relatives
In a few stories, Baba Yaga was described as the mother or wife of the largest Russian zmei. After heroes slew the beast, Baba Yaga often appeared to wreak her revenge.
In many stories, she had two or three beautiful daughters, who were cannibalistic, but much more likely to be kind to passers-by than their mother. If Baba Yaga was out when the heroes arrived, the daughters would invite them in and feed them, complaining that they rarely got anyone near enough to talk to before their mother ate him. When Baba Yaga returned unexpectedly (which was traditional), they did their best to excuse the strong Russian smell in the hut.
In a few stories, she had 31 daughters, and in one was the husband of Koschei the Undying.
Baba Yaga's Role
Apart from her occasional role as wife to monsters, Baba Yaga served three primary functions in folklore, and therefore in fantastic GURPS Russia campaigns: cannibalistic kidnapper, gateway to the Otherworld and simple attacker.
Cannibal: In this role, Baba Yaga resembles the witch of Hansel and Gretel. She lived in the forest, and flew through the woods hunting children to eat. She usually found them when they were lost or gathering mushrooms. She carried them to her hut and attempted to toss them in the oven to cook. In many stories, the child managed to trick Baba Yaga into the oven, and in one even tricked her into eating her own daughters first! A party of adventurers could meet this Baba Yaga when the cry arises in a village that a child has disappeared.
Some scholars believe that the children-eating aspect of Baba Yaga is related to a positive aspect of earlier versions of the legend. Baba Yaga was representative of the wise women common in Old Russia. An early healing method of these women was to place a sick child on or inside the stove, in the belief that the heat would restore health to them.
Gateway: Baba Yaga was the keeper of uncountable bits of occult lore, and any quest to find the Thrice-Tenth Kingdom could lead adventurers to seek her out. If she was treated with respect, and any tests she put to the characters were passed, then they earned advice or even magical assistance. Her horses were often magical, winged or eight-legged, and could be bargained for with some risk (see Generosity, p. 89). In some stories, she was just plain kind, in others, she was a monster that any false move could send into a hungry rage.
Attacker: In many tales, Baba Yaga was a horrifying, supremely powerful being who swept out of the forest to level a village or slay a wandering hero. It is this role that the GM should approach most cautiously. It's the easiest to run, of course, but there aren't many parties that could stand up to Baba Yaga.
Koschei the Undying
Koschei was a demonic figure, a skeletal or semi-skeletal man with a coarse, bristly beard and a foul expression. He was the Russian equivalent of the generic Death personification of many cultures, although he didn't reap souls, or possess any "instant kill" powers.
Koschei lived in the Otherworld, where he had a small herd of goats and a comfortable house. His primary goal was to find a wife; he was frightening and inhuman but fell in love easily, and appeared as an abductor of would-be brides in Russian folklore.
He was a powerful, immortal sorcerer (who, like most immortal sorcerers, was killed in every story in which he appeared). If wizards are a real force in the campaign, Koschei has dozens of spells at high levels; his precise magical abilities were never clearly defined in the tales, but they were considerable. In addition to his skills as a wizard, Koschei granted extra lives in exchange for help!
Koschei's immortality came from the fact that his soul was separate from his body. It resided in an egg (or on the point of a pin) which was hidden in a remote corner of the Otherworld. Anyone possessing the egg had Koschei in his power. He began to weaken (taking 1 fatigue every 10 seconds), turned sick and immediately lost the use of his magic. If the egg was tossed about, Koschei likewise was flung into walls, onto the floor and so on against his will. Crushing the egg (sometimes specifically against Koschei's forehead) killed him. Alternately, Koschei could be killed by having his skull smashed in by the hooves of a magic horse (usually one obtained from Baba Yaga).
The egg, often hidden within a series of animals inside a box, each animal ready to bolt when a hero revealed it, was not Koschei's major weakness. This was women; Koschei tales always centered on a heroic conflict over possession of, or by, a woman. The women he fell in love with could woo him into doing nearly anything, including revealing the location of "his death" (the egg) after some preliminary lies on his part.
Very often, Koschei was found as the prisoner of a woman whom he had tried to seduce. In a game, a PC's potential romantic interest could have a closet which she warns him never to open. If the character looks inside, he finds a pitiful, starved-looking man chained to the wall, hanging by one rib from a hook, or in some other tortured state. He only begs for a drink of water.
It takes three drinks of water to free Koschei. After the third drink, his power and strength is restored, and he breaks his bonds and runs off to find the maiden, gleeful to have a chance to woo her again. If his rescuer is suspicious of the chained man and withholds the third drink, Koschei offers up to three extra lives to him. Later, if the hero tries to destroy him, Koschei is resigned to simply killing him a few extra times!
As presented in Russian folklore, Koschei was a one-note demon. However, Koschei can also be played as a tragic, comic figure. Realistically, would any sensible romancer want to continue pursuing a lover who kept a dehydrated man hanging by a hook? Certainly, Koschei can't be permitted to abduct women, but saving women from Koschei can sometimes be viewed as saving Koschei from women.
