Thursday, October 25, 2018

Furt Digs Into: Prince Vladimir (Кня́зь Влади́мир).

((Let's step away from gaming for a moment, and step back to the school year of 2010-11, or thereabouts at least. It was my Senior year of high school and I was proving to be a big, if not zealous, fan of folk metal. I'm the kind of fan who can't take the genre too seriously, because there's this latent element of delightful goofiness that not everyone notices, but it's still near to my heart. I didn't own any albums, posters, or t-shirts at the time (nor do I now), but the majority of my time spent on YouTube was spent listening to bands like Ensiferum, Finntroll, Heidevolk, Eluveitie, etc. Inevitably, this brought me in contact with a lot of fan music videos of varying quality. And while I could never, ever rediscover one FMV after the fact, it always stuck out in my mind.

I'm fairly certain that it was an Ensiferum track with Petri Lindroos howling in the background, but what struck me was the film being used by the video. Old-fashioned animated scenes of a hunchback transforming into a bear amid swirls of sickly green energy segued quickly to red-garbed vikings ransacking a great hall, and the final moment of the video was a sword cutting through a black screen to make a bloody slash of a scene transition. It was like Game of Thrones as done by Disney.

For years after that I wondered what the movie was, since my Google-Fu skills were sorely lacking. Occasionally I'd get into an obsessive mood where I'd trawl the internet for hours to find it, but that always ended in a dead end.

Until just a few weeks ago this year.

Prince Vladimir is a 2006 Yuriy Kulanov traditionally-animated film which tells the tale of one of the old princes of the Kievan Rus', Vladimir the Great, also known by his folkloric title Vladimir the Fair Sun. He united the Rus' cities, became a crown prince, and was one of the first rulers of the area to try converting more than just the ruling elite to Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

I was thrilled to have finally found this, and was prepared to feel satisfied as I closed that lingering mini-chapter of my life.

Until I got to searching through stills and reading about the plot and production of the movie, of course.

Fictionalized history films are always a weird experience for me. They combine two of my great interests, but not always in the best way. It can make for a very enjoyable and exciting story, but it also makes it easier to sell a narrowed viewpoint of a historical event or events to a large audience that might not actually know the full historical context. And even though I agree with the school of thought that no history can ever be perfect, it's still good to try one's best to avoid propaganda.

Which was why red flags started to wave around behind my eyeballs when I read how the movie was heavily sponsored by the Russian Orthodox Church.

I shouldn't have been surprised, and I'm not especially bothered, but I decided that I should take the opportunity to study up on the period of history, watch the movie, see where they exploded against one another, and then leave my impressions here for you to read. I can't really say what this article is supposed to be, though. It's not a film or animation critique because I'm not qualified to judge either. But it's been a while since my last history nerd session over nomadic body odor, so I figure it's about time I flex that muscle again.))

The film opens with a shot of the wilderness, and a small camp occupied by a nameless volkhv (a priest of the old Slavic religions) and his ambitious apprentice. The apprentice wants power, and kills a nearby bird with the pale green flames that will become characteristic of him. The wiseman explains that the "Law" of the land is a higher power than any prince or ruler, and that only through accordance with the Law can he learn its power. A dichotomy of good and evil is presented in the form of the path of the Pravzha, and the path of the Krivzha- a bit like a right-or-lefthand-path system found in other religions. The apprentice is pretty damn quick to pick the evil road, and in the night he ganks his master's magical staff and impales him with it, becoming Krivzha.

We are then treated to a morning in the snowy city-state of Novgorod, where its Rus' people are going about their daily business. Their prince Vladimir shows his weirdly-bearded face, overseeing the manning of a longboat by several of the men in town. As it turns out, they are Variags (Varangians), and the battle scene which I remember from my high school days is one of Vladimir and his pals besieging and ransacking a castle in the south alongside other pirates, and then slaughtering its occupants, including the women and children huddled amid the castle's store of gold.

Our hero, everyone!

But to be honest, I was almost relieved to see so much morally relative bloodshed done by the protagonists up front. It shows that Vladimir is not being reimagined as a totally squeaky-clean hero, even when some of his historical misdeeds are presented as being the manipulation of a treacherous adviser.

More on that later, because my favorite thing about the whole movie is about to come up.

After an ill-fated fishing trip by a Rus' boy named Aleksha reestablishes us back in the north, Krivzha appears out of a gnarled tree and meets with a wild-haired horseman. He is Kurya Khan of the Pecheneg Khaganate, a nomadic Turkic people who controlled much of the steppe north of the Black and Caspian Seas between the late 9th and 11th centuries. Like any enterprising chieftain, Kurya Khan is leading his people on another raid into neighboring lands- in this case, those of the Rus' principalities.

