The Russian ruling class was ravaged by two killers – vodka and duelling. Duelling accounted for Pushkin, the author of the poetic drama, Boris Godenov. Vodka took out Mussorgsky, who wrote the opera based on the poem.
Pushkin was and is at least of the stature of Shakespeare to the Russians – just as Goethe is to the Germans. Each is venerated as being something close to a god. (You could add Dante for the Italians and Homer for the Greeks.) Sadly for us, neither Pushkin nor Goethe travels so well outside their own language*, but with the thumping, soaring, lamenting Russianness of Mussorgsky’s opera, we can get some insight into the Russian agony.
Pushkin disdained ‘the courtly habit’ of the tragedy of Racine. He said he followed ‘the system of our father, Shakespeare’ (whom he read in the language of the Russian court). And Boris Godenov is shot through with themes of the plays of Shakespeare. This is not surprising. We are looking at universal issues about mankind assuming power over others – and the role of their women and their peoples.
Boris Godenov kills the heir of the Tsar and assumes the throne. He is consumed by guilt and at the end, he is replaced by a challenger. The big difference to Macbeth is that the challenger here is a fraud. Neither claimant had a valid claim to power. The people lose both ways – but it is hard to see Pushkin as a fan of the people. The mob is just the herd. Some see ‘the People’ as the hero of the poem (as it is in Michelet’s history of the French Revolution.) They are certainly the victims and are seen as having the insight of the herd. The picture is not flattering – but I doubt whether Lenin or Stalin felt any more warmth for the masses. Love of the people is fine for some – until they run into a real person – when they look away and hold their nose.
Well, so far that might seem a reasonable picture of Russia throughout the ages – at least as we see it. Their rulers have a penchant for murder and gold, and their priests are in it all up to their necks.
The play now is loved for its poetry in the Russian. It is very rarely performed on stage. Pushkin arrived with a bang like Byron. Here is a reaction to a reading of the poem by its author.
Instead of the high –flown language of the gods, we heard simple, clear, ordinary, but at the same time poetic and captivating speech…the further it advanced, the stronger our emotions grew…Some were thrown into a sweat, others shivered. Our hair stood on end. It was impossible to restrain oneself….Now there was silence, now a burst of exclamations….Embraces began, noise arose, laughter resounded, tears and congratulations flowed……
Well, they don’t make audiences like that anymore. (The Tsar of that time thought the poem should be remade as a comedy. That may remind you of the line ‘Too many notes!’ Autocrats are not there for their taste.)
The Pretender is a priest put up to the coup by his church. To an outsider, the role of the Orthodox Church in Russia has not been fruitful. Under the Tsars, they routinely ratted on their flock from confession, and having survived their attempted annihilation by Stalin, they now give their aid and blessing to the lethal fraud who is their current President.
The story of Pushkin begins with Boris refusing to accede to the pleas of the people to become their Tsar (a word derived from ‘Caesar’). This is not as hammed up as it is in Richard III, but the justly famous coronation scene is worth the price of the ticket to the opera. (The Russians, especially Mussorgsky, are very big on bells – you might therefore go for the Russian (Gergiev) version – although Karajan is always masterly with a choir.)
Boris feels guilty. He is haunted by apparitions of his victim. He also feels the insecurity. If he could get power that way, how could he stop someone doing the same to him? Every revolution is pregnant with counter-revolution. (It is why most revolutionaries forget why they are there, and become murderously vindictive. You can see pale themes of the vicious turnarounds in our own tawdry political coups.) This is the theme of Richard II, both partsof King Henry IV and Henry V.
In the liner notes to one of my recordings, the libretto has this for Boris in English translation:
Don’t ask of me by what dark path I came to Russia’s throne…that’s past…you need not know. You’ll reign henceforth as lawful ruler…
When Henry IV is dying, he tells his true heir in one of this playwright’s most moving scenes:
…….God knows, my son,
By what by-paths and indirect crooked ways
I met this crown, and I myself know well
How troublesome it sat upon my head.
To thee it shall descend with better quiet….(Part II, 4.4.183-187).