An old man with a long fur coat and hat, a large beard bristling with ice, and cold breath that could crack a man's body, Grandfather Frost was a very direct analog for the cruel Russian winter. Like Baba Yaga, Grandfather Frost was derived from early pagan religious practices, and was seen in folktales as a sprightly old codger who delighted in bringing deadly winter each year and keeping it in place as long as possible. He did, however, respond to kindness, as the most popular story about him reveals:
A poor fur-trapper married a mean but beautiful woman. They each had a daughter from previous spouses, and the stepmother hated the fur-trapper's girl. Complaining that they couldn't afford to feed two daughters, she ordered the trapper to load his daughter on a sledge, take her to the forest, and leave her in the snow to die. Too weak-willed to defy his wife, he did as he was told, crying tears which froze on his cheeks. When he left his daughter shivering in the snow, he quickly crossed himself and fled so he wouldn't have to see her die.
The girl, waiting in the cold, was met by Grandfather Frost, but before he could freeze her solid, she smiled and hugged him, proclaiming him an angel sent from God to rescue her. Grandfather Frost was touched by this, and when the fur-trapper went to collect her body for burial the next day, he found her dressed in warm, golden gowns and covered in jewels; gifts of the wealthy winter-spirit. She forgave her father, and they returned happily. The stepmother demanded that the fur-trapper immediately take her daughter to the same spot. He did so, leaving her alone in the snow. When Grandfather Frost arrived, the girl demanded her share of the riches. Grandfather Frost killed her on the spot and skipped off into the trees.
Grandfather Frost's Role
As a demigod of deadly force who is still open to kind words, Grandfather Frost can play any number of roles in a campaign. He can be a dutiful elemental or even a form of protector, as well as a cruel villain. No stats are provided for Grandfather Frost; he was portrayed as anything from an unbeatable godling with total control of the elements to a simple old spirit with a few magical powers, a sort of "custodian" of the winter rather than its absolute master. The GM should tailor Grandfather Frost's abilities to suit the campaign power level and style, possibly even changing his powers from adventure to adventure.
The bogatyrs were the greatest Russian folk-heroes; super-powerful warriors, some of whom were strong enough to lift castles! They were the main protagonists of the byliny, a series of Old Russian epic songs similar in scope to Beowulf or the Arthurian cycle. Each bogatyr was a larger-than-life hero, a powerful man born usually of a union between a human woman and a supernatural animal. After birth, a bogatyr grew to manhood within a few days, and immediately picked up a sword or an iron club and rode out to smash Russia's enemies. The bogatyrs weren't immortal, and some of the most moving of the byliny tell of their deaths.
Unlike most Russian folk tales (which had undefined or Otherworldly settings), the byliny were set in the Kievan and Mongol Eras, when vast waves of invaders were seen as the Children of Darkness, strange magical terrors from beyond the Russian steppe. The Kiev cycle, largest of the byliny groups, focused on Vladimir (a composite of Vladimir Monomakh and Vladimir I), who sat at home in Kiev as the patron of the other bogatyrs, who acted as his druzhina ("knights").
Among the heroes of the Kiev cycle was Ilya Muromets, who was lame but, due to a series of magical elixirs, could smash city walls with his bare hands, and whose horse could leap over mountains. With his mighty weapon, hundreds of foes would fall to a single blow, and he made many journeys to the Otherworld to meet foes who could at least cause him to work up a sweat.
Other bogatyrs of Kiev included Alyosha Popovich (probably modeled after the historical Alexandr Popovich) and Dobrinya, who battled a giantess large enough to carry him in her pocket. He was defeated after a mighty duel, but then she consented to marry him.
Volga, Mikula and Svyatagor were the older bogatyrs, with Svyatagor a huge giant too heavy to walk on Russian soil. He and his giant horse lived in high rocky mountains in the Thrice-Tenth Kingdom or the Carpathians. Ilya Muromets, who was with him when he died, accepted part of his strength and bore his sword. Volga (Volkh) was a warlord, and Mikula was a kind of super-farmer, clearing vast tracts of land with a single stroke. The various other cycles presented many different bogatyrs.
The Role of the Bogatyrs
Unless the GM wishes to run a bogatyr campaign (an example of Kievan GURPS Supers), these great warriors serve best as legends, and as the source of storylines (see The Breath of Svyatagor, p. 101-102).
In a Kievan-Era fantasy campaign, the GM must decide whether the bogatyr are real. If they are, and the campaign doesn't have a military focus, they can act as occasional NPCs and make things interesting. If the campaign does focus on combat, particularly with the steppe-dwellers, there may be no reason for the puny PCs to exist, unless they are heroes of similar proportions.
For those intrigued by the concept of running very powerful fantasy campaigns, GURPS Bunnies & Burrows provides a simple alternative to the Supers rules. Treat the world as if it existed on the bogatyrs' scale – all bogatyrs are treated as Cinematic (200-300 point) heroes, but a "bogatyr-pound" is equivalent to several thousand actual pounds. Humans have normal DX and IQ, but their ST and HT are in the "Below One" range. This allows bogatyr PCs to be created without any special rules, and giant weapons and gear simply use Basic Set stats, since everything is assumed to be in bogatyr-pounds.