This is the first of the major diversions from recorded history that I can spot in this movie. The Pechenegs are presented as pretty standard and long-standing enemies of the Rus' people, and even as stereotypical "hordes from the east". But the Pechenegs and the Rus' had a very complicated raid-and-trade relationship which, up until the time period of this film in the very late 900s, was actually dominated by loose alliance. Kurya Khan had in previous decades been an ally of the Byzantine Empire, and of the Kievan prince Svyatoslav I during the former's military expeditions into the Balkans in the 960s. They had driven out the Balkan Bulgars at the behest of the Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros Phokas, who wished to reclaim the territory he'd lost to that other collection of Turkic and South Slavic tribes.

Unfortunately for Phokas, Svyatoslav hadn't been too willing to give back the lands he reconquered at the end of the campaign, and the Byzantines had to kick him and his army out. But even after a treaty had been secured, the potential for lasting peace between the Byzantine Empire and the Rus' was doubted by Emperor John I Tzimiskes (who'd assassinated and replaced Phokas like, five minutes earlier because everyone was betraying everyone in this day and age). So, Tzimiskes called upon Kurya to take care of Svyatoslav, and his army crushed the Rus' and slew the prince while they were crossing the Dnieper River in 972 CE. Kurya, very impressed by his former ally, took the top half of his skull as a wine cup in a show of respect that hasn't aged too well since.¹

But the style never fades.
Oh, and did I mention that Svyatoslav had been the father of Prince Vladimir?

You'd think that this might have somewhat soured Vladimir to the Byzantines, but this turns out not to be the case in the movie. While Kurya and Krivzha conspire to kill Vladimir's brothers Oleg and Yaropolk, Vlad entertains a group of Greek traders and dignitaries in Novgorod during the Maslenitsa sun festival. He even instructs them to send his marriage proposal to the sister of the nameless Byzantine Emperor (intended to be Basil II) after hearing of her beauty. That much at least is accurate to history, because Vladimir would eventually marry Anna Porphyrogenita after his conversion to Christianity, and that connection to the ruling dynasty would help later Russian claims to being the "Third Rome".²

However, the Emperor seems entirely on board with allying with Vladimir as an equal from the get-go in this movie, rather than only reluctantly handing his similarly reluctant sister over to the blood-soaked pagan barbarian after a Kievan invasion of Chersonesos, which suggests that the historical Vladimir was perfectly fine with following in his father's Byzantine-sacking footsteps. The (admittedly probably apocryphal) account of Vladimir choosing Christianity after sending envoys out to study Islam and Judaism first is also missing from the film.³

But in any case, Vladimir had to do some brother-murdering and wife-stealing before achieving legal, Byzantine marriage.

The death of Svyatoslav caused a fratricidal war between Yaropolk, Oleg, and their bastard half-brother Vladimir with Oleg dying to Yaropolk fairly early on. Vladimir survived by fleeing to Scandinavian relatives in modern-day Norway and amassing warriors there, an event not noted in the film. After which, he came back and invaded Yaropolk's territory while also suing for alliance with the Norse leaders of the principality of Polotsk. The offer was rejected however, so on the way to Yaropolk's base in Kiev, Vladimir went ahead and murdered prince Rogvolod/Ragnvald and seized his daughter Rogneda/Ragnhild, due to be betrothed to Yaropolk, taking her as his own wife. Foreign army and captives in tow, Vladimir then finally took Kiev in 978 and slew his brother Yaropolk, becoming knyaz or grand prince of all the Rus' states. So says our surviving records, chronicles, and sagas, at least.⁴

In the film however, the three brothers had been ruling their own respective cities in relative peace for years up until Krivzha showed up. Oleg is killed due to the treachery of the corrupted priest of Perun, who also transforms into a bear in order to slay the messenger bringing Yaropolk's desperate request for help from Vladimir. Then he crashes the Maslenitsa festival to start whispering poison and mistrust into Vlad's ear, Grima Wormtongue-style.