Those hopes were better met then, but still the son on the eve of Agincourt felt the need to beseech his God –
….not today, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown! (Henry V, 4.1.298-9).
Then a priest from nowhere becomes the Pretender – he claims to be the heir put down by Boris. Boris is incredulous but unnerved. We expect him to say ‘We are amazed ….Because we thought ourself thy lawful king’ (Richard II, 3.3.71ff.) And then, as also in that play, we see the insurgents coming together, and the life and death issues faced by those with Boris – which side should I put my money on?
Except that here, there are visible grounds for suspecting the claim of the Pretender. It is one thing to claim to have been wronged by the ruler; it is another thing to claim the title to his throne. Still, the neighbouring Poles come on board – they are described by the Pretender in the poem as ‘brainless’ when he boasts of deceiving them. The folks at home may be not much better.
And the Pretender has to deal with the woman he loves. In both the poem and the opera, on different grounds, Marina is what my daughters used to call ‘a real piece of work.’ Marina could give Lady Macbeth a real challenge for the hard hearted woman ruthlessly ready to manipulate her man to get power. She could also make Jessica Parker in Sex and the City look downright pedestrian. She is a Wagnerian denial of humanity, with not one drop in her of the blood of Eva Braun. When it becomes the turn of Dimitry to sink, Marina will not be there. Another reminder of Byron comes when Pushkin writes to a friend that Marina is Polish and very beautiful and ‘will get your prick up.’ (And I’m not sure on what ground you might assert that the Stratford playwright would not have talked dirty like that.)
And Mussorgsky sexes up the dossier, as they say, by having a Jesuit priest recruit Marina to convert Moscow to Rome. Neither the Jesuit nor Marina lacked ambition.
The scene of the handing over of power to the son reminds us of Henry IV, Part II. – but here, the heir never comes to the throne. In the play, the end comes when the mob are told that the heir and the wife of the Tsar have committed suicide by poison. That would mean, I think, that they had been murdered on orders from the Pretender. The play ends: ‘The PEOPLE are silent with horror…..The PEOPLE are speechless.’ Just like the people of Ekaterinburg after the Soviets had liquidated the last of the Romanovs.
The opera finale is much softer, but much more effective on the stage. It ends not with a jolt, but so movingly with a lament by a Holy Fool about the fate of the peoples of all the Russias. The lament is sung to the tune of resignation that permeates the opera. Pathetic lamentation is part of the Russian soul.
Now, in our time, Russia is ruled not by boyars and a Tsar, but by oligarchs and Vladimir Putin, operating now under the aegis of Russian Orthodox priests, and whose President is happy to leave his fingerprints on the victim so that the world is clear about his message. While elsewhere, we saw a fraud come to power with fewer votes than Adolph Hitler had, and who sought to hold power by a coup backed in part by people claiming allegiance to God under the name of Evangelicals.
Anyone who thinks that either Putin or Trump has one iota of space left for God in his ego – neither has a superego – believes in the tooth fairy, the literal truth of Genesis, and the gospel of Rupert Murdoch on the climate and the moral life of capitalism.
There is an infamous photo of Trump in the White House with his hands folded on his desk and backed by his goons, led by Mike Pence, in what appears to be an act of prayer. People who cop that kind of stuff are much more silly and vulnerable than the Russian people in Boris Godenov. They also mock God – a phrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer used on the day that Hitler became Chancellor when he was referring to ‘false leaders’ (before the Gestapo switched him off.) The only true thing about that photo is that they have all closed their eyes.
The lament in the opera concludes with these words:
Shadows hide the light, dark as darkest night.
Sorrow, sorrow on earth;
Weep, weep Russian folk, poor starving folk.
*While I was writing this note, a new translation of Wagner’s Ring arrived. I wanted a plain translation not tied to the poetic form of the original. I thought that only the fanatics would read Wagner for poetry. The translator cites Nietzsche: ‘Wagner’s poetry is all about revelling in the German language…something that cannot be felt in any other German writer except Goethe.’ Well, that may explain why we don’t get the poetry in English. But who is responsible for the childish banality of the plot in general – and Siegfried in particular?