It is eerily fitting that the Metropolitan Opera Hi-Definition broadcast this week was of “Prince Igor,” the tale of a historical Russian prince who went into battle with the Turks (in Igor’s time it was the Polovtsi, or Cuman) – and lost. Russia, with its capital at Kiev, was then what is now the Ukraine.
How Igor was honored and treated as a friend by his Turkish Khan captor, how he refused alliance and insisted that, if freed, he would lead his troops against the Khan again, and love that grew between his son, Prince Vladimir, and the Khan’s daughter Konchakovna, are the stuff of romantic storytelling – or are they?
Later in that age-old warfare, the Crimean Tartars, descendants of the hordes of Genghis Khan, converted to Islam and, as the allies of the Grand Turk and the Ottoman Empire, continued the assaults upon Russia, slaughtering and sacking their way as far as Moscow repeatedly.
Vanquishing so persistent an enemy from the south and east has been the foremost policy of Russia through her long history. Not only was this to defend her borders and to possess Crimea’s warm climate and excellent Mediterranean ports – it was a holy war in defense of Christianity. And, as later with her wars against Napoleon and the Nazis, the West let Russia bear a very large part of the burden of containing the aggressions of a shared enemy.
Moved by the gallant revolutions we’ve witnessed in recent months and years -- effective mass demonstrations wrought by the people themselves at risk of martyrdom, and suffering martyrs – it has seemed a New Age is upon us. A time when People really can change their governments by opposing the might of police and military with insistence, with bravery and the very modest means of combat available to any city dweller. Why may the Ukraine revolution be different, especially as far as the Crimean peninsula is concerned?
To return to the Met’s production of “Prince Igor” and some insights it may offer. First, the modern sets.
Igor’s castle’s interior is a stark confined space: his world is rigid in its proprieties and its belief s – much as the old Communist regime was rigid and confining.
Taken prisoner, forcibly moved into the world of his enemy’s camp, Igor finds himself in a vertiginous place without boundaries – portrayed in the opera’s second set as an endless field of red poppies the border of which follows the curve of the earth. (Some may point out the red poppy is the symbol of ideal communism – but in this opera it is unmistakably the region of the conquering Khan.) Symbolically, these sets seem an apt metaphor for Russia’s recent transformation.
In the opera it’s Igor’s son, Vladimir, who adapts to the boundlessness before him, embracing Konchakovna and all that had seemed barbaric to Igor’s way of thinking. Vladimir is akin to the oligarchs who’ve been able to make the most of the free-wheeling capitalism that was so deplored in the ideology of their country’s past.
Were we to follow Vladimir further -- his accepting Konchakovna’s invitation to become an unrestricted wanderer, a nomad who seizes what he wants -- Igor’s son, like the present day oligarchs, could embrace a frightening freedom, a license to do what he may to extend his powers.
He is a man between worlds, sprung from the confines of his previous life without committing himself to the new limits of ethics and custom that operate among the enemy he has joined. He is a terrifyingly free man with only his own interests to guide him.
Until he can be curbed by a prince who is more a master of this new freedom than he is.
Being a researcher in history, I’ve often found remarkable shape in how events progress -- a form that cannot be (or at least seems not to be) the intentional work of human actions:
There is today’s Vladimir: Putin exploring the power and unlimited freedoms that Prince Vladimir Igorevich would have seen spreading before him.
There is the massing of troops, the rapid forming of alliances among the major nations, and invasion – as if we were compelled to relive the onset of World War One on this centennial year.
And this occurring virtually on the instant of the end of the Olympic Games that were originally intended to represent peace among nations.
There is Putin’s sacrifice of his enormous investment in public opinion in having the Games in Sochi… only to follow them at once with a staggering reversal of any good publicity gained.
The ironies here, the dark laughter of history, is unmistakable.
Yet, for Russia, the holding of the Ukraine and Crimea, and filling the prized Crimea with ardent Russians to assure loyalty, has a history going back to the Middle Ages. And the long-term memory of a people is relentless.
Can Russia let the Ukraine go, and the Ukraine let the Crimea go? Our avoiding World War III may depend upon it.