They also have remarkably similarly ashen, lumpy not-eyebrows.
The veche general assembly is convened, and a forged document plus a wolf-ear talisman from the khan are enough for Krivzha to convince the prince of Yaropolk's treacherous alliance with Kurya. A bystander in the crowd actually does bring up the fact that Kurya murdered the princes' father, but that is the extent of any references to the Kurya-Tzimiskes plot. Vladimir and his subordinates are led along by Krivzha up until the attack on Kiev, which has them walking straight into Yaropolk's fortress after being welcomed under the assumption that they were there to help. And to avoid having the protagonist commit fratricide, Vladimir is instead having an impassioned argument when a Variag (who may or may not be Olaf freaking Tryggvason) stabs Yaropolk in the back following the supernatural suggestion of Krivzha. Interestingly, Yaropolk laments about sin and clutches a small golden crucifix when he dies, though in history the certainty of his conversion to Christianity or even baptism are somewhat up for debate.⁵

From here, religion becomes a more central motivator to the plot than politicking. A gathering of the tribes meant to strengthen Rus' unity now that Vladimir is the only surviving prince quickly turns into a competition over whose gods are greatest. Krivzha draws the Variags to his side by appealing to them through Perun's role as a warrior god, even when it becomes apparent that his massive idol to Perun is actually carved in his own likeness. Trying to unify the gods of the tribes under Perun was again something which Vladimir did in history, but which Krivzha is blamed for in the movie. Meanwhile, a subplot involving the boy Aleksha (who'd been enslaved by the Pechenegs, bought by a Greek trader, and then briefly schooled in Christianity in Constantinople) progresses to the point that he is revealing a copy of the Bible to an old man named Boyan, who is essentially a foil to Krivzha, and represents the good or Pravzha life which he rejected. He is a friendly hermit and healer who loves all living creatures, and believes that all things should exist in harmony before Rod, the Slavic creator-god.

What I think is occurring here--as well as in a scene where Krivzha's idol is shattered by a bolt of lightning implied to be Perun's--is that the creators of the movie wanted to look back on old paganism as a complex or at least dualistic thing. But it's entirely possible that I'm reading way too much into what they might or might not have thought. So it could be that they or their sponsors wanted to get across the idea that idolatry was used by hateful and self-serving men, but that the Law could also be a positive philosophy and belief system. A positive thing that still turns out to be inferior to the overall better deal offered by Christianity, but which can still be appreciated for its former cultural importance after the fact, once it is safely dead. The eventual "death" of the old faith is foreshadowed by Vladimir (an eventual convert) spearing and then standing in front of an aurochs (the sacred animal of Perun) in order to save the life of Aleksha (who is already a sort of proto-Christian).

However, for the time being the Law is still powerful enough that Boyan can defeat Krivzha in a shaman duel, and have prayer juice leftover to cover his hut in an anti-arrow field projected from a divine tree while Vladimir finally squares off against a shadow-enchanted Kurya Khan and Krivzha explodes into a cloud of green mist.

... Yeah, stuff gets a little bit bonkers toward the end there.

But to my surprise, the moment I was expecting never came. We don't witness Vladimir's baptism, nor any black-and-white moral conflicts between Christian and pagan Slavs. Similarly, there was less nomad-hating than I anticipated: After getting regretfully little screen time the Pechenegs are defeated and retreat, but a mutual respect or at least recognition between Aleksha and the khan's son Giyar might be a very subtle hint at the later return to cooperation between Rus' and Pechenegs, when a chieftain named Metiga became a vassal to Vladimir circa 988, and his successor Kuchug was even baptized by Vladimir in 990.⁶

I speak of the movie as if it's over at this point, because that's pretty much all that there is to the last quarter or so. The actual wedding between Vladimir and Anna is not shown, and judging by the use of recycled footage taken from earlier bits of the film, I suspect that the film's budget was beginning to run out by that point. Assumably, the intended Russian audience could fill in the rest of the blanks in the story of the Rus' on their own. Or maybe the sequel Prince Vladimir- The Feat (Князь Владимир. Подвиг) was supposed to wrap things up nicely. Of course the sequel never materialized, and it's been a full decade since its intended 2008 release.

There was some scrubbing of history to make it marketable to young audiences, without a doubt, but I was surprised at how violent and exciting the movie still managed to be. I dare say I halfway enjoyed the movie, barring the strange pacing, obnoxious comic relief characters, and the use of extremely conspicuous CG amid the old-fashioned animation here and there.

I guess my closing thoughts are that, if you can find this movie and know Russian or have access to subtitles, it's an amusing thing to check out- especially if you are interested in the animation and cinema of other countries. I'm happy with what I was able to write about it, and I appreciate you tuning in to my history bloviation again.

¹ Laufer, Bertold. "Use of Human Skulls and Bones in Tibet", Field Museum of Natural History. Department of Anthropology. Chicago, 1923. p 10-12.
² Morson, Gary Saul. "Russian literature". Encyclopedia Britannica. 
³ Bain, Robert Nisbet. "Vladimir, St". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica. 28 (11th ed.), 1911. Cambridge University Press. p 168.
Bain, ibid.
Curta, Florin. The Other Europe in the Middle Ages: Avars, Bulgars, Khazars and Cumans. Brill Academic Publishers, Boston. 2008. p 442.
⁶ Curta, ibid.

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