Russia and the Baltic–East of the Sun

russia-map-flag-500-e1420749123545Please Note: Schedules are to be considered tentative and subject to change. This week we are exploring Russia and the Baltic, and we will return to the Middle East once we find our lost camels and get our expedition back together again.

Russia is the largest and one of the most misunderstood countries in the world. It borders both Asian and European countries. It was possible originally settled by Vikings. It is typically seen as cold, empty, and forbidding and, since WWII, it has been regarded with deep suspicion as a major threat to the United States. But there is far more to Russian culture and literature than submarine warfare and cold war spy thrillers. Russia has given us great writers such as Doestoevsky and Tolstoy, and the philosophy of existentialism. The celebrated composer Tchaikovsky was from Russia. Russia has done almost as much for ballet as France, and some of the world’s best dancers are from Russia.

The Caucasus mountains are home to a number of diverse tribes and nations. They are notable for being the place where the Greek hero Prometheus was bound after his theft of fire–hinting at a strong connection between Greece and the people of Caucasia. The nations of Ossetia and Circassia are rich in a mythology almost as complex as that of ancient Greece, and eerily similar in many ways.

ce61a67691eff13820293f94f0caf9f9The Baltic region refers specifically to countries bordering on the Baltic sea, but in a more general way is used to discuss the culture of countries that mix eastern and western influences. Baltic music is known for combining a Middle Eastern flavor with classical western conventions, making it more accessible to the average western ear. Countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Ukraine are known for their Baltic styles, as well as the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

The folktales of Russia and the surrounding regions are noticeably different from the familiar fairy stories of Charles Perrault or Andrew Lang. Instead of a fairy godmother, Russian mothers would tell their children stories of Baba Yaga; an ill-tempered old woman who flew in a mortar and pestle, and lived in a hut that hopped around on a single chicken’s leg. She was known to eat children, but would some times be tricked into granting favors.

Even the mermaids of Russia are dark in comparison to their Mediterranean counterparts. Known as Rusalkas, they haunt ponds and in-land lakes. They’re the ghosts of young women betrayed by their lovers, and they live for vengeance, luring men to drown with their beautiful voices. The Czech composer Dvorak wrote his sole opera around the theme of a Rusalka who falls in love with the man she’s supposed to drown, an idea that is also used in the celebrated ballet Giselle.

Suggested Reading

Uprooted_cover_pictureThere is precious little modern speculative fiction set in Russia, so if you know of any more titles please feel free to comment below!

The Empire of Time is a time travel saga by author David Wingrove about an ongoing war between Russian and German time travellers for both history and the future. We reviewed this book here. Don’t forget to pick up the sequel the Ocean of Time!

Uprooted is a 2016 Hugo finalist by author Naomi Novik. It’s a gorgeous fairy tale retelling.

The Courier of the Czar is an adventure story by none other than Jules Verne. One of his few non-scientific books it is nevertheless a fantastic story that gives a glimpse of the geography, scale, and diversity of Russia and Siberia.

Be sure to join us next week with professor and translator John Colarusso for a discussion of the little-known but culturally important Nart Sagas, and the languages and people of the Caucasus mountains!

Katie Lynn Daniels is the author of Supervillain of the Day, and the mastermind behind Vaguely Circular. She blogs about science and things that are peripherally related to science. You can read all her posts here.